Muslim Feminism IS Feminism
Throughout the course of this month, TOS would like to champion the work of feminist academics. In doing so, we asked Dr. Fauzia Ahmad to describe her journey into feminism. Here is her response.
I guess my first introduction to feminism has to come from my parents, who have now passed on. I grew up in a time where the dominant discourses in media and academia about South Asian Muslim families was one of oppressive and restrictive families that were resistant to their daughters education and formal employment. However, my upbringing and experience was totally contradictory to this – instead there was active competition among families over whose daughter was the most academically accomplished! That said, there were some from among the community who questioned why my Mother was encouraging me to study; her response was always that I was also her ‘son’ which soon shut them up! My late Father was also highly encouraging of my education; he studied electrical engineering and so was good at maths and physics and I remember as a child having him sit with me until the early hours, patiently tutoring me in maths equations and physics even though it remained beyond my comprehension. Both my parents repeatedly stressed how I needed to be able to ‘stand on my own two feet’ (a phrase that has come up a lot in my research), and that to do that I needed to be educated more than I needed to be married.
Growing up in a Muslim household, I was also very influenced by the story of the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid (peace be upon them both). Not only was she a highly successful independent business woman, she was his boss, and at 15 years his senior, on being impressed with his character, she proposed marriage to him when she was 40 and he was 25. Even now, this is seen as unusual but imagine how it might have been viewed then especially as she remained his boss after marriage. She was also the first Muslim and is often described as ‘Mother of the Believers’ and was known for her generosity towards those in need, especially other women. For me, she represents a strong woman who needed her wits about her in medieval pre-Islamic Arabia – and was not a woman that suffered fools but had not lost her compassion either. For me, as a young South Asian Muslim girl growing up in South East London in the 1970’s, there were very few female role models that spoke to me and who made me feel proud of my religious and cultural background. Khadijah was ground-breaking not just for her time but should be recognised more widely as an inspiring and strong woman standing shoulders above the men she competed with. Given that there are so many stereotypes about Islam and the position of women, and that even as Muslims we are woefully ignorant, it is all the more important that we recognise and take pride in these icons from within our histories.
As I learnt more about Islam and the status of women, I learnt to read beyond common and crude stereotypes and mis-representations, and to tease away the differences between cultural and patriarchal mis-interpretations and practices, with actual Islamic teachings and the ways these emancipated women that were ahead of their time, and certainly well before Western laws were able to codify. For instance, the fact that Islam gave women the right to her own income and property, right to vote and hold public office, right to choose her own husband, and the right to divorce and re-marry. Even here, there are some significant details that many Muslims as well as non-Muslims are unaware of such as a woman’s right to sexual pleasure (within marriage) and her right to divorce her husband if he is unable to satisfy her desires. I realise that for many women now, it may seem bizarre to state as a point of personal law given that a typical response within a Western context now, may be to simply end a relationship and move on, but if you look at it as an article of personal law that was introduced within a highly patriarchal, violent and misogynist culture and era in 7th century Arabia, it is revolutionary – and I think it still is. It gave women the ‘get out clause’ many needed, without attaching shame and enabled women to remarry if they chose.
I haven’t always been comfortable with the label of ‘feminism’ because of the connotations it has had with Western feminism, and the ways this has historically privileged White women’s voices at the expense of Women of Colour, so for me, my understanding of feminism has to be one that is cognisant and accepting of, multiple sources and forms of feminism, and one that acknowledges that feminism did not originate in, nor is exclusive to, the West. A Muslim feminist perspective is also one that is open to working with Muslim men in redressing these inequalities and abuses. For me, Muslim feminism also means believing in the religious tenants of Islam and maintaining a strong sense of spirituality. Being a believing or practicing Muslim in a highly secularised environment such as academia, is not easy, and has on occasion, been very uncomfortable.
So, as a Muslim feminist, I acknowledge that female oppression is a global reality. Its existence in Muslim cultures is a product of the misogynistic and patriarchal nature of the cultures where Islam has grown, where the interpretations of Islamic texts have been controlled by and subject to male interpretations, which have subsequently lost their original emancipatory meanings through history. These perspectives and the sexist practices that emanate from them, need to be vigorously challenged. By the same token, it is also important to recognise the very real gender disparities that still exist in every sphere in the West.
The Writer Behind the Writing