In the absence of the Prophet, you are your best advisor.

In the shower, I nicked myself, on accident. I prefer to wax, so I hadn’t shaved my legs in a long time, since waxing is considerably more convenient. But having decided on laser hair removal for the benefit of silky smooth legs, I was no longer permitted to wax between sessions. I’d decided to handle a razor, and I stared in shower-trance at the soft tiny fuzz gathered between the blades, which the cascading water was not forceful enough to disengage. I swiped the hair off with a finger in a single swift motion–horizontally, in the direction the blades ran, rather than vertically, which would have unlocked them.

Since the blades were sharp, there was no pain to warn me, but my mind bolted alive at once, conscious of hitting the wrong note somewhere, of peculiar activity, of moving in a way I shouldn’t have. I stopped and pulled away before the blades penetrated too deeply. It looked like a neat cat scratch, from a very tiny cat; for a few seconds, I thought I had not broken skin, but I knew this could not be true. I waited. Sure enough, minuscule droplets of blood formed along the edges.

This wasn’t an ordinary shower. I had just finished menstruating: it was farz gusl. In any other circumstance, regardless, drawing blood would have invalidated the state of ritual purity. If I were frantic enough, I would have stopped the water, leapt out of the shower, thrown on a towel–or maybe even clothes–applied bandages in dismay, made sure give it a few minutes until I was certain the bleeding had stopped entirely, and sulked over whether I had destroyed everything before proceeding to redo everything I had undone. I know this woman. I receive emails from her all the time. I love her and wish her well. She even birthed me. And I am always pained by her self-deprecation, her perfectionism of faith… her unjustified guilt.

I used to preform the same prayers over and over, convinced I had done them wrong.

But there, in the shower, watching tiny droplets of blood form, I did not turn off the water, dry myself, and begin again from the first step. I pressed the finger to my lip to stop the bleeding. I thought of God and smiled and kissed it. I performed ablution, gave everything a final rinse, and stepped out of the shower. And then I prayed.

To the woman writing to me, asking whether she should bleach her clothes, her sofa, her bedsheets, everything she ever touched, love, you already know. There is a reason you are writing to me and not a sheikh. You will not allow yourself to hear the truth you have already told yourself. The reasonableness, the practicality, the compassion that you know is Islam–your heart is leading you to where you know it is reflected, and you have the answer already.

Functions of the Language Barrier as Protest in the Muslim Feminist Jihad

On April 23rd, 2012, Mona Eltahawy wrote an article titled, “Why Do They Hate Us?” to protest the treatment of women in the Middle East. The article, featured in Foreign Policy magazine, prompted a variety of responses, ranging from admiration for the author’s courage to criticism for her portrayal of Egyptian men. In online Islamic feminist circles, the most frequent and perceptive criticism was that Eltahawy had written the article in English, even though she is a native Arabic-speaker capable of effectively conveying her message in the language of the demographic she critiques. Eltahawy’s decision to protest in English served to partially remove the language barrier between Egyptian feminists and a potentially harmful English-speaking audience. This is significant because it suggests that the language barrier serves a protective purpose in protest. The language barrier does more than specify an audience: it precludes one.

Typically, the language barrier is a source of frustration when there is a desire for interaction across linguistic boundaries, which social media facilitates. However, the choice of language can be utilized advantageously in protest: it is a way to criticize misogyny in the Muslim community and circumvent inciting Islamophobia. When Muslim women critique Muslim men in English, some assume the women’s passions for equality are influenced by colonialism, and proceed to appropriate these critiques to embolden xenophobia. However, when Muslim women write in, for example, Arabic, Pashto, Bangla, Mandarin, Punjabi, and Farsi, not only are their critiques rendered inaccessible to an unintended audience, but that audience is barred from assuming ownership of those critiques. The language barrier deters the piracy of the marginalized voice.

There are ways in which, rather than stifling the effect of protest, the language barrier subtly enhances it by limiting agency to those whose struggles are central to its objective, and by enforcing these limits on social media platforms. In fact, language as a metaphorical shield even predates social media: during the British conquest of India, revolutionary writers, such as Kazi Nazrul Islam, whose rebellion against British colonialism won him the title of “Rebel Poet,” advocated gender equality and protested the bigotry of invaders by calling for independence in Bangla, an indigenous language; subsequently, the colonists were hindered from the immediate identification of a threat because they could not access or read his writing. Eventually, Kazi Nazrul Islam was jailed as the language barrier between Indians and the British began to erode. It was Nazrul Islam’s title as “Rebel Poet” that aroused British suspicions. It is no well-kept secret, furthermore, that when colonists arrived on Turtle Island, they not only sought to eliminate Native cultures but the children’s use of indigenous languages in schools. In the United States there are often workplace policies against the use of non-English languages among employees: in 2010, sixty-nine Filipina immigrants filed a lawsuit against the Delano Regional Medical Center in California for harassment and discrimination due to the hospital’s English-only policy. This is a strong indication that the language barrier has a potential to uproot establishments of power by leaving them out—a potential that those in power recognize.

from %22Why do they hate us%22 by Mona Eltahawy
from Eltahawy’s “Why do they hate us?” unforgivingly criticizing both Arab men and Western “experts” in English 

However, in these examples, the potential object of the speakers’ criticism is the system of power itself, and not the religious interpretations or cultures of those who speak the Othered language. There are several prominent Islamic feminists, such as Asra Nomani, as well as prominent Muslim male writers, such as Haroon Moghul, who’ve used their social media platforms to critique the Muslim communities’ application and practice of Islamic beliefs—in English.  A subject of criticism among Islamic feminists is Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa’s article in The Washington Post titled, “As Muslim women, we actually ask you not to wear the hijab in the name of interfaith solidarity”; the article does not—as the title suggests—discourage against cultural appropriation. Instead, it advises non-Muslim women “not [to] wear a headscarf in ‘solidarity’ with the ideology that most silences us, equating our bodies with ‘honor.’ Stand with us instead with moral courage against the ideology of Islamism that demands we cover our hair.” Although Nomani and Arafa discuss the re-interpretation of “hijab” to mean “headscarf” and argue that this is not the original command of the Qur’an, detailing their struggles against Muslims who’ve harassed women to wear the headscarf—and although these are all points made and supported by other Muslim feminists—the targeted audience of the article, (white) non-Muslim women, questionably repositions non-Muslim feminists into the role of the imposing white savior, from which so many Islamic feminists have fought to remove them.

In the case of Nomani and Arafa, the target audience is made clear even from as early as the title of the article, which blatantly addresses a non-Muslim audience. In most cases, however, it is only implied, and can be deciphered from where the publication appears and its main audience.

Subsequently, the question then arises of where Muslims who speak only English are situated in protesting the inequalities in Muslim communities. Muslims critiquing oppressive power structures in either English or non-English languages is protest, and effective. Muslims critiquing each other in their own languages is protest, and effective. Muslims critiquing each other in English, such as the scholar and Islamic feminist Amina Wadud, for Muslim audiences is protest, and effective. Amina Wadud still operates within a form of the language barrier; since she writes for a Muslim audience, she does not define words that recur in Islamic discourse. Culture is tied very much to language, and the language barrier encompasses a cultural one. However, articles in journals such as The Washington Post and The Guardian don’t cater to a Muslim readership or bare the burden of social responsibility, and become sensationalist. Mona Eltahawy, whose activism has been valuable, fell short with her Foreign Policy article.

Zeineddine violence of men
Nazira Zeineddine contesting that women are inherently evil by suggesting this is a projection of men, whose violence is demonstrable.

Articles written in English are still effective if published on a platform whose audience is aware of not only the injustices which the author protests, but of the injustices affecting the Muslim author herself. An author who critiques gender inequality in the Muslim community is just as subject to Islamophobia from her audience as she is to misogyny from her community. Since language hierarchies exist in most Muslim communities in the United States, with a preference for Arabic above all Others, it is important to find a place for diasphoric Muslims who speak languages other than English or Arabic. This may, after all, facilitate the development of a different facet of feminism, one that is freer from both a white savior complex and Arab exclusivity.

When, in Los Angeles in February of 2015, an all-women’s mosque opened as an alternative space to the oppressive, segregated mosques in the remainder of the country, it was identified at once by male scholars as problematic in prohibiting the attendance of men, even though mosques with barriers—literal barriers—bar (and discourage) female attendance. While disparaging women, scholars like Yasir Qadhi, struck by an opportunistic enlightenment, encouraged their audiences on Facebook to address the “root” of the problem: the unwelcome atmosphere in mainstream mosques. Women who attend the mosque, Qadhi argued, should be treated with a special respect for choosing to attend instead of shopping. He stated that it was natural that women would “counter-react” to feeling unwelcome and that some of those counter-reactions would be “illegitimate.” The implication that an all-women’s mosque was illegitimate would have come as a surprise to Muslims who primarily speak neither English nor Arabic, such as, for example Muslim women in China.

