Can Muslims Escape Misogyny?

Here’s a reductive write up of a day’s worth of talks at The Deen Institute’s conference held at Logan Hall, London on 26th January 2014. UPDATE: The video of the whole event is now online here.

If you don’t fancy sitting through 5 hours of talks, here’s my write-up of what happened:

‘Can Muslims Escape Misogyny?’ a Deen Institute ‘Dialogue Within Islam’ event comes with a risky, direct title that effectively pushes Muslims to be collectively introspective about gender injustices. It’s so direct in fact, that as the 600 odd attendees filed into Logan Hall off Russell Square, there was a sense that someone was about to take the lid off a trembling pressure cooker.

It’s probably why I was so impatient through Myriam Francois Cerrah‘s initial anecdotes about women locked up by their fathers, abused by their husbands and disrespected by their families. The first speaker to take to the stage after chair Dr. Laura Zahra MacDonald, Francois Cerrah began by laying out shared frustrations about having to explain or justify why women should be treated with kindness to people of a religion which stipulates in exact detail how well to treat animals.

As much as I agreed with her, it was all too easy after the build up and expectation of this long-awaited event to think: yes, we know!That’s why we’re here! Move the conversation on already! And boy did she. In what turned out to be one of the most refreshing, unforgettable talks of the day, Francois Cerrah went on to highlight the gaps in the current and historical discourse on women and womanhood. Why, she asked, is there such rudimentary literature on the experiences unique to women: on pregnancy, breastfeeding and menstruation.

Why, with our clear knowledge of women as an integral part of creation, have we not expanded our understanding of the spirituality of pregnancy, its place in the Muslim psyche and the spiritual complications that come with the physical ones. Our neurones truly firing by this point, she went on to explain inferiority and superiority and the patterns in discourse that emerge regardless of who occupies those positions. To exemplify her point, she relayed a segment of Gloria Steinem’s If Men Could Menstruate.

“Whatever a ‘superior’ group has will be used to justify its superiority, and whatever and ‘inferior’ group has will be used to justify its plight.”

She beautifully tied her points together by top and tailing her talk with references to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story about a woman deemed hysterical and irrational by her physician husband who confines her to a room and forbids her to read or write. Unstoppable, she reads the narrative in the wallpaper that surrounds her.

The fearlessness of Myriam’s talk did little to prepare us for a disappointingly mediocre take on equality from Ustadha Safia Shahid. Given the heavy question: How can Islam Challenge Misogyny? Safia instead delivered a positive, if highly selective, take on how certain practices and people have been challenging misogyny by allowing women and men to be educated to the same level. She talked about never feeling discriminated against by her teachers and delivered the synopses of a few “inspirational stories” but failed to consider how to take that inspiration and make it part of the everyday experiences for the many rather than the few like herself.

Incredibly well studied and a dedicated Tajwid teacher, Safia spent years in Syria learning from scholars in what strikes me as a rather traditional, male-oriented way to gain knowledge. One that suits young people and men much better than it does women, given the current structures that exist regarding money, travel, childcare, family structure etc. Worse still, she delivered simplistic statements like “segregation is not inequality” without elaborating to the level that was needed, particularly to an audience who have too often seen the consequences of gender segregation fall far from in their favour.

During the Q&A, when a community activist posed a question about how women can practically become the scholars we’re told we can/should be, Ustadha Safia again failed to realise how uncommon her experience is. She failed to see that essentially, in sticking with traditional male-oriented methods of learning, she hasn’t yet opened up those avenues for other women, nor has she shown men that they need to be aware of a variety of learned women within their own communities (not just the ones that have studied in the traditional way she has). Moreover, if they’re not satisfied that those women within their communities are learned enough, they (men and women together) need to make it easier for those women to acquire that knowledge. For Ustadha Safia to explain that because she herself is in high demand from mosques, having stuck with traditional, male-oriented practices, other women should simply step up and do what she did, proved her to be unaware of the many women, especially mothers (single or otherwise), whose needs are willfully or blindly ignored when it comes to scholarly learning. The doors may be open as Safia sees it, but if women aren’t walking through, she needs to ask why.

Dr Zainab Alwani followed her and poignantly reminded us that Islam is holistic by nature. So by its nature, if it changed or challenged an established cultural practice, it offered substitutes. Dr. Alwani also mentioned similar inspirational stories of scholarly women but instead of calling them “inspirational” she talked about their legacy and how that legacy should permeate our wider understanding and culture. Rather than remain just inspirational stories, something to maybe one day aspire to, these women should inform our understanding of our own being as individuals and as a community.

Cue Dr. Ingrid Mattson who surpassed all expectations with her soul-lifting, rationale-tickling talk on women as fitna (temptation) for men. Beginning with references to frequently quoted hadith about women as a fitna for men, she didn’t talk about hadith being misogynistic, nor the people who related such hadith a being misogynistic but instead asked: Has hadith been used to misogynistic ends? If the prophet did talk about women as a fitna to men, was he referring to something bad in women or something weak in men? What has our mainstream discourse tended to focus on?

She explained that while our understanding of hadith should compliment and supplement the Qur’an, it makes no sense for it to contradict Qur’an and referred to the infamous ayah from Surah Al-Ahzab about “the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women…” This verse, she said, shows that women precisely mirror men in their qualities of piety and religiosity. She also made the irrevocable point that throughout the Qur’an, Allah responds to women’s complaints and questions. They are never ignored but noticed and engaged with. His response to women is always: you are valid, you are valued.

