Years passed. Years of being in a neo-traditionalist group (that turned into a cult). After years of that, I had undergone quite an attitude adjustment. I had long ceased to question the idea that marriage and community order had to be patriarchal. I wasn’t expecting female leaders or scholars to uncover some sort of egalitarian “hidden history” or to interpret the Qur’an or the hadith or fiqh in an egalitarian way, either. I mean, the texts say what they say, and there’s nothing that anybody can do about it.
But still, when I realized that “mainstream” Sunni conservative immigrant-dominated groups such as the MSA and ISNA were rethinking their past opposition to the idea that women can be leaders, I was intrigued, and hopeful. Maybe, some sort of change in thinking about gender roles was in the offing?
But I didn’t really move in those circles. They were middle-class and immigrant-dominated. Their events were too expensive for me to even think about attending, usually, when they weren’t too far away to begin with. So, it didn’t seem likely that I would actually encounter any of these fabled new female leaders.
But then, 9/11 happened.
Shortly after 9/11, I attended a conference put on by a large and well-funded “mainstream” conservative Sunni Muslim organization. I was in search of solace.
It was soothing, somehow, to watch all those thousands of hijabed or (often, though not always) bearded Muslims milling around, and reassuring to hear speaker after speaker repeat that “Islam” had nothing to do with the attacks, and to listen to nasheeds like “A Whisper of Peace” (written and performed by a male convert) playing in the bazaar area. I was there for reassurance, basically, so I tried to ignore the things I saw and heard that bothered me.
I was wearing a dark blue headscarf and a black shoulder-abaya with a little discreet floral embroidery on the edges of the sleeves and the front opening, so I certainly wasn’t in violation of the dress code. Still, the posted reminders to “follow the Islamic dress code” bothered me for some reason. It seemed… well… coercive. The attendees see women in miniskirts and so forth on the streets every day. Was the sky going to fall if some woman came to the conference without a scarf? And are we women all perpetual children, in need of being constantly reminded how to dress? What message does such signs send to boys and men? To girls and young women, still developing their sense of who they are?
But, mind over matter. One session I absolutely didn’t want to miss had a female speaker (who I’ll call X), one of these new leaders, who happened to be a convert—and for a change, she wasn’t speaking about “how I became a Muslim” or “the status of women” or even “how to raise good Muslim children.” This was going to be something, I thought. Especially when I went into the room where the session was being held, and saw that the audience was about evenly divided between males and females. What, men wanted to hear what a woman had to say, on a serious topic that wasn’t a stereotypical “woman’s” concern??
As I looked around the room, I remembered the last time I had gone to a conference put on by this group. That had been years ago. The women had all sat on the balcony at the back of the hall, far from the speaker and unable to ask questions (except by sending up those blasted pieces of paper). But here, women weren’t at the back. We were in the main hall. Women sat on one side, and men on the other. The speakers sat up on a small raised platform, and when they spoke at the podium, their faces were projected onto a large screen, so that those sitting further back in the hall could see them clearly. This is awesome, I thought. And better yet, there were two women up on the platform. One was X, and the other was a student who was well known for her community activism. Women’s voices were finally beginning to be heard, it seemed.
The session began, with the male chair-person welcoming everyone, and introducing the speakers. A man spoke first. His face was projected on the screen. He was a bit long-winded, but he made what I thought were some good points. Then, he sat down, and X came to the podium.
And the first thing she said was…
She asked the chairperson if there was some way that the projector could be turned off. So that her face wouldn’t be projected on the screen. Because she didn’t think that that would be very modest.
My heart sank.
Because this was a Muslim conference, after all. And X was a recognized leader. Her request wouldn’t be interpreted as just her quirky preference—it would be seen as a “higher standard” that other sisters ought to emulate too. And what on earth is so immodest about allowing one’s face to be projected on a screen so that people sitting at the back could see her as she spoke?? Wouldn’t it be more thoughtful of others to not make such a request?