In “Debates over Islamic Feminism and Empowerment in Contemporary China,” Masumi Matsumoto describes all-female madrasas and mosques in China:

“Nüxue, or female madrasas, have been mushrooming in China’s Muslim communities since the beginning of the 1990s. Arabic and Islam are taught there. The government permits them tacitly. Such schools have given Muslim women unexpected gender roles and have supported the growth of China’s Islamic feminism. The female madrasa offers alternative values which Party-controlled public schools cannot provide. Based on the tradition of female mosques and female ahong, nüxue is the result of intense negotiations between Muslims and non-Muslim Chinese society, between Muslim women and men, and between Muslims of different social classes. Islamic feminism in China is aimed at eliminating gender discrimination and traditional patriarchy. However, their notion of gender equality with Islamic characteristics contradicts with the more “masculine” gender equality supported by Western feminists and the CCP, which tend to emphasize materialism, nationalism, and militarism.”

MA Ke-lin (Department of Sociology,Northwest Normal University,Lanzhou 730070,Gansu,China);The influence of Islamic view on femineity over the northwestern Muslim women[J];Social Sciences in Ningxia;2007-03
excerpt from “The Influence of Islamic View on Femininity over the Northwestern Muslim Woman” by MA Ke-lin (Department of Sociology, Northwest Normal University, Lanzhou 730070, Gansu, China) detailing women’s rights in Islam.
In China, the concept of female imams and religious leaders is not a foreign one. Islamophobia is as rampant in China as it is in the United States, but Chinese Muslim feminists have developed an Islamic feminism that is able to dodge accusations from critics of Western influence—they face, I am sure, different accusations, but this raises an incredible point: if (Western) Muslim feminists are too influenced by Western feminism to attain legitimacy in their own communities, how have Chinese Muslim feminists arrived at the same interpretations for centuries? Muslim men who are concerned about neocolonialism and Islamophobia may have an appropriate fear, though manifested in inappropriate measures, of Westernization (colonialism), but their arguments against Islamic feminism perpetuating neocolonialism are insufficient when Chinese Islamic feminists, who don’t communicate their interpretations primarily in English or any Western language, engage in the same practices, assign the same leadership roles to women, as the “Westernized” Islamic feminist.

From the language barrier erect between Muslim American feminists and Muslim Chinese feminists, we are able to discard the notion that equality is inherently and exclusively a colonialist value—it is, in fact, inherently not. There is a feminism that survives in non-English speaking communities that is worth preserving, because it serves the very people it is meant to serve rather than imposing domineering, incompatible concepts, by precluding colonialist audiences and allowing feminism to develop organically in the community.

This preclusion of colonialist audiences through language is already a subject of amusement on social media. In the beginning of 2016, an image was viral on major social media platforms—Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.—which read In Bengali we don’t say ‘I love you.’ We say ‘Tui manush na goru,’ which means ‘My heart loses purpose without you,’ and I think that’s beautiful. Of course, tui manush na goru means Are you human or cow? tuimanushnagoruThe joke takes a stab at cultural appropriators, who employ languages foreign to them to maneuver through cultural experiences from which they are barred(i.e. the popular question “How do you say ‘I love you’ in your language?”). It is a subtle, and humorous, form of protest—which makes it powerful. Despite popular notions that Muslim cultures require colonialist influences to create a more just and equal society, Nazira Zeineddine, a pioneer of 20th century feminism, addressed a prominent contemporary scholar she criticized for using an interpretation of Islam to perpetuate misogyny, saying,

“You mentioned, my dear Sheikh, that the health and the morality of the Bedouin and the villagers earned them the right to be unveiled. It was a corrupt morality of city dwellers that blighted them with the veil. Excuse me, sir, I’m a village woman living in the city and I have observed both villagers and city dwellers. I have not seen your city sisters and brothers to be inherently less moral than my sisters and brothers from the villages […] Woe to us if we do not join with our men in breaking our chains to seize our freedoms that are gifts from God Almighty. They provide for the welfare, advancement, and happiness of all.” (Unveiling and Veiling, 290)

Zeineddine manages to make a compelling feminist argument within the parameters of Islamic philosophies. When referencing European authors or appealing to concepts popularly attributed to Western thought, Zeineddine strips herself of pretention by communicating her argument in Arabic. She discusses, specifically, the settings in her own country—the village, the city—to formulate her argument against male figures of authority. Because she communicates her point in Arabic, she speaks to the people whom she criticizes, rather than speaking behind them, the conversation is a more honest one.

Zeineddine 225
“You are afraid of women’s knowledge. You’re afraid to remove the covering from her heart just as you are afraid to remove the veil from her eyes. It seems that you want her heart and eyes to remain blind so that she will be a dumb instrument in the hands of someone like you.” Zeineddine to al-Ghalayini (Unveiling and Veiling, 225).

Ghalayini, Zeineddine’s most frequent subject of critique, published a refutation entitled Views on the Book “Attributed to Miss Nazira Zeineddine” in which he alleged that Unveiling and Veiling had been written not by a woman named Nazira Zeineddine but by a group of men, while simultaneously accusing Zeineddine of treason by connecting her to the French and foreign enemies of Islam who seek to embarrass the religion—subsequently admitting, of course, that his own interpretations were embarrassing to the religion.

When such critiques are written in Arabic or indigenous languages, it provides a larger space for examination and reexamination. It provides a larger space to examine and reexamine freely, but removing external pressures—which is the reason I suspect that al-Ghalayini and men like him reach desperately for the confines of those pressures even when criticism is communicated in their own languages.

You’re actually not even obligated to do housework.

During the time of the Prophet, women were encouraged to engage in housework, but it was seen as a charity, not as an obligation. The woman who cooked and cleaned was viewed as being generous with her labor. I’m not even kidding; you can look this up. Women who didn’t know how to cook (those who were originally upper class but may have married men in a class lower than theirs) were not expected to learn. Their husbands were expected to hire someone to cook and clean for them.

That’s terrific for upper class women–I’m sure you’re all thinking–but the same is true for women who were ill, or otherwise somehow disabled from cooking. A number of jurists came to this conclusion (including Shaykh Mufti Taqi Usmani and Imam al-Mawsili, if you must know which). This is because traditionally a man is expected to provide provisions; for longer than they haven’t been, those provisions were considered prepared/cooked provisions. In other words, you can’t just drop raw meat in front of your wife like, “I HAVE PROVIDED!” and expect her to make a meal out of it. It has to come that way. From you. (Yes, I heard it, no jokes please.)

Fatwas like this are typically followed by a sentiment along the lines of, “But she is encouraged to partake in her religious duty,” or “There are blessings for women who are generous and kind to their husbands, otherwise she is obstinate.” This is because jurists think women are cold-hearted assholes like men, who wouldn’t consider expending themselves a little for sake of mutual understanding in a marriage, and that we would just sit around all day doing nothing at any opportunity. Let’s face it, no woman is going to read this and stop vacuuming. A man might, were it in his favor.

Before you think Jesus Christ, Nahida, who hurt you?!, men actually HAVE stopped vacuuming. Doesn’t, “Sorry, I’m only encouraged to help with housework,” sound familiar? I’m not exaggerating what opportunists men are.

So I don’t need to tell any woman that it would be nice if she picked up some chores anyway; women largely are–and tirelessly. Look, I would be the first to roll my eyes at an upper class woman and think, “Learn to cook, Your Highness.” Okay maybe not the first, I don’t really care, but if she were obnoxious enough I’d do it eventually. Obviously, God has been far more generous. And not just to her. What I’m saying is, working class women, stop exhausting yourselves.

My friend Vanessa (hi Vanessa) said to me once, “In Islam, a woman has the right to work. If her husband discourages her from practicing this right, because he requires full-time maintenance of the household, then she must be compensated for her forfeiture of this right. He must pay her for the money she has lost from not working, out of consideration of him.” She reportedly told this to her female (potential) in-laws, who looked at her as though they’d been conned.

Stay-at-home mothers with children should be contractually employed by their husbands for cooking, cleaning, and childcare services provided and contributed to the household. They should show this salary on their taxes, and, if it is too low, should receive additional compensation/benefits from the government for raising a generation of workers to contribute to the economy. Realistically, most of this is life management; most husbands couldn’t afford all of the work their wives do. The economy would need to change, drastically, to implement something like this. Traditionally “women’s work” would need to be seen as actual work.

As Transformation Goes

“I didn’t ask to be here,” I used to declare to friends during light existential crises. Even then, I was unsure of the veracity of these words. I knew that I might very well have asked to be here, alive, on Earth, as a human being, and not remember. What I must have been thinking when I agreed to this is beyond me. There are times I fiercely anticipate the Return. The only thing I know for certain is that I’m human, and not an angel, because I ask irritating questions, and have this unrelenting need for a purpose.

Muslims (conventionally, anyway) don’t believe in reincarnation, which is a relief. The Qur’an, however, alludes to other forms a soul can assume besides those we recognize.

We have decreed Death among you,
and We are not to be outrun.

We will change your Forms
and create you (again) in (Forms)
that you do not know.

And you have already known
the first creation,
so you will not remember?

—Qur’an 56:60-62

Apart from an allusion to a “first” creation, the Qur’an speaks not only of new, different Forms when we wake from Death, but of the Universe collapsing into itself, and a new emergent creation that substitutes us.

