Can I Be Muslim and Feminist?

Can I Be Muslim and Feminist? May 2, 2018
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The first time I listened to Chimamanda Adichie’s TEDx talk, “We should all be feminists,” I was so inspired by it that I made all my friends watch it and immediately declared myself to be feminist. This happened around the time that I was making my way through a translation of the Quran with the desire to strengthen my faith—which was working until I started to encounter some verses that seemed to put men above women in certain roles or situations.

The more I read the Quran, the more I was convinced that men and women could never be equal. Allah didn’t create us as perfect copies of each other and we certainly don’t share the same rights. To cap it off, there are certain names of Allah that are better suited to each gender. A woman, for example, has an intimate experience of Al-Khaliq, “The Creator” as she partakes somewhat closely in the process of creation due to pregnancy and childbirth while a man can relate more to attributes like Ar-Razzaq, “The Provider,” since men usually take up the role of the primary provider in the family.

After I finished the Quran, I reverted my statement and said I was no longer a feminist—mostly because the movement didn’t seem compatible with my religion. While I am absolutely certain that all men and women are equal in the sight of God and will be judged according to their deeds (not gender), there are too many instances in Islam where women are seen as clearly different than men, which makes feminism seem incompatible with the religion.

Women, for example, cannot lead prayers, if there is a man present. I still do not fully understand why this is. Women are also not allowed to travel without a mahram if the journey is of a considerable length. While I fully understand the safety precaution this rule is trying to enforce, it no doubt limits young ladies who can’t afford/find a mahram to bring whenever they need to travel for work/study. It is also much safer to travel these days than it was in the past and to be honest, this rule is difficult to understand and seems somewhat unfair to me, especially since it only applies to Muslim females.

There are many more instances where it would seem the Muslim female is not in any way treated as equal to the male and while there are usually concrete, really good reasons why it is that way, a female might still feel cheated, especially in today’s world where technology has made life somewhat easier and we are being told that we are no different than men. I still do not fully understand the Divine wisdom behind many rulings which differentiate between men and women, but I trust that they are for our own benefit.

After giving it serious thought, I decided to come up with my own brand of feminism, where women are judged based on what they do and not their gender (the way Allah will on the Day of Judgement). This means that women should not be shortchanged in the workplace or at home. If they do the work, they have every right to earn whatever credit and reward is due to them and in sha Allah (God-willing), Allah will also reward them in Jannah.

What this means is that I am not just a feminist, I’m a “Muslim feminist.” I respect the boundaries of Islam while demanding that women especially get paid equal to their male counterpart and should also be privy to whatever benefits men enjoy, as long as it doesn’t conflict with their religion or beliefs.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Shahanshah ulHaq

    Respected ma’m- Though it is certainly your decision as to what ideology you want to be associated with. However, the two aforementioned reasons of restriction on women leading prayers in the presence of a male and travelling alone without a Mahram, are not the clearly the Divine Order. These are juridical issues and there are many male scholars who have stated that a woman can lead the prayer even in the presence of males (Imam ibn Jarir Tabari, d 923 CE) and women can even travel without Mahram as long as they are safe, which in the contemporary world, every state claims to provide its citizens with.

  • Saeed

    In 1400+ years of scholarship, it’s not difficult to find an opinion that goes against the norm (or against the evidence) on any given issue. Case in point, the issue of women leading men in prayer. In quasi-orientalist fashion, you minimize the overwhelming scholarly rejection of the idea (throughout the centuries) as well the stipulations of those few scholars who allowed it, in an attempt to make it seem normal and valid. As for traveling without a mahram, it’s true, it is a bit more nuanced–although your implying that safety exists everywhere in contemporary times is quite strange.

    Also, a word of advice: look up the ahadith (assuming you refer to Sunni sources) about the name ‘shahanshah.’

  • Shahanshah ulHaq

    Thanks for your advice brother. But what would you say of the name ‘Malik’ commonly used by people. Would appreciate your effort if you give a reference of an authentic hadith for the name ‘Shahanshah’.
    Also its better to deal with juridical issues academically; instead of trying to make it as a core issue of the religion.

  • Saeed

    @Naeema – A well-written article; brief and to-the-point. I think you capture the internal dilemma felt by a lot of Muslim sisters nowadays. I would just posit the following: symmetry is not a condition for equality. They’re two different concepts. Just because men and women are not symmetrical (anatomically, physiologically, and under divine law) doesn’t mean they are inherently unequal.

    But one nagging question I have is why we as Muslims repeatedly feel obligated to validate ourselves according to secular terminologies? e.g feminism.

  • Naeema

    @Saeed – Thank you for your insightful comment. Of course, men and women are both human beings, literally the same species, just with different reproductive organs. So, I would agree that symmetry is not a condition for equality, especially as we do not fully know what makes us conscious, what the soul is made of etc.

    As to your question, you would agree that world is fast developing and try as we may, muslims can’t really divorce themselves from the current world trends. Besides, the prophet did advise that we participate in worldly activities, as long as we remember our final destination. We ARE human, after all. That is my humble opinion though.

  • woolcardy

    Thank you for this article, it expresses a lot of the questions I have had too. I highly recommend the book Men in Charge containing contributions from many authors, edited by Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mulki Al-Sharmani and Jana Rumminger.
    I’ll quote the blurb because I couldn’t say it better:
    “Muslim legal tradition does not treat men and women equally. At the root of this discrimination lies a theological assumption: God has given men authority over women….critically engages with this assumption and challenges male authority and gender discrimination from within the Muslim legal tradition. The authors trace how male dominance came to be inherent in the tradition, show how it is produced and sustained in contemporary times, and indicate how the tradition can be reformed in order to promote gender equality and justice.”
    from: http://www.musawah.org/knowledge-building/men-in-charge

    Brought me a lot of peace and a huge appreciation for the scholars working towards addressing these issues. I see no reason why someone should not lead prayer, be an imam, or scholar etc because of their gender.