Be Real About Muslim Women

Be Real About Muslim Women October 8, 2008

This was written by Muse and originally appeared at her blog Between Hope & Fear.

It’s joyful to be a Muslim woman. So says Mohja Kahf. I agree with the sentiment and the substance of pretty much everything she wrote here, but her style bothers me. This is nothing new – I wrote about her earlier as well. But now I want to write out my thoughts on this article.

Starting with the title: “Spare Me the Lecture on Muslim Women.” The article immediately takes on a defensive tone and is off-putting to the reader, even one such as myself who’s “on her side,” so to speak. Who exactly is lecturing her? Most people don’t care who you are, what you worship, and what you wear so long as you come across as a decent human being who connects with them on common issues of importance. Not everything is about us and our scarves. Let’s dispense with the unnecessary self-importance. And if you’re about to represent Muslim women, stop acting like you have a chip on your shoulder.

She starts off talking about the joys of looking at her colorful hijabs and draping the beautiful fabrics on her head. I have to admit that there are days when I enjoy digging through my growing and colorful collection of hijabs and finding the one that looks the best for the occasion. But I find something unreal about her cheery tone. Is it always so fantastic? Can we hear a little bit more about any challenges it poses in this society? Even if hijab is not the linchpin of your spiritual struggle, surely wearing it means something politically significant in this country. What are her thoughts on that?

Ok, even if she wants to focus on the aesthetic and spiritual positives of the hijab, that’s her right, and surely those positives exist. But the article gets progressively more ludicrous. She goes on to say that “most Muslim women” experience God as a genderless Friend. Really? Can we be a bit more careful with the word “most,” especially when it comes to speaking about a topic as intimate, unreachable, and incomprehensible as one’s relationship with God? The whole point of the article is presumably to refute others who usurp the voices of Muslim women and tell them they need to be rescued from their religion and their men. In defending ourselves, lets not fall into the same trap and pretend we speak for “most” Muslim women. I’m also guilty of this – projecting my views on others, assuming that other people must think/feel/experience as I do – so I’ll try to take my own advice.

Alright, that’s not even that bad. But something about her discussion of marriage in Islam strikes me as dishonest. She talks about the mahr requirement, the flexibility of divorce and re-marriage in Islam, the legal right of a wife to be sexually satisfied, and prenups being standard practice. All valid points, surely, but all theoretical. The reality is far from woman-friendly, isn’t it? She briefly recognizes that misogyny often strips away these rights from Muslim women, but says (in the case of mahr) that these rules exist in the law. What good are they if they exist on the books but not in the home and in the courts? None really.

Also, in talking about our own traditions, there is no need to insult and belittle others. It smacks of insecurity, immaturity, and doesn’t win Muslims any friends and sympathizers. For example, in talking about how Muslim women get married, Kahf calls the Western dating tradition “nonsensical.” I can imagine our traditions being extremely nonsensical to others. It might not make much sense to others how a 17-year-old Saudi girl marries a suitor ten years her senior who comes “courting from half a world away.” Extend to others the same respect and understanding you expect.

Another thing that bothers me is the Muslim Martyrdom Syndrome (MMS). Boohoo, nobody gives us credit for having such fantastic rules in our tradition. She does it explicitly at least twice, saying in case of prenups that “Muslim never get credit” for drafting them as standard practice, and that “Muslims don’t get credit for having had that flexibility [in divorce] all along. We just can’t win with the Muslim-haters.” Maybe if we practiced what’s in our tradition, we wouldn’t have to beg for recognition like pathetic fools. The respect of the world, instead of its contempt, would flow naturally. And until we can get our houses in order, we have no right to act superior to others or demand their respect.

Kahf goes on to list a whole bunch of “Islamic law” rulings like little soundbites:

“custody of minor children always goes first to the mother. The Quran doesn’t blame Eve. Literacy for women is highly encouraged by the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Breast-feeding is a woman’s choice and a means for her to create family ties … Rapists are punishable by death in Islamic law … Birth control allowed in Islamic law? Check. Masturbation? Let’s just say former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders’s permissive stance on that practice is not unknown among classical and modern Muslim jurists. Abortion? Again, allowances exist — even Muslims seem not to remember that.”

There’s a huge danger in talking about Islamic law like bumper sticker slogans. Legal rulings occur in a context, applied to facts on the ground, taking into account the needs and times of society, and the rulings can be completely different in different madhabs and different situations. Kahf’s approach is the same one that allows others to ridiculously assert that “apostasy is punishable by death in Islam” and “Islamic law says to cut off the hand of the thief.” If one doesn’t understand the nuances of the practice of Islamic Law (as I surely don’t), the best thing to do is to remain silent (or at least qualify our statements) rather than wave our flawed understanding as the banners of absolute truth.

Of course, she closes with how Muslim women had the right to own property before the western world, the example of Khadijah, and Muslim female heads of state. The response to such arguments is to point to the dismal state of some Muslim women all over the world today and ask “What has Islam done for Muslim women lately?” Neither side is right and yet both are right. But this kind of facile score-keeping doesnt advance the discourse.

Editor’s Note: Read Sobia’s take on this same article from yesterday.

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