How unnoticed privileges contribute to a system of oppression

Today marks the fourth anniversary of my decision to study Muslim feminism and support sisters and brothers who are Muslim feminists.

I’m ashamed to confess that about six years ago, I wrote an article on a now defunct website titled “Why Muslims don’t need Feminism.” To make matters worse it was a three-part article! My brave and beautiful friends who are Muslim feminists treated me with greatest compassion. There was no backlash; probably because they thought how much can they argue with someone that stupid! I mistook the silence for the fact that I was right.

I wasn’t.

I believed that Muslim societies didn’t need any feminist movement because *I* was already enjoying all the rights. Men in my family didn’t force any form of clothing on me. I wasn’t told not to pursue further education or career.  Pregnancy was a joint decision between my husband and I. Child rearing was joint responsibility. I believed that Quran allowed men to mildly hit an unruly wife – I wasn’t unruly. Some women are less educated/intelligent so obviously they can’t be trusted as witnesses – I wasn’t stupid or poorly educated. Men have different needs and maybe some need more than one wife – well, that wasn’t happening to me. I never made the effort to understand divorce laws. Thus, I never consciously realised that if my husband and I were to divorce he has the right to arbitrary unilateral divorce while I don’t. I would have to ask him for divorce. It isn’t the same. I didn’t understand the monogamy-stipulating concept of Mahr. I didn’t appreciate the problems with khula. I had no idea about automatic child custody in Islamic Jurisprudence. In fact I didn’t even know that to be able to drive, work or travel on my own in a few Muslim countries I needed a formal written permission from my husband.

In short, I had no idea how majority of women, if not all, lived under Muslim laws.

Then on a hot June day my daughter came home from school in an Arab Muslim country and said that a girl in her class had asked the Islamic Studies teacher if it is haram (forbidden) to beat one’s wife. The (female) teacher had replied that indeed it is not a man’s right but responsibility to bring an errant wife onto the Right Path; he was “commanded” by Allah to beat a wife albeit lightly, like with his headdress, and command her to “BEHAVE” in a strict tone. My daughter asked if a woman is also given similar commands by Allah to punish an unruly husband. The teacher said that a husband has the wisdom and sense of responsibility not to do anything wrong and if a woman fears that her husband is unduly rude to her then she can seek arbitration; in extreme cases, if she has good evidence, she can even ask for divorce.

With tears in her eyes, my daughter told me that she wished she were born a boy. We hadn’t raised her to think like that and we hadn’t given her any reason to hate her existence. A patriarchal system had somehow managed to make her think that she was a lesser human. I had read articles on various alternative interpretations of the verse in question (4:34). There was an article on Laleh Bakhtiar’s groundbreaking interpretation translating daraba as “abandon”. There was Riffat Hasan who argues that daraba means ‘hold errant wives in confinement’. Ahmed Ali claims that the command is to return to having sexual relations with the wife. I printed Bakhtiar’s interpretation and copied Hasan’s analysis of the same verse and sent them in a sealed envelope for my daughter’s teacher. The teacher dismissed these, arguing that these were arguments of “feminists” and have no place in traditional (aka True) Islam. She also explained to me that she was right in her assertion that “a husband has the wisdom and sense of responsibility” to be “in charge” of disciplining a wife no matter how we interpret the command “adrubhunna.”

However, I understood from this incident that it is important to realise that not everyone is able to enjoy their rights. While I was enjoying equal rights with my husband, there is no guarantee that the man my daughter marries would not think that it is his “responsibility” to discipline his wife. For the first time I understood how unnoticed “privileges contribute to a system of oppression.” I understood the importance of listening … listening to what Muslim feminists have to say. It was also important for me to know that men and women can be different and equal. Equality does not equal sameness. Quran calls women’s rights similar to the rights it gives to men where men enjoy a degree of privilege over women (2:228). But Muslims who are feminists are re-interpreting these verses to argue that men and women are equal in Islam. They argue that polygamy has no place in modern society. They claim that Quran does not give men the right to beat their wives and that men are not “in charge of women.” Many Muslim feminists also believe that women too can be religious teachers and leaders.

One thing I have learned is that feminists do not just wake up one day and announce that they are feminists. Feminists in any society, including Muslim feminists in Muslim societies, are created. Men and patriarchal systems create feminists. Thus, if anyone complains that Muslim feminism is not needed, they need to learn that it is they who are creating the need for Muslim feminism. I would still say that Islam as a religious system does not have to change.  Muslim patriarchy, however, must go.

Just like in Christianity, many of the millennial Muslims also grow up with “a warped understanding of what feminism is.” Just like in “conservative and/or fundamentalist Christian communities in which feminism was not only vilified, but also considered literally evil” most Muslims treat Muslim/Islamic feminism with skepticism and even hatred. This has to change. The Facebook Page on Muslim feminism aims to initiate dialogue on Muslim women and feminism so that more people can realise the importance of Muslim feminism and its true focus. I respect Muslim feminists; I appreciate their struggle, but above all, I love them for teaching me that if there are ten different ways of interpreting a Quranic verse, then it is both safe and wise to choose the interpretation that is most tolerant and fair.

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14 thoughts on “How unnoticed privileges contribute to a system of oppression

  1. jak2kinase says:

    Fantastic description of the place of feminism in Islam.

