Shortly after reading my article regarding polygamy, a beloved friend of mine (shoutout) maintained that “the responsibility possessing your right hand” should remain “the responsibility your right hand possesses” (translated across all other versions as “what your right hands possess”) because it is grammatically the right hand that is doing the possessing. I could see her perspective, and frankly, she has studied Arabic in greater depth and detail than I have.
But I disagree.
Structurally, the fragment reads word-for-word, “what possessing your right hands” or “mā malakat aymānukum”—there shouldn’t be a dispute that the “what” refers to a responsibility or an oath. It does not refer to directly to women, if the fact that mā means what and not whom weren’t clear. The Qur’an itself provides this antecedent by employing the form l-aymāna (oath) and yamīnuka (rightfully possesses), describing the nature of the “right hand” as responsibility. I feel that this is a crucial point that every exegete has overlooked.
However, translating the structure into English doesn’t require an inversion for its meaning to remain intact, even when Arabic inverts the subject-object orientation. We say things like this English all the time, particularly in modern and even contemporary poetry. Years ago, I penned the line in a poem, “Braves sudden movement, eye to eye.” Simplified, the object is structured as the subject, even though conceptually it is the eye that is doing the meeting.
In fact, since most translations of the Qur’an are not casual English, I find it very interesting that translators choose to invoke the inversion to make the phrase casual (and in their minds, I’m sure, clearer) when that is not its state, rendering it a judgment call and a deliberate decision considering the flexibility of the original phrase in Arabic. It’s true that in English we don’t speak in the language of poetic inversions of casual statements, but neither are Qur’anic English translations informal.
Translating “mā malakat aymānukum” as “what [oath] is possessing your right hands” honors the fluidity of the phrase in Arabic, whereas English interrogates for clarity in the ownership via subject-object orientation, which is already a philosophically imposed assignment. The implications of the oath being the object rather than the subject, particularly when we incorrectly understand mā (what) to mean “women” and not “oath,” are drastically grave in English.
Placing the responsibility as possessing the right hand in English emphasizes women as the entitled subject, rather than men as the entitled subject: you have rights rather than he has control. Arabic, however, lulls of a quality of possessive uncertainty.
I floated this past my love Zeina, a native Arabic speaker. “It’s both right?” I asked her at an obscene hour of the night when she certainly should have been asleep. “It’s more fluid in Arabic whereas in contemporary English it means two very distinct things.”
“Yes it is both. I’ve never thought about it that way. I think both work grammatically.”
Since in the inverted English the ownership is over an oath or promise or responsibility and not women, I’m not married to either structure in translation. In fact, there are also benefits, like the relief of responsibility from the marginalized, when the phrase is structured as the right hand doing the possessing. But in case anyone is married to either, I present this reasoning for my maintaining the Arabic structure in the English translation.
I don’t really care about the outrage I’m going to spark, but before I spark it, I want to briefly mention that my understanding of haraam does not contrast starkly with halaal. In the thoughts of most Muslims, “haraam” translates to “forbidden.” Most of you know already that I subscribe to moral absolutes, i.e. I believe in the existence of universal morality. I want to emphasize that this is an entirely different question. It is erroneous to apply this structure to the dynamic of halaal/haraam, which describes the permissibility of a believer’s act specifically in relation to Allah, because while “halaal” does mean “lawful” or “permissible”—“haraam” describes the sacredness of an act.
In other words, the more sinful an act, the more sacred it becomes. Murder? Forbidden to us because human life is sacred, and thus so is the magnitude of severing a soul from its body, a sacred act reserved solely for the angels. Adultery? Forbidden to us because the love in a marriage is sacred, and thus so is the magnitude of destroying trust in its foundation. The realm of haraam encompasses that which is to remain respectfully unapproached. Arriving at this understanding was crucial to my development as a Muslim. An act being “forbidden” is uninspiring—I don’t really care. But if you tell me I can’t do something because it’s sacred, because it was not made for me to do, I …cannot describe how much I understand this in the depth of my heart.
