Authority, the Media, and Muslim Women

I have begun to read Khaled Abou El-Fadl’s Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women again. My first attempt was about two years ago while I was still finishing my Bachelor’s. The book is not easy to get through and the first time out proved to be a massive failure. This time is proving to be better, since I have more time to read it (although it is still proving to be difficult yet enjoyable to read). As we can tell from the title, a huge part of the book is dedicated to authority, as in who has authority to speak for what Islamic law says about a variety of issues, women included. A good portion of the book also deals with sources of authority and the types of authority that exist when it comes to Islamic law.

Reading Fatemeh’s post on Asra Nomani’s documentary that aired on PBS Monday evening as well Alicia’s post on the Sisters in Islam opposition and the struggles of Islamic feminists in Malaysia made me think once more authority in Islam. I believe that rethinking and challenging authority is at the heart of the recent wave of Islamic feminism that we have seen around the world. Muslim women the world over are challenging forms of authority that have often had a male face and used a patriarchal reading of Islamic texts (Qur’an and hadith literature) to justify gender oppression.  They also using traditional forms of authority, such as Islamic texts, to overcome gender oppression, bring about gender equality and create a feminism that has Islam as its heartbeat.

One of the most important tools in discussing, rethinking and challenging authority as it relates to Muslim women is the media (in this post, media will refer to the mainstream media as well as various forms of non-traditional media). As much as I have been critical of the mainstream media’s coverage of Muslim women in general, I cannot deny that it has allowed traditional authorities in the Muslim community (‘ulamah, imams, mosque boards composed mostly or entirely by men, etc.) to be challenged on their interpretation of women’s rights. The ummah has been forced to grapple with issues ranging from masjid accommodations for women and mixed gender salat to domestic violence and the texts traditionally used to justify it because the mainstream media has covered these issues.

When the media covers an event like Amina Wadud leading a mixed gender prayer, it does have the effect of making Muslims discuss women’s place in mosques. I remember when that event occurred and hearing so many Muslims say things like “Even if I don’t think women should lead salat, I wonder what the conditions are in masjids that would make her do that?” or “I don’t think women should lead salat but the accommodations for women in masajid leave a lot to be desired.”

Additionally, it did make a lot of scholars look at the place of women in masjids. While most may not have taken the position that women can lead the prayer, it did make a lot of them reaffirm women’s right to even be in a masjid and women’s to have equal access to masjids, something that was and still is sorely lacking in masjids around the world, the U.S. included. Watching Asra Nomani’s documentary on Monday evening, I admit that I was thoroughly disgusted with her tactics and confrontational style, but I also had to admit that in some way, her constant use of the media for her cause (which was vague, I admit) did make Muslims in her community think about their leadership and the role of women in the masjid in Morgantown.

This is just one example of the use of the mainstream media in challenging and reshaping authority. Non-traditional media has allowed Muslims to challenge authoritative views of women in Islam. From websites dedicated to moderate and progressive views to blogs like MMW, non-traditional media has provided a platform for Muslims to discuss traditionally authoritative views about Muslim women and to challenge them. Non-traditional media has made it easier for Muslims to discuss what Islamic texts say about women, whether we even want to accept certain texts that have traditionally been held as authoritative and more importantly, who has the authority to interpret those texts and who should have the authority to interpret those texts. We can now discuss issues like hadith literature typically used to oppress women, question them and even reject them on a much more massive scale. Non-traditional media has, for better or for worse, made it much easier for lay Muslim to challenge and even reject authority

The media will continue to play a vital role in the fight for Muslim women’s rights. One of the most important ways the media will achieve this is by encouraging Muslims to look at Islamic texts as well as those who interpret them. It will make those who interpret the texts and who do hold authority more beholden to lay Muslims; that is a good thing.

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