What is “Gender jihad“? It’s not about ISIS and their sexual deviancy. “Gender jihad” is a term I’ve taken from Islamic feminist Amina Wadud’s book entitled: Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam (2006, OneWorld Publications). There is a lot of debate surrounding Amina Wadud and her “approach” to Islam. I do not advocate all of her beliefs/practices (that is another issue in itself which is not the focus of this article) but none the less I believe she does raise some valid points and quite rightly coined the term gender jihad.
Jihad means “struggle”. One’s personal jihad – our own moral battles – could be to stop smoking, to suppress one’s anger, to look after our health better – in essence: to do anything that brings us closer to God and which fits His commandments. Collective jihad is to fight suppression. So, therefore what exactly is “gender jihad”? Quite simply, it´s the struggle and movement to advance women´s rights within Muslim communities in regards to the behaviours and the realities which Muslim women face and to look at current Islamic interpretations of scripture and resulting practices to re-interpret these/re-educate Muslims to move from a current socio-cultural patriarchal perspective to one that is more egalitarian and in line with true Islam.
Islam vs. misogyny
As a Muslim convert who has been brought up in a stereotypically “non-Muslim” culture but has Muslim friends of a variety of nationalities, has also married into a North-African Muslim family and also lived, worked and travelled in various Muslim and non-Muslim countries – I’ve come to various conclusions. Whilst people often warn you when you first convert about the difference between Islam and Muslims, and whilst no-one is perfect except Allah Himself, at times you can become rather frustrated and disappointed by other people´s cultures and behaviour encroaching on your religion and your religious rights/freedoms – especially as a woman. “The non-Muslim West” is often seen as the “land of the non-believers” as opposed to Muslim countries where Muslim culture is the norm. In fact, this is often the opposite; marred with contradictions, stereotypes, frustrations, cultural clashes and shocks when seeing the reality in certain Muslim countries or Muslim communities at home or abroad. Before I even converted to Islam, one sister told me that the UK was a better example of the spirit and rights of Islam (but that is another story and no – I’m not a nationalist at all). The reality is that most converts are women from similar backgrounds as myself – “Western”, under the age of 30 and from a stereotypically “non-Muslim” culture (although there is a wide diversity among converts). Such young women are drawn to Islam not only for its spiritual monotheism but also for the rights it ordains on women, discovering that feminism and Islam are at one with each other.
Feminist discourse is often defined in “Western” secular terms. Muslim women who classify themselves as feminists have often been seen to have “liberated” themselves from not only their society but from Islam and its symbolism – how many wear headscarves (yet that is another debate as I cannot completely guess their reasoning)? How many have come from theocratic regimes and appear to have turned their back on Islam? Feminist discourse has however shifted from simply “Western feminism” and secular “Muslim” feminists to the rise of Islamic feminists who do not see the issue of women’s rights and Islam to be in direct contrast to one another – in fact, quite the opposite. It’s about liberating women within Islam, to be respected and receive all of their rights as Allah ordained upon them according to the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh)). The often notable difference between what Islam is and what Muslims do can be due to deviancy, a lack of Islamic education, cultural practices/behaviour and/or extremism and intolerance entwined with each other. Mindsets and national cultures affect people´s views, as does a lack of understanding of Islam itself which becomes equated with their socio-cultural reality and therefore their interpretation and practice of Islam and how they treat others – including women. Islam is a faith – not a culture – which crosses linguistic, ethnic, cultural and national boundaries. Muslims belong to a vast rich multicultural family. In Islam, Muslims are one ummah (community) made of a rich mix of believers of diverse cultures and nationalities. Cultural diversity and traditions are what make the world rich, vibrant and so excitingly varied and within Islam itself, racism is forbidden. Yet a Muslim is supposed to believe in and prioritise God and Islam first and foremost.