The Day that we fold up the heavens
like the folding of a scroll,
even as We produced the first Creation,
so shall We produce a new one:
a promise We have undertaken.
Truly, shall We fulfill it.

—Qur’an 21:104

Do you not see that God created
the Heavens and the earth in Truth?

If She so will She can remove you
and (in your place) lay a new Creation?
For God, it is not any great matter.

—Qur’an 14:19-20

Sentiments of change are dispersed throughout the Qur’an, and so is the mention of various forms—after death, and even before life. When I am intent on finding a purpose for my existence, I think of the promise the Qur’an recounts; the promise I must have made before my arrival.

When your God drew forth from
the children of humankind
—from their loins—their descendants,
and made them testify concerning themselves:
“Am I not your Lord?”
The souls said: “We do testify! [It is true].”
This. Lest you should say
on the Day of Judgment:
“We were unaware.”

—Qur’an 7:172

In a life before birth, our souls testified recognition of God, a testimony we are asked to remember should we claim otherwise upon Resurrection. The Qur’an also refers to “covenant” and “oaths” (ex Q16: 91, Q13:19-20, etc.) and when I think of life before birth, the making of this is promise is what I attempt, in vain, to remember.

There is a different facet of loveliness to being Good if I promised so.

Indeed, we offered the Trust
to the heavens
and the earth and the mountains,
and they declined to bear it
and feared it;
but humankind undertook it.
Indeed, he was unjust and ignorant.

—Qur’an 33:72

The attribute of free will, which in fear of failure the heavens and the earth and the mountains refused to bear, is bestowed upon humankind with a great Trust. We are Trusted to decipher between right and wrong. We are Trusted to responsibly employ the faculty of reason. We are Trusted not to misuse our free will. We accepted the Trust that is offered to us, and Trust is the foundation of Love.

Some are so fearful, and they are the ones who will have you believe they only fear God. But they don’t. They fear social uprisings, they fear challenges to their power, they fear immigrants and languages that aren’t English. They fear cultural practices they can’t recognize and worst of all, they fear that others, from whom they have taken unjustly, will overthrow them. They fear Justice, and, in that way, they really do fear God—but only so much as they fear their own mortality. They know what they have done, and they fear the inevitable that will come from it.

I don’t fear my own mortality. It does not frighten me when suggested that heterosexuals might be a minority. It does not frighten me when suggested that the US government is an unlawful one built on the blood of the peoples of First Nations who should govern this land instead. It does not frighten me when suggested that gender is fluid and its fluidity be observed in natural phenomena outside of the constraints of human interpretation. I think, so what? So we will move. So we will expand to accommodate these truths. It is only in our making to evolve. Things weren’t meant to be this way forever. Transformation is enthralling, and falsehood, as the Quranic verse goes, by nature will perish. For those who truly fear God, will welcome God’s Judgment. I look forward to answering for all I’ve done wrong. I look forward to transforming.

“Reverence the wombs that bore you”: On Unearthing a Female Legacy Transgressive to the Patriarchal Social Order

Perceptions of women’s power and authority in Islam range from Orientalist discourses that present the Muslim woman as an exotic, victimized, and elusive figure in need of reform, to patriarchal scholarships that confine her to a secondary, consequential role under male regulation, to Islamic feminist exegeses that seek to liberate her, and itself, from either of these assessments. This study explores the flaws in contemporary patriarchal male scholarship, referred to herein as “patriarchal scholarship” or simply “male scholarship,” and defined as the line of scholarship that claims traditional precedent and mainstream consensus, that necessitate Islamic feminism. I build on Asma Barlas’s observation that while male scholarship professes egalitarianism in Islam by upholding Qur’anic values of equality at a theoretical, spiritual level, this profession is duplicitous, as patriarchal scholarship simultaneously fails to apply its Islamic theory of egalitarianism to Islamic practice, which should be challenged as a detrimental lapse in logic. My argument consists of three elements: I assert that inconsistencies between Islamic belief and Islamic practice as promoted by patriarchal scholarship prevail at even the interpretational level, that this male legacy of interpretative authority is afforded a continuity that female scholarship is denied, and that the formations of Islamic feminist exegeses predate European colonial influences in the Middle East. It is this third point that renders disingenuous the characterization of Islamic feminism as non-traditional compared to patriarchal scholarship, and subsequently an insufficient reason to dismiss feminist scholarship, though it is one commonly employed and further facilitated by the harmful dynamics of Orientalist discourse that seek to “free” the Muslim woman over her agency.

Cosmological equality of the sexes in Islam transcends the realm of belief. Islamic beliefs must manifest in the realm of practice, as described in the Qur’an with the opening verse of surah 4, which commands Muslims to “Reverence God, who created you from a single Self; created, of similar nature, its mate, and dispersed wherefrom countless men and women. Reverence God, through Whom you demand your mutual rights” (Q4:1). Islamic feminists including Asma Barlas, whose poetic rendition of Yusuf Ali’s translation is used roughly here, cite this verse establishing intrinsic equality, and note that the verse continues to recognize the womb as encircled in the same realm as God (“And Reverence the Wombs that bore you”). Patriarchal male scholarship, frequently without mention of Q4:1, utilizes an approach similar to “different but equal” in which men and women are cosmological equals but women are demonstrably relegated to a separate sphere of privacy, seclusion, and domesticity.[1] This particular application of (in)equality in the practical, non-cosmological realm is inconsistent with the Qur’an, which makes no distinction between cosmological equality and practical equality. That is to say there should be no dissimilarity between the theoretical spiritual equality of sexes and the manifestation of this equality in practice.[2] Furthermore the command of Q4:1 is not only to recognize God, but to reverence Her with a practice: the practice of mandating rights that are not “different” but are “mutual.”

Varied readings of a Qur’anic verse are possible: one reading of Q4:1 is that the verse presents “mutual rights” as an incentive to reverence God; another reading suggests that God is reverenced independent of incentive and that the verse of “mutual rights” functions only to introduce the theme of roles in the subsequent verses. The reading I propose here, that the awareness and implementation of “mutual rights” is more than a reason to reverence God but a way to reverence Her, operates on two variables: (1) the recognition of the verb “to demand [mutual rights]” as an action, or a practice, as opposed to the mere existence of “mutual rights” such as, for example, the mere existence of “Signs” and (2) the Islamic philosophy that every action described in the Qur’an as originating from God is an act of worship and consequently an act of belief.  This reading is consistent with the indicative language of the Qur’an that fastens practice with belief; for example, “God will show you Her Signs, and you will recognize them.” (Q27:93) Here, it is the recognition of these Signs, and not the mere existence of them, that engage Muslims to believe. But to recognize is an action and a practice of the corresponding belief, which illustrates the Qur’anic theme of collapsing belief with practice: if the mutuality of rights, like the recognition of Signs, is not practiced, then the religion is not believed. A Muslim who does not recognize the Signs of God shirks the definition; the demand (not the existence) of “mutual rights” is equally fundamental to belief. It is not sufficient, therefore, to merely acknowledge “mutual”—not “different”—rights if these rights are not implemented into Islamic practice.

Contextually, the mutual nature of the equality described in verse 4:1 of the Qur’an refers to all circumstances, as its practical application is not in any way confined to the financial, legal, domestic, social, martial, or marital areas, among others, specified in the Qur’an. Nor is it ascribed to a context unique to the 7th century. Patriarchal male scholarship fails to apply universal verses comprehensively, whilst affecting specialized verses to all Islamic practices. Consider, for example, Qur’anic verse 2:282, which describes the mitigation of a financial dispute by requesting the presence of two male witnesses or otherwise one male and two female witnesses. From this verse, male scholarship concludes that a single man’s testimony is equal to that of two women’s, regardless of whether the dispute in question is the ratification of a contract between a loaner and a debtor as specified in the Qur’an.[3] The Qur’an makes no qualitative equivalence between a male witness and two female witnesses. Furthermore, Q2:282 itself can be read to designate only one of the women as a witness, and the other as a guarantor to “remind” her should she err or become intimidated in the male-dominated jurisdiction of financial transactions, but the second woman is read by male scholarship as a witness nonetheless, and not merely as a supporter, creating an opportunity to read women’s testimony as less accurate or less valuable. This is the popular reading despite the fact that the verse continues to caution, “Let no scribe be harmed, nor any witness. For if you do so, indeed, it is grave disobedience [of God] in you” (Q2:282), which clarifies that the supporting woman’s purpose is to ensure that the female witness is not threatened by the domineering party breaching the contract, and not necessarily that of an official witness. In the context of the Qur’an, if the first woman “forgets” or “errs” it is in the face of potential harm. Additionally, it has been noted by Islamic feminists that the Arabic word for “she errs” or “she forgets” used in the Qur’an is tadilla from the word dalal, (as opposed to nisyan, which is literally forgetfulness); tadilla describes forgetfulness or error of a particular nature: forgetting the right way (of God) when confronted by an external interest, in this case a threat.

