Quranic Verses and Misconceptions: The Limiting of 24:33

If you’ve been reading this website for a while, even if you’re not Muslim, chances are you’ve caught the drift from a couple of posts that the Qur’an is absolutely gorgeous. Since I spend a lot of time here discussing the more seemingly formidable verses (see the entire “Misconceptions” tab) I haven’t quite explicitly demonstrated exactly how gorgeous, and since each verse of the Qur’an has at least seven different meanings, it’s likely I never fully will. For a moment, I want to shift our attention from the verses that are more commonly misconceived (by both Muslims and non-Muslims) to the ones that whose misconceptions have more subtle (but equally sinister) effects, and point out that these misconceptions–and their effects–contribute to the undercurrents of sexism in the Muslim community and in the malestream exegesis of the Qur’an and Islamic texts.

Before we take a look at 24:33, I want to refer briefly to 24:31. It’s a verse that deals with hijab, but that’s not what I want to talk about. Verse 24:31 packed with interesting little admissions hinting toward the demographic of which societal–and domestic–life was composed:

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gazes and guard themselves, and not display their adornment except what is obvious (apparent, necessary) save to their husbands, or fathers, or father-in-laws, or sons, or brothers, or nephews, or children, or their women, or what their right hands possess, or those who have no desire of women. (Qur’an, 24:31) [emphasis mine, clearly]

Now, I know that must sound restrictive, reading this entire list of exceptions (husbands, sons, brothers, etc.) to the “public,” but let’s pretend for a while that we live in a world where there hasn’t been a patriarchal bias established as precedent, and people are rational and logical in their interpretations and patriarchy isn’t championed as neutrality. And then let’s take a look at the verse before this one,

Tell the believing men to lower their gazes and guard themselves. That is purer for them. (Qur’an, 24:30)

That’s it. No exceptions. Like, literally, no exceptions. Men are commanded to lower their gazes. From everyone. Now, with consideration of the context in terms of cultural setting (609-632 CE, Arabia), one can argue that the verse is referring specifically to women (as the audience from whom a man should lower his gaze) but that is presumptuous considering (1) it’s a broad generalization that overlooks the vast diversity in cultural makeup in this area during that period and (2) it isn’t present from the context in terms of the Qur’an itself. In fact, the verse preceding this one speaks of entering someone’s home politely–the very home, mind you, that is described in the verse addressing women that follows.

It is reasonable, then, to come to the understanding that the parties included in the verse addressing women are present when a man, in context, entering someone else’s home, is commanded to “lower the gaze.” When the act of modesty is meant to convey humility of character (in belief) then what is being regulated here is the arrogance of men. It is commentary on the entire culture of masculinity. Men are commanded to lower their gazes–or reduce their arrogance–not only in the presence of a woman, but in respect to her entire household.

Imagine an ulema in which the majority of exegetes are women. Imagine the interpretation of these verses under that ulema. Does that ulema arriving at this interpretation sound like they must be performing logical acrobatics in their arguments? Well, not considering the inconsistencies present in the interpretations of an ulema composed entirely of men. For example, the next verse reads,

And those of you who are solitary, marry the single among you and the righteous among your male and female slaves. If they are poor, God will enrich them. (Qur’an, 24:32)

I’m not kidding. That command is given to both men and women. It says male and female slaves. And the men as well as the women are single prior to the marriage i.e. there’s no way to read men marrying multiple women into this verse. But for some reason the male ulema has managed to “burden” only men with the task of marrying slaves and bringing them prosperity. Go look it up if you don’t believe me. Go on. And in case you still don’t believe this verse addresses women as well, “the single” is masculine–which again, means no polygamy if the men are single before this. When the Qur’an addresses men in referring to a group of women who are eligible for marriage (such as the “women your right hand possesses”) the feminine plural is used. This is not a group of women–it is either a group composed entirely of men, or a mixed group.

