I am described as a dynamic, assertive, energetic woman. As a teenager, I did not necessarily want Islam to be a piece of my rambunctious identity. I was loud, crazy and fun and I saw piety and religiosity as opposite my most prized traits. At fourteen, my family decided we would visit Mecca for a holy pilgrimage. I was apprehensive; I feared that such a visit might make me somehow devout and that was the last adjective I wanted to use when describing myself. But going to Mecca was everything I never knew I needed. Seeing the Ka`bah transformed my life. And in an effort to maintain a connection with the Divine once I had returned back to high school, I began reading the Qur’an in the English translation.
Reading the Qur’an in the English translation changed me. The more I connected with it, the more I realized I had been blessed with my dynamic qualities so that I could channel them for His Sake by giving speeches and being involved with leadership and community activism. I became the student body president of my public high school and received an award of Student of the Year, presented by previous Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. I was involved in leadership activities with an ever-present hope of helping my greater society understand the beauty of Islam and the empowerment of Muslim women. I had been wearing hijab but now I began wearing it fully and taking pride in it as a symbol of my liberation. I experienced a newfound passion to study Islam because of the empowering message I experienced from the Qur’an, to me as a female, and I wanted all to know that Muslim women are truly liberated.
And so, I began to study. I started taking Islamic classes constantly. The classes I took were mainly from one particular type of methodology and they specified that they were the only authentic source of knowledge. I thus started shunning information from sources other than those I assumed were specifically approved by this outlook. I also started taking private classes with those I considered to be the most virtuous Muslim women. What I did not realize, however, is that I was associating religious understanding with rigidity. Those who were the strictest, I had decided, had to be the most pious. From these sources, I began to learn things I had never heard before, amongst which was that a Muslim woman should not really leave the home1 and that women should not be outspoken, particularly in front of men.
The more I learned, the more I changed. I was no longer the energetic, excitable woman who shared her love of Islam with all those around her. Instead, I became insecure. I thought that God had not blessed me with all of my qualities so that I could help people around me see the beauty of Islam; I worried that God had given me these qualities to test me in life, to see how much of it I could contain, how much of it I could ensure would never be seen in public. I wrongfully realized this was one of my biggest tests; hiding who I really was so that I could become what Islam really wanted from me as a Muslim woman.
I also learned, over and over, that I was a fitna (temptation, test) for men. Muslim women who I thought were very reverent came to me to tell me I should cover my face, lest men have distracting thoughts because of my existence (this was to be in addition to the large jilbab (long body covering) I wore and the scarf which went past my torso and already covered much of my face).2 With this newfound realization that I could possibly be the reason a man commits a sinful thought and that men and women should not speak unless out of absolute necessity, I stopped speaking to men as much as possible (including simply greeting my own male relatives, those who had raised me, who were not blood-related). Whereas I used to politely greet the men I would see on a daily basis at school, in classes or the security guards in the library, in an effort to help them see the beauty of Islam’s kind interactions, I now limited my speech to only what was absolutely necessary, and a greeting was not one of them. I was the President of the Muslim Students Association at my University because no other male or female would accept the role, so I tried my best to be as brief and mechanical as possible when having to communicate with men. I tried to cover my face as much as possible, a task that proved difficult because my mom, a strong woman, was shocked at my sudden transformation and feared I was completely changing who I was without understanding its consequences.
Her observations of me, those shared by my father and those who had known me since childhood, were of deep concern for my development and sudden, drastic changes. I had gone from a woman who drove to pray fajr and isha everyday in the masjid, from a woman who regularly performed spoken word and delivered public speeches, from a woman with an active lifestyle who held a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, from a woman who was known for her leadership skills and ability to mobilize people, to a woman who shut herself in her room as much as possible and who constantly lived in psychological fear of becoming a form of temptation to men. I was not afraid of men themselves; I was afraid my covered presence could be the reason one of them had an un-Godly thought.
I, on the other hand, dismissed the apprehensions of those who knew me best and loved me most. As painful as it was, I felt this was the path I had to take up if I wanted to be a righteous, believing Muslim woman. And so I made excuses for those who voiced their concerns; I believed that they simply did not know what Islam really taught- even if many of them had degrees in Islamic law or had studied Islam for years. What they were trying to tell me was the opposite of what I was being told was “The Truth” in the classes I had begun taking and in the books and websites I had started reading.