Specified in the Qur’an for only financial contracts concerning debt, this male to female ratio has been applied to all contracts, including those pertaining to marriage.[4] However, several configurations of court are described in the Qur’an in which no designation is made for the sexes (Q4:15, 5:106, 65:2) and in the case in which a woman is accused of adultery, her witness to her own innocence is not only equivalent to a man’s but effectively eliminates his testimony, as in Q24:9. In the case of adultery, the Qur’an privileges the accused woman’s witness over the testimony of the male accuser. If the gender dynamics of verse 2:282, which are specified in the Qur’an as relevant only to financial contracts involving loans, are applied in practice to all courts, then why not argue that the dynamics of verse 24:9, in which a man’s testimony is rendered ineffective by a woman’s, should set the legal standard for all courts?

Instead, male scholarship erroneously overlooks the Qur’an’s parameters for verse 2:282 that confine the gender ratio to only the litigation of debt, yet it appropriately restricts Qur’anic verses such as 24:9, in which a woman’s witness is privileged over a man’s, to the designated case of adultery. Additionally, patriarchal scholarship devises parameters such as “different but equal” that have no foundation in the Qur’an but rely on politically motivated and culturally situated values to universal verses such as Q4:1. In fact, not only is the privileging of a woman’s testimony over her male accuser’s in Q24:9 restricted only to the verse to which it is be designated in theory, but the invalidation of man’s testimony against an allegedly adulterous woman is one that is abandoned entirely in practice.

Vulnerable with faulty, disproven, and sensationalist science, the unsupported conjectures of patriarchal analysis depend on irrelevancies to survive: in order to justify the projected equivalence between one male witness and two female witnesses, patriarchal jurists often cite that “men are the maintainers and protectors of justice [qawwamuna] for women, for God bestows a bounty of advantages on some over others.” (Q4:43) I’ve deciphered the Arabic words qawwamuna here, which are often translated as “maintainers” or “protectors”, to “maintainers and protectors of justice.” Islamic feminist Kecia Ali, whenever referring to this verse, leaves the word qawwamuna untranslated in her scholarship and proceeds to explore its potential definitions instead, because no English translation exists without the imposition of some interpretation. However, to specify that Q4:34 is referring to matters of equity and justice, the word can be examined in another Qur’anic verse in which the function of the word is clear, “Those who’ve attained faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity and securing justice [qawwameena], bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God even though it be against yourselves, or your parents and kinsmen, whether the individual be rich or poor; God stands closest to either.” (Q4:135) It is for the interest of continuity that Q4:34 should be interpreted in a similar fashion to Q4:135, in which the word signifies a person expected to act justly, but the bias of patriarchal scholarship distorts the interpretation of qawwamuna when the subject matter refers specifically to women to describe men as the “maintainers” of them. This is an imposition of a patriarchal framework onto the content of the Qur’an; independent of it, men are in fact warned in Q4:34 to not abuse their power and control women but to maintain justice in regards to them. Note the use of “some” and “others” rather than “men” and “women,” authenticating a reading of social privilege due to constructed gender roles rather than due to biological sex.

Supporting this concept, consider that Q4:135, which once again is concerned with the subject of bearing witness, outlines two parties: those in power, who bear the power of witness, and those for or against whom that witness is bore. The verse summons the faithful toward truthfulness, because regardless of “whether the individual be rich or poor, God stands closest to either,” implying that the interest of justice is to serve the latter party who is affected by witness and not to indulge the first who delivers it. What follows then is that Q4:34, which describes men as the “maintainers and protectors of justice and equity”—qawwamuna—for women, warns men not to abuse their power over women, and observes that the power exists—“for a bounty of advantages are bestowed on one over the other”—in the society to which the Qur’an is revealed, without Divinely sanctioning this power. To justify the disqualification of women from positions of power and prominence,[5] patriarchal scholarship has adopted the inversion: men are maintainers and protectors over women, and that this position of power is permitted by God.

I concede that, like everything, the privileges men hold in society “are permitted” by God. But I challenge why this is meaningful or significant. Poverty, violence, starvation, the ills of society are all “permitted” by God, in that nothing can exist without Her, but are not necessarily the way of God. This is a concept that is not unfamiliar to the religiously inclined. Why, then, has male scholarship interpreted Q4:34, “because God has given one advantage over the other,” as an endorsement of this power, when the same would not apply the identical logic to violence or poverty as an endorsement of the violent or the wealthy? Unlike Q4:1, which calls the Muslim to demand “mutual rights” that come through God, the power described in Q4:34 that assigns some of one gender the responsibility of equity and justice for the Other gender is not a power that is linked with an action or practice of worship: that is to say, it is instead a mere observation—there is no scriptural evidence that the privileges of men, unlike the demand of “mutual rights,” are Divinely Sanctioned and must be implemented into the conscience of the believer.

Rather, there is scriptural evidence that God makes an observation of male privilege[6], and that this observation liberates women by charging men to uphold equity and secure justice, as unearned privileges cannot be challenged if they are not identified. Additionally, the most frequent use of the word faddala or “bestowed” in the Qur’an is to signify wealth: the privilege or “bounty” suggested in Q4:34 is specifically a financial one[7] acknowledging that some men earn more than some women in the society to which the Qur’an is revealed. After warning men that they are “protectors” of justice, the verse alludes to the responsibility of advantaged women, stating that “righteous women are devoutly loyal to God and guard the Unseen that God has ordained to be guarded.” (Q4:34) Although patriarchal scholarship operates on the assumption that the guarded object is sexuality[8], this assumption is an interesting one at the very least, because it deliberately ignores the word lil-ghaybi or “the Unseen” which is a word of extraordinary philosophical weight in the Qur’an. It appears in various forms, no less than sixty times, and nearly always refers to a mystical realm of which only God has knowledge.[9] Specifically, the “Unseen” refers to hidden knowledge, to the sins and virtues that are private to the individual and sometimes even unbeknownst to her. There is an intrinsic parallel in the structure of Q4:34 as it transitions between men and women, indicating that righteous women are enlisted as guardians of their moral compass in the realm of the Unseen in the same way that men are warned of God’s awareness of their privileges. Likewise, true to the role of qiwama in the Qur’an, women in Q4:34 are guardians (hafizatun) of social welfare and securers of justice, and their private affairs—or the Unseen ways, honest or dishonest, with which they deal in their wealth—cannot be hidden from God, who knows the Unseen. The use of “Unseen” in the Qur’an is too significant to be reduced to “sexuality” and is done so only for women, effectively cheating them of agency and authority.

Utilizing the Qur’an as its own dictionary easily renders the most striking incidents of the use of Unseen as knowledge that only God harbors. A basic example of this is Q2:33, in which God teaches Adam various names, “She said, ‘O Adam, inform [the angels] of their names.’ And when Adam had informed them of their names, She said, ‘Did I not tell you that I know the Unseen aspects of the heavens and the earth? And I know what you reveal and what you have concealed,’” as well as Q72:26, which reads, “God is the All-Knower of the Unseen, and She does not disclose Her Knowledge of the Unseen to anyone.” Pertinent to Q4:34, whose context warns men to maintain and secure justice situated beside women as guardians of the Unseen, is Q12:81, in which the eldest brother of Yusuf despairs, “Return unto your father and say: O our father! Your son [Benyamin] has stolen. We testify only to that which we know; we are not guardians of the Unseen.” Here, the word for guardians is haafidh or “protectors,” in the same way that God is a Protector; in verse Q4:34 qawwamuna, maintainers or guardians, is used for men but not for women. For women, Q4:34 employs hafizatun, the feminine plural of the same word Yusuf’s eldest brother uses to deny knowledge of the Unseen, of which She alone has knowledge. It is reasonable to conclude, then, that in Q4:34 while men are warned to maintain justice and assigned the duty to guard it, women are enlisted as protectors of the Unseen.[10] A hafiz, in common use, is a memorizer, or keeper/protector, of the Qur’an itself, and so are women guardians of the moral sphere: they hold the aforementioned men in the verse accountable for the Unseen infringements of patriarchy and “guard in the Unseen that which God has ordered them to guard” (hafizatun lil-ghaybi bima hafiz al-lahu.) Instead of interpreting the verse this way, however, male scholarship has reduced the meaning of lil-ghaybi to women’s bodies, and some translations, including Sahih International and Yusuf Ali, even go so preposterously far as to insert “in her husband’s absence” into the text.[11] Undoubtedly, counterarguments may accuse me of shirk (idolatry or disbelief) in acknowledging that the Qur’an draws women nearer to God, but I challenge the men who simultaneously misconstrue this very verse of the Qur’an as commanding women to obey both God and their husbands in the same breadth, as to why the suggestion of this command isn’t shirk.

Restoration of female authority is a primary concern for Islamic feminists, but female authority is swiftly suppressed by male scholarship at any opportunity. As demonstrated in Q4:1, in which Muslims are commanded to “Reverence the Wombs that bore you” in the same verse they are commanded to Reverence God, it is not at all unusual for the Qur’an to position women in proximity to God.[12] This ethereal phenomenon goes unnoticed, and occurs again in Q4:34 when women are enlisted as guardians of the Unseen. In Q4:1, the Self from which men and women are created is in fact linguistically feminine whilst its “mate” is masculine.[13] This is starkly contradictory to the “God to man to woman”[14] hierarchy imposed by patriarchal scholarship. The patriarchal reading of Q4:34 in which women are guardians not of justice or the Unseen but of their own sexuality is a symptomatic of a politically motivated, culturally situated, and economically invested state-of-mind with which male scholars approach interpretation.