In fact, let’s talk about pronouns and the inconsistencies that the male ulema conveniently administers in interpreting them. Most of the religious activities that the malestream ulema has designed solely for men (such as Eid and jummah prayers, or marrying [multiple] slaves) are argued this way because of the employment of the masculine plural for “believers,” regardless of the explicit inclusion of women as in the verse regarding marriage above. (In other words, don’t let men tell you you’re not obligated to attend these prayers–you absolutely must. It is addressed to all believers.) And yet the beginning of verse 24:33 uses the masculine plural when it commands,

And let be chaste those who do not find means for marriage, until God enriches them. (Qur’an 24:33)

The male ulema suddenly decides that in this employment of the masculine plural, the chastity before marriage refers not only to men and women, but especially to women. Had we remained consistent with their logic when it comes to attending jummah prayers, according to this verse only men are required to remain chaste before marriage.

In light of these drastic interpretational inconsistencies resulting from patriarchal bias masquerading as neutrality, it’s especially profoundly logical that verses 2:30-2:31 regarding the lowering of the gaze, in which women are given exceptions and men strictly are not, can be concluded as a device for the regulation of masculine arrogance in the face of entering the feminine sphere (of domesticity or of expertise), and would have been reasonably seen as such had even half the ulema been composed of women.

Finally, the end of 24:33 reads,

And do not compel the woman to prostitution who desires chastity. (Qur’an, 24:33)

This verse is, unfortunately, starkly relevant today. Perhaps, sometime in the future, if we imagine wistfully for a moment, its secondary or tertiary meanings will have room to be applied–

that one mustn’t compel the woman to need who wishes to be independent.

Posted in feminism, interpretation, Islam, misconceptions, Muslims, privilege, Quran | 8 Comments

Barrier Update, and men you should follow

O you who believe, when told “Space yourselves” in assemblies, then make space; God will make space for you. (58:11)

In August of 2012, I wrote a post announcing that a local masjid in my area was undergoing a construction project. The blueprint revealed that not only would women be relegated to a different area in the new masjid, but that the designated area would be much smaller. I asked you to write letters urging the committee to reconsider this. Many of you did, and I love you. I love you. Because no one else does this. No one.

The letters were not addressed by the reconstruction committee or any board member of the mosque. It is easy, I believe, to ignore the polite requests of the oppressed class–especially when there isn’t (as is expected when the oppressed class is women) a more aggressive group against which to compare them. When an “angry,” aggressive group of protesters exists, who demand justice and nothing short of it, whose calls for revolution are the sound of unapologetic battle cries, and who refuse to ensure the comfort of their oppressors through the language of appeasement, those very oppressors–in order to prove they are not bigots–scramble to address the needs of women who are “polite” and proceed to hold these women as shining examples of how change “should” be brought to a society. It happens with race, sex, (dis)ability. This is the “good feminist” vs “bad feminist” dichotomy created by white hetero-patriarchy; the truth, of course, is that the “good feminist” could not exist without the “bad” one. Without an angry seething woman to fear, patriarchs can ignore the gentle requests of the weeping one. When there is no one making “outrageous” unapologetic accusations against men, like you have deliberately monopolized Quranic exegesis and embedded patriarchal biases into widely accepted interpretations, men–freed of the burden of disproving perceptions of their bigotry–can impose enough pressure on the “good” feminist to ensure the unjust status quo is maintained. There is no looming threat to make them say, “Okay, okay, I’ll give HER what she wants because she was POLITE about it. You see? I’m not a bigot. I just value POLITENESS.”

As though the “packaging” of justice is theirs to choose! The existence of the decision to appear to listen to non-threatening women rather than abrasive ones is in itself demonstrative of unjust power stolen from women by men, but of course men are too dense to see this. It is as God says of the unbelievers, their hearts are barricaded!

To speak of barriers, the construction project is not yet complete, and the letters were not addressed. It is especially easy to ignore polite requests when they are not embodied in people who are demanding a response with their presence, and must instead write letters. However, because of a couple of women who walked out of the prayer area due to how degrading the separation of this space is–the mosque board announced that the new building will not have a barrier.