    When FEMEN started their protests and muslim women all over the west were insulted by the notion that ‘we needed help'; it was so frustrating trying to explain to these women who take all these rights for granted that there are women all over the world who don’t have that luxury.

    Wearing a hijab isn’t a choice for millions of muslim women, it’s enforced upon them, either physically or by social/cultural pressure to ‘be a good woman’.

    Education is not a right in most countries, it’s a privilege which my father reminded me of regularly. Countless times when he was angry with me he’d threaten to pull me out of school and marry me off (which explains my fear of marriage). My mother would quietly remind me that as a Pathan, honor killings were a very real fear and threat.

    And my parents are educated, with masters degrees and decades of living abroad.

    Can you imagine what a poor village girl in Pakistan faces? I can. And it’s not a life where feminism isn’t needed. Most definitely not.

    • Metis says:

      jak2kinase, welcome to Metis and thanks for your comment and input.

      “Can you imagine what a poor village girl in Pakistan faces?”

      That is the biggest problem – those who have a voice, have little experience of misogyny. We can only use these poor women as examples and based on our empathetic natural feelings demand change for them. Real change will come when these women gain the voice to call out misogyny for what it is and for that these women need definitions – of their rights, and of misogyny itself. They may know they are suffering but they may not know what to call it. Muslim feminism is making that possible, I think.

      • jak2kinase says:

        One of the biggest obstacles to having those women speak out, or even recognize that they’re being mistreated is that they’ve been told God made the world this way.
        ‘Ar-rijaalu qawamuna ‘alan nisaa’
        That harnessing of religion for their own misogynistic purposes, that’s what I feel is our hurdle. We need women and our societies to realize that women have a place in the workplace, they have a right to be treated as a partner rather than a subordinate in a marriage, they have the right to choose their own destiny.
        But when you can’t even imagine a life where you’re treated as a human being, you don’t know to speak out. You sit and wait for this life to be over because the next one, the next life is where you’ll be happy.

  2. Sheila says:

    Just a little thought, but wouldn’t your daughter’s odds be improved if she were encouraged to think of all men, not just those born/raised “Muslim” as potential suitors. The kind of daft message your daughter was so upset by may not have been passed to an Atheist/Buddhist/Christian/Jew and any sexism is probably going to be on a “case by case” rather than “cultural” basis.

    • Metis says:

      Thanks for commenting Sheila and welcome to Metis!

      That is a hypothetical situation I presented of my daughter marrying someone like that. The real problem is (as you say toon in a way) that in Muslim countries, Islamic Studies is a compulsory subject in school and it is the state that recruits teachers of Islamic Studies who are mostly traditional and orthodox. Thus they are creating a system that is Islamist and traditional and creating men and women who view progressiveness with skepticism. What made me realise is that even though I have reasonable control over how my children turn out, I wasn’t helping in creating an environment for many Muslim children living under Muslim laws where they understand Islam in a more compassionate, modern and tolerant manner. Muslim feminism is doing that and I began to appreciate that.

  3. […] “”I believed that Muslim societies didn’t need any feminist movement because *I* was already enjoying all the rights. Men in my family didn’t force any form of clothing on me. I wasn’t told not to pursue further education or career.  Pregnancy was a joint decision between my husband and I. Child rearing was joint responsibility. I believed that Quran allowed men to mildly hit an unruly wife – I wasn’t unruly. Some women are less educated/intelligent so obviously they can’t be trusted as witnesses – I wasn’t stupid or poorly educated. Men have different needs and maybe some need more than one wife – well, that wasn’t happening to me. I never made the effort to understand divorce laws. Thus, I never consciously realised that if my husband and I were to divorce he has the right to arbitrary unilateral divorce while I don’t. I would have to ask him for divorce. It isn’t the same. I didn’t understand the monogamy-stipulating concept of Mahr. I didn’t appreciate the problems with khula. I had no idea about automatic child custody in Islamic Jurisprudence. In fact I didn’t even know that to be able to drive, work or travel on my own in a few Muslim countries I needed a formal written permission from my husband.”" How unnoticed privileges contribute to a system of oppression – Metis’ Blog on Muslim Feminists […]

  4. Ibtisam says:

    “if there are ten different ways of interpreting a Quranic verse, then it is both safe and wise to choose the interpretation that is most tolerant and fair.”

    It seems like common sense, doesn’t it? If only.

  5. […] How Unnoticed Privileges Contribute to a System of Oppression (via arzitekt) This entry was posted in Uncategorized by sister. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  6. Salma says:

    im only 25, from south africa. i would like to think that i still have a lot to learn but the above points seem fair enough. i studied criminology (gender based violence). If my mission is eradicate crime against women (by rethinking about how we interpret religious laws), surely this is a good thing no?? the amount of women and children seeking medical services is so alarming in my country..these rigid religious beliefs should think of the consequences it places on women. It’s as though there’s a battle between the sexes in Islam, where our men like feel one above…but acting like such to an extreme is surely an ego.no?

  7. Sian says:

    I love this article. It’s been a long time since I checked your blog :)

  8. Mariam says:

    Thank you Metis, your last line was a much needed boost for those seeking to progress their Muslim community. I am a young woman myself, born Muslim, who is finally opening her eyes to the world. And learning Islam in a way that actually brings peace and social justice. Thanks for writing your blog.

  9. […] From How Unnoticed Privileges Contribute to a System of Oppression […]

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