Contemporary patriarchal scholarship is deliberate in its incorporation of sexism, as even the strongest cases for feminist interpretation are dismissed over the appeal of misogynistic ones. An example of this is Q33:33, which has been translated by a number of male translators, including Yusuf Ali, as ordering women to “stay quietly in [their] homes,” while a far more accurate translation is “behave with dignity in your homes.”[15] Although the notion that classical and contemporary patriarchal scholarship is biased is a radical one to the Muslim community, I am not the first to suggest it. Nazira Zain el-Din, a pioneer of Islamic feminism in the early 1920s, confronted Shaykh al Ghalayini by saying, “Do you not know that women’s freedom and independence are rights? When you wrote about women’s inferiority you claimed that men’s strength was the reason for their greater reason and acumen. What’s the connection between reason and physical strength? […] Men claim superiority because of their strength, but they can only do so by making sure that women stay weak.”[16] In fact, in the early 1800s, prior to French displacement of the Ottomans in the Arab Peninsula and European pressures in the region, Butrus al-Bustani founded a pro-women’s rights newspaper that circulated widely in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt with a considerable female readership. The history of female resistance in the Middle East and South Asia is a lively and vigorous one, stunted only by the threat of European powers, not enabled by them. In a critique of the framework of Ayesha Chaudhry’s excellent book[17], Shehnaz Haqqani notes, “Since alternative interpretations of 4:34 start emerging after colonialism, Chaudhry finds the demarcation of colonialism a rational choice, one that works well given her research and finding. Nonetheless, readers might struggle to appreciate the implication that colonialism deserves the credit for prompting an egalitarian conscience in Muslims, almost as though were it not for colonialism, the emergency of egalitarian scholarship would never have occurred, despite the fact that western ideology also hadn’t developed a feminist conscience yet.”[18] Indeed, the perception that improvements in women’s acknowledged rights prior to the coinage of the term “feminism” cannot be considered feminist is a hindrance to establishing a crucial legacy of female scholarship, because the notion that women’s efforts prior to the coinage of the term are not “feminist” relies on the dishonest validation of white Western women as pioneers of female liberty from whom Muslim women merely borrow[19], when in fact, Muslim women enjoyed even rights as standard as the vote prior to women in the United States and Europe. While I understand from a historical standpoint the reluctance to characterize female advancement as “feminist” prior to the coinage of the term, I question how useful and how honest upholding this principle can prove when it enables male scholarship to invalidate the radical exegesis of contemporary female scholars by severing female scholarship from a feminist legacy, and furthermore, when we fail to apply the same principle to contemporary male scholarship that differs from classical interpretation and is yet considered an extension of the same male legacy. For this reason, I will be employing the term “classical feminist scholarship” to refer to classical scholarship dismissed as incorrect or transgressive.

Illustrating the essentiality of female legacy, a few years after the Prophet’s death a woman was forbidden by the order of Caliph Umar from ever marrying any free man, due to her transgressive interpretation of the Qur’an. After the woman had disclosed to him that she had taken one of her young male slaves to bed with her (outside of a marriage), the Caliph, incredulous, sought to punish her. When he had demanded to know her rationalization, she’d responded, “I believe that ownership by the right hand made lawful to me what it makes lawful to men.”[20] Milk al-yamin, as Kecia Ali explains, or “property of the right hand” appears in multiple Qur’anic verses that describe the lawfulness of enslaved sexual partners. It is typically interpreted by both classical and contemporary scholars (or the few contemporary scholars willing to discuss its existence) as pertaining to the female slaves of only male slaveowners and their conduct. The Qur’an, however, makes no assignment of gender, and in Q24:31, describes milk al-yamin under the female hand as well.[21] Kecia Ali remarks that Umar was stunned and distressed by the woman’s actions and her assertion to have God’s authorization for it. When Umar brought the incident to the Companions, they responded that, “She [the woman] has applied to the Qur’an an interpretation that is not its interpretation.”

Hierarchizations of traditions should be examined for prejudices. In another incident, which Aisha Geissinger discusses, Fatima bint Qays recounted that when she had been irrevocably divorced, the Prophet, after ruling that she was not pregnant, had determined that she needn’t stay in her ex-husband’s home for the three months prescribed in the Qur’an for women who receive a revocable divorce. The Prophet instructed her instead to spend her waiting period in the home of another man. When Fatima bint Qays recounted this incident to a messenger sent by the governor of Medina, it was dismissed on the grounds that, “We do not hear this account from anyone except a woman. So we will adhere to the practice of restraining any divorced woman from departing.”[22] Even though the Qur’an itself supported her, since verse 65:1 specifies that the three-month waiting period applies only to a woman whose divorce is revocable, Fatima bint Qays was overruled, though she had argued that her hadith is supported by the Qur’an. Consequently, the right of an ex-husband’s family over a woman who receives a revocable divorce from him is upheld against the Qur’an, in favor of maintaining the patriarchal social order.

Assertions that misogynistic interpretations of Qur’anic verses do not originate with the most classical scholars, and that misogynist interpretations are deviations from original egalitarian analyses, are not necessary ones with which I disagree. But I accept these assertions on the ground that it is self-defeating to claim that misogynistic interpretations have no foundation in Islam, even though these interpretations might have a precedent, and simultaneously accept and discard potential female scholarship that is vital to the assertion of egalitarianism: the “adulterous” woman who bedded her male slave, who was of the Prophet’s time (practicing Islam only a few years after his death), spoke the Prophet’s Arabic, understood the culture in which she lived and in which the Prophet had lived, arrived at an egalitarian interpretation of the Qur’anic euphemism that was understood by male Companions to apply only to themselves as men. The woman herself and her interpretation were denied validation by the male authority of the Companions. She is not, up until this contemporary time, considered a scholar, but only her conclusion, viewed as incorrect, deprives her of the title. Her methodology, comprising the linguistic and cultural insight of the people who lived during the Prophet’s time, can not be brought into question by most contemporary Islamic scholars, who often claim that the Islamic rulings should be considering according to their time as justification to silence an opposition who isn’t learned in the early Islamic era, since this woman was a woman of her time.

Muslim feminists have a propensity to claim that misogynist readings do not originate from classical scholarship and instead evolved over time, but in order to do this we should be forced to expand the constructed parameters of that scholarship, because to substantiate this claim, our understanding of “classical scholarship” must include women whose agencies and authorities were not and are not recognized by classical and contemporary male scholars. In order to insist that misogynist readings do not originate from classical scholarship, we must admit that feminist classical scholarship involves the identification of women who were denied authority by existing classical scholars. And we are forced to recognize them if we want to make this claim of origins, because male classical scholarship was in fact demonstrably misogynistic, as in this case. This, of course, involves structural rearranging, and raises a number of questions.

But denial of classical feminist authority means that for contemporary women, there is no scholarly lineage, because it has been deliberately obstructed by classical male scholarship. Lineage is relevant on a structural level: when potential male scholars are born into a legacy that their forefathers have established for them, their scholarly ventures are anchored by this legacy and their interactions with it. Any potential female scholarship, denied the stability of an acknowledged legacy, is either lagan or a spectacle—a lone ranger, detached.

Manifestations of this phenomenon are not only limited to the well-recognized phenomenon in the Muslim community that entails praising women such as Ayesha, the Prophet’s wife, yet criticizing those contemporary women who resemble Ayesha and other exemplary figures in their defiance. This disconnect extends to become evident nearly every conversation pertaining to any kind of feminist interpretation of the Qur’an. When describing to a man the problems in the interpretations of 5:38, which most scholars identify as permitting the removal of the hands of thieves, I was confronted by the man’s adamant refusal to accept my methodology, which consisted of peeling away at the layers of the word itself and in its grammatical context. He insisted that because I lacked male-approved credentials—my “credentials” came into question often during this conversation—I must have had no right to speak on the matter, although he believed it was appropriate to interrogate me regardless. But what was most astounding about this conversation is that another male contributor to the discussion referenced an article by Hadia Mubarak, in which Mubarak destabilizes and ultimately discredits misogynist interpretations of 4:34[23], the verse believed to permit domestic violence against women, an article which I’d already read long ago. Hadia Mubarak uses the same methodology I’d applied, but because her credentials were approved by the male audience and her scholarship was not perceived as independently noteworthy, our methodologies could not be linked.