Aside from the religious teachers who espoused the methodology to which I had ascribed, there was one Imam who recognized the difficult path I had put myself on. He personally continually checked in with me, reminding me of the differences of opinions, of the comprehensive nature of Islam, of the easygoing nature of the Prophet ﷺ. I saw him as my greatest spiritual role model and mentor, but I was entrenched in my personal outlook and had trouble changing my perspective and habits. However, I would cling onto his words as if they were the lifeboat of a person who was drowning. Even if I couldn’t get to coast at that point, I still felt like in the future, there could be a way back to shore. While it took time, his counsel planted seeds that stemmed and helped ground me in the stages to come.
It was around this time that I took a class in college titled Islam, Women and Sexuality. The only reason I enrolled in this class was so that I could defend Islam if necessary (you know, since I knew everything). In the class, I was suddenly exposed to information I had never heard before; the Professor introduced certain information on women in marriage, in divorce and in child custody. I had never heard of the issues she brought forth, but they sounded far from liberating. I had no tools through which I could defend my religion. All I knew was that I felt she was wrong, and that whatever scholar she had quoted was mistaken or misunderstood.
It was in that class, for the first time since I had decided I wanted to fully live Islam and dedicate my life to it, that my faith was challenged. I began to have doubts in Islam’s empowerment of women and I was afraid to speak them aloud because I feared they would become tangible. I knew Islam was the truth; the science in the Qur’an, the power of its message, the miracles of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his life, it all resonated so strongly in my mind and heart that I knew it was from the Divine. But it was painful to consider Muslim women not truly being liberated in what I considered the most liberating religion. So out of fear, I intentionally ignored my doubts and focused on what I knew brought me spiritual exhilaration, and that was memorizing the Qur’an.
By now, I had been reading the Qur’an in English for about six years. At this point, I could understand the basic message but I knew that if I wanted to understand it in depth, and if I wanted to become a Muslim scholar (as I did, bar the whole studying about women thing), I would need to learn Arabic. Thus, after college, I was blessed with going to Egypt to study Arabic and Qur’an. And there, it was the first time I finally witnessed what it was like for Muslim women to live in a Muslim-majority country, where there was no huge separation of religion in daily interactions and in life in general.
You see, when I learned about a Muslim woman’s true liberation being in her home, with her empowerment being her ability not to attract men, I really only saw those things in practice by certain groups in the mosque in my American hometown. I knew how to act in the mosque, but my interactions became a little more confusing when I was in any other public space. Yet in Egypt, I experienced something completely different; Islam present in social interactions throughout society. In Egypt, Muslim businesswomen interacted with male clients without awkward harshness and vice-versa. I saw normalcy in their society; spontaneous human reactions to harsh living, to jokes, to social issues. Muslim women in hijab, in niqab, in khimar, all were a part of the social fabric. My Arabic teacher was a lover of the Qur’an, a strong believing Muslim woman who covered her face and was a mother, and she passionately would remind me of the vital role of Muslim women in transforming society for the best and the need to sacrifice to be a part of the struggle.
In Egypt, I began to find myself again. My Arabic teacher, whose knowledge of Islam I deeply respected, helped me understand that conversation was necessary for me to improve on my language skills. Thus, I spoke to everyone, all the time, including men. I spoke to taxi drivers and asked them about their life stories, I stopped men from a physical fight when they were screaming over whose turn it was in line. I ran, shouting to intervene when I saw a man kicking a guy in the stomach, helped men take care of their families’ needs and travelled in microbuses full of men because I needed to get where I needed to go. I was never treated disrespectfully by men. I had to depend on them and constantly interacted with men and women of the Egyptian society to help me figure my way around and my dependency was returned with incredible kindness and professional respect. In fact, twice, when I heard two different men, on two different occasions, calling out to me, expecting that they were trying to hit on me, I screamed in their faces: “Astaghfirillah!!!” only to see their shocked reactions and realize that they hadn’t even noticed I existed and were just saying something to someone else in Arabic. Yet I, being naïve, expecting men to hit on me since I was fitna (remember?) and not really knowing Arabic, had expected the worst from them and was trying to put them in their places.3
Additionally, learning Arabic provided me a gateway to Islamic literature that described Muslim women in the society of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him); a society in which dynamic Muslim women flourished. The materials to which I previously could access in English were often poor translations from the original Arabic, or information supporting only the viewpoint to which I chose to ascribe and in neither did I find descriptions of righteous women who had my personality and who interacted in society. The literature I used to read supported a certain paradigm, mixing culture with religion and supporting strict gender separation versus appropriate, kind collaboration. With this newly accessible material, I didn’t see the woman I had become; I saw the woman who I once was before I had become unrecognizable to my own self.