Dr. Mattson went on to discuss her other observations about the way people invoke hadith in a misogynistic way. She noted an over-reliance on pseudo science and an increasing reliance on classic scholarship which leads us to use weak or fabricated hadith because they are deemed to have “good” or “useful” meanings*. She used the word ‘classic’ to mean pre-Modernity and pointed out that we have the right and ability to come up with new classics. The most memorable part of her talk looked at the ways we classify and label hadith. She looked at the headings above certain hadith and suggested alternatives to highlight that a diversity of opinions is needed to engage with the diversity of human behaviours that hadith addresses.

Some additional points Dr. Mattson made which related to misogyny but didn’t feature in the main thrust of her talk included hijab, media and the potential for a Muslim clergy to emerge. She spoke about hijab as an opportunity for men and women to work together encouraging an atmosphere and interaction of dignity. To me this sounds like she’s asking us to take a break from asking Is that girl wearing hijab correctly? And instead ask ‘How should we behave around people who wear hijab?’ The answer in my opinion is: with the same dignity, respect and familiarity you would anyone else.

Dr Mattson mentioned the need to engage with media because media informs our understanding of ourselves. She also emphasised that Islam doesn’t have a clergy in the same way the Church does, so we can and should question scholars and think of them and their teachings as though they are fallible humans. She tied her points in with Myriam Francois Cerrah’s talk when she said “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Dr. Shuruq Naguib then took to the stage to discuss ‘The Islamic scholarly tradition as a site of hope for rethinking gender inequalities’. Most of it went over my head but I remember her mentioning Khaled Abou El Fadl and Tariq Ramadan significant figures in rethinking gender equality. She also said we need to engage with this rethink in such a way that even the most traditional scholars can see misogyny which is all too often unacknowledged.

It’s appropriate then, that Professor Tariq Ramadan was the speaker to follow her. He answered a lot of critics of gender equality discussions when he said that there ARE discussions coming from within Muslim communities on this topic and it’s not a case of traditional Islam confronting a Western phenomenon. Questions of gender equality have always been asked by Muslims around the world. It seems to me that now, as more men begin to question masculinity and the history of their dominance, those questions from within Muslim communities are suddenly more valid.

He also spoke about relation of and to the texts we rely on. He added to Myriam’s points about superiority and inferiority when he drew attention to the way history has structured our presence. Particularly when he said: “Womanhood is a missing discourse in Islamic tradition” and reminded us that the focus is “too centred on the role of the woman rather than the being.”

But he also emphased culture and explained that cultures and environments are not here by accident, in fact, they are essential to our understanding and interpretation. Throughout his talk, he made significant calls to action. He called on us to consider psychology when we consider interpretation and said that reading out of fear is different to reading out of confidence. He posed the question: what is your objective when you read the text? Some want to find their roles, some want to find rules and some want structure.

He called on us to stop using Arab culture as a reference but to look at the “movement” of that culture. I think “progress” would be a fair, if slightly problematic substitute here. Professor Ramadan talked about how a cultures moves on from where they once were and it’s that movement that we should refer to i.e. the journey that ingrained practices go through when they encounter Islam. His final call to actions, was about getting us to stop ignoring problems and to use our heats as well as our heads as we approach this subject. Case in point: “Some men in history were producing hadith to protect their power. We have to deal with that.”

One of the most beneficial aspects of his talk was his call to rethink manhood alongside womanhood. As we move more toward a masculinity that isn’t defined by dominance, we need to consider masculinity and what it is to be a man to make real progress in gender equality.

This write-up is already much longer than I had intended so I’ll discuss the Q&A as briefly as possible. Part of the audience interaction with the speakers was a clever, if rushed, series of speeches and questions from community activists. I found the most thought-provoking points made by Imam Saleem Seedat who offered three things Imams should be mindful of when they try to address misogyny in their communities.

1 – Acknowledge that many people will refuse to acknowledge that misogyny is a problem and even if they do, they won’t prioritise it. The Seerah, he said, can help with this.

2 – Remember that misogyny varies with culture: South Asian communities, African communities, European communities etc, do not see misogyny in the same way.

3- Our (Imams’) actions should not make things more difficult for women

He ended on a brilliant quote from G. Willow Wilson from her book, The Butterfly Mosque, about travelling in Egypt. He used her experience of Westernisation there to offer a way of looking at non-Western communities in Western settings like the UK: “Westernisation is at best a game of unintended consequences.”

Later, there was one question from the audience that was greeted with shameful silence from the panel before Myriam Francois Cerrah made an earnest effort to help/inspire the asker. A young woman asked about tackling sexism in Islamic Societies (Isocs) on university campuses. My stomach churned in a mix of desperation and hope when she spoke. She’d raised one of the biggest issues facing Muslims in the West and was asking about it in a context where it might actually get answered properly, practically, hopefully. It wasn’t.

Myriam suggested she start an alternative Isoc and make change through that. Not all action at university has to take place through Isocs, she said. I appreciate Myriam’s efforts here especially in light of the silence offered up by the rest of the panel, but I still feel it wasn’t helpful in this context. The woman was asking about how to engage men at universities, how to work with them, how to counter their thoughtless arguments about segregation, progress etc. This is an urgent question. What else do Muslims do when aged 18-25 other than attend university? They get married. They form families having spent the last 3-6 years in sexist, misogynistic Isocs. Scholars, if you fail to address misogyny in Isocs, you fail a whole generation of women and the one after it.

*Good or useful to those in power and/or in superior positions in society.

** Some recommended reading from Dr. Mattson: Khaled Abou El Fadl’s Speaking in God’s Name and books on hadith by Jonathan A Brown.

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