Haraam actions are not forbidden primarily because they are harmful; rather, they are forbidden because they are sacred and the harm is a byproduct. This is of crucial importance: an object, animal, concept, act, that is haraam is meant to be met with a dreaded respect, not disgust. This is the wrong attitude to assign to the perspective of the Divine. Rather, the primary approach for us is that the act is awestriking because it is not fashioned for human beings. Haraam signifies a respectful distance from the act. (I will likely describe the meaning of halaal/haraam in a different post.)
In the Qur’an, polygamy is emphasized as not being fashioned for the human heart (“Allah has not made you with two hearts” —33:4) which is rendered incapable by Divine creation of exercising equality among multiple spouses. In fact, polygamy is made haraam on the point of justice and the incapacity of the human heart in more than just this one [33:4] instance:
And you are unable
to deal justly
even if you desire.
Do not incline [to favor one]
and exclude [the others].
And if you reconcile
and fear the God/dess
the God/dess is ever
Forgiving and Merciful.
4:129, like every verse of the Qur’an (including the “two hearts” verse), encompasses both broad and specific applications. It discourages polygamy, stating men could not treat women equally in marriage even if they were careful. This is because men are not Allah, and their gaze and judgment is neither Divine gaze nor Divine judgment, rendering yet another example of the meaning of haraam as an act that is uhuman or with supernatural qualities, or frankly, not one’s station. Broadly the verse employs the word for “women” instead of “wives” thereby curbing men’s unfair advantages in every institution by warning them they are incapable of being just.
Because the Qur’an was delivered to human beings, it speaks to us like us. It inhibits us with different degrees of no, whether polite or direct or incensed, but these are ultimately proclamations of inhibition—ultimately, the text is saying no.
Compare the structure of 4:129, discouraging men from marrying multiple women, with the one forbidding the consumption of alcohol (2:219): “In them [wine and gambling] is great sin and benefit for people. But their sin is greater than their benefit.” Most male exegetes read this verse as rendering alcohol haraam, yet do not extend their logic of implicit inhibition to polygamy even though every verse regarding polygamy follows the same structural reason as the “harm outweighing the benefit” in alcohol. You all know I do not contest alcohol is implicitly forbidden in this verse, but by that very logic, so are male exegetes hypocrites when they do not extend the polite inhibition to polygamy just because it’s polite.
The different weights by which the Qur’an forbids an act, but ultimately still forbids it as sacred or haraam, is another subject for its own post. The most widely cited verse regarding polygamy is 4:3.
[4:2] Give the orphans their properties
and do not substitute your defective property
with their superior property.
And do not consume their properties into your own.
That is a great sin.
[4:3] And if you fear that you will not
deal justly with orphans,
then marry amongst yourselves suitable women,
twos or threes or fours.
But if you fear
that you will not exercise justice,
then marry only one, or the responsibility possessing your right hands.
That is more appropriate
that you do not incline to oppress.
I’ve included 4:2 to lend context to 4:3, which is the marginalization of women and girls. It is specifically familial and financial marginalization. 4:3 describes at least three circumstances in which the women upon its revelation found themselves: the first circumstance is as orphaned girls with property, which men are commanded not to consume into their own. The second circumstance is as marginalized women who are suitable, defined by the verse itself as women from whom these men cannot take property because the women were left with neither property nor guardianship, whom men marry to themselves amongst themselves. The third is “the responsibility possessing your right hand”—i.e. women who are under some guardianship, encompassing but not limited to slaves and captives the institutions of which marriage sought to eliminate, and thus entitled to protections by virtue so that men are less inclined to infringe on unfamiliar rights.
