The following will be cutting and uncomfortable. Though the whiff of such an acrid truth may be unpleasant to some of you who read this, it is a scalding draught we have had to quaff since we were young children. Therefore I will not glaze with sugar a matter that is bitter in order to appease the sensitivities of those who are accustomed to only receiving the artificially sweetened assurances from their counterparts that everything is going swell.
Often I will employ the use of the pronoun “you” to drive home a point I’m making, but as many of you who read this are people I respect and admire, I of course don’t mean all of you. Not all men adopt such prejudices, and many are working hard to remedy the sexism prevalent in the world, but if you happen to read something that reflects your outlook, then please take it personally. I have no particular person in mind when I write this, but the crooked system as a whole.
Misogyny should not be the status quo. To shrug it off as something that “just is” is to perpetuate oppression while you watch from a safe height. You may not think of yourself as one who hates women or oppresses them, but you may be surprised at how much you are contributing to their suffering through your passive indifference.
I should also note that I’m not speaking from the perspective of someone who aspires to be a public speaker, as I have neither the talent nor the credentials – much less the courage. I speak for, if I may be given the liberty, my sisters who do have such aspirations, and those of us who direfully need more voices on the pulpits speaking on matters that are actually relevant, and not altered to fit the existing state of affairs.
Men are superb teachers, may Allah swt bless and protect them. Almost all of the Muslim teachers I learn from are men. I don’t seek to downgrade their hard work nor do I claim that what they have to say regarding the female experience is irrelevant, but oftentimes our well-meaning brothers land their arrows way off the mark. Often, real issues are glazed over and the words women express to them are presented to the masses with a heavy coating of patriarchy. This is why it’s imperative to have more of our voices on the pulpits and in front of screens to speak about what actually matters to us, rather than what others think matters to us from their own biased observations – or from what they were told by other men.
Many successful teachers we follow today have credited their mothers for imparting knowledge and love of religion. That’s beautiful and worthy of much respect. But it’s not enough. Better than this is if some of our speakers step a little to the side and share the screen with the women to whom they owe credit. Do your sisters not have ambition and drive as well? Have they not also been taught by the same excellent parents that made you great? Where are they to be found? While you bask in the spotlight, they are behind the curtain doing half the work with none of the recognition.
Recognition is not something to aspire to nor do we covet it. It’s the option that we lack. We cannot choose whether or not we want to be in the spotlight because you have taken that choice from us. How many women have an unquenched desire burning in their hearts to do something for their religion – to have their voices heard and teach in large gatherings like you do – but are reduced to the provincial, homely life? You say she chooses to be private. That may be true for some women but not all. The rest say they “choose” it because the pie is already baked for them, and the only option is to take it or reject it. They choose it in the same way they chose to be female in a patriarchal society.
Undoubtedly, there are repercussions to being a public speaker, especially in mixed gatherings. A woman will have a miserable time in this sphere. People can be awful and nasty and extremely unwelcoming. Nevertheless, let her choose. We cannot accept misogyny as an unalterable reality and let disdain of women ferment in our community without doing anything to remedy it. It can be done; it can be fixed. Iran is a prime example of this. The station of women there, and their safety, is vastly better than in many other parts of the world, including the Western Hemisphere.
One may say that it’s unfair to judge such a small subset of the Muslim world such as the English speaking western community on its lack of female representatives. To that I say, our community should be foremost in female representation. We are a multicultural, multinational people who live amongst egalitarianism – we are the ones who should have equal amounts of male and female speakers on our pulpits. It’s admirable to invite, twice a year, a sister to speak for thirty minutes on mental health or nutrition or how to raise children. That, however, is insufficient. We need sisters to speak on the esoteric meanings behind Quranic verses, of the true essence of walayah, of the profound philosophy of existence. It’s good to speak of lateral matters, but better to have others who speak of the same vertical concepts our brothers discuss.