Bearing this in mind and as a follow-up to a previous post I wrote on women’s equality in Islam looking at textual sources, in this post I’d like to look at the juxtaposition between Islam, culture and misogyny. In other words: how Islam often becomes misrepresented not just by certain minorities but also on a wider scale within many cultures/Muslim countries. Firstly, I am not “anti-culture”. Respect for and interest in other cultures and religions is what has led me to where I am today. I am not attempting to stereotype, judge or generalise against Muslims, nor cultures – but there are issues. In fact, culture, intolerance and extremism does not encroach just on women´s rights in Muslim communities/societies – but that is a wider issue. This is about spreading the real message of Islam – re-establishing Islam principles and behaviour, shunning Islam of cultural baggage, misogyny and issues which are not only falsely associated with Islam by non-Muslims but also by Muslims themselves. Some of the issues addressed are openly recognised and denounced as cultural/minority issues not Islamic issues themselves, whilst others are not adequately dissociated with Islam and in fact unfairly affect or “dictate” how Islam is practiced: how Muslims live, treat others and practice their faith in a way that is contrary to the morals and rights Islam ordains. Islam itself doesn’t need to change. As Muslims we believe that God is perfect and has perfected faith. No, this is about culture, misogyny and extremism – how Muslim girls and women are being failed, denied their rights, mistreated and abused – vs. the essence of Islam – its morals, its spirituality, its meaning and the rights and respect it offers women.
Not in the name of Allah
- Double standards regarding sexual morality – zina (pre-marital and extra-marital sex) is forbidden in Islam for both men and women. As such this is usually illegal in Muslim countries. Yet there appears to be certain double standards in some societies/circles, where men expect a virgin wife but some do not remain virgins themselves and families turn a blind eye to their sons’ behaviour.
- Honour killings/violence – this is simply individuals’ barbaric delinquency and does not represent Islam. Such activities constitute “major crimes” (The Islamic Supreme Council of Canada).
- Forced marriage – this is haram (forbidden). A marriage is not permissible without the women’s consent. Furthermore, men and women are encouraged to think carefully about their future spouse and their compatibility. It must also be remembered that arranged marriage is not forced marriage. Marriage in Islam can be a love match or arranged but in all cases the women’s consent is required.
- Female genital mutilation – FGM is a cultural practice that pre-dates Islam and has been denounced as un-Islamic by many scholars/groups including The Muslim Council of Britain but is still ongoing through a lack of education, cultural traditions and misconceptions about Islam. Women have sexual rights and bodily rights. Muslims have a duty to preserve their health and prevent bodily harm and both men and women have the right to sexual pleasure within marriage. FGM is contrary to Islamic principles and unacceptable. See here for more information about FGM.
- Sexual harassment, rape and the stigmatisation of rape victims – rape and sexual harassment are both forbidden in Islam and are grossly immoral (marital rape is of course forbidden). Furthermore, victims of rape can end up becoming grossly stigmatised or accused of committing zina. Once a woman is seen as “tainted” it is very hard for her to find a husband. One Moroccan woman named Amina Filali committed suicide in March 2012 after being forced to marry her rapist. Fortunately Amnesty International later won the battle in 2014 to ban such law in Morocco which allowed male rapists to escape punishment if they married their victim. Women in Egypt (where there is an incredibly high rate of sexual harassment in the street) have also started fighting back under the “Pink Revolution“. This quote pretty much sums it up: “Teaching your sons to lower their gaze is just as important as teaching your daughter to cover up”. Victim blaming in the name of misogyny is immoral and un-Islamic.
- Ideas of male “superiority” when having children – the pressure to have a baby boy or selective abortion is immoral and un-Islamic. In the UK a group of 25+ religious bodies (Muslim, Sikh and Hindu) including The Muslim Women´s Network came together to discuss the issue and called for sex selective abortion to be banned in the UK – having “witnessed at ‘first hand’ the pressure that women come under to abort daughters”. In the time of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) people used to kill their newly born daughters – Islam specifically outlawed this. The Prophet was an affectionate father who taught great respect for one’s daughters. He said: “Lucky is the woman whose first child is a daughter”. Of his daughter Fatima he stated: “Fatima is part of me, whoever harms her, harms me.”
