Guest Post: Muslim Women and the Politics of Authority. Or: How to Determine a Woman’s Right to Speak on Islam

I’m pleased to introduce the author behind Orbala, Pashto for firefly, who, despite being a PhD student of Islamic Studies with emphasis in gender, sexuality, and Islamic law, is still overlooked as qualified to discuss Islamic jurisprudence, undoubtedly due to many of the factors explored in this post. Deeply inquisitive and refreshingly demanding, Orbala has undertaken the task of answering insistent, insightful, and probing questions; most notable of these is her search for the addressed feminine in the Qur’an, a question glossed over by male scholarship through the citation of singular (exceptional) verses. Orbala’s pressing interrogations of the tightly-structured, institutionalized understandings of the Qur’an and of Islam are, however,  a direct challenge to this dismissive and intellectually lazy system of answering women’s concerns. Orbala is highly critical of cultural restrictions & oppression, including those within communities of color against each other. Her favorite creature in the world is currently her little niece, Kashmala.

Please join me in welcoming our second guest writer, Orbala, and her sharp perceptivity into patriarchal discrepancies.

Most Muslims determine whether or not a Muslim has a right to speak authoritatively on Islam or provide new interpretations of certain Islamic precepts by merely a simple list of criteria, although it varies significantly for women and men. For men, it’s a little more complicated than for women, since a man’s credentials are not always questioned even if he does not wear a traditional “Muslim” garb (think Zakir Naik). A woman’s credentials, however, are always challenged if her clothing preferences do not conform to traditional, patriarchal Muslim expectations of modesty and hijab. As an example, if a woman’s hair is not covered, nothing she says is given any value; the content of her lecture, when she’s giving a lecture, is entirely ignored, and emphasis is instead placed on her choice not to cover her head. Since she is obviously not a good Muslimah, she obviously has no right to speak on Islam—so the logic goes.

But the logic tends to transcend a little beyond clothing when the woman speaker is wearing a hijab, or is not defending her choice of not wearing the hijab: then we look, instead, at her ideology. Does she believe that Islam as it is currently practiced and understood by most Muslims is flawed? Does she believe in ijtihad? Does she believe that gender roles and rights should not be continued on gender and/or sex? Does she believe in the re-interpretations of certain Islamic principles (i.e., ijtihad), particularly in regards to gender more broadly and women more specifically? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then she is misguided, is not a good Muslim, and has no authority and right to speak on Islam. Never mind that she might not be interested in teaching other Muslims how to be good Muslims. Few female scholars of Islam trained academically are interested in overtaking the task of teaching Muslims how to be better Muslims, by which I mean emphasizing the spiritual importance of ritual behavior; if it is to mean educating Muslims about the larger concepts that Islam espouses, such as human rights, social justice, and gender equality, then, yes, they are deeply committed to the act of guiding Muslims.

One of the glaring problems with basing a person’s credentials to speak on Islam by whether they advocate everything that past traditionally trained scholars of Islam have concluded is that it leaves no space for new interpretations, interpretations and understandings of Islam that can speak to us and our time, address our needs and questions. Ultimately, if everything the scholars have said before us is to be taken at face value without any question or criticism (and criticism needs to be stopped being associated with disrespect), then why do we have the Qur’an still? Why do we need to read and understand the Qur’an at all when it’s already been explained for us? Why do we seek knowledge if it is expected merely to affirm what the majority of our scholars has said before us?

Then there is the case of Muslim converts. White convert males, let’s face it, have it far easier than black, Latina, or other non-white converts—and non-white women converts face far more challenges. On the one hand, we Muslims fetishize converts and reverts because they have presumably spent ample time to study Islam and appreciate it enough to choose as their religion; on the other hand, if their beliefs and practices do not lead them to conventional notions of Muslimness, they are doing it all wrong, and it is our responsibility to guide them, which is often towards an Arab or a Desi form of Islam. We treat the case of specifically (and only) white converts as a validation of Islam: It often feels like a relief that a western white individual has willingly embraced Islam because now we have proof that Islam is the correct religion; after all, our collective obsession with whiteness is a disease inherent to many Muslim communities (and, yes, non-Muslims, but let’s focus here). Non-white converts do not receive the same treatment and are barely recognized, despite the growing number of Latina/o converts to Islam, among others.

Since (white) converts are not racialized—because white people are obviously the default creation of God—they have to prove their Muslimness through their clothing style in order to “look” Muslim. Hence many white male converts’ need to wear traditional Arab garbs (think Hamza Yusuf). I’m not going to elaborate on white male convert privilege since plenty has already been written on the subject—see, for example, Performing Belief and Reviving Islam: Prominent (White Male) Converts in Muslim Revival Conventions, by Mahdi Tourage; Racialized Muslim Bodies and White Revert Privilege; The Problem with White Converts. But the point regarding converts is raised in order to point to the importance of clothing and identity among Muslims and our habit of linking belief and practice specifically through “Muslim” clothing.

