A couple of years ago, while discussing the Arab spring uprisings and their implications, a good friend commented to me, “Isn’t it interesting that all these men are risking their lives protesting for their rights and dignity, the same rights and dignity they often withhold from their own women?” It was an astute observation about the broad dynamic between Muslim men and women today in many countries across the world.
That comment has stuck with me since. It brings to my mind the story of the Muslim woman, held captive and humiliated by the Romans, who cried out “Wa Mu’tasima!”, calling the name of the Muslim king thousands of miles away. Her captors laughed at her, asking her why she was calling out to the king – did she think he would mount a black and white horse and come defend her from so far away? News of her cry reached Al Mu’tasima, and he did indeed mount a black and white horse, gathered his army and declared the famous line,“When the first person of my army reaches the land of the Romans, the last of my army will have left here (the Muslim barracks)”. With an entire army of soldiers on black and white horses, he reached the area where the woman was held and freed her, acknowledging that he had come in response to her cry.
Those days are long over. Fast forward many centuries and here we are, a time and place when Muslim women fight for their honor on all fronts. Against anti-Muslim bigots who strip her of agency, secular feminists who demean her choices, and Muslims themselves who marginalize, abuse, and mock her. The past few days we hit a new low, when a prominent UK scholar attached to the Islamic education institute Al Maghrib issued a series of tweets and Facebook posts ridiculing International Women’s Day, making crude “jokes” about women in general, and then backing up his statements with such gems as this:
Of course, the aftermath has not been pretty. Hundreds have responded on both his Twitter account and Facebook page and the social media sphere has been buzzing all day with the drama. In response to his crass misogyny, Hind Makki launched the #Muslimmaleallies hashtag, calling attention to the wonderful Muslim men who support, love, and respect women. I launched #FireAbuEesa because it’s beyond my comprehension why Al Maghrib still remains silent and why Abu Eesa* is a part of their teaching staff.
Ordinarily finding a Muslim male misogynist in the social media universe is really par for the course. Heck, finding male misogynists of all backgrounds online is no stretch. But this is not any old person. This is a man (self identified as an “Imam, Scholar, Writer, Alpha-Male, Comedian, Superstar…”) who has over 19,000 followers on Twitter, over 40,000 followers on Facebook, teaches Islam for a major Muslim organization, and is a prolific public figure.
His almost ridiculous defense, that he’s a comedian and he’s joking, was unraveled by his own hand when he ranted in a deeply hateful way:
In the same very long post trying to justify his obnoxious comments, he goes on to compare International Women’s Day (“IWD”) to Black History Month and Mothers Day, trying to make the argument he doesn’t believe in paying lip service to token holidays. Except that’s not the truth. He doesn’t believe International Women’s Day should be every day (like maybe he does with Mother’s Day), he thinks its a feminist plot to…well, I’m not sure to do what, maybe bring attention to the contribution of women and the suffering of women globally, which apparently is intolerable to him.
Now, I’m not purporting that everyone should be on board with a campaign like IWD, though why anyone would object is beyond me. What I find inexcusable about this series of public excretions (yeah I said it) is that they come from a “scholar” of Islam. A scholar who should be well acquainted with the verse: “O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule another people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule other women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames.” (Quran 49:11). A scholar who should be spending his time in better ways than planning up a series of offensive tweets over a weekend. A scholar who should be able to comprehend the effect of his words on his followers.
Not only were hundreds of Muslim women hurt and offended, Abu Eesa opened the door for a world of ugliness from some of his male followers, who saw that bashing women publicly was just fine. If a “scholar” can do it, why not?
My day was ruined not by his juvenile tweets and old, lame jokes (women too hard to understand? oooh hahahah, it’s actually because you’re an idiot). It was ruined when I read, and re-read, his pseudo fatwa to rape and beat women, FGM, child marriage, and a host of other oppressions that Muslim women do in fact suffer every single day in this world. We’re not daft, it was widely understood to be a sarcastic remark. But as someone who has lived through an abusive marriage, his words alone brought back black and blue memories and tears. As the mother of of two young girls, it brought more tears because I thought of them and the fight they would inherit from us, a fight for simple dignity and decency from Muslim men as the norm. I wonder if they’ll be able to hold on to the deen in the face of external and internal challenges, because not everyone is strong enough in their faith to reject the ugliness of some of our leaders. Muslims are apostatizing, rejecting a religion that is made to seem harsh, hateful, misogynistic, angry, and judgemental by people like Abu Eesa. Instead of using gentle speech and beautiful language to draw people to Islam, “scholars” like these burn bridges to faith.
I would ask Al Maghrib to deeply consider who they want representing their institution. I understand that there will always be highly conservative factions among Muslims who will believe that women are inherently crooked like the rib they were made from, or conniving like the women who surrounded Yusuf (AS), or deficient in intellect because the Quran demands two female witnesses in place of one male witness in certain situations. I’ve met these people, I know them. Yet, I have never seen such a spectacle made of personally held misogynistic beliefs by a Western “scholar”. I can only imagine what Abu Eesa would think of the injunctions “the best among you is he who is best to his wives” or “do treat your women well and be kind to them, for they are your partners and committed helpers” if they weren’t given by the Prophet himself (saw). Al Maghrib, and the rest of us, should expect better manners, kinder opinions, and loftier output from it’s teachers than what Abu Eesa delivers. Someone should also tell the brother that being funny does not have to be at anyone’s expense. Imam Suhaib Webb is funny and irreverent but doesn’t insult and mock others.** It’s possible to actually be a superstar and not be a jerk.
Yesterday I was busy being one of the “feminists” Abu Eesa hoped would be burning and writhing at his words. I was angry, no doubt. But I was also busy like most feminists are – dropping off one daughter to school, driving 60 miles round-trip for work, taking care of legal clients, toting my little one around because she stayed home from school, quickly visiting my elderly father, picking up the older one from school after work, running home to cook dinner, feeding the family and putting away the dishes, bathing and dressing my younger daughter, reviewing Islamic history for my older daughter’s test, responding to work emails, tweets, Facebook posts, getting my salaahs done, writing this piece, generally helping the world go around, and ironically preparing to give a presentation on Islam at the Department of Transportation today.
And like many other presentations, today I also expect questions about the status of women in Islam, about why we are treated badly, about why we are oppressed by our men. With every presentation it gets harder to stick to the script, harder to force attention to the Quran and Sunnah, to the gentility of the Prophet (saw) when the truth is millions of Abu Eesa’s are out there and find it funny to demean us, mock us, and belittle our struggles. I ask only that institutions like Al Maghrib not give support and cover to such people.
*Normally I would respectfully refer to such a teacher as Shaykh but in this case the deference is not deserved.
**Alhamdulillah for the rahma of American Muslim scholars. What is in the water in the UK?