I don’t believe them.

Other than the fact that the word of a Muslim man is just about as reliable as Pluto’s planetary status, men–and all Other oppressors (ha, see what I did there? no? k whatever) will, being the sparkling politicians they are, say whatever sounds like great PR at the moment. No victory cries until the project is complete.

A lot of you know that I never value the opinions of male allies on feminist issues while there are feminist writers from whom male allies acquire their ideas to credit. (Revel in this post, because you will never see it again.) I also don’t give cookies. I will never give cookies. But as much as it is true that the support of allies should be unnecessary, that the interpretations of women should carry enough weight to stand on their own in this horrendously patriarchal world with its malestream media, without needing to be rewritten under male names to garner the attention of other men, that men should shut up about women’s issues because a woman speaking about them should be enough–as much as that should be true, it isn’t the dynamics of patriarchal reality. And the stark reality is that some men (of color), eager to not only call out their own oppression but to encourage women to stand with them in doing so, welcome sexism with a stony silence.

The reactions of Muslim men to the kidnapping of schoolgirls by the malesupremacist terrorist group Boko Haram were downright despicable. Not only do men ignore the issue of sexism, they use the platform created by women drawing attention to these horrific crimes to amplify their voices on issues they actually care about. I watched this happen, thread after thread, post after post, tweet after tweet, from otherwise “respectable” men who were quick to destroy legitimate points about how the US should stay the hell out of Nigeria by subtly explaining away Boko Haram’s actions with the failure of the Nigerian government and neglecting to notice that somehow, magically, only supremacy of a certain sex is fostered by the government negligence that victimizes both. (I don’t see a female equivalent to Boko Haram that kidnaps schoolboys and kills hundreds of people, do you? Are men the only victims of government negligence and colonialism?) There is a larger problem, and its name is patriarchy. And out of the hundreds of men who spoke on the issue, it was rare that any of them decried the others.

I do NOT like these images on drones that are distracting from #BringBackOurGirls. I’m not saying imperialism and colonialism aren’t wrong. I’m not saying drone attacks aren’t wrong. But [...] If the brightest idea you have for activism is piggy-backing on other activists’ work to highlight drones, you need to rethink ideas. I’m especially appalled cuz #BringBackOurGirls deals with an eternally marginalized and ignored group – black women. You have no right. To knowingly push drones at the expense of #BringBackOurGirls, which requires all our efforts, isn’t just wrong, it’s shameless.

Let’s not turn #BringBackOurGirls into a discussion about “imperialism” and “colonialism” and especially “drones”. Most of our society – nay our world – is virulently patriarchal. AND virulently misogynistic. #BringBackOurGirls is change in making! #BringBackOurGirls is forcing ppl to THINK about patriarchy. To think about racism. To think about how they’re BOTH hurting black women. To turn #BringBackOurGirls into a debate about drones is like saying, “The discussion it’s already generating is NOT important enough.” PLZ let #BringBackOurGirls dominate. I beg of you. It’s not just about the girls in Nigeria. It’s about all black women. Let em speak! Josh Shahryar

Josh Shahryar is a man, and the only one I’d come across criticizing other men for distracting from the hard work of black women on this issue. Of course, it should be enough when I scream about it. It should definitely be enough when black women scream about it. You shouldn’t even NEED me. You have them. They are enough.

But this is a sick world, and they aren’t. And it isn’t. It isn’t enough. And I will never forgive men for being cowards.

The criminal negligence of men when it comes to sexism is evident in every women’s rights issue. When I asked for letters to the masjid asking the committee to revisit its sexist plans for the new layout, an overwhelming number of respondents were women. In the comments, only one (conceivably) was a man.