Likewise, in a discussion during which Shehnaz Haqqani[24] voiced her distress about the number of women the Prophet married, she was told by a man to “be more like Kecia Ali” in the disposition of her argument, although I doubt Kecia Ali would have found any issue with her expression of dissatisfaction. When commenters rushed to criticize a woman lamenting the disconnect she felt within her Muslim community due to her attire, amina wadud was cited by misogynistics as a woman whose scholarship was valid because “even she” dressed “properly” (and not in short skirts). I could have assured these men that, based on her scholarship, amina wadud would have found this laughable. Furthermore, women are denied interactivity with the text. While the male Companions of the Prophet demanded[25] that Qur’anic verses that were transgressive to their patriarchal social order be changed, their interactivity with the text was viewed as acceptable, and was negotiated. While women, such as Umm Salaama, directly changed the Revelation of the Qur’an, women are not viewed as authorities in negotiating with God, and thus cannot accept or reject points of this negotiation between Muslims and God regarding the practice of Islam.

Feminist critics, whom I distinguish here from feminist scholars, are disjointed from feminist scholarship because female scholarship in itself has been denied lineage. Because the recognition of female authority by Muslim men in the community is too frequently based not on the insightful, groundbreaking work of these scholars or what they are contributing to Islamic discourse, but on how they are presenting their conclusions (Kecia Ali) or on how they dress (amina wadud), their arguments and scholarly voices are fallaciously pivoted on whether their attire or tones appeal to a male audience, regardless of the atrocity the scholars themselves would find in this. That atrocity, and the vocalization of it, are silenced by the assumption that it does not exist, and by male insistence on refocusing the conversation amina wadud’s choice of dress rather than her words or Kecia Ali’s scholarly detached tone instead of the implications of her provocative questions. When the arguments themselves are denied validity, male members of the community become incapable of identifying in female inquirers congruity with these scholars except on superficial terms, and they are able to fashion feminist scholarship to suit their patriarchal contentions instead of conceding to the scholarly argument-based lineage from which male scholarship benefits.

Having bedded her male slave, the woman who interpreted Qur’anic verses referring to “property of the right hand” as applicable to herself, which at least once in the Qur’an (Q24:31) it explicitly is, as it is to any free man, was prevented from marrying, but the grounds on which her interpretation was deemed “incorrect” without justification—her femaleness—is evidence of a thread of bias in classical scholarship. The impact of this bias, and the patriarchal order that was established from it, serves as a perpetual blockade to female scholarship by rendering the quality of femaleness as unlawfully exceptional to Qur’anic commands and authorizations and of female behavior as regulated by male expectations. In order to imagine what contemporary Islamic discourse may sound like had classical feminist scholars achieved recognition as such, we can only pull verses from the Qur’an which, interpreted in the “feminine voice,” convey starkly different attitudes than in the presumed default masculine voice. Consider Q24:31, which reads, “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.” The list of exceptions (husbands, sons, etc.) may sound restrictive, but compared to the verse it follows, Q24:30, which reads simply, “Tell the believing men to lower their gazes and guard themselves. That is purer for them,” we can note a number of things. First, men are told to lower their gazes before women are told to lower their gazes. Second, men have no exceptions. The larger context of these two verses involves entering a household, and men must lower their gazes to everyone in the household. It is reasonable, then, to come to the understanding that this verse is a regulation of male arrogance, that when a man, in context, enters someone else’s home and is commanded to “lower the gaze,” 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.

Artificially separating feminist scholars from unrecognized predecessors and potential successors is problematic to intellectual honesty, because it privileges a male lineage of scholarship as fundamental tradition. A male lineage is the very definition of patriarchy, and that in itself is an ideological bias; I argue, therefore, that female scholarship should be retroactively identified and restored. The attention to precedent and legacy, although discouraged in the Qur’an, for example, when disbelievers respond to Prophet Ibrahim that they will insist on the ways of their fathers[26], has tremendous impact on the anchoring of a Qur’anic exegesis to legitimacy. The solution to Islam’s patriarchy crisis I propose is not merely to produce more female scholars who carry on the patriarchal tradition: it is to unearth the classical feminist scholarship that has been discarded by patriarchs because their scholarship was transgressive. It is not merely an imitation, a regurgitation, of male scholarship propagated from a female form. Were we accustomed to an ulema in which the majority of exegetes were women from the beginning of Revelation, that ulema arriving at this interpretation would not sound to us as though they were performing logical acrobatics in their arguments, especially not considering the inconsistencies present in the interpretations of an ulema composed entirely of men.

[1] Syed Abul A’la Maududi, Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam (Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1962), 146.

[2] Asma Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’ān (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2002), 142.

[3] Hina Azam, “Rape in Islamic Law.” The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law, Oxford Islamic Studies Online, accessed April 19, 2013.

[4] Shaykh Taha Jabir Al-Alwani, Issues in Contemporary Islamic Thought (London: Biddles Limited), 169. al-Razi writes in the 7th century that, “The nature of women is dominated by forgetfulness owing to a predominance of cold and wetness in their physical constitution. The joining of two women in forgetting is less likely than the occurrence of forgetting in just one woman. That is why two women are to take the place of only one man.” This debunked assertion purports that a woman’s witness should always equal half that of a man’s, regardless of circumstance, because the fault lies inherently with her and not in the uneven powers of the field.

[5] Ziba Mir-Hosseini, “Muslim Legal Tradition and the Challenge of Gender Equality” in Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, edited by Ziba Mir Hosseini et al. (London: Oneworld, 2015).

[6] Hadia Mubarak, “Breaking the Interpretative Monopoly: A Re-Examination of Verse 4:34,” Hawwa Journal of Women of the Middle East and the Islamic World, Vol. 2, No 3 (2004): 261-89. She provides in a footnote that, “A more ‘progressive’ definition of qiwama [in this verse] would be ‘guardianship’, whereas a more traditional definition would be ‘male supremacy’” (p.263). I adhere to the traditional definition. If male supremacy is identified here by God, it can be dismantled by Her Order (Q4:1).

[7] amina wadud, Qurʼan and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, 2nd ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 65.

[8] Thomas Irving et al., The Qur’ān: Basic Teachings: An Anthology of Selected Passages from the Qurʼān, Translated into Contemporary English with an Introduction to the Message of the Qurʼān (Markfield, Leicester, UK: Islamic Foundation, 1992), 207. He refers politely to a “husband’s rights” over her. The sexual implication, with its problematic wording, is clear to Muslims well versed in their own communities.

[9] Consider, for example, Q6:59, “And with God are the keys of the Unseen; none knows them except Her. And She knows what is on the land and in the sea. Not a leaf falls but that She knows it. And no grain is there within the darknesses of the earth and no moist or dry [thing] but that it is [written] in a clear record.” Consider also, Q62:8, “Indeed, the death from which you flee – indeed, it will meet you. Then you will be returned to the Knower of the unseen and the witnessed, and He will inform you about what you used to do.” In the Qur’an, the “Unseen” refers to the dimensions of magic, death, and, as relevant to Q4:34, personal moral conduct hidden from the social realm of spectators.

[10] Note also that although male privilege is recognized without the permissive vehicle of a verb as described earlier, women righteous women are described, with a verb, as those who are commanded by God to guard.

[11] Muhammad Muhsin Khan’s translation of the Qur’an reads, “Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and to their husbands), and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah orders them to guard (e.g. their chastity, their husband’s property, etc.),” when the Arabic text of the verse neither commands women to obey their husbands nor enlists women to protect the Unseen in their husband’s absence.

[12] Barlas, Believing Women, 197.

[13] However, this, too, is ignored by patriarchal scholarship as a merely linguistic occurrence necessitated by the Arabic language. Contradictorily, male scholars interpret the story of creation as a masculine Adam in the primary role, based solely on the masculine and feminine pronouns, which somehow in this case are not merely necessitated by the Arabic language. Were “scientific” explanations imposed on interpreting the Qur’an as they are by male scholars, it can be argued that Eve is the primary character, as embryos are initially female.

[14] wadud’s contribution to Men in Charge?.

[15] Carolyn Baugh, “Part 1: What a Difference a Kasrah Makes.” AltMuslimah, April 2, 2012, accessed June 6, 2015. Carolyn Baugh explains in her article, “What a Difference a Kasra Makes,” (April 2, 2012) that, “The root [in Q33:33] is from qarr, (to remain, to be sedentary, to settle). Even if the root word were qarr, al-Farrā’ shows us what the command form would look like: aqrarna, not qarna. In other words, if you want to use the root verb which means to remain sedentary, it takes a lot of dodgy grammatical wiggling to get it to match the consonantal outline found in the early Qur’āns.”

[16] miriam cooke, Nazira Zeineddine: A Pioneer of Islamic Feminism (Oxford, GBR: Oneworld Publications, 2010), 40.

[17] Ayesha S. Chaudhry, Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[18] Shehnaz Haqqani, “Book Review: Ayesha Chaudhry’s Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition,” In Feminist Legal Studies 23 (2015): 225-230.

[19] Uma Narayan. Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminisms (New York: Routledge, 1997), 32. Uma Narayan writes, “Third-World feminists need to challenge the notion that access to ‘Westernized educations,’ or our espousal of feminist perspectives, positions us ‘outside’ of our national and cultural contexts.”

[20] Kecia Ali. Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 12.

[21] Kecia Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Quran, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. (Oxford, GBR: Oneworld Publications, 2006), 45.

