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.