The discussion could be taking place anywhere. In a sister’s kitchen, while drinking tea at her kitchen table, as kids chatter in the background. In the sisters’ section of a mosque, behind some dusty, water-stained room dividers, while sitting on a dank carpet that hasn’t been steam-cleaned in years. On an obscure recovering conservoMuslim blog that its author does not have time to update regularly.
Or perhaps in a considerably more prestigious setting: at a Muslim conference sponsored by major “mainstream” Muslim organizations, headlined by rock-star imams.
I mean the kind of discussion in which one or more sisters raise a serious issue—whether it’s something like wife abuse or underage marriage, or the way that women are treated in the mosque. The sisters will condemn this behavior as unjust, and explain how it is harming individuals, as well as the community. They may also selectively quote verses from the Qur’an or hadiths to drive home their point.
This is hardly ever a good thing. They are airing the community’s dirty laundry, which seldom ends well, and they usually lack the wisdom and Islamic knowledge necessary for discussing serious issues in any depth. As women they should be focused on things like taking care of their homes and husbands, not addressing community problems.
But fear not—such a situation is not entirely beyond rescuing. All it needs is a Pious and Knowledgeable Brother (such as yourself) to quickly intervene, and decisively steer the discussion back within god-fearing bounds—with the hidden aim of putting a stop to it as soon as possible.
How to do this:
(1) Play on your audience’s religious guilt. Though beware—how you go about doing this depends on who is present. Telling your audience upfront to “fear God” is probably not wise if non-Muslims are there, because it will likely alienate them, and also disturb those Muslims in the audience who are now feeling embarrassed that you just confirmed the stereotypes that the non-Muslims probably have about “Muslim fanaticism.” This could result in the majority of those present sympathizing with the sister(s) and tuning out the wondrous wisdom you are about to present. But you should definitely invoke the Qur’an, the sunna, the teachings of the scholars… as quickly as possible. By doing this, you raise the stakes of the discussion considerably. Now, those sisters and any other Muslim who is sympathizing with the points they have made are probably second-guessing themselves. If they are young and/or naive, they may be wondering if maybe they haven’t displeased God or transgressed some Islamic rule. If they are more seasoned at this sort of thing, they still are probably wondering how best to counter your not-so-veiled implication that it is you and not they who really know what is what. And while they are trying to formulate a coherent response, you…
(2) Seize the high ground by any means necessary, hang onto it, even by your fingernails—and fire down at them. Think like a general. Don’t let your opponents define the ground or the terms of the battle. The side that can do that has the advantage. Even though the sisters have fired the opening salvo, either they haven’t secured the high ground, or you can probably push them off it fairly easily. So, start quoting verses from the Qur’an in rapid-fire succession. If you can do it while effortlessly switching back and forth between Arabic and English, all the better, but in any case, keep up the momentum. Like a Gatling gun.
Remember, the verses don’t necessarily have to be directly related to whatever the discussion is about. “O you who believe, obey God and His Messenger…” will do in nearly all situations. If you quote the Qur’an, then the sisters will be maneouvered into the position of appearing to defy God if they dare to disagree with you.
Of course, you don’t give them the opportunity to take issue with what you are implying that these verses mean, because you then quickly follow up your quotations from the Qur’an with hadiths, or incidents from the Prophet’s life (and again, it is not necessary that these hadiths/incidents directly address whatever the discussion is about). Now, those sisters (and anyone else who doesn’t agree with you) probably feel that they have to show why they don’t agree that the hadiths you quoted mean X. Or more likely, they will just feel out of their depth, and be floundering about trying to respond, while being aware that any wrong move leaves them open to you accusing them (directly or indirectly) of blasphemy, heresy, or ignorance (or all three). While that is sinking in, you keep up the pressure, pointing out that the views of legal scholars past and present, or at least of the shaykh/television preacher/online fatwa bank/mosque imam that you most admire at the moment is in fact Y, so this is the Islamically correct way of looking at the situation—not whatever it was that those sisters were trying to say or imply.
And finally, depending on your audience and your own intellectual inclinations, you can conclude with some cherry-picked references to any of the following: Aristotle, Shakespeare, an article in Readers’ Digest, something you saw on CNN last year, Luce Irigary, what your fundamentalist Baptist grandmother used to say about immodest women, or what some white scientist dude no one has ever heard of supposedly said 50 years ago about menstruating women being mentally unbalanced that you read in some Muslim pamphlet somewhere. Just as long as you sound like you kinda know something about modern life and the human beings who live it.