Are we really taught that Hazrat Khadijah was an independent tradeswoman and yet women are not allowed to lead prayers? Are we really taught that “paradise is at the feet of your mother” and yet we can not listen to a Muslim woman deliver a khutbah? Are we really taught that Fatima Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet, will be the first person to enter the afterlife, and yet the voices of Muslim women are completely shut out at mosques? How can we truly follow the Qur’an, which teaches that men and women are equal spiritual beings, when our community treats women as inferior to men in our places of worship? Jehanzeb Dar

“That’s not fair, Nahida,” you chirp. “Mostly women read your blog. Because you’re, like, kind of scary.”

Yes, yes I am. And you need me, “good feminist.” Remember that.

I’ve written before about how Muslim men, after pushing women behind curtains, behind barriers, behind deafening silences, suddenly shove us to the front lines when it comes to battling the Islamophobia that affects them, when it comes to battling oppression that they can understand. Instead of answering for these discrepancies, they tokenize examples of women in Islamic history, of women who are, in their own right, historical heroines. The religious communities of men that recognize and praise them, however, are hostile to their modern incarnations. They cite spiritual equality while refusing its physical manifestation in the social and legal spheres. (i.e. God sees us as equal, but I don’t.)

Self-declared male “allies” will champion the principles of equality for Western audiences, publishing redemptive visions of Islam on news sites targeting non-Muslim readers whilst keeping their heads bowed before the sexist male-dominated ulema and their outrageous “laws.” Few have the character to confront sexism where it is most impactful.

I began sending emails to the men in the shura. First about how the mosque’s structure was flawed by separating men and women. During the Prophet Muhammad’s time men and women actually prayed in the same space. The prophet Muhammad didn’t put women behind partitions. I further explained that during the most sacred event a Muslim can partake in, Hajj, or pilgrimage, men and women stand side by side and pray together. If you believe separation is absolutely necessary, I explained to the men in the shura, there’s no need for walls and sheets as barriers. Barriers are just sexist man-made rules. [...] As a consequence of these emails, I was slowly separated from the shura. No more emails about weekly meetings, I was taken off the WhatsApp group. No more text messages about upcoming agendas. –Adeel Ahmed

Most, anxious with the looming threat of realizing their own hypocrisy, will be quick to justify the disconnect between “spiritual equality” and the fact that Islam does not distinguish between belief and practice (in other words, you cannot claim to believe in “spiritual equality” if you fail to practice it legally and socially) by attempting to mansplain that women are “not required to pray at the mosque” (wrong, most notably in regards to jummah) or that “fewer women arrive to pray at the mosque” and therefore there should be a smaller area designated to them. Can you imagine something like that for race? “Fewer Saudis come to this particular masjid, so we should deliver the khutbas in Urdu.” That is how the barrier functions. It actually cuts off the prayer. It’s a literal barrier.

What’s astounding about the former, that women “are not required to pray at the mosque” is that even women will employ this poor excuse for justification. If you’re a woman who believes women “are not required to pray at the mosque” is an adequate reason to not accommodate us with equal effort to worship God, you should not be speaking, because you have made it clear it is against your ideology. Stay home and pray. What’s it to you what the masjid looks like if you’re not interested in going? If you really don’t care because you’re not “required to attend” then what the hell are you even doing in this conversation?

Posted in feminism, Islam, Muslims, privilege | 5 Comments



Look at him.

Look at him.

My heart my heart my heart.

White people, how does anyone not look at a man like that and think–What do you want? You can have it Jesus Christ you can have it take it all.

Posted in color, feminism, race, social justice | 1 Comment

Reasons you shouldn’t let people know you might possibly be kind of soft.

My first lesson in economics–specifically, in capitalism–came when I was 16 and decided to apply for a job at a Tutoring Service That Shall Not Be Named. Mind you, my mother would not have actually let me work at 16, but I was determined to be an independent young lady and applied for the job anyway.