Male exegetes are often confused by “twos or threes or fours” but this is a natural reference to multitudes because the “you” address in this verse is not just the plural “you”—it is contextually the societal you. The “you” of the multitudes. These pairs of “twos or threes or fours” emphasize that societal address of the plural subject, just as the societal description of angels’ wings is offered in 35:1, which praises Allah “Who made the angel messengers having wings, twos or threes or fours” and “increases in creation what S/he wills.” The description is for the society of angels, a different type of contextual plural, and the numbers reference an infinite multitude of weddings, not of wives. Marry them to each other, amongst yourselves. The verb “marry” is not individually reflexive—it is societally reflexive.
It follows then the final circumstance 4:3 describes employs “wahid” to mean not just one but only—as in “one and only”—this circumstance: the circumstance in which a man has guardianship over a newly financially and familially marginalized woman. Any woman in this circumstance is the “only one” (as directly from the verse) he is allowed to marry. He cannot deal justly with orphans who have property, or with women toward whom he has no guardianship, so he can marry only women from whom he is expected to take responsibility. The recognition of “wahid” as operating as “only one circumstance” in 4:3 further supports “twos or threes or fours” as societally reflexive plurals. This happens again such as in verse 34:46, “seek truth in pairs and individually.”
The inclusion of “aw” (or) in “only one, or the responsibility possessing your right hands” operates as introducing the definition of the aforementioned noun. Take for example: “We saw the dancers, or women weaving through the air.” The latter part of the sentence following “or” defines dancer. In fact, in very previous paragraph, I was forced to repeat with in “He cannot deal justly with orphans who have property, or with women toward whom he has no guardianship,” to avoid grammatically defining orphans as “women toward whom he as no guardianship”: the latter is describing a different circumstance, not defining the first. In 4:3, the latter defines the former; otherwise, it doesn’t make sense to say a woman in just one circumstance, and then this other circumstance.
This is all very clear to me: the verse moves from orphans from whom men are not to take property; to women suitable by circumstance of familial and financial marginalization for men (societal plural) to marry; to women for whom men are responsible—women possessing the men’s right hands—and whose rights are familiar to their male guardians. Therefore the entirety of the verse remains intact in terms of context and its concern with addressing marginalized women especially in times of war. The verses emphasize justice toward women, and the feminine voice and interest is always centered to regulate male behavior.
This is the most immediate reading and easy to see. No one could read polygamy into these verses unless they really, really wanted to read polygamy into these verses, particularly since polygamy is described as humanly impossible in the remainder of the Qur’an. However, according to malestream scholars, polygamy was and is allowed in the following conditions: (1) when polygamy is used to relieve a substantial number of people living in poverty if the man who does so is able, in some sort of extravagant fantasy, to treat each wife equally and (2) some scholars are gracious enough to say woman is not forced into or to stay in marriage. When the Prophet’s daughter came to him and told him her husband wanted a second wife, the Prophet asked him not to marry again, because it would displease the Prophet’s daughter. This provides that a man cannot marry again if his wife won’t allow it.
Polygamy isn’t, however, is derived from the Qur’anic text, as I have shown. Men will pull verses to pieces for excuses: some have even suggested that polygamy is not only allowed but necessary in populations in which women outnumber men. The Qur’an simply says nothing about qualifying polygamy in societies where there are more women than men. It does, however, emphasize that men cannot deal justly with women because men are not God, despite whatever ideas they might have. In fact, verses 33:50-52 reluctantly permit the Prophet to marry women who ask to marry him and emphasize that “this is not for other believers” which further illustrates the meaning of haraam as sacred, and confirms that polygamy is in fact haraam.
This is clear, and would make nearly all polygamous marriages today Islamically unlawful. I realize there are women who are second wives in polygamous marriages who become very frustrated when no one believes that they’re happy or satisfied. I’m not making judgments on your happiness by finding it unlawful. When women aren’t abused, it’s none of my business. Rather, the source of permissibility for polygamy is not from the Qur’an. 4:3 states that orphans are to be given the entirety of their rightful properties, that men within a society are to marry financially and familially marginalized women in that society, and that men who cannot deal justly in either circumstance should only marry women in the (only one) circumstance in which they are responsible for these women.