(3) Focus on things and abstractions as much as possible. It is best to focus on things (the Qur’an, particular hadiths, books of fiqh, ijazas, degrees from the University of Medina) and abstractions (“the family”, society, “tradition”, history, ideals, “the scholars”, “the West”) rather than on real human beings and how they are being affected in your community today. If the sisters (or anyone else) try to turn the discussion back to reality, then accuse them of being “too emotional” and insufficiently rational to address the situation. Because after all, what rational person would think that how a sister feels about being treated like a tempting distraction that needs to be hidden behind a curtain in the mosque, or being forbidden by her husband to work matters more than what a brother with a degree from the University of Medina or a camel-load of ijazas has to say??
If this doesn’t intimidate them, then imply that they are “angry” or “bitter” due to whatever sad or tragic experiences they might have had with a few bad guys/groups of people who are “just Muslim in name” or who “don’t understand Islam properly” or “lack hikma”. Try not to sound too patronizing as you do this, especially if there is an audience—in that case, it is best to sound sympathetic and caring. But whatever you do, keep turning the discussion back to things and abstractions.
Abstractions are especially effective, because then you can make wild generalizations, and be highly selective of whatever facts you choose to admit to the discussion. And better still, you can also ignore the ramifications of these things (such as the interpretations of certain verses of the Qur’an) for real people’s lives. So, real-life experiences of women whose husbands quoted quranic verses to justify abuse can be waved away as statistically unrepresentative, and Muslim feminists’ reinterpretations of those verses can also be rejected as not in line with “the tradition” or “the scholars”—or as tainted by the corruption of “the West.”
(4) Remember, your penis is your trump card. Don’t hesitate to use it. So far, you have waved your penis around a fair bit in this discussion. After all, the reason you are able to get up and speak about some woman’s experience (which you of course haven’t had, and never will have, unless you are a transperson) and be listened to is because you are male, and your words carry a presumptive weight (especially with most conservative Muslim audiences). Certainly, you can speak and know that there is no one in the audience who is sitting there thinking that you shouldn’t be saying anything at all because your voice is awra.
The reason you can quote all those verses from the Qur’an and hadiths and views from the scholars is because as a male, you have probably had much more access to learning than most women. Heck, because you’re a male, you can sit right up in the front row in the Friday Prayers if you want to, so that you can be sure to hear every word of the sermon. You can attend all those halaqas held for brothers (or mainly with the brothers in mind). After the sermon or halaqa, you probably have little or no problem asking the imam/scholar/speaker questions if you need anything clarified. There are scholarships for brothers to go and study at the University of Medina. Or, if you want to spend X years studying with traditional shaykhs in West Africa or wherever else instead, nobody will raise religious objections to you traveling or living alone, studying alongside men, or remaining single while you complete your studies.
As if all this is not enough: you are addressing a community which values boys and men more highly than girls and women. It’s simply assumed that men’s religious obligations, convenience and likes and dislikes matter more. Men tend to assume this, and so do most women. These ideas are inculcated in so many different ways, ranging from common responses when a woman gives birth to yet another girl to the question of who gets served first at iftars and other functions (in some communities). And fortunately, the wider society also shares this double standard to some extent, although many people would deny it if asked point-blank.
So, if your arguments so far haven’t made the sisters concede defeat, then be more overt with your penis-waving. Are they saying that they don’t see why they should have to pray behind a barrier in the mosque, because after all, there were no barriers in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina when he was alive? Then clutch your pearls—er, penis—and melodramatically assert that as women, there is just no way they can possibly (possibly!) understand how a man feels when confronted with the fitna involved in glimpsing a sister’s ankle or catching sight of an uncovered female face in the prayer hall.
Don’t worry about this undermining the strength of your argument, because when a man feels something, especially if what he’s feeling is lust, then this doesn’t lower him to the level of women and their emotions—it means he’s all the more a man. As in, if he’s feeling lust (or for that matter, aggression—or both), then the female audience had better get the subliminal message that they are in danger. Because hey—all that lust/aggression has to find a target somewhere. Also, there is no need to worry that any queer sisters present will point out that adults can and do learn how to control their responses to sexual stimuli, and that they are living proof that it is quite possible. Because that would mean outing themselves. And don’t worry about any sisters trying to dissect your claims in more detail either. Since your audience is now trying to keep the vision of erect penises (or worse) in the mosque at bay, the sisters have now been maneouvered into appearing like lewd you-know-whats if they pursue the issue any further.
