How do you hear the voices?

Islamic history is full of examples of early Muslim women asking for their rights, making complaints, bringing up their grievances and having their voices heard. Most if not all of these women were not rich or famous or from the aristocratic class. The first few Muslims were mainly from the poorer class who realised that Islamic system offered them not only security but also equality. In Islam every Muslim is equal.

So I was thinking today that Islam must have offered women from this poorer social class so much freedom and so many rights. But how much does the Islamic Feminism of today take into account the problems and plight of women from the poorer Muslim classes? This is not a rhetorical question. I am genuinely interested in knowing if Muslim feminists reach out to their poorer sisters.

Many Muslim feminists champion for the rights of their sisters who need help and have means of reaching out to the public for support – for example, Saudi women’s demand to drive or the gay girl in Damascus hoax stirred many Muslim feminists into action. But these are instances we know of because these people had the means to reach out for public support. What about those silent women who either don’t have the means to ask for help or don’t know how to ask for it. What are we doing for them? Would you like to share your experiences?

A friend goes to a different  poor area of her town every week asking women if they have enough food or medicine or even clothes. She has set up a local charity with friends who contribute graciously and she was telling me that she is surprised how many women need help but have no means of asking for it. She met a woman who had chopped off her thumb in a kitchen accident but had no nearby clinic for medical attention. Another woman had miscarried and developed a fever because the fetus hadn’t been expelled completely but her mother-in-law forbade her from going to the doctor because she thought going to a male doctor is haraam. A third woman was beaten by her husband who was a cleric and had told her that enduring his beating would earn her heaven. There was another woman who was taught that to massage her adult son’s feet was her religious duty! The friend is busy helping such women through donations and also dispelling myths by hiring a female scholar who goes to such women and teaches them about *real* Islam and how many rights their religion gives them.

Here is the surprising part – this friend has never heard of Islamic Feminism! It made me wonder if the ‘Movement’ is exclusively a Western construct. What do you think? When I told her about my research she was completely surprised and asked me if I think she was a Muslim feminist.

I told her she is one of the best I know.

Challenging misogyny

Most people are ill-informed about Islamic Feminism and wrongly assume that Muslim feminists are people who are not faithful to Islam and want to change the religion. To be honest not all Muslims feminists agree with each other and this is something I find very beautiful about them.

But there are topics where almost all Muslim feminists would unite. Such topics are reasons why at least I feel that Islamic Feminism is absolutely necessary. One such topic on which most MFs would unite is that of the Hoor-el-ain (the Heavenly company reserved for Muslim men). MFs have understood these mystical beings in various ways. Amina Wadud thinks that they are mythical creatures mentioned only initially in Meccan verses to allure men to accept Islam. Hasan Al Basri understood them as earthly wives repackaged as beautiful mystical creatures in Heaven. Mohammad Asad saw them as both male and female company for Muslim men and women.

Yesterday I linked this post by Tazeen, a Muslim Pakistani woman on Metis’ Facebook Page. The post titled “The Heavenly Orgy” is full of anger and disappointment which is not unfounded. I don’t want to paste the entire post here but what I found most important is at the end,

“In a deeply segregated society like Pakistan, such misogynist perversions actually form the basis of inter gender relationships. What we take from this video is: all men are supreme beings, women are filthy and not worth the time, piety is only good to get you laid in the afterlife and repeated use of the word istemal [use] indicates that women will continue to being used as commodities in the paradise.”

To be fair, the cleric does refer to ahadith that can be found in various hadith compilations and at least once he makes a reference to Quran 38:52. But the manner in which he uses those ahadith to belittle women and call them filthy, dirty whores in very unfortunate. For one, many Quranic commentators including the respected Muhammad Asad think that Quran 38:52; 37:48 and 55:56 are allegories that apply to both men and women who will be “rejoined with those whom they loved and by whom they were loved in this world.”

From the various Islamic traditions on Hoor-el-ain (most of which you can find on this link and also see this link) vivid descriptions about the Hoor-el-ain can be found. One thing that is most evident to me is that, like Tazeen even insinuated, the Hoor-el-ain are what a human female can never be. These myths, having originated in Arabia, ensure that an Arabian woman knows that she can never be alabaster white. No woman can “revirginate” after every sexual intercourse; neither can she continue to have an “appetizing vagina.” Women do and will continue to sweat and excrete waste. They will continue to give birth to blood smeared babies and much that men would want, they are not currently “busy deflowering women” all the time. This may affect the psychology of an earthly woman on an unconscious level. The skin whitening soaps; hymen reconstruction surgeries; vaginal constriction creams; kohl dipped eyes; breast lifting surgeries; and the incessant debates that a woman must never challenge/upset her husband and must never refuse him are, I think, the indirect effects of deep inferiority complexes with which many women suffer.

I have always said that Muslim feminists have existed from the beginning of Islam demanding that the Quran address women just as it addresses men; creating the need for strict action against slanderers; establishing the practice of forbidding polygyny in marriage contracts; and asking that the Quran also commend the migratory efforts of women from Mecca to Yathrib as it commended the efforts of men. However, for just as many centuries misogynist interpretations, additions and interpolations into Islamic scriptures like those about the Hoor-el-ain have also made women feel that they “are filthy and not worth the time [and that they] will continue to being used as commodities [even] in paradise.”

This is why Islamic Feminism is so necessary. We need Muslim women and men to challenge anything and everything that reduces women to chattel.