X is a white convert from North America. Not some woman who might have grown up in a very conservative family in which she had been taught to cover her face in public, or that speaking in public is somehow immodest. Nor was she one of those converts who had only been exposed to a very narrow, extremely conservative understanding of Islam. It wasn’t that X believed that her face was awra or that women shouldn’t speak in public “Islamically.” So, what on earth was going on here?
It seemed that it was still de rigueur for female leaders—if they were white converts, anyway—to ostentatiously go above and beyond “normal” modesty standards for women, in order to avoid being too threatening. So that conservative men (or for that matter, conservative women) couldn’t dismiss them as “feminists” or “westernized.”
When the other female speaker at that session opted to have her face projected on the screen, I rejoiced inwardly. At least she had resisted X’s implied “higher standard” of womanly modesty. But then, she was an immigrant. She might have felt that speaking in public would not imperil her Islamic authenticity.
While it had been great to get a chance to finally hear X speak in public, the screen issue left me feeling more than a bit deflated. But still, I told myself that I don’t know the whole story. For all I know, maybe she had been feeling intimidated by someone who was present at the session. Maybe she was just having an off day. Anyway, at least she had spoken, and spoken well. That was what really mattered.
Months passed. I heard that a local Muslim student group was putting on a gathering. The topic would be “women in Islam”—normally something that I’d avoid (having pretty much heard it all before). But the two speakers would be women. And not just any women, either—one was X, and the other was a fairly well-known Salafi white convert sister who knows classical Arabic (and hadith) very well and is a published author. From what I had seen of Salafi Sister before, her ideas on women’s roles were conservative in some ways (predictably enough), but not unduly rigid. She didn’t believe that women shouldn’t work outside the home, she thought that hijab and obedience to husbands and bearing children were being overly emphasized, and she was pretty critical of a lot of the goings-on in the community under the cover of religious excuses too. This should be pretty good, I thought. This should be a significant change from the way most such events in my experience up til then had gone.
I remembered past events like that, when the speaker had been a male (often a male convert), who had begun his spiel rather defensively by saying that his maleness was irrelevant, because “the truth is the truth.” And had then gone on to recite the typical conservative talking-points about women being “greatly respected” because “paradise is at the feet of mothers.” And then audience members had sent up depressing questions on pieces of paper, asking things that only confirmed the perception of any non-Muslims present that we still lived in the dark ages, mentally speaking.
But this would be better. In fact, this ought to be awesome!
I guess I should have said inshallah.
The event was very well attended. A sea-change is happening, I thought to myself, as I surveyed the rows and rows of seats that were already filled. A lot of the attendees were Muslim hijab-wearing female students, predictably—but there were a fair number of Muslim men as well, and also a small number of non-Muslims. Who would have thought that so many men would want to hear what two women—and converts, at that—would have to say?
The first speaker was Salafi Sister. I listened in disbelief as she stood behind the podium in her long, wide and very plain neutral-colored jilbab and large white scarf (dressed more conservatively than was usual for her), and recited the usual selection of hadiths quoted by conservatives in order to argue that women are first and foremost modest and obedient wives and devoted mothers who should focus their energies on their homes and husbands. It was a very conservative speech. Nothing that a conservative man wouldn’t have said. And, most uncharacteristically for her, there was no mention of women’s lived realities either, or acknowledgment that men could and did abuse their power over women and children.
Why? I wondered. Why…? I know she doesn’t believe this… or does she??
Then, Sister X spoke. Her speech was quite conservative too, but at least she indirectly criticized some of the things that Salafi Sister had said, saying that you can’t necessarily take hadiths at face value and that the legal discourse is more complicated than that.
And then, it was question time. And boy, were those questions depressing. Some things never change, I thought, as I listened to the questions: Do women have a right to leave a marriage, and if so, under what circumstances? Can a girl get married without her father’s permission? If a man approaches a girl’s father and asks for her hand in marriage, does she have to agree if her father likes him and he seems to be a good Muslim, but she herself doesn’t really like him? If a man agrees when he marries a woman that she can continue studying or working outside the home once they are married, and then he changes his mind, does the woman have to obey him and stop studying or working?
