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Why Do We Have Muslim Feminists?

Part Three

Read part one

Read part two

Detached from true Islamic thinking and brainwashed by cultural traditions, some men expect their wives to bear and raise children, cook, clean, and care for in-laws — all while having little or no decision-making power, income, free time, or chance for personal development.

Many brothers have come to believe that working 9-5 and paying the bills are their only responsibilities as husbands, leaving their wives with bulk of the nonstop demands of child care, household work, and meeting the emotional and practical needs of the immediate and extended family. They forget their wife’s need of intimacy, love, tenderness, and appreciation. While this is not how the Prophet (PBUH) lived his life, it nevertheless characterizes the predominant male attitude throughout many Muslim-majority lands.

Compounding the problem, males tend to have a knee-jerk reaction when they hear or read the word “feminism” and therefore cannot approach the topic of women’s rights without becoming defensive or aggressive. Feminism is not a concept that many men want to discuss, as it brings up ideas that are uncomfortable to confront. Some men feel like they need to distance themselves from the “bad” men who oppress women. They do not appreciate feeling attacked or punished for the actions of some.  “I don’t treat my wife badly, so you don’t need to tell me about feminism,” they argue.

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Other men equate feminism with “man haters” and resent the very word almost as much as they resent the feminists themselves whom they perceive as “stirring up trouble” and provoking “fitna” in the Ummah.

For every Muslim woman who speaks up publicly about being routinely harassed on the streets, or deprived of basic rights, or forced to work like a servant in her home, or beaten by her husband, there is a Muslim man who will oppose, shame, or contradict her. He will claim she is making the whole thing up, or that she is ungrateful, impatient, or a troublemaker.

This happens innumerable times on social media;  emboldened, perhaps, by the impersonal nature of virtual (versus face-to-face) conversations, countless Muslim brothers berate  women who have the “audacity” to complain about the treatment they receive.

“Why are you whining?  Women have so many rights in Islam!” the men argue.

“But our rights are not being upheld,” the women respond.

“You women are not perfect, either,” the men counter.  “And you ask too much of us.”

Try living the life of a man for a day.  Working, providing for a family, fighting rush hour traffic, getting yelled at by your boss . . . these are all difficulties that men endure.  Our lives are not easy.  And then you want us to come home and wash dishes, on top of it all?!”

The arguments between frustrated women and men can (and do) go on and on.

Islam is perfect, Muslims are not

Some men recognize and admit they are participating in cultural traditions that are un-Islamic and negative for women, but they are so entrenched in the way they grew up, they find it hard to create new habits and invent a new lifestyle.

Many brothers, on the other hand, have not learned to differentiate Islam from the culture they grew up in. They truly believe that a wife is required to serve her husband and his parents unceasingly, all the while raising his children, cooking, cleaning, and being constantly available for intimacy. Ignoring the fact that the Prophet (PBUH) himself performed household work and treated his wives like beloved companions, some men would not dream of cooking a meal, changing a diaper, or washing a dish.

To compound the problem, many Muslim women find themselves in humbling and dependent situations if they give up their careers to become stay-at-home mothers.

Why Do We Have Muslim Feminists? - About Islam

Please imagine the scenario:  you are a well-educated career woman who decides to marry. You agree with your husband to put your career on hold while you start a family. He will be the breadwinner while you raise the children — at least until they are old enough to go to school.

So, you stop working when the first baby is born, but soon after,  another baby comes, and another. For a decade or more, you do not earn any money because your new life’s work is unpaid homemaking. Your main job is caring for the children, but since you are home, you also cook, clean (the whole house, the laundry, the dishes), run errands, drive the children to school and sports, take them to doctor appointments, help them with homework, coordinate their school and social engagements, and much more.

You generally do not get weekends or evenings off; you are on duty whenever your children need you, which is constantly. Chances are that with one income (your husband’s), your family cannot afford domestic help. Therefore, in many cases, all that work falls to you, the stay-at-home mother.

If your husband is caring, supportive, and kind in addition to providing financially, you are probably willing and able to keep up the frantic pace. However, if he is distant, abusive, or not taking proper care of you and his children, then you are in an extremely difficult situation. You have given up your career and have stopped climbing the corporate ladder. Your skills are rusty, and your resume is outdated and has huge gaps.

You might have no money of “your own” to support you, and you know the courts can be excruciatingly slow to handle alimony and child support. Where will you live?  How will you pay the bills?  If you go to back to work, who will take care of the young children? Child care is extremely expensive. Besides, you do not want to remove your kids from their home or break up the stability of a two-parent family.

That scenario is the reality for countless women. That is why so many endure unhappy or even abusive marriages. The fact is, Muslim women who choose to give up or postpone their careers  in order to devote themselves to raising their children and taking care of their homes — both of which are promised great rewards in the hereafter– put themselves in an extremely vulnerable position in the dunya.

Therefore, it is absolutely vital that Muslim husbands do not take advantage of their wives’ vulnerability. As qawwams of their families, it is their duty to protect, support, and value the women who are dedicating their lives to a challenging and crucial (but unpaid and dependent) occupation.

Final thoughts

Clearly the worldwide Ummah needs a massive educational effort focusing on men’s and women’s rights and responsibilities. Cultural traditions and modern notions of gender roles have tainted the minds of Muslims so much that many of them do not know what their deen actually requires of them.  As Soubani explains:

“Instead of accepting gender norms in our community that are not rooted in Islam, and as a result brushing aside all forms of sexism, small and large, we should focus on establishing an environment that empowers Muslim women and recognizes their centrality in the Islamic tradition—historically, currently, and in the future.

Before delineating all the reasons feminism is not, and cannot, be compatible with Islam, we should redouble our efforts to understand the Islamic approach to gender, and implement it in our families, mosques, organizations, and communities. Instead of pointing the finger of blame at a feminist bogey(wo)man that is pulling Muslims away from their faith, we should first hold ourselves accountable for failing to behave in ways consistent with prophetic teachings.” link

Finally, men need to really listen to women and not dismiss their concerns, even if the conversations make them feel uncomfortable.  Effective listening to truly understand another’s point of view requires the listener to be open-minded, quiet, and humble.  Brothers should not take offense or shut down immediately if their sisters in Islam use the word “feminism,” since many who use that terminology actually wish for a proper implementation of their Islamic rights – not misandry.

While Islam is perfect, Muslims are not.  We must own up to our deficiencies.  When people who are feeling oppressed share their concerns, we must not contradict them or disregard their complaints.  We owe it to them to work tirelessly to ensure their rights and change our own behavior when necessary.

As an Ummah we are like one body who should feel each other’s suffering and work to alleviate the pain. It is the responsibility of men to listen to their sisters, take their concerns and suggestions seriously, and work to ensure that the dignity of women is preserved.  Until then, feminism will likely continue to be the “savior” that Muslim women turn to for help.


First published: March 2018

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.