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Is Feminism Compatible with Islam? (Series)

Being a Feminist, I Chose to Convert to Islam

Part One

Being a Feminist, I Chose to Convert to Islam

Before I embraced Islam at the age of 25, I considered myself a staunch feminist.  Most young women in my circle of friends did, and with good reason.

Throughout our childhoods in the United States, we had routinely witnessed grown women and girls like us being disrespected by males, sexually harassed, and denied opportunity.  The sitcoms, movies, and commercials that we grew up watching were rife with sexist jokes and portrayals of female characters who were either brainless bimbos meant to make people laugh, or scantily-clad sex objects meant to sell shampoo, beer, and cars.

In the business sector, male employees routinely earned more money than their female counterparts for performing the exact same jobs.  In schools around the nation, girls did not have the same educational opportunities as boys, and their capabilities in certain subjects like math and science were frequently underestimated and therefore un-nurtured.

When I was a young woman, sexual harassment was not yet well defined, but it was so ingrained in mainstream society that it was considered normal for a boss to make suggestive remarks to his secretary, for instance.  Even if he touched her inappropriately, it would have been considered unsuitable, but not at all surprising, and most likely not jeopardizing to his career.  Males routinely made vulgar jokes and comments to females, catcalled them in the streets, and used their physical strength or professional clout to force women into compromising situations.

All of this, for me and my friends, was difficult to endure, but seemingly just part being a female.  We learned to walk the fine line between looking pretty and “too seductive,” lest we be blamed for a man’s reaction to our appearance.  We learned to go to public restrooms in groups, for safety, and to carry pepper spray at night, and to avoid dark streets and deserted parking lots.  We learned that to be a woman was to be afraid — or at least on guard — on a daily basis.

So, why wouldn’t a self-respecting young woman in America yearn for a system that would help her feel safe, respected, and empowered?

What is true feminism?

For me, when I was in my 20s, “feminism” did not mean that I hated men or wanted to turn the tables and oppress them.  I simply wanted justice and general acknowledgment that women deserve respect, equal wages, safe environments, and the same educational and career opportunities that men have.

Then I started learning about Islam.  Like so many Western women, my first questions about Islam focused on women’s rights and the hijab in particular.  Why, I wondered, were Muslim women required to cover their bodies and their hair, while Muslim men could apparently dress as they pleased?  Wasn’t it oppressive, I wondered, to require females wear such limiting, voluminous outfits?  How could they swim, play sports, ride a bike, or do the other things I enjoyed?  Weren’t modest clothes symbols of a misogynistic belief system that meant to cage women up and prohibit them from leading a full and interesting life?

The way Muslims were portrayed in mainstream media confirmed my belief that Muslim women were even more powerless than Western women.  No thanks, I thought.  I’ll keep my own familiar brand of oppression . . .  and my blue jeans and t-shirts.

Alhamdullilah I gradually learned the truth about women’s status in Islam. I was shocked to learn that many rights — the authority for a woman to own and inherit land and property, to vote, to own and run businesses, to pursue an education, to keep her earnings and to spend them as she wishes —  were granted to women 1,400 years ago, centuries before Western women had similar freedoms.

I came to see modest dress — including the headscarf — as a way of submitting to the Creator while protecting one’s own dignity.  I finally realized that I did not owe it to society to look attractive and stylish, and I certainly did not owe it to strange men to reveal or accentuate my body.

Finding the answer in Islam

In learning about Islam, I was comforted by the fact that Allah SWT will judge people on the merit of their deeds, not their gender.  Islam, I discovered, is neither a patriarchy nor a matriarchy. Men and women are both subject to shariah, and both are given rights and responsibilities by Allah SWT.  There are certain leadership roles that are restricted to men; as the imams and qawwams (guardians) of their families, for instance, husbands are the heads of their households with all the rights and responsibilities that the position entails.

Qawwam means “protector,” not “dictator.”  I learned that a true Muslim husband should treat his wife as a beloved companion, not his inferior or his servant.  The example of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was the most enlightening; I was extremely impressed when I read about the way he (PBUH) interacted with his wives with kindness, love, empathy, and mutual respect.

“The best of you is the best to his wives,” the Prophet (PBUH) said to his believers. Given such advice from the best human and ultimate role model, how could any believing man be an oppressor?

“Muslims,” I concluded after embracing Islam, “don’t need feminism.”  In fact, I believed it was un-Islamic to call oneself a “feminist” since it was a Western construct that was only a necessity in a society that was not governed according to the rules of the All Knowing Creator of the Universe.  I began to feel sorry for my non-Muslim female friends who did not recognize true liberation.  I pitied the Muslim women who still clung to feminism when their deen clearly offered the perfect solution.

But, where are the Muslim men?

Nearly two decades have passed since I made my shahada (declaration).  Throughout eighteen years of living as a Muslim woman, I have heard countless stories from my sisters in faith.  Sadly, many Muslim women do not experience the dignity, rights, and status that Islam is supposed to grant them.

I’ve heard stories being whispered over the phone by sisters who are afraid of being overheard by their controlling husbands.  I’ve heard experiences second-hand, through sisters who have counseled and consoled others through abuse, abandonment, and divorce. I’ve read innumerable accounts in female-only Facebook groups where desperate Muslimas around the world are turning to other women for help escaping physically or emotionally abusive marriages.

Where are the Muslim men who are striving to be the “best” to their wives?!  They seem to be few and far between.  Somehow many Muslim men have convinced themselves that they are superior to women and entitled to selfish or even oppressive ways.

Megan Wyatt is a relationship coach who has counseled hundreds of Muslim women all over the world through her work at Wives of Jannah .  She recently wrote about the common thread that she sees in her conversations with her sisters in Islam:

“I am tired of receiving emails from wives who are treated like servants in their own marriages and family units, from both the husband and the in-laws,” wrote Megan.  “I have no idea who came up with this idea that a woman’s place is to shut up, clean up, and put up — but it’s NOT from Islam.  I get messages from women ALL THE TIME with the same story, same struggles, and same level of despair.”

Clearly, the mistreatment of Muslim women is widespread and deeply problematic.  As someone who loves Islam and tries to be an ambassador of my faith, I truly wish I could say that most Muslim women report having fulfilling and happy marriages where they feel valued and protected.  I would love to report to non-Muslims that the majority of Muslim women feel safe and comfortable in the streets, stores, schools, and masajid of their Muslim-majority homelands.

I wish I could point to any nation on earth where Islam is being implemented properly– at least in regard to gender relations.  But I can’t, and I don’t. So now — even if I don’t agree with it — I understand why “feminism” is persisting as a possible solution, a lifestyle, and even as a battle cry amongst some Muslim women, many of whom are devout and practicing believers.

To be continued..

About Laura El Alam

For the past decade, Laura El Alam has been a regular contributor to numerous Islamic publications. Her articles have been published in SISTERS Magazine, Al Jumuah, About Islam, and Muslim Matters. Her Facebook Page,  The Common Sense Convert, offers advice, support, and education for Muslim women, particularly new converts.

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