While learning in Egypt, I was incredibly blessed to continue learning from the Imam who worked with me while I was going through the changes I faced during my search for the meaning of women in Islam. It took time for his mentorship to sink into my heart and actions, but he continued to teach me Islam’s balance, reminding me that God describes us as, “a balanced nation,”4 and that the Prophet ﷺ, “was not given a choice between two matters, except that he chose the easier of the two, as long as it was not a sinful act…”5 He helped me understand that there is not necessarily one methodology that is “The Truth,” and helped me maneuver the differences of opinions amongst scholars, how they derive their legal verdicts and the influences that may impact their opinions. His mentorship was vital to protecting me from losing myself completely while on this journey and helping me find myself again.
My return back to America was marked with transformation. I finally acknowledged what I had first learned of the role of Muslim women had scarred me psychologically as I had immediately tried to change myself and my lifestyle to fit some sort of image I had been told was that of a pious Muslim woman, but was not necessarily so. I finally understood that the harshness I saw in whom I assumed were pious Muslims may have, in fact, been a misunderstanding of Islam as simply a set of regulations or Islam practiced under a different cultural backdrop than to which I had been accustomed.
And it is very important that I clarify that the way of life I assumed from what I learned was not completely due to what I learned or who I learned it from; I absolve them of my obstinate tendencies. My actions may have been rooted in a personal misinterpretation of what I learned, where I failed to differentiate the universals of Islam with its particular manifestations in a given culture, something that comes after deep study. And it is imperative to note that I am not intending to draw parallels between women who choose to cover their faces and stay at home most of the time with the difficult transition I went through. That is not at all true; all of those women contribute to communities in incredible ways, may God bless them all. Such awesome women deal with so many stereotypes from within and outside of the Muslim community already and it is not at all my intention to add to that stereotype. The issues I encountered were not because of covering the face and staying in the home; rather the issues were due to a mentality, a paradigm, a methodology that I was taught in relation to my role as a Muslim woman. This individual narrative is not meant to condemn that respectable lifestyle; my personal experience should not be used to generalize the experiences of other Muslim women.
In the years after my return from Egypt, I was blessed to interact with quality scholars who understood our Islamic texts and our American culture; whose wisdom and qualified research allowed them to teach Islam as related to Muslim women in ways that reflected the beautiful psychological, emotional and spiritual empowerment of women in the Prophetic society and how to best translate that practice in North America. I was also incredibly blessed to marry my hero and beloved husband, someone who comes from a wonderful family grounded in living the spirit of Islam. They, along with my own cherished family, relatives and understanding friends supported me through my slow changes and provided resources to help me find myself and the core values of Islam as they related to my life again. I mention this to explain the absolute necessity of supportive mentors and loved ones in order to sustain positive change.
Through these experiences and the support of loved ones, I found who I truly was again. I found Maryam; the dynamic, assertive, energetic woman who knows without a doubt that Islam is empowering, who wears hijab for the sake of God, not for the sake of men, and who understands that the qualities God blessed me with were not meant to be locked up and hidden, but rather to be used appropriately for His sake.
I understand that some of you may disagree with my reflections; I understand because I once felt the same way and fully am aware of how it was the only truth to me, and is for many. I still respect you for your perspective. Even if I now differ, you are my brother and my sister.
Yet I am approached, over and over, by youth and young adults who are confused, struggling to figure out who they are, and are doubting Islam in its entirety stemming from the very notions I mentioned above; they do not know who to speak to about the doubts that continue to persist, nor do they know what to think when they feel spiritually bullied. Those who approach me most are young women who are nervous about the way they hear Islam and women presented by religious figures and are struggling with doubts towards Islam’s empowerment of women in the face of religious guidelines that seem the opposite.
This article is geared towards that group of individuals. I am detailing my personal story because I did not hear one like it from another woman while I was struggling. What I heard was of women who became strictly devout and then eventually left Islam completely. Or decided they could no longer wear hijab or other related coverings and chose to remove them because they could no longer take it. While I was going through those stages, I used to wonder about those women, worrying that perhaps like them, my “eman (faith) wouldn’t be strong enough” and I too would change. Now I understand that such painful experiences may have left many a woman searching, seeking to find comfort and healing, yet feeling stripped of the only thing they could have ever imagined finding that security in- their belief.
