Rereading “Status of Woman in Islam” (VI)

And so, we have come to the end of the section on “the spiritual aspect” of “the status of woman in Islam.”

It is this section that is really the linch-pin of the argument that the booklet is trying to make.

Looking back at how I read this section of the booklet in the early ’80’s, and the impact that it and other similar pamphlets, books and talks had on my life (and also on the lives of other converts I knew), I am taken aback at all the word-games that were going on—and how we didn’t recognize this.

We did actually believe that “woman is completely equated with man in the sight of God in terms of her rights and responsibilities” because we read that this is what the Qur’an says—at least, according to this booklet. And once convinced of this “fact”, we read the rest of the booklet (and others like it), as well as the Qur’an and other Muslim literature, through that “equality” filter.

It was fairly easy to fall into doing this, because similar claims were commonly made in books and pamphlets written by conservative Muslims, and in talks on “women in Islam” given at events sponsored by the MSA and other Muslim groups… and also in conversations with average Muslims.

Admittedly “similar” doesn’t mean “the same.” So as we read more and heard more, we heard and read statements such as:

“Islam treats women equitably.”

“Islam teaches that men and women are spiritually equal.”

“As Muslims, we respect our women.”

“Islam pulled woman out of the swamps of pagan ignorance and gave her distinction.”

We understood such statements as agreeing with and confirming what we had already read in “Status of Woman”—that women and men are equal in the sight of God. We gathered that there was a debate about what the social implications of such “spiritual equality” might be, and we knew that most conservative Muslims believed that men and women play different roles in the family and in society. This didn’t bother us all that much in those days, partly because we were young and idealistic and in many ways open to the idea that stay-at-home wife- and motherhood was a good thing (at least, when the children were small), and because we didn’t know that much about Islamic law. While some of the news we heard about how various legal interpretations worked out for some women in practice in, say, Saudi Arabia or Iran was very alarming, there was always someone proclaiming that “this isn’t Islam, this is culture”, and we were all too ready to believe them.

What we didn’t really notice is that the very idea that in God’s eyes, women and men are equal is not only so vague that it can be interpreted in a number of ways, but that it was disputed in any case. It was a slogan, that many repeated, but few were very willing to discuss in detail, much less be pinned down as to exactly what it meant in practice. And when we did manage to pin people down, the results were often disturbing.

Slippery words were one thing, and slippery hearing was another. It didn’t really register with us that “equality” and “respect” are not the same thing, because we had grown up in a society that at least in theory held that respecting someone’s human dignity means giving them equal rights—and that when that wasn’t happening, then groups who were being denied equal rights could and should demand change.

With time, we came to realize that for many conservative Muslims that we had dealings with, “respecting women” meant putting the “good sisters” on pedestals, while judging and dismissing women who didn’t seem to be living up to the same exacting standard of behavior. It meant that men always arrogated to themselves the right and the obligation to pass judgment on what any girl or woman wears and says and does.

With time, we came to understand that sound-bites about “equity” were a sneaky way of making conservative interpretations of Islam sound as though they were about equality, while leaving wiggle-room so that no one could object that such-and-such a law or practice doesn’t treat men and women equally. Because “equity” just means that the end result is “equitable.” Which is (of course) open to interpretation. And in a conservative religious discourse, conducted by people who honestly believe that they can’t argue with “what God has decreed” no matter how inequitable it might turn out to be in lived reality, ways will always be found to claim that it is all truly “equitable” in the end. Even if said “equity” has to be admitted not to exist in this world, it can always be postponed to the next life.

But we put the slippery words and judgmental actions down to “culture” or “misinterpretation.” We did the same with the ideas that men are primary, while women are secondary, and that women were created in order to serve men, so as long as the men were served and the women weren’t being treated toooo badly, all was fine and dandy.

“Spiritual equality” was our talisman, and we clung to it. Because whatever was going wrong in our lives (and there was lots that was going very wrong…) God still cared about us as individuals and wanted us to grow spiritually, just as much as He cared about the men in our communities… didn’t He?? Even if we had very different social roles, and the rules governing our worship were different too? Because “different” doesn’t mean “unequal” or “of lesser value in the greater scheme of things,” does it? It couldn’t possibly be that we had actually been created to play a role much like the feeder rats that a snake-keeper breeds. Because how could that be just? How could God create us with minds, and aspirations, and talents, and the ability to reflect—or more likely, the inability to not reflect—and then tell us that all that doesn’t mean anything?? The fictional creators of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World would in that case be far more just than God.