I have some new posts coming, but am obliged to take care of some things… about you. Since I’ve announced that I am collecting pieces for an annual publication (guidelines for submission here) to which I am excited to read your contributions, I’m connecting all of you to the publisher accounts so that you can sort of keep tabs on the type of working we’re seeking. Our publishing house, Kajol Crescent, will be issuing the digital and print volumes of the fatal feminist.
To follow us on Instagram, and on Twitter, you can follow both at the handle @KajolCrescent.
Currently, the Instagram showcases more material than the Twitter, but soon the latter will be used for announcements. In order to pay our writers and artists, we’re going to start fundraising for the magazine very soon, but in the meantime, you’re welcome to view some of the work through our publishing house accounts. And of course, I will continue to bring you Qur’anic interpretations here.
I’m attaching a gallery from our insta. Not all of the material is new, but it will be soon. Thank you, as always, for accompanying me in these exegetical endeavors. And don’t forget to submit!
My methodology for reading, understanding, and interpreting Qur’anic verses is not a unique one; however, it is inarguable that over the past centuries, the Qur’an has been subject to gross misinterpretations, particularly by individuals who read to indulge their debauchery rather than with the best meaning as the Qur’an advises. Thus, I’m compelled to describe some aspects of my approach and explain its differences.
One thing to note is whom the Qur’an addresses. There are several audiences, which I can describe in detail later, but the main addressees of the Qur’an are the Prophet and believers. Since Arabic distinguishes between the singular and plural ‘you’ it is easy to recognize, at this surface level, when we consider only these two audiences, when a verse is addressing the Prophet in particular rather than all believers. Sometimes, there is a transition within a verse, where the singular (Prophet) and plural (believers) shift. (10:61) This is important to note particularly because, while we are inclined to imitate the Prophet, the Qur’an itself makes a distinction between the Prophet and those believers who walk his path.
This brings us to the voice which delivers the message to the addressees. As I’ve mentioned before, the voice of the Qur’an is a feminine one. The Qur’an makes references to sex, but its references to gender and gender roles are tied to sex only loosely, and sex itself is transitory. In one commonly cited verse where the God(dess) declares that everything is created in pairs (36:37), a verse frequently employed by adherents of man-made patriarchal systems to establish rigid gender roles based on rigid gender identities, the Qur’an itself discusses the transitory nature of pairs, such as removing the light of day from the night in order to make darkness—an allusion to dawn and dusk—or the phases of the moon, another example of transformation. In fact, 22:61 describes the God(dess) as merging night into day and day into night. Imagine if our approach to gender had not stopped at a simple declaration of pairs but had considered the entirety of the Qur’anic description. Our understanding of gender might have likened it to phases of the moon or the transition of light to darkness rather than stark night and day, female and male.
My approach to the Qur’an can be likened to moon phases—the presence of the full moon should be evident in every waning, every waxing excerpt of the text. Each Qur’anic verse incorporates within it the entirety of the Qur’an; therefore, our understanding of each should encompass Qur’anic entirety.
A third item to note is the most obvious—the Arabic language has evolved. There are nuances in meaning between classical and modern Arabic. For example, walad (child) in classical Arabic carries no gender specifications. In modern Arabic, it refers specifically to a male child. There are several parts of the Qur’an where this information becomes pertinent. In general, considering the entirety of the Qur’an especially in verses mentioning children permits a deeper understanding. It is also important to note where the Qur’an subtly addresses and subverts the limitations of the Arabic (and any human) language especially pertaining to gender. In verses 53:19-23, the God(dess) refers to the deities worshipped by Meccans prior to the arrival of the Qur’an and demands, “So have you seen the Goddesses and their daughters? Is for you the male and for the Him/the Goddess, the female? This is an unfair division. They are nothing except names.” In these few verses, the hypocrisy of assigning gender is criticized (“an unfair division”), and the Oneness of the God(dess) is emphasized (“they are only names”) over the arbitrariness of gender.
