Imran Shah is a political blogger. You can follow him on Twitter @ImranShah884
Political commentator Imran Shah says there is a severe deficit of Muslim women in our scholarship and in our public life. And he reflects on the massive ramifications of that on how we practice Islam in our societies, how we relate to our sisters and how they relate to themselves.
No other ideology is more explicit about the value and dignity invested in women than Islam. In our history there’s a rich record of Muslim women in public life and especially in scholarly pursuits. Thousands of names come to mind but to name a few: Ibn Taymiyyah received hadith from numerous women and held them in very high esteem for their knowledge, understanding, piety and intelligence; Umm Zaynab Fatimah bin Abbas al-Baghdadiyyah received utmost praise from Ibn Kathir and Ibn Taymiyyah for the same criteria and held their opinion on par with any great scholar of their time.
Many female scholars such as Fatimah bin Qays, were able to demonstrate great depth of mind in memorising a vast number of hadith, some extremely long. Consequently they were authors of books that were held in great pride by their male and female students. There are cases where female scholars regularly intervened in courts publicly to prevent miscarriages of justice. And an Ummayed caliph studied under Um ad-Darda. In short, female scholars were fully celebrated and respected on merit.
Even travelling as part of their scholarship was commonplace, whether it was to schools, masaajid, retreats, different cities or other people’s homes. There is little or no evidence of any hindrance put upon them, even after marriage. But today there are so many stories of female scholars not being allowed to teach beyond their home due to being “obedient to the husband.”
I’m focusing on scholarship for a reason. This is where the Muslim identity (and therefore its direction and capacity) is defined. What is permissible for female scholars, the best of professions, sets a precedent for women pursuing other roles. If Muslim female scholarship in an active public role is no longer seen as a dignified route for women (and hardly ever is), how can women hold other public roles?
For many women, their pursuit of public life is seen as shameful and even at times sinful in the eyes of their community. Yes, this is cultural baggage, but when our religious institutions reinforce this it means they have assimilated bad culture into Islam.
And it does not just affect public life, but also how women are viewed and therefore treated.
Let’s just take one example of the hijab. For brothers, it is about covering the body because a woman has to be modest. That’s it.
Sisters say, aside from seeking the pleasure of Allah, hijab is about being free from a social system that dictates their value as defined (almost entirely) by their beauty. And in doing so, the freedom to express their own individual identity, with peace and ease is found more with hijab. You see, it is not just about modesty, but ultimately about dignity. Dignity to be recognised as a woman and be treated with the respect, opportunity and reverence as any human being.
Perhaps putting it in these terms, us men could possibly fathom a reality that is never really told to us. How could we, as men, really truly understand what it is like to be a woman? Not just in the context of this society that imposes hyper-sexuality upon them, but just being a woman full stop. Just in the same way, a white person could not begin to understand what it is like to be a person of colour or a person born into wealth cannot imagine the struggles of the poor.
We need female scholars as they are far more equipped and able to give fiqh-derived solutions that are more suitable for our sisters in today’s cultural setting in ways a woman can only understand.
And yet the problem is even bigger than this. The brothers who constantly reduce the hijab to being about a body’s modesty are the brothers who conflate hijab with submissiveness, timidity and even muteness, depending on their cultural disposition. And the brothers who do this also tend to confine the woman’s role to just daughters, wives and mothers, despite Islam enabling them to be far far more than this.
Ironically, with all their religious righteous fever, they judge the value of our sisters purely by what they are wearing, to the point where sisters are even responsible for brothers’ modesty. How is this any different to how Western Liberalism current treats women?
When Islam is constantly being viewed via the “male lens,” the female will always be the external, the object.
Without the necessary representation of female Muslim scholars from traditional schools of Islam, the other half of creation do not have an equal share in directing and guiding Muslim identity and Muslim communities. Consequently, those who implement Islam (practically all male scholars who are largely blind to the cultural baggage of patriarchy) are vulnerable to assimilating those cultural notions into Islam.
Isn’t this is what we see abundantly today?
I am not blaming male scholars themselves. I know of many male scholars who want and try to encourage our sisters to be scholars. However, if they and the men of our community do not play the role of reforming our communities to allow and encourage women to aspire to this role, what is the point of their demands? Who else will narrow-minded brothers and fathers listen to? Certainly not female Muslim scholars!
Nor am I saying that male scholars are deliberately patriarchal (although some are!). The bias and the lack of understanding comes from simply being men and a lack of qualified female scholars to discuss such issues with. More balance in scholarship would change the way brothers would view sisters and sisters view themselves across society.
In a time when the imagery and narratives of women are being weaponised to demonise Muslims, Muslim womens’ empowerment through traditional Islam is critical. There are a countless number of stories of families pressuring young Muslim women to not wear the hijab, carrying narratives of being too “extreme” or fear of their children being radicalised.
Who will give these women and their families’ strong empowering narratives that already exist inside Islam? It certainly will not be men.
The problems and solutions of today simply do not remain static. They cascade and develop as society progresses. If we do not resolve these long-standing issues through an Islamic framework, they will ultimately be framed within the Islamophobic “reformist” agenda. In fact, they already are.
Ultimately, such a backward perception affects our ability to defend our own people. You cannot tell me that any man who does not value, dignify and work for the betterment of their women’s lives (as they do for him) holds any value in himself. He does not. Nor will he value a faith that states he must honour women in such a manner. Let alone defend it.
We have allowed culture to reform the practice of Islam for the worse. Our religious institutions substitute cultural norms for Islamic norms. Yet how could any man who does not appreciate the dignity that Allah has invested in women truly appreciate Allah?
I am not asking for every woman to be out in the public. I am only asking you to allow them the choices that Islam has accorded them. To empower them to be great and help lead our community. And most of all when they do, to get out of their way.
No human civilisation, no nation can ever be truly successful and morally upright if they do not allow half of their people to help lead their communities into their future.
It is critical to our freedom that we must change our ways.
Imran Shah is writing here in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter @ImranShah884