Sister X took most of the questions. And as she took them, she gave garden-variety conservative answer after conservative answer. Though, to give her credit, she did say that a girl isn’t bound to marry a “good brother” just because he seems pious and her father likes him, if she herself doesn’t want to. In fact, she seemed to be rather disturbed by what such a question implied about the life-circumstances of the girl asking it.
But when it came to the question of a woman wanting to study or work outside the home if her husband had changed his mind about allowing that? The husband shouldn’t do that, she said, because Muslims keep their word. Still, if it was an oral agreement and not a written Sharia-compliant marriage contract that spells out consequences on the husband if he rescinds his permission to study or work, there is little that a wife can do, because wives must obey their husbands unless they are being commanded to do something sinful.
Then she paused, and said rather hesitantly: “My husband agreed with my studying, and he supports my working, and my role in Y organization. Because… because, well, he loves me. Husbands and wives should discuss things, and arrive at an understanding….”
My heart sank. Here was a woman who had studied, done an advanced degree at one of America’s best universities, has a career, is a respected Muslim leader, and is widely touted by conservative Sunni Muslims in North America as an example of what “Islam” allows a woman to achieve. But she couldn’t get beyond the whole “wives have to obey their husbands” paradigm. Not even if the husband had given his word that his wife would continue to be able to study or work outside the home after marriage, but then changes his mind. She had been greatly privileged to have a supportive husband. Too bad for those women who weren’t as blessed.
The hypocrisy involved in taking such a position made me feel sick.
Another question, this time from a white, apparently non-Muslim woman, who wanted Sister X to recommend a good introductory book to read about women in Islam that gives a fair and balanced reflection of what Muslims really believe. Sister X immediately recommended Jamal Badawi’s “Gender Equity in Islam: Basic Principles.”
Ok, I thought. So this is where Sister X is coming from. She apparently believes the typical conservative stuff about women. Minus the inconvenient things that “mainstream” conservative Sunnis in North America all believed not so long ago about it being haraam for a woman to be a leader of men. And minus the rhetoric that was ubiquitous not so long ago about how women’s role is to be a wife and a mother, full stop. While they were teaching that, she was out there studying and building the foundations of her career, apparently. And how convenient for her that her husband has been down with her studying and working and leading all along.
Why shouldn’t she believe that Badawi’s book is great—those ideas haven’t held her back in any way. In fact, those ideas empower her. If she had remained a Christian, she would have just been one of the many conservative Christian women out there who serve their communities and lecture on community development and such, and teach in a seminary. She wouldn’t have been famous. She wouldn’t have been hailed as this great role-model and hope for downtrodden women.
But since there are so few female Muslim leaders in North America, she’s a big fish in a small pond. And she can present a seemingly kinder, gentler face of Sunni Muslim conservatism to the world. Somehow, she can make it appear that conservative standards and practices don’t actually hold women back. And that educated, middle-class white women with their heads on straight can choose Islam. What more good publicity could conservative immigrant leaders want?
I left that event wondering what will in the end come of this. I was sickened by the hypocrisy… in part because, well, that used to be me, in a way. I didn’t used to be able to see how Muslim rules that weren’t making my life all that difficult could be very oppressive to most other women. I used to be blind to the way that immigrant conservative Muslims used white convert faces in order to advance their own agendas—or even pleased to be used in this way, because I believed that it would benefit Islam and Muslims down the road.
But will it? If a few lucky women can make the system work for them because they have supportive fathers or husbands, but still uphold the restrictions on all other women, who really benefits? How can real change happen?
The reality of it, I realized, is that even if Sister X doesn’t actually think that Badawi’s book is good, or if she really believes that women don’t ever need to have their husbands’ permission to study or work outside the home, she can’t say that in public. If she did, she would be shoved aside by the conservative men (and women), both immigrant and convert, who run the “mainstream” Sunni conservative orgs and mosques. She would be labeled a “feminist” and a “western woman” who “doesn’t understand Islam properly” and is “causing fitna.” And that would be the end of her influence.
Given that reality, what change can she or others like her really bring about, in the long term?