In some seminaries, there are more female than male students. If that’s so, where are they to be found? Why are the women who excel in their studies reduced to only teaching their families at home? Or female-only gatherings that are not recorded for other women to benefit from? There’s nothing problematic in teaching only girls, but more women need to be here teaching both genders on public platforms. Yes, these teachers exist in the Middle East. We need them here. If they speak English, we need to recommend their names as readily as we can think of ten or twenty male speakers on the spot.
So what prevents women from speaking in public? Modesty? Whose idea of modesty? We certainly didn’t dictate that a woman in full hijab speaking with professional mannerisms to an audience of mature adults was immodest – you did. We didn’t hypersexualize women to such an extent that even her voice becomes a fitna – you did. We didn’t render women so weak and subordinate that she needs a man to act as a medium between her words and your ears – you did. Men are free to say and do what they like within the boundaries of decency and Islamic law – women, unfortunately, are not.
It makes me sad to think that the only women we revere in Islamic history are the ones directly related to great men. These esteemed ladies, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon them all, are pristine in their own right, touched by the Divine, and examples for all of humanity for all of time. They are, in addition, exalted for how they helped their male relatives, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon them, in establishing Allah’s religion on earth. Their contributions to Islam are astounding – from their literature and sermons to their courageous stances and trailblazing. Men and women alike emulate their lofty principles in hopes that we may reach a fraction of their greatness. The fact that these holy Ladies (as) were related to holy Men (as) made the impact of their work even stronger, and together with their counterparts, they established the most beautiful religion, in this writer’s humble opinion.
Yet, I sometimes wonder that if it were not for the fact that they are the mothers of, sisters of, wives of, or daughters of holy personalities, our history books would forget them. I wonder how many outstanding women of faith were faded from our memory because they stood alone. Our patriarchal society, the one that germinated outside of the pastures of Islam, seems to dislike giving women of faith their proper due. It is not that exemplary women don’t exist, it is that they are not remembered as they should be. Allah (swt) named a whole chapter in the Quran (Surat Al-Mujadala) after an inquisitive woman, but many of us don’t know her name nor her story because, perhaps, she had no noble lineage and marriage.
It is we who don’t honor godly women as they should be honored; our religion is not at fault. How many of us can name great women in Islamic history who were not directly related to great men? How many of us can name great contemporary women in Islam?
It makes me sad to see our community as a whole trip over themselves in admiration of non-Muslim women covering religious events while being deaf and blind to their own sisters. I’m not against celebrating new voices; I also admire their fresh perspectives. I am, however, saddened to see how much space was carved for them, how many words were exhausted in their praise, how much air time they had on our platforms, while worthier sisters – more devout, insightful, knowledgeable, and true to their religion – were looked over and taken for granted.
Do we wonder why so many girls have left the faith for more glittering alternatives? You give them no role besides being mothers and wives (honorable and noble roles indeed, but not accessible to those who are unmarried and childless). What do those with ambition and drive have to do when all they get are closed doors and scorn? Islam elevates women indeed, but you keep them low with weighty shackles.
The saddest thing of all is that I don’t see many English-speaking Muslim women who have what it takes to be public teachers, though students there are many. To think how many bright minds are hidden away under the guise of modesty while lesser minds take the place that should have been filled by them is enough to make one lose sleep at night.
We have prideworthy, brilliant examples of young men taking initiative in our communities alhamdulillah, and I pray for their success. It’s time that we extend the same approbation to our young women. It’s no small matter to grow up knowing that no matter how talented, intelligent, and full of promise you are, if you’re female, you can never reach the heights that are screened from you. A young man with the exact same capabilities would be lauded, supported, sponsored, tutored, requested, and booked by organizations across the globe.
A word to my young sisters who aspire to speak publicly: tighten up your act. You’re in a man’s world and must therefore meet male standards. Straighten your back, steady your voice, and speak with reason and restraint. You have a unique perspective as a woman and our community can really use the fresh insight you can provide, but don’t rely on uniqueness alone. Without forgoing your godly humility, prove to the world that your faculties are not inferior and that your reason is not impaired. Wear clothing that is almost sardonic in its plainness and don’t appeal to emotion when constructing an argument. If all of this is done and you’re still repulsed by our community, we know to Whom we can complain.