Still, this article wasn’t initially intended as a discussion on race, conversion, and authority—it was intended as a discussion solely on the simplified, narrow, flawed standards by which we measure a Muslim woman’s ability to speak on Islam. When I tell a Muslim that I am a student of Islamic Studies, they should not react by looking me up and down, often condescendingly, which happens especially if the questioner is a scarf-wearing female, and arrogantly comment, “But … But why in the U.S.? Do you know Arabic? Are your teachers Muslims? I hope they’re teaching you authentic Islam! Be careful because they might be taking you away from Islam and you don’t see it. There’s a hadith that says that there will come a time when those most ignorant of Islam will be teaching us Islam posing as scholars.” My response is usually to smile and say, “Yeah, there’s a hadith out there for everything, innit, bruh.” Because judging, and not unfairly, by the this line of questions, they’re not interested in discussing the various methods of training with me, the complicated notion of authenticity, or what “Islamic Studies” means to most Muslims and what its different role and purpose in secular and religious institutions. For those interested in my pursuit of Islamic Studies in the west, here’s an explanation.  

The community’s unfair criteria of authority matter because the work that feminist and reformist activist Muslims are engaged in are, for the most part, for the community, not necessarily for themselves as individuals. Some of us may not personally face many of the issues we deal with, but we are sincerely committed to urging the community to rethinking its understanding of Islam if Islam is used as an excuse for some of our unjust beliefs and practices; they include homophobia, domestic abuse, denying Muslim women the right to marry non-Muslims, disavowing the claim that women can lead gender-mixed prayers, and so on. What needs to be emphasized is that there is nothing Islamic, nothing divine about patriarchy; it is not the natural worldview, but it has been normalized. It was the worldview of the past, albeit patriarchy is still the dominant force in today’s world—but it is actively being challenged and confronted in favor of a more egalitarian world. The problem we’re facing regarding patriarchy and misogyny is that we foolishly believe that all things gender equality, including feminism, are western inventions, and since “western” and “Islamic” are obviously mutually exclusive, we can have either one or the other—and our level of faith and piety is measured by whether we choose “Islamic” or “western.”  

Yet, few Muslims today will agree with the classical, medieval, and pre-modern claim that God favors men because (or that) men are superior to women. But this was the dominant belief in terms of gender hierarchy according to Islamic scholarship (see, as an example, Ayesha Chaudhry’s book Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition (Oxford Islamic Legal Studies) for more details; Khaled Abou El Fadl’s Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women is also worth reading on the subject of “authority”). Similarly, I cannot imagine any Muslim disagreeing with the fact that justice is a virtue in Islam to the extent that, as the Qur’an tells us, we must stand up for justice even if it means turning against ourselves, our parents, or our kin (Qur’an 4:135). But the Qur’an does not define the meaning of justice or how to command justice in a given situation. This is left to Muslims to decide for themselves because, like any other great Text, the Qur’an recognizes the subjective meanings of concepts like justice. As such, when killing an individual for leaving a religion they were born into is universally considered unethical and immoral, it is an injustice for Muslims to maintain this thought and practice. (Note: While there are absolutely no Qur’anic grounds for the punishment for apostasy in the first place, the Shari’a unfortunately does consider apostasy a capital crime.) Just as well, no Muslim would agree that slavery is Islamic or that Islam would support it in our time. But exactly how do we imagine this came to be the case when Islam never outright forbade slavery and when the Qur’an instead talks of female wars of prisoners for men as “those whom your right hand possess” and there’s no limit on how many they can have, in addition to their four wives? Exactly how did we come to the belief that men are in fact not intellectually, mentally, or even physically superior to women after all, contrary to what humans, including Muslims, formerly believed? The answer entails an acknowledgment of the significant changes in universal standards of equality and justice over the last few decades, let alone over the centuries.

Our answer to difficult questions of “the beating verse” in the Qur’an (4:34), killing non-Muslims in times of war, women’s testimony purportedly being half that of a man, women’s inheritance share being half that of a man is usually: “Context!” We tell non-Muslims that there’s a context to this verse and that, to this guideline and that, but when it comes to other issues, such as that of women’s leading prayer or gender segregation, we completely ignore that there is context there as well—assuming, wrongly, that Islam does forbid women from leading men or gender-mixed communities in prayers. And that context is the patriarchal, often misogynistic, mindset of our scholars who established the Shari’a and hence basically Islam, who interpreted the Qur’an for us, defined Islam for us. They may have meant well, and most of them may have been sincere in their intentions, but that doesn’t remove the negative and unjust consequences of their interpretations of the Qur’an that have been harmful to women (and homosexuals in other cases). When will it finally become more popular for us to say, “If we can condemn slavery because it’s considered wrong in today’s world, we must also re-think many of our other practices and beliefs that we insist are Islamic, such as forbidding women the right to marry non-Muslim men when such a right, such an option is available to men.” I’m hopeful, and I’ve faith in us.

10 thoughts on “Guest Post: Muslim Women and the Politics of Authority. Or: How to Determine a Woman’s Right to Speak on Islam

  1. rootedinbeing

    I see these issues being more or less similar with the other monotheistic religious structures. I think change only happens when the religion is threatened. Numbers are the main goals of any religious structure, and when they lose their numbers they are forced to change or perish into history books – which is what has been happening within Catholicism after issues of sexual abuse, homophobia, and sexism became front and center. Now many Catholic churches hang rainbow flags on their lawns to prove their “acceptance” and that they are changing from the norm. This only happened because they were very aware of the numbers of people they were losing.