- A lack of women’s religious facilities – I´ve been to mosques in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries where I´ve found frustrating saddening realities. One one occasion I was in another town and needed to pray and found the women´s prayer area to be locked because “women in this area don’t go to the mosque to pray”. I have also found myself unable to pray due to the upset caused by other men stemming from a lack of (open) facilities and an unfamiliarity with the concept of women coming mid day to the mosque to pray. It is my right to be able to pray in the mosque in peace whenever I like, as long as I pray in the correct clothing, have performed ablution and behave respectfully. The authentic hadith (Al-Buhkhari) states the words of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) as following: “Do not stop women servants of God from the mosques of God.” It is the mosque’s right to provide an adequate women’s only area to pray in with the appropriate entrance and without grief/harassment from other (male) members of the community.
- A lack of women’s education – education gives power, wealth and independence yet there are high rates of female illiteracy and low levels of education in some Muslim countries due to social, economic and cultural factors and extremist (mis-)interpretations of Islam – in complete contrast to Islamic teachings. In some societies it is thankfully the opposite. In Algeria for example, there are a higher number of female graduates than males (see here and additionally here for literacy rates). In Islam, we are encouraged to read, study and learn. It was in actual fact a Muslim lady named Fatima al-Fihri who founded the oldest university in the world – The University of Qarawiyyin (Morocco). Those who are being denied an education are not being done so because of (true) religious doctrine. Women are often caregivers, mothers and wives but they are no means denied the right to an education or a career if they wish and if the needs of the family are met. In the words of Malala Yousefzai: “Extremists have shown what frightens them the most: A girl with a book.”
- Domestic violence – time and time again this issue comes up. Domestic violence (or any form of abuse) is not permissible. Looking at my previous post on the equality of women in Islam, a man who mistreats woman cannot be a “good Muslim” – in fact, the very opposite. Islam encourages love, equality, trust and gentleness towards others and ones spouse. The Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) never hit any woman in his lifetime. He said: “How can you beat your wife like a slave and then sleep with her in the night?” (Mishkat al-Masabih, No. 3242). Shurayḥ an-Nakha’i Rahimahullah also said: “May my hand be paralysed if I ever hit my wife.” (Al-Ahkam 1/462). See the fatwa on honour killings, misogyny and domestic violence: “Honour Killings, Domestic Violence and Misogyny Are Un-Islamic and Major Crimes” (Islamic Supreme Council of Canada).
- Forced covering/uncovering – In some families/societies some women are pressured/forced to cover, whilst in other circumstances women are not free to cover or are subject to criticism or ridicule. This could includes both headscarves and face veils. The misconception that women are forced to cover in Islam is wrong. I freely choose to cover and will not cover or even uncover for anyone. The same goes for other women including those who wear face-veils. In Islam, actions are to be done out of one’s free will and as worship directed to Allah for His sake alone. Allah commands women to cover (however one interprets that) and thus to cover should be for Him and Him only. A man cannot force his wife to cover and to force her to un-cover is to stop her obeying Allah and thus in such case she is obliged to ignore such wishes. As previously highlighted, just as women are obliged to cover and be modest, men are also obliged to lower their gaze towards women and be modest.
- Abusing the right to polygamy – polygamy is sunnah (a practice of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) and is not an obligation: “Islam neither orders nor prohibits polygamy. It only permits it when it is necessary” (Questions on Islam, see here for more information). Islam lowered limited the number of women a man could marry and has set forth marital rules and rights for both men and women. These include strict conditions which you must be able to fulfill in order to have more than one wife. A man must treat each of his wives equally and grant them of all their rights: spiritual, sexual, emotional, financial etc.- providing for each one for them. Therefore polygamy is not an option for everyone.
- Domestic slavery/servitude – wives in Islam are not maids, cleaners and domestic servants but partners and equals. The Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) sewed, cooked and cleaned (see fatwa). It is a husband’s duty to provide financially for his wife but that does not mean not lifting a finger in the house. Sadly, this has been forgotten by many: “Be kind and considerate to your woman. She is a tender flower, and not your household slave.” (Ali Ibn Abu Talib (R.A)) (see here for more information).
- Limited leaving the house – Muslim women are not supposed to imprison themselves in their homes. Visiting family, outdoor activities, work, education etc. are all permissible – simply women must ensure that the home is not neglected and that they observe proper conduct outside the home (hijab etc.).