But what did “spiritual equality” mean, exactly? It could (as we realized early on) be defined broadly, or very narrowly. It could mean that males and females have the same worth in the eyes of God, that God does not favor one over the other, and that God intends both to grow and develop and actualize their potential—so humans should work to build communities and societies and families in which this is most possible. Or, it could simply be held to mean that while men and women have very different roles and natures and potentials, that God will reward or punish each person fairly regardless of gender. It all depended on who had the power and authority to do the defining—and whoever that was, it wasn’t us.

And it wasn’t as if the issue of “spiritual equality” was simply a theoretical one, either. It had numerous practical implications for our day-to-day lives. Such as our access to space in the mosque, for instance, or our access to learning. We soon found that little or nothing could be taken for granted when it came to such things. At any time, it might be decided by the (nearly always male) powers-that-be that there needed to be a barrier between the women and the men in the prayer space, or that women couldn’t attend the study session that had been open to everyone before because some of the men didn’t feel that this was appropriate.

In fact, what we found was that every aspect of our lives was potentially up for debate and unilateral meddling. What could we say when husbands or male leaders claimed that such-and-such is “what Allah has decreed” or “what X scholar says”, so we had no Islamic grounds for objecting? It wasn’t as though we could claim that our own consciences, our own interpretations, our own understandings of what God wants, even our own mental health mattered as much as those of men. Once we surrendered the notion of “equality” altogether, we had no measuring-stick to determine what was and wasn’t fair, just or reasonable. And we paid the price.

For, there is more than one way to try to square a circle. The learned men that we consulted provided various “solutions” to our dilemma, that effectively convinced us that “equality” in any form is ungodly and irrelevant to our lives as Muslim women:

(1) Attitude adjustment. We needed to realize that God doesn’t owe us anything, and we can’t question God—but that God will certainly call us to account. Therefore, we shouldn’t presume to ask how any of this is fair, or even how it is supposed to work. We should just be grateful that God has guided us to Islam and that we have the opportunity to live a pious life as modest, obedient wives and devoted mothers. If we were miserable or depressed, then this must be due to our weak faith. We had to try harder.

(2) Develop our femininity. We needed to realize that as women, we aren’t equal to men—but that neither are men equal to women. Rather than worrying about abstract issues of equality and fairness, or the correct interpretations of the Qur’an or the hadiths (which should only be pursued in depth by scholars), we should focus on becoming the best wives and mothers that we could be. We needed to develop our unique feminine talents of housewifely home-making, and keep on having children and giving them the most pious upbringing possible. We would find fulfillment in that.

(3) Focus on the greater good. Our problem (we were told) is that we are too individualistic and focused on self-actualization. Our western, secular educations had corrupted us. We had an exaggerated sense of our own abilities and self-worth. But true Muslim women don’t worry about themselves, because they are far too busy serving their families and sacrificing everything for them. So we needed to do that.

(4) Politicize it. It is only rich, western, corrupt women (and those misled by them) who raise questions about equality and Islam. That is because they want to discredit Islam, so that the oppressed and downtrodden in Muslim lands won’t realize that it is Islam alone that can give them dignity and independence. That is because they want to distract Muslim women from their divine mission as the foundation of the family, by convincing them that they should be painting their faces and wearing mini-skirts and wasting their time on silly things. But Islam liberates women. Look at all those Muslim women who demonstrated in the streets in X, calling for an Islamic government. Or those Muslim women who volunteer in the refugee camps. There are so many things that women can and should do in order to benefit their communities.

(5) Spiritualize it. No man can be a wife or a mother or a daughter or a sister. So we should focus on shining at those unique and wonderful roles that God has graciously bestowed on us. After all, these roles reflect God’s beautiful (jamaali) attributes—such as love and mercy and compassion and  nurturing—in the world. God has both majestic (jalaali) and beautiful (jamaali) attributes, and together, these attributes make up existence. Both are wonderful, both are absolutely necessary, and in fact, it is the jamaali attribute of mercy that is stronger in the end, because as the hadith says, God’s mercy overcomes His wrath. Therefore, women should not feel that their roles are in any way less than men’s. Nor should women worry about the social vulnerability that trying to live out such rules might put them in.

There is so much that can be said about all this. But what I am left with is primarily the disbelieving awareness of betrayal. We were not told the whole truth.

Though, in a sense, we were. The thing was that we wanted to believe the best of those who were telling us these things. Husn al-zann—believing the best of God, of His prophet, of the scholars and of the believers. We couldn’t quite believe that someone would lie about something so serious.

But as Maya Angelou said, “If someone tells you who they are, believe them.”

Trying to negotiate that situation was like banging our heads on a concrete wall. And we did that for years.

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