[22] Aisha Geissinger, Gender and Muslim Constructions of Exegetical Authority: A Rereading of the Classical Genre of Qur’an Commentary (Islamic History and Civilization) (New York: Brill Academic Pub, 2015), 145-146. Emphasis added.

[23] Mubarak, “Breaking the Interpretive Monopoly,” 261-89.

[24] I thank Shehnaz Haqqani, PhD student of Islamic Studies at the University of Texas in Austin, for patiently listening as I delineated my thoughts regarding this study to her.

[25] Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1991), 125-126.

[26] Barlas, “Believing Women,”. 116


Al-Alwani, Shaykh Taha Jabir. Issues in Contemporary Islamic Thought. London: Biddles Limited.

Ali, Kecia. Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

———. Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. Oxford, England: Oneworld Pub., 2006.

Azam, Hina. “Rape in Islamic Law.” The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Apr 19, 2013).

Barlas, Asma. “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’ān. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Baugh, Carolyn. “Part 1: What a Difference a Kasrah Makes.” AltMuslimah. April 2, 2012. Accessed June 6, 2015.

Chaudhry, Ayesha S. Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

cooke, miriam. Nazira Zeineddine A Pioneer of Islamic Feminism. New York: Oneworld Publications, 2012.

Geissinger, Aisha. Gender and Muslim Constructions of Exegetical Authority: A Rereading of the Classical Genre of Qur’an Commentary (Islamic History and Civilization). New York: Brill Academic Pub, 2015.

Haqqani, Shehnaz. “Book Review: Ayesha Chaudhry’s Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition.” In Feminist Legal Studies 23 (2015): 225-230.

Irving, Thomas Ballantine. The Qur’ān: Basic Teachings : An Anthology of Selected Passages from the Qurʼān, Translated into Contemporary English with an Introduction to the Message of the Qurʼān. Rev. ed. Markfield, Leicester, U.K.: Islamic Foundation, 1992.

Khan, Maulana Wahiduddin. Woman between Islam and Western Society. New Delhi: Islamic Centre, 1995.

Maudoodi, Syed Abul. Purdah and the Status of Woman in Islam. Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1972.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1991.

Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. “Muslim Legal Tradition and the Challenge of Gender Equality.” In Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition. Edited by Ziba Mir Hosseini et al. London: Oneworld, 2015.

Mubarak, Hadia. “Breaking the Interpretive Monopoly: A Re-Examination of Verse 4:34.” Hawwa, 2004, 261-89.

Narayan, Uma. Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminisms. New York: Routledge, 1997.

wadud, amina. Qurʼan and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

The Pledge to Eliminate All-Male Representation

The pledge below, a collaborative effort of Orbala, myself, Zahra Khan, Laury Silvers, and Saadia Sultana, among other Muslim feminists, seeks to boycott panels, anthologies, conferences, etc. where at least half of the speakers are not women until this cute, unIslamic trend is eliminated entirely. We advise that only men should sign the pledge, as women are presented too few opportunities to partake in the boycott.

This is a pledge for men with a sense of morality to sign. By signing below, you are agreeing to the following:

I agree and acknowledge that women are our community, and their voices, struggles, authority, and experiences have been ignored for centuries. I not only condemn this but am willing to commit everything in my power to correcting this gender imbalance so that it does not continue. I pledge not to participate in, attend, or otherwise support any panels, conferences, meetings, events, etc. where a fair representation of women does not exist; ideally, the number of women present in such meetings should be at least that of the male contributors. Similarly, I will decline to contribute to any anthologies and edited volumes with an unfair or no representation of female contributors. I will recommend possible female panelists so that the organizers can contact them instead. I also pledge to attentively address the concerns of female authors, panelists, speakers, leaders, and scholars who are participating in a male-dominated environment that they are unable to boycott due to too few opportunities. Finally, not only will I withhold my support of these meetings and books, but I will also openly condemn them so that the men in charge understand that their discrimination against women is unequivocally unacceptable and has to end yesterday.

Of course, if this petition were truly “Islamic” as patriarchal scholars have come to understand, we should require two female speakers for every male speaker.

Please sign and, most importantly, pass along. Be aware that once signing the pledge, you will be held accountable for upholding your promise.

Jihad on Ruby Avenue

Originally a guest post on Orbala.

My favorite masjid is so severely sex-segregated that there isn’t merely a barrier for the women; there’s an entirely separate tiny afterthought of a room. But it’s my favorite because it is in the hills, where the stars are the brightest, next to sheds with horses in them (my mother once chastised me for feeding the horses before breaking my own fast during iftar time) and in the midst of wild plants, cats, rabbits, and snakes—and, according to the claims of my brothers, jinn. It is a wild, tangled, untamed place, and my heart always quakes at the glimmering city lights far away. On Ruby Avenue, my imagination is also wild, vibrant, and irrepressible. It was where I went to Quran classes as a child and studied under the imam, but because of the segregation, I rarely attend anymore, since I’m not fond of second-class citizen treatment; though aunties constantly demand to know why, the response from my mother is always that I’m busy with class and work, which they then proceed to make clear is an unacceptable excuse.

Currently, the masjid is under an expansion project. My mother relayed to me that the new building won’t have a barrier, and so I should attend. I informed her that men lie (a male leader told me once that he would take down the barrier at a different masjid and did not keep his word) and so I will not believe this until I can witness that it is true.

In the meantime, on a Friday during Ramadan on Ruby Avenue, in a prayer room separate from the women’s, one of the imams casually mentioned through the intercom that anyone from the congregation can call the azaan. I turned to my mother and announced, “I’m going to call the azaan on Sunday.”

She stared at me for a few minutes, and I added, “He said anyone!” I knew, however, as well as she did, that he’d only meant the men in the other room whose presence he could appreciate. The message was not intended for me. We do not exist. Earlier that week the imam had asked for feedback on whether maghrib should begin 10 minutes or 15 minutes after iftari.

“10 minutes,” I had voted softly in the women’s section in vain. We were in a different room, deliberately could not be heard, and would not be counted.

“10 minutes!” shouted several of the men. For some reason, they always shouted, as though the imam couldn’t hear them two feet away. At any opportunity they would then of course proceed to complain that the women were too loud.

But the imam had said anyone and should be held accountable for his words. After all, if he meant to exclude women, he ought to have said so. He should hear himself say it, hear how terrible it sounds. There is a reason none of the men have the courage to say these things out loud. They quietly go about them instead, self-liberated from the burden of forming words from their actions to give them consciousness.

“I don’t know if he meant women…” my mother responded.

“He ought to be more explicit with his sexism then.”

“I’ll ask him for you tomorrow. It would also depend on if the community allows it. It’s not just his masjid alone you know.”

I had prior arrangements to meet a friend for dinner and wasn’t able to attend the prayers at the masjid with her the day she sought an answer. After tarabee when my mother returned, I would let her rest and not disturb her. So, the soonest was Sunday morning when, stumbling downstairs half-asleep, too eager to bother waking up completely, I asked her whether I would be calling the azaan that night.

My mother is naturally soft-spoken, but this time, she made a point to lower her voice. “I asked the hafiz’s wife to ask him if you can call the azaan, and she responded that he said that since you were once a student of his, you should come to him so that he could explain to you why women can’t give the azaan, and you would understand.”

I never imagined I would, but I started to cry. I was so angry. I told her I would never go back (but for her, of course I did), that there was no reason for me to go to a place that doesn’t want me there, that I don’t want to hear his “explanations.” I’ve heard all of them before. On Fridays, my little brother uses my material for his khutbahs—because I can’t. I told her I would not speak to the imam.

“Please don’t be this way,” my mother pleaded. “Come with me. Stop crying; you are fasting and you cannot lose water.”

I could not stop. I didn’t care how much water I lost. It was an insignificant detail to what I felt and I was not thinking of it. There might have possibly been a very small part of me that genuinely believed I would call the azaan. How could a masjid situated in such a beautiful place, a place where the air shifted and somehow always felt misty, where there used to be a tire swing that would fill with water and that I’d run to as a child, be so unjust?

“How was the dinner yesterday?” my mother asked.

“It went well. I was allowed to speak during it. …It’s better than the masjid.” I began to cry again.

“You seem to be well-loved,” my mother said. “I mentioned that you were fond of a certain dish that was being served at the masjid and all of the aunties wanted to fill plates of it for me to take home to you.”

Vision still blurred with tears, I asked my friends to pray that I don’t burst into tears over a plate of samosas later that night at the masjid iftari. My mother returned to clarify that the imam’s actual words were, “Yes, she can. But… since she was once one of my students, tell her to come to me. I’ll explain to her why a woman can’t give the azaan.”

He might have been implying that it would create too much of an uproar in the community… even if it were the truth. But I didn’t care enough to find out what he’d meant.

Upon hearing all this, one of my two little brothers, three years my junior, who follows me around frequently to pester me with Islamic questions, texted me, “Am I a plagiarist?” I responded he was free to use my material as long as he acted according to the spirit of what he lectured. After all, I never protested before, even when he softened the blow of my words… which circumstance compelled of him, always.