Months before I came to this decision, I wanted to write a play for my school. (God, don’t ask me why; I was full of terrible ideas.) One of my friends, who was quite skilled in photoshop, offered to make promotional posters. I told her I’d do her better and pay her to make them. We settled for $10/hour, which, at the age of 16, was appealing enough. In the end, I owed her $50, but, because she was a friend of mine, I paid her $100 out of the savings I’d accumulated over the years. Consider it an early birthday gift, I told her.

Fast forward a few months, when Tutoring Service That Shall Not Be Named asks me for a job reference. I think for a few seconds, and then realize I’d had a perfectly refined, polished, and mature business transaction with the aforementioned friend of mine. She happily agrees to be a reference. A week later I get a call from Tutoring Service That Shall Not Be Named informing me I’d been declined for the job.

This comes as a bit of a surprise to me, considering I’d had an outstanding review, aced every subject area test, and demonstrated complete competence in working with children. I asked Tutoring Service That Shall Not Be Named politely if they might provide a reason for the declination, because–as tactful as was the independent young woman I was determined to become–I would always welcome some constructive criticism.

The woman on the phone responded that she actually had no criticisms. I was communicative, exceptionally bright, and had a disposition that made people naturally like me. She said, “But then we called your reference…”

“Oh…” I began, my heart sinking. “Did she say something negative?” I felt personally hurt despite reminding myself this was a professional context and I should be a grown up lady about it–the friend and I had a smooth, easy, trusting friendship and I could not imagine her saying anything negative about me that she didn’t tell me directly.

“Oh no!” said the woman on the phone. “Not at all. In fact, she said you were patient, fair and generous…” her tone changed as she added, “and that you overpaid her.”

I waited.

“…We don’t feel comfortable hiring someone we suspect might be too generous with company time. Since we charge clients by the hour, we need to make sure our employees aren’t the type to provide services for free. It’s a loss of company money. We monitor this carefully.”

“Okay…” I said slowly. “I respect your decision, although I must point out that one makes a distinction between money that is hers to spend and money that isn’t.”

Then I hung up, and from that point on, would ask any pianist, hairdresser, graphic designer, florist, or anyone else I ever hired or worked with closely, to never mention that I possibly might be remotely generous.

You can’t make this shit up.

Posted in culture | 3 Comments

Patriarchy in the (Peripheral) Workplace

My coworkers and I are rather fond of each other. I’m very lucky that way, and seeing as I’m one of those women who have always drawn a distinct line between their personal and professional lives, it’s really saying something as to how wonderful these women are. They’re both white women, and when one of them burst into laughter at the sight of a resume (“Look at this resume. Only a white male would list his children on his resume.”) I nearly proposed my eternal love to her. I’ve discussed the violin with them, described my writing, borrowed classical music composition books, made confessions as to the exact degree of my introversion, inquired about the effectiveness of ballet as a workout, ruminated on the possibility that all we know emerged from a collapsed star in a 4D universe–I even once texted one of them at 3am about my day. We’ve talked about life and dreams and love.

There are still certain boundaries I’ve drawn (I won’t, for example, be Facebook friends with them) to make it clear we are, ultimately, coworkers, not friends, but in all honesty I sometimes share more with them than anyone else–I would have said it’s a common trait of the career woman, but I know I couldn’t do this with just anyone I worked with; it’s their personality types. Somehow we mesh really well. We exchange glances. We make the same humorous remarks. The same injustices outrage us, regardless of how “minor.”

When one of my coworkers went off on a week-long vacation (the other was a new mom and checked out early before I arrived), I happened to feel like wearing a flowy olive dress on a Friday. Because of the coworker on vacation, however, I thought no one will see me in this and, since I wouldn’t wear it twice within one week, reserved the dress for her return. (Of course, people would see me in the dress. What I meant was–no one whose opinion I cared about would see it.) I wore the dress on Monday instead, and realized when I got to the office that she wouldn’t be back until Tuesday.