    What is it you see/feel/experience within your own sphere that makes you hopeful, and inspires you to continue on with faith?

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    1. Absolutely, Sarah–I think when male scholarship feels threatened is also when its adherents begin to look for excuses to “discredit” subversive female voices. As long as a woman reiterates the patriarchal discourse instead of challenging it, she’s hardly ever confronted as to the value of her credentials. When her questions are interesting and striking enough to provoke actual original thoughts in the patriarchal ulema, suddenly that very ulema and its followers attack her with a sense of urgency. They don’t want to think.

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    2. Blush, Nahida! <3 You're so generous with your praises; I hope to live up to them one day soon, iA! I laa you!

      @RootedInBeing: Thanks for reading, jaan! Absolutely agreed that the issue is similar to other monotheists religious structures (and non-monotheist structures, like Buddhism and Hinduism, also have faced similar probs). I also agree with you that, at least to a certain extent, once threatened, a religious community will start to change for the better in order to address its more real needs.

      As for what makes me hopeful, many things. I can't lie and say that I am more discouraged most times than I am encouraged, but finding and connecting with a small, intimate group of friends who have a vision of the world similar to mine has been tremendously hopeful. Being able to share our frustrations and discuss issues that–at least many of them–we cannot discuss more publicly because Islamophobes and others who'll take our conversations and experiences out of context and use them against us, has been greatly helpful.

      Then there's the kind of scholarship being conducted by Muslim women and (women and men) feminist scholars. It's depressing how long it took us to this level, but I'm still grateful that we have successfully carved enough space for ourselves to be able to stop letting men and patriarchy speak for us and think they're doing us a favor when they do. Reading all kinds of women-friend/egalitarian interpretations of the Qur'an, thanks entirely to feminist scholars of Islam and allies, continues to give me hope, too :)

      Also, another happy thought is that time is against the anti-feminists, and they're going to eventually have to grow out of it and finally abandon sexist values. Just thinking of that possibility, whenever it does happen, makes my heart smile!

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    3. Umair

      While your observation about ‘numbers’ would be true in principle, doesn’t this work only if one has an option of freely leaving the religion? For example, in many Muslim majority regions, a change is taking place but only in the direction of further solidifying the patriarchal structures, among other regressions.

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      1. rootedinbeing

        One does have the option (right? no?) to stop attending Friday prayer and stop participating with anything having to do with the religious structure without leaving the actual religion, which upsets the structure while not upsetting the person’s personal faith (or fear of retribution for apostasy). I think people who live where freely leaving religion is not an option get creative. My mind is in Malaysia when I think about this issue, so that is the geographic context I am coming from.

        I do agree with your statement about patriarchy further solidifying itself in some regions. We know this, it is why I asked the author about her own hopes and inspirations. What makes people (feminists especially) dig in rather than leave? I think the author answered that question for me.

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  2. Pingback: The Link Between Authority and Knowledge – or: how knowledge is gendered | Freedom from the Forbidden

  3. Pingback: Muslim women scholars of Islam, the question of qualifications, and romanticized images of the “Islamic tradition” | Freedom from the Forbidden

  4. Pingback: Muslim women scholars of Islam, the question of qualifications, and romanticized images of the “Islamic tradition” | The Muslim Times

  5. فاطمة

    This is my first time on this site so I have absolutely no idea how this works, so sorry if I’m doing something wrong so I can dlt this (if there is such an option). I’m just going to voice my opinion as a muslim niqabi (veiling my face with eyes showing) teenager living happily and following most (most meaning I still commit basic sins such as lying, etc. and then repent later) of the rules of Islam. I don’t face many hardships or disagree with anything Allah (SWT) or the Prophet (pbuh) said. In Islam, women have many privileges compared to men though they may not think so. They are allowed to wear dyed clothes, silk and gold, while men are not. Paradise lies under a mother’s feet and she receives three times more respect than a father. Many times the Prophet (SAW) mentions (more or less) that a wife has the right over the husband. When a woman marries, she completes half her deen. Meaning, half of her husband’s deen is her and vice versa. This makes both a male and female equal in Islam. In some ideas men are more privileged, such as being a Prophet. In some ideas women are more privileged, such as opening the gates to Paradise. They aren’t equal, but are balanced. In our society, almost everything is equal not balanced. When men swim at beaches, they usually wear shorts, but they don’t wear a bra, do they (they also don’t get breast cancer either)? Like wise, women don’t leave their chests bare. Islamically (and I’m guessing every other religion-ally) women aren’t allowed to be forced to do anything that they don’t want to (unless they want to commit murder, etc). I’m going to conclude by saying that the: 1st person to accept Islam (Khadija), 1st person to die for Islam (Sumaya), greatest scholar of Islam (Aishah), person that loved Muhammad (SAW) most (Fatimah), person to commit the greatest sacrifice for Islam (Khansaa) and one of the greatest muslim fighters (Khawlah) were all women.

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