Or perhaps the sisters are objecting to the idea that the man is the head of the household, who has the right to prevent his wife from leaving the house and can demand sex from her. Perhaps they are claiming that in the sight of God, no one is better than anyone else except through taqwa, and that this idea applies to gender relations and family organization as well as race, ethnicity and class. And they’re quoting the Qur’an and some hadiths to support this. You can quote other verses from the Qur’an back at them (4:34, most obviously), as well as all those hadiths about how a woman’s husband is her paradise or her hell, and disobedient wife’s prayer doesn’t rise even a span above her head.
But depending on the audience, such quotations may be too much like a killer knock-out punch. Too harshly misogynistic. And you sure don’t want to give the audience (or the sisters) any radical ideas. You absolutely don’t want them asking questions such as what these verses or hadiths might have meant in their original historical contexts, or whether they should really be read literally, or whether they believe that those hadiths are authentic anyway. Or heaven forbid, deciding that Amina Wadud’s “saying ‘no’ to the Qur’an” (or Khaled Abou El-Fadl’s “conscientious pause”) might have some merit.
You could try balancing those quotes with other quotes about men’s responsibilities. But those sisters (or the audience) might notice that a lot of what you are quoting about men is simply ethical advice, that has no legal penalty attached to it if the man doesn’t follow it. Like, “the best among you is he who is best to his wife” means what, legally? Nothing. It’s just advice, and nobody will really enforce anything on a man who arguably isn’t “the best to his wife”. But the consequences for a woman who doesn’t obey her husband? She can be disciplined, lose her right to maintenance, and can be divorced (and may lose custody of her kids as a result of the latter).
A better idea—which has the advantage of having a well-known counterpart in the wider society, as Fox News makes plain—is to make the “if you won’t play according to my rules, I’ll take my toys away with me” move. Except that you are threatening to take your penis away. Because after all, you’re not a kid playing with toy trucks in the sandbox any more, you’re a Pious and Knowledgeable Brother Standing Up for What is Right (aka patriarchy). So by all means claim that wherever egalitarian marriages have been tried, fewer men even want to get married, and those who marry don’t stay married long. And that it is much the same situation when previously male-only workplaces are opened to women, or when churches ordain women—the majority of men (at least, the good men) are driven away.
You can throw in some quotes from white conservative anti-feminist American women about how marriages are falling apart because men don’t feel like men any more because they’re being emasculated by all those hordes of career-pursuing abortion-having hussies who are deluded enough to think that they can have it all. Or their articles about how women can’t afford to be choosy nowadays and should be glad to settle for a “good enough” man who wants to marry them, lest they be left without any man at all. And then where would they be? Up the creek without a penis, that’s where, and they’ll have only themselves to blame.
While it is unlikely that the latter prospect will fail to silence those sisters, there is still an outside chance that it may not. In that case, bring out the big guns. Rape. Yes, rape.
Remind those sisters (and their audience) that women will always need men to protect them. Because of rape. Because you never know when an apparently peaceful, prosperous society will be convulsed overnight into a vicious civil war, or overwhelmed with a foreign invasion, and then, you sisters who think you are equal to men will surely see the error of your ways as the invading army/the neighbors/both savagely rape you and your daughters. But it will be too late to decide to enter a patriarchal marriage and stay home where you belong, serving your husband and dutifully bearing children.
Don’t worry, those sisters (and the audience) will likely be shocked into silence if you invoke rape. At least, they’ll probably be silent enough for you to manage a dignified exit. To be sure, most women have spent a fair amount of their lives being lectured about personal safety (meaning, how they can supposedly minimize their chances of getting sexually assaulted) and adhering to at least some of this advice/trying to protect their own daughters from that fate. Chances are, there will be sexual assault survivors in the audience, and that some of them may well have been assaulted by their husbands in a patriarchal marriage relationship—you know, that kind of marital relationship you have just claimed is women’s only hope of safety. But they are not likely to call you out either. So with that final insult to their intelligence and life experiences, you will be home free.