It occurred to me then, as it had before, that I, a straight woman, had just dressed up for another straight woman–that it was some form of affectionate bonding. I would not have actually commented on the dress, or expected her to, but the fact that I had waited until I could share the vision of myself in it with her is subversive of any patriarchal claim that women dress certain ways for men. There were men in the building, but regardless of whether I wore heels and pencil skirts, I would never dress for them.

As I walked out of the office into the general building, I happened to pass by a stairwell up which a man was struggling to pull a very heavy desk. Despite sensing immediately that the piece of furniture could roll down at any moment and was therefore a threat to my physical safety, I called out, “Need any help?” I couldn’t stop myself; the poor man was red in the face. It would be callous, I thought, to simply walk past him, even though I recognized that at 100 pounds, I would hardly be of any real help and might be committing some grievance against myself.

“Yes please,” he blurted, heaving out the words. I walked up to the massive piece of furniture and attempted to shove it up the stairs in his direction. I didn’t know who he was; I was all too aware of the fact that if he were to let go even a little, the desk would come crashing down into me. As I grabbed the furniture, the man was able to relax a little, but I couldn’t move the desk. He tried pulling it up again, and this time was able to move it further.

“I don’t think I’m much help,” I remarked. What I meant of course was that I wasn’t enough help to actually relieve him of the weight of the desk;–I only made a difference in so far as countering its gravitation pull downward, which, seeing as that ultimately got him to move it, was pretty significant anyway.

“Ha, I should get one of those young guys to do it,” he laughed.

I scoffed audibly. He must have realized he’d offended me, because there was a slight change in his expression. “What you need,” I wanted to say, “is someone who’s more than a hundred pounds–of any sex.” I was well aware I couldn’t lift enough to really help him; I was also aware this had nothing to do with the fact that I’m a woman and everything to do with the fact that, with ballet, I had chosen flexibility over the applicable kind of strength. Unfortunately, I was in a position in which he could very easily hurt me (by simply letting go) and I didn’t know enough of his character to determine whether he could handle being antagonized or would throw an emotional fit. It was not worth paralysis.

“You have this then?” I said, sounding irritated.

“Just–a little–more,” he strained. He took a brief pause. And then, almost as though in attempt to undo the wrong he’d just committed, said, “You must be restricted in that dress.”

It was a vain attempt to blame my unhelpfulness on the dress rather than my strength, and a horribly offensive one, as though my choice of this feminine attire (which is actually rather liberating to the legs, and would have otherwise been an imposition of his patriarchy) was what made me weaker, not the fact that he was expecting a fish to climb a tree. (Let’s see who can do the splits?) I clenched my jaw in suppressed anger. To make matters worse, in that moment as he rested, his eyes swept over me opportunely–the way I was positioned, further down the steps below him, made me conveniently accessible to him–and I could tell, from both my familiarity with the male gaze and from his expression, his thoughts were uninvited ones. I shoved the desk suddenly in his direction, and he started, as if remembering his task. With a single determined heave he pulled it up entirely into the next floor.

“That’s it then,” I said coolly and turned to walk back down the flight. “Thanks!” he called out.

I told myself I shouldn’t have stopped to help him; the worst that could have happened is that he would have been unable to lift the desk, would have let go, and the furniture would be damaged with nothing to stop it from rolling down. If he’d made that mistake while I tried, I wouldn’t have had the strength of/or weight to stop it from continuing down the stairs even on my impact–and it would’ve destroyed me with it. I don’t just dislike putting myself in situations where I’m dependent on some else’s mercy–when that someone else is a strange man I can not trust, it’s a psychotic fucking hatred of the circumstance. But I couldn’t have just walked past him–I hadn’t been conditioned to think of myself first.

Why had he been attempting to lift that thing up the steps himself anyway, without a lift? When he endangering not only himself but anyone who chanced to walk by below? What an idiotically masculine thing to do.

The incident reminded me of something else that had dawned on me early into my current employment; my workplace isn’t just wonderfully non-toxic for a corporate office–the fact that I work closely with mainly women meant events like this never happened. This man worked outside of my office, in the same general building, and chances are I’ll probably never have to hear his “benevolently” misogynistic remarks again.