- Lack of support for divorcees, widows, single mothers, unmarried women – it can often be difficult for women who are not “young fresh virgins” to find a husband and those who are unmarried can find it hard within the community. Being a single mother or losing a spouse is not easy. In the Prophet Mohammed’s era a woman did not have to be a twenty something unmarried virgin to find a husband: “A divorced woman or widow never had any issues getting married in the time of the companions. In fact, she would have a hard time choosing which proposal to accept since there were so many great men asking for her. She was never made to feel like she was a burden on her family/society, nor was she told that she’d have to marry anyone that’d be willing to propose to her.” (Shaykh Omar Suleiman).
- Views on working women – as already highlighted, a woman has the choice to work or not. The husband (as the one who does not have children!) has to be the provider regardless of whether his wife works or not. A Muslim woman has choices. She by no means has to be some “meek” figure to find a husband: “Many Muslim men will pass over talented, educated women who are willing to put their careers and education on hold, if need be, to commit to a family. As a result a significant number of our sisters, despite their beauty, talent, maturity, and dynamism are passed over for marriage in favor of an idealized, demure “real” Muslim woman. […] Our Prophet was surrounded by strong, assertive and independent women” (Imam Zaid Shakir). The Prophet Mohammed’s first wife Khadeeja was an entrepreneur whom he loved dearly and had a very happy marriage with. Such examples should be inspirations for Muslims: “Its strange that Some Muslim men believe that one should not marry a working woman because they think she will not respect her husband if she is working. But Khadeeja (May Allah be please with her) was working woman and yet she was very respectful wife and an awesome companion of our Prophet” (Imam Asif Hirani).
- Lack of female scholarship in Islam – it’s a sad reality that when a woman needs to seek advice regarding prayer and “female issues” that she has to talk to a man who does not understand. It would be very hard for him to understand as he is not a woman himself! That is by no means designed to be disrespectful but the result for women is conflicting, confusing advice – not to mention the fact that perhaps some women may not want to address such personal issues with an (unrelated, unknown) male. The Prophet’s wife Aisha was a scholar and there are and have been female lecturers, authors, writers, activists, and religious and spiritual leaders but on the whole this area is sadly lacking in comparison to males.
- Views of women’s sexuality – Muslim wives have the right to sexual pleasure just as husbands do. However, literature and talk of sex and women’s sexual rights is often lacking. If you ask any scholar they will tell you that a Muslim wife has sexual rights and it is her husband’s duty to fulfill these rights within a loving consensual sexual partnership. Such rights/teachings include foreplay, affection and mutual orgasm. Read more about the issue here as part of the #TakeBackIslam campaign.
So having looked at the issues – Islam is often misunderstood and misrepresented as “misogynistic” and “sexist” through people’s misinformation/lack of information, the unfortunate behaviour of some individuals, the attitudes of certain societies, the media and Islamophobes. This is in direct contrast to Islam itself, which is an egalitarian faith.
The oneness of God, the oneness of humanity
Allah created all human beings equal. In Islam you are only differentiated by your faith. Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) said: “Women are the twin halves of men” (Al-Tirmidhi). Islam – as a spiritual connection and devotion to God – does not teach or promote in its spiritual essence misogyny, sexism or inequality. As Muslims, we do not need traditional “Westernised” feminist orientalist discourse and secular “Muslim feminists” preaching about “veiling”, polygamy, etc. dominating and dictating to Muslims what is and what isn’t acceptable. We need a voice from within – from within the Muslim community itself to tackle these issues of cultural baggage, delinquency, intolerance, extremism, misinformation and misogyny. Islam is not for men; it’s for all of mankind – regardless of one’s gender, nationality, ethnicity, economic status, level of education etc. It’s for those who believe that God is just, God is merciful, God is The One – the sole complete Creator of the Universe.
So, make a stance and fight the gender jihad:
- If you’re non-Muslim, I hope you’ve found this article interesting. Feel free to comment and ask questions
- If you’re Muslim – brothers and sisters: make sure that are proper prayer facilities, educational facilities and social activities in your community for women and girls. There should also be access to social services for women in desperate financial situations and for those who find themselves in abusive relationships. Make sure the mosque is a safe haven for them and a place to learn. Brothers – they are your sisters in Islam.
Cover image – Steve Bidmead (pixabay.com)