The day before I decided to pray in the men’s section, my brother stood in the hallway outside my room with an awkward expression on his face. “They [some of the younger girls at the masjid] were telling me they weren’t allowed to pray on their periods,” he recounted to me, “and I told them, actually they could if they wanted. And they were like NO, you can’t. And I was like, but it’s not in the Qur’an; if you want to make something haraam you have to show the verse.”

My eyebrows furrowed in subtle protest of a man “educating” a woman on her menstrual cycle. At the same time it was unique that he was not disgusted with the subject. But I already knew where this was going. As admired a Quran reciter my brother was in the community, he did not have the power of age to pull this off.

He continued. “And they were like, my mom says you can’t. …And one of them went up to her mom and asked! And her mom said, no he’s wrong. And strange. Don’t talk to him. She told her not to talk to me!”

I laughed, “Well yeah, don’t bring up girls’ periods like you know better.”

“But I didn’t! They brought it up first! To me! They brought it up to me! It’s not like I was some random guy! But now I look like some random guy going up to women like, hey, did you know you could pray during your periods?”

I laughed a little harder. My brother had also been a student of the imam, and a much admired one by the community. He gave khutbahs (even if the materials were mine) and recitations. It was peculiar and hilarious to hear that he had weirded out masjid aunties.

We left earlier for the masjid than usual, almost as soon as I returned from the office. It was a Sunday, so we were expecting a crowd and few parking spaces. For iftar I had only a date. I’d gotten into the habit of eating very little for iftari. I don’t pray with the imam, because I don’t pray behind men, and certainly not behind walls, which act like the sutras that we place in front of us when we pray to prevent interruption of our prayers by those walking in front of us—therefore severing us from the imam leading on the other side, rending our prayers dismembered and incomplete. Instead, I finish the salah before the imam starts. This requires fast eating, or little to no eating. I go with the latter.

One time, I overheard a sister ask my mom, “What [prayer] is your daughter praying?” while the women were waiting for the imam to begin.

My mother had responded, “Oh no, she is praying maghrib… she…” —nervous laughter—“she just doesn’t think prayer should be hindered so she prays immediately after iftari.” This excuse was less controversial; it made me look like a quiet, pious young woman who was eager to pray immediately after iftar rather than a troublemaking feminist rebel.

There is nothing I could do to not be a spectacle. Although everyone at the masjid breaks their fast as the azaan starts, I always wait for it to finish. The first couple of times this happened, a few of the women repeated to me that it was time to break the fast. I smiled and said, “I’m listening to the azaan.” One of them gave me a strange look. “You don’t have to wait.”

“I know. I believe it’s nice.”

Since the masjid is under construction, we had iftari several feet away in a very large, spacious tent outside, so it was difficult to hear the azaan that was called from the inside. (Nevertheless, I was still not allowed to call it.) I waited, straining to hear that it had finished, consumed the date, and then quickly slipped out of the tent.

Some of the congregants who don’t fit inside spill out onto the deck, where the women pray behind the men (as opposed to an entirely separate room like the arrangement on the inside.) This is only a Sunday community iftar phenomenon, when the masjid is most packed.

As usual, I started praying maghrib long before the imam began—this time in the men’s section outside on the expansive deck, so that I would be finished before the rest of men came. The summer air was cool and lovely.

When I was almost done, with 2 rakat nafl left, a man attempted an aggressive “Excuse me!” but I started the takbeer for nafl before he could say anything else. Frustrated, he walked behind me to the sisters, who hadn’t been there when I’d begun but had gathered in a line in the back as I was finishing, and he said to them, “Excuse me, when she’s done can you make sure she moves back? We need this space.”

(There was plenty of space.)

One of sisters laughed and answered, “Uh, yeah, that’s why she’s, uh, yeah.”

I finished just as the imam started, turned to leave and saw 2 entire rows of women formed far in the back, staring wide-eyed at me across the safe gap they’d maintained, and I descended down the stairs as the rest of the men who’d been waiting for me to end the prayer ascended. In the sky, Saturn could be observed beneath the moon, and so could Venus and Jupiter. My heart leapt.

On the way home, I asked my mother in the car, “Are you mad at me?”

“No. Why would I be mad at you?”

I was straining her reputation, I knew it. Once, during maghrib, my hijab kept sliding off, because it was heavy and jeweled and the fabric shimmered, so I tossed it to the ground where it was inclined. I finished the prayer sans hijab, with my hair falling in dark curls around my neck during sejda. I did not look around to see who was gaping at me in disapproval. When I turned to bid salaam to the angels, I saw only that the women were preoccupied with themselves. MashAllah. My mother, though, had winced, as these behaviors are magnified when it is your own daughter, though she related that she understood the hijab would not stay.

But this, this was a whole new level of a transgression. It didn’t matter that I technically wasn’t in the way of the men, that I had started before the imam and finished before him so that the men only had to wait a few moments to start forming lines. (Regardless of the fact that they really didn’t have to wait, and it was their arrogance that prevented them from lining up beside me, even if on the other end of the same row, leaving a wide distance in between.) They missed no part of the prayer. What mattered was that I was a different creeping shariah—a quiet challenge, out of order, a threat. I’m too young to have the advantage of the masjid aunties, with whom no one messes, and they were not going to support me either.

The next morning, my brother reported to me, “My reputation is ruined.”

“Why?” I asked, thinking for a second it was because of me.

“I’m known as Menstrual Man.”

I laughed, “Who calls you Menstrual Man?”

“I call myself Menstrual Man. They call me Period Man.”

His renovation did have a better ring to it. He continued, meekly laughing at himself, “One of the girls showed me a hadith to prove that she was right, so I sent her some links to show that I was right too.”

I opened and closed my eyes.

“And my friend was like, dude, you went back?! And I said, yeah, I mean if they’re already going to ridicule me I might as well substantiate my perspective with some evidence. And he was like, yeah, go down a martyr.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Just tell them you got it from me and it won’t be so weird.”

“Well, you’re already a weirdo for wanting to do the azaan so I don’t know how much that would help.”

“I meant because I’m a girl, dunderhead,” I said crossly. “You have a sister, who menstruates.”

To justify women forced to the back, men cite a hadith by Abu Huraira, a renowned sexist and a liar. Imam Zarkashi in al-Ijaba writes, “They told ‘A’isha that Abu Hurayra was asserting that the Messenger of God said: ‘Three things bring bad luck: house, woman, and horse.’ ‘A’isha responded: ‘Abu Hurayra learned his lessons very badly. He came into our house when the Prophet was in the middle of a sentence. He heard only the end of it. What the Prophet said was: ‘May Allah refuse the Jews; they say three things bring bad luck: house, woman, and horse.’”

The same misogynist who was consistently refuted by an angry ‘A’isha reported that the Messenger said, “The best of the rows of men is the first and the worst is the last. And, the best of the rows of women is the last and the worst of them is the first.”

For men, attending the masjid prayers is emphasized as crucial; women are allowed the flexibility to pray at home if they wish. If the Prophet even ever said this, I believe he said it to mean that if women are in the front, it signifies that men were late to the prayer, and women were faster than them. It was meant to ensure that the men were prompt.

So if I get there first, I have a right to pray there. It does not mean that you should push me to the back to accommodate your tardiness. (Who’re you fooling? You weren’t there first.)

“Nahida,” said my mother gently after she called me to her bedroom. “I’m going to ask something of you and I hope very much that you’ll listen—”

I already knew what was happening. “No.”


“You want me to stop praying in the men’s section.”

She was quiet, and then she said, “Please.”

“Why? Do you care about what people say?”

“It’s not that. They already think we’re a dysfunctional mess… I don’t want to fuel it.” And here she did not even know about my brother the Menstrual Man. “Please, you can still pray without the imam.”

There are several times, regarding what I wore or where I traveled, during which I disregard my mother’s insistence and live as I please, but I would always ensure it did not hurt her. This time, I succumbed to her request.

“This is against my religion,” I said.

“I know.”

“And I’m right.”

“It doesn’t seem to matter.”

Where could I pray? I wracked my brain for possibilities. Not inside the women’s room, behind a wall. Not on the deck, behind men. Not in the tent, where I would need to wait for everyone to leave after iftari first and thus delay the prayer. Not in the wilderness I love, though it is ideally situated behind the masjid, in the direction all the men face so that I would be in front of them, where the qibla was closest, because at the thought of snakes after sunset, my mother would surely prevent me.

I didn’t mind the idea of a couple of snakebites, which frankly sound far more appealing than this. I didn’t mind the wild plants we as children had referred to as spiders’ eggs because they erupted what looked like tiny dead spider children either. But that was it. Those were all my options and I’d run out. There was no where for me to pray.

In my ideal masjid, families pray together. It seems anti-Islamic to tear them apart. These are parts of Islam that are integral to my being. I can not freely practice them. I thought of Ibrahim’s sacrifice, his defiance of his fathers who worshipped idols, of tradition, of patriarchy. I thought of his sacrifice of his son, whom he made sure consented. There are many more sacrifices, by women in the Quran, countless sacrifices, time and time again, that are not considered sacrifice—but just things to expect of women.

This would be one of them.