With my coworkers, however, there wasn’t just the absence of misogyny–there was the kind of bonding that, when between men and masculinity, makes a male-dominated workplace impenetrable for women. As much as I’d wondered whether it was objectionable that I had texted my coworker at 3 in the morning–well, let’s face it, the glass ceiling exists because men text their coworkers at 3 in the morning. And have “business meetings” at strip clubs.

It’s interesting, then, what’s considered “professional”–and who is policed to that perception.

In my quiet little corporate workplace, there was a warm, inviting shift in the cultural makeup, where we discuss piano accompaniments and religion and astronomy rather than boisterously appealing to each other’s masculine inclinations. Any man–if he didn’t fit the atmosphere pre-established by our personalities–would feel like a fish out of water. And this is what patriarchy does to women, with exaggerated demonstrations of masculine culture forming exclusionary impenetrable connections, on a systematic level.

Are you aware of what has been taken from you? I have seen fragments of liberation. If we only knew the full extent of how we’d been wronged, we would set the world on fire.

Posted in feminism, privilege | 3 Comments

Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri

Did you know the first institution granting academic degrees in the world was founded by a Muslim woman? Of course you didn’t.

Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri’s university, the University of Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco, is still in operation today. It is the world’s oldest institution of education to continually operate, and after its construction in 859, the university quickly became one of the leading education centers in the world. Conveniently located within the compounds of a mosque that would in the coming centuries expand to become the largest enclosed mosque in the continent of Africa–capacity 22,000–the university attracted scholars from all over the world to the magnificently influential city of Fes. Abu Al-Abbas al-Zwawi, Abu Madhab Al-Fasi, and Leo Africanus are some of the leading thinkers, theorists, and writers produced by Al-Fihri’s university. Renowned mapmakers, astonomers, and historians attended as students. Al-Fihri’s sister, Mariam built the Al-Andalus mosque.

Both sisters were known to have been extremely pious. Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri, despite having no experience in architecture, oversaw the construction of the mosque and the university in great detail and with great dedication until the project was complete. Non-Muslims were attracted to the mosque as well, and the university played a pivotal role in the cultural and intellectual interactions between the Middle East and Europe. A variety of subjects were taught at the university, including Islamic law, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, history, and–gasp!–music.

Although Al-Fihri was a wealthy woman and contributed considerably to her community, little biographical information has been written or preserved about her. Women who inherit their fathers’ fortunes, you see, give grandly, live quietly, and vanish from the face of the earth while the universities they establish are associated with a patronage of sultans– and their extensive biographies. Al-Fihri, instead, will be (and has been) renowned instead for her modesty and her charitable nature–the “sacrificial Muslim woman (TM)” who gives unthinkingly to her community–and not for her great leadership.

Posted in feminism, herstory, Islam | 6 Comments

Solicited Marriage Advice

For some reason y’all keep emailing me about relationship advice, presumably because when Muslim women convert to Islam there are imams who actually tell them they need to divorce their non-Muslim husbands. Forget those imams. What kind of “religious man” is that kind of a homewrecker? Also, what is wrong with you? Why are you taking that seriously? You need me to tell you not to divorce the spouse you are perfectly in love with, really? People, you have got to stop sending me this question. The answer is NO. The answer is NO of course you don’t have to divorce your non-Muslim husband, you fool. What really infuriates me is that you KNOW those same imams are advising patience to women with abusive husbands. It distresses me to no end that a woman who has just converted to Islam and is likely attempting to reconcile so many things already would be pressured by her new community into further destabilizing her sense of self by divorcing a spouse she does not wish to divorce.

The next time I get this question (it will have been the 40th) I am linking you directly to this post. And metaphorically smacking you upside the head.