Allah (swt) is not criticizing Meccans for worshipping goddesses, as is the common patriarchal reading. Instead, it is blatantly and indisputably clear that the God(dess) is condemning the insincerity and pretense of feigning reverence toward femininity while burying one’s daughters alive. In fact, this hypocrisy is consistently stressed throughout the Qur’an. Verses 43:17-19 point out the hypocrisy between men expressing grief during the birth of daughters yet depicting the angels as female and worshipping them (“raised in ornaments”). In the same breadth, he debates murdering his female children (16:58-60).
Only after arguments are firmly substantiated with Qur’anic verses and sound in Qur’anic principles should we apply hadith. Hadith that contradict the Qur’an must be discarded. Consider the infamous verse 4:34, in which a man is instructed to advise against his wife’s suspected adulterous actions, then forsake her (in the bedroom) if she persists, and then bring her forth to court (daraba) if she refuses to listen. The Qur’an proceeds to instruct that if the matter cannot be dealt with fairly, the couple should appoint arbitrators (4:35), which confirms that the third and final action against yet unproven adulterous behavior is to cite the spouse to a court of law with 4 witnesses. While patriarchal readings have left open the subject of these proceedings to include petty “disobedience,” in the Qur’an the violation is the sin of adultery—and nothing short of. Imaan Az-Zahra arrived at this same conclusion by a different means than I did, by linking 4:34 with a preceding verse, 4:19, in which men cannot seek a way against their wives unless an open and lewd sin (adultery) has been committed. Therefore, in 4:34, in which a man suspects he has been wronged, he cannot seek action against his wife until she is brought to a court of law. Forsaking the wife in bed is level with addressing unproven adulterous actions. The dropping of the charges in 4:34 is consistent with court proceedings regarding adultery in which the woman denies the action, in which case her testimony is sufficient to overturn any sentence against her.
In this manner, the entirety of the Qur’an is considered in interpreting 4:34 (for example, this interpretation is supported by 58:1-4, “in which a woman cites her husband to the Prophet after her husband pronounces zihar on her,” as my beloved disciple Imaan Az-Zahra pointed out in conversation), as well as the verse’s surrounding context. Imaan is also expecting to write a post about the Prophet’s farewell sermon in regards to this verse, thus referring to hadith only as supplementary to the Qur’an.
Of course, I could (and just might) write 150 pages on how to read and interpret the Qur’an. This article is only a fragment of the methodology, and hopefully in the coming weeks, I’ll have the opportunity to survey other aspects.
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.
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 TheWashington 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.
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.”
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? The 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.
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.
There was a time when I used to read the Qur’an daily for about 30 minutes. When I did this, I noticed myself changing and was forced to reduce the reading to twice a week. When I read “too often,” I became calmer, more at peace, and I cared very little about troublesome events or material loss. It was as though I were turning to water. Unfortunately, this all also meant that I was too tranquil when any kind of injustice befell me. I can not afford to be so forgiving. I need to be a fighter.
I was thinking recently, with all of the Islamophobia I’ve seen, with Muslim women harassed, with men showing up at masjids with guns, that the “violent” verses of the Qur’an that used to bother me–don’t anymore. I’ve written an entire series about verses taken out of context, about how they are actually defensive, but even when I knew that, they’d still bothered me a little, because who really wants to see any unashamed advocation of violence anywhere, even if it is in self-defense, especially in their religious texts of Love? And now they don’t. I have always been unapologetic, but I have never been as unapologetic as now. The non-Muslims who present these verses out of context to prove how violent I am have literally driven me to not caring, to thinking “Good. I hope you learn not to oppress those who are coming to worship.” It made me realize that what I thought was a virtue of my character, the sense that these verses were too harsh, was an unkindness to those whose situations I could not understand. What seems like God’s vengeance towards one group of people is in truth God’s mercy toward another.