So that’s that. And it’s pretty final. Moving on, I have Things to Say About Other Things I’ve been asked. Like WHY ISN’T THIS WORKING and such.

When two people first begin to consider each other as romantic possibilities, if they are reasonable they will each know that the other has faults. But it’s not likely either will know what those faults are. A man who’s romantically interested in me likely doesn’t know that I daydream to the point of neurosis, that I’m impatient–sometimes (horrifyingly) even with people I love, that when I’ve grown comfortable in a relationship I’m prone to an escapism that substitutes interaction with the fantasy that fulfills the need for it in reality. That the kind of relationship I need is an unconventional one. Once the relationship begins to quiet into a predictable routine, I will inevitably mistake it for an unbearable kind of dissonance with the core of my being–but due to my growing uninterest, I will not be able to engage the effort to communicate this. Attempts will result in vacuous conversation. This is hard for me to say–but I do let go emotionally. I know that I need to have both an independent life to avoid burn-out and somehow simultaneously maintain enough interest to want to disclose what is happening in that life so that I’m not emotionally distant. Eventually I will need to resolve this.

Whether one personality accommodates or responds appropriately to weaknesses like these in the other is something people should know before they get married, but the problem is that hardly anyone knows these faults about themselves, much less each other. They don’t know the kind of person they really need. They know the traits they find desirable–meaningless things, like “sense of humor” or “intelligence” or any of the other generic words that really mean nothing at all without a point of reference, which is, inevitably, one’s flawed sense of self. But I have never short-changed myself by choosing my friends based on personality rather than character. I am wise enough to know I should do the same with lovers, and I would advise this for anyone–except the way we live, we haven’t the chance to know character to the point of intimacy. What contributes to the difficulty in realizing someone’s character is that everyone, or at least I, tend to romanticize flaws when we list them. I’ll mention that I’ve flown off within a moment’s notice to another country across the sea for a friend or worthy cause. Certainly, that all sounds noble and romantic–until it isn’t. Until it manifests itself into an obstacle; I don’t know how yet, but it is, after all, an impulsion. A sign of unreasonable stubbornness. Almost a delusion; a level of passion that is incompatible with reality.

Most people know that what they are looking for is character but haven’t quite registered it fully. For example, sometimes I hear ridiculous or troublesome things, like, “I want someone who doesn’t have a problem with the fact that I’m smarter him.” Let’s set aside for a minute that that’s kind of a really gross sentence. I mean, I understand the spirit of it; I know first hand it’s frustrating when men overcompensate because they are intimated by a woman’s intelligence. I don’t know how you even compare something like that; it’s not something I really do (or have any interest in doing for that matter), but I know it’s likely not the speaker herself who is responsible for the comparing, but her partner who has brought it to her attention by behaving unreasonably about it. But what the speaker is really saying is she wished her partner were of better character. When a man is “less intelligent” than you he shouldn’t behave like an ass–he also shouldn’t behave like an ass when he is “more intelligent.” That is blatantly equally sexist. That is what you are trying to say. You’re welcome.

The problem is, when it comes to traits like “intelligence”–however it may be measured–sentiments like “someone who doesn’t have a problem with the fact that I’m smarter than him” run the risk of shortchanging an individual by readjusting her mentality to look for someone who isn’t. Why would you actively do that to yourself? I don’t even–just stop. Stop thinking in terms of traits that (1) don’t mean anything (2) make you kind of a horrible person for keeping a scoresheet (3) fool you into believing you should expect him not to be smart–you want him to be smart, trust me. Once again, don’t shortchange yourself.

Which means I’m not saying that personality doesn’t matter, obviously–you need to be able to hold a conversation with each other. That is an urgent and nonnegotiable truth. But character–character is all the things you want and couldn’t explain. Until now. I know, I’m a genius.

It’s also possible everything I just wrote is nonsense. I don’t know–I’m an unmarried woman. Take it for what it’s worth. Next up: parenting advice for parents from a woman who isn’t a parent. *claps enthusiastically*

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