And this brings me to important points which I believe are essential for any Muslim, male or female, to consider when learning women’s issues in Islam.
5 Tips for Rethinking Studying Women’s Issues in Islam:
- Understand the context and that there are differences of opinion.
- Understand the context of Qur’anic verses or Prophetic traditions. It may seem really confusing or in fact, quite opposite what we have learned Islam teaches. Before jumping to conclusions, first learn why it was revealed, why the ruling was given at that time and place, the wisdoms or the understandings that stem from that, and different interpretations from the scholars. But also understand that as a scholarly interpretation and not necessarily, “Islam’s one and only viewpoint on this entire subject.”
- As such, know there are legitimate differences of opinions. All that I mentioned here: a woman’s place being the home, covering the face, certain marriage, divorce and custody laws- all of those things are legitimate opinions based on proofs derived by qualified scholars. Are they the only opinions? No. Are they “The Ultimate Truth”? No. Should they all be respected and appreciated as legal rulings derived from legislative texts? Yes. Do they all need to be applied to your specific life? That is something you have to research and, with the help of qualified teachers and loved ones, decide.6
- Find a mentor.
- A Qur’an teacher or your masjid’s Imam is not necessarily a qualified legal scholar. Simply because a person is in some type of religious position, or seems “religious,” does not mean they are qualified to give you legal rulings, or that what they teach is applicable to your situation. Take your religious knowledge from those qualified and those who combine that qualification with a keen understanding of the social reality in which you live.
- Learn about the historical legacies of Muslim female scholarship.
- Muslim women have been scholars, muftiyahs (female of “Mufti”- ever heard they exist before?) and qari’ahs (female for “Qari”- or Qur’an reciter) for centuries. Some of the greatest male scholars, whose names are oft celebrated, like Hasan alBasri, Ibn Hajar and Ibn Taymiyyah, all had female scholars as teachers and contemporaries. We rarely hear about the women who taught all those men, but it does not mean they did not exist, nor does it mean they have to remain a secret or never exist again. It is up to you and me to change the way we view women’s interaction with scholarship in our communities.
- Here are books and audio I have personally read and recommend or which have been recommended by those I trust:
- تحرير المرأة في عصر الرسالة – (Arabic only) for all those ayat and ahadith you’ve heard misquoted or in the wrong context, for which have placed doubt in your heart or mind.
- Al Muhadithaat by Shaykh Mohammed Akram Nadwi- for thousands of examples of female hadith scholars throughout our history and so much more.
- A Biographical Dictionary of Muslim Women by Aisha Bewley- to truly understand the vast range of positions Muslim women have occupied in Islamic societies throughout history.
- A Glimpse at Early Women Islamic Scholars by Imam Zaid Shakir.
- Audio: Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah’s Women in Islam series
- Audio: Abdallah Adhami’s lectures related to women in Islam.
- Have a support group.
- This is essential for feeling supported through what can be a long, confusing and sometimes emotionally painful process. (It took seven years for me to go through this process. It may take time for you, too.)
- Understand that negative rhetoric or policies surrounding women’s issues by community and/or religious leadership should never be linked to the Islamic perspective of women in Islam.
- If you hear something weird coming from a person in religious authority (ie: “If a woman gets her period while in Hajj, it’s a punishment from Allah for her sins.”): Be critical! Even Aishah (may God be pleased with her), more pious than all of us combined, got her period while on Hajj! So ladies, instead of doubting Islam when hearing things like that, remind yourself that many well-intentioned Muslim men (and women) are schooled in cultures where negative views of women dominates even religious circles and of course it seeps into religious knowledge. So study and actively work to help change our community narrative and understand that such rhetoric is exactly what Islam came to change.
If you have felt guilty because you had doubts, if you felt confused because you considered something in Islam (especially as related to women) oppressive, if you have chosen to distance yourself from the Muslim community because you simply could no longer take feeling intellectually, emotionally and spiritually judged, especially as a woman, I want you to remember something: God did not create you, as a woman, to punish you or to crush you or to make you less than men in His eyes. If anyone makes you feel so, then do not be the one who turns away from Islam or the community. We need your voices, especially, to help change the narrative many of our communities have when we especially address women in Islam.
Always remember: Islam does not aim to mute our personalities, rather, to enhance us. If we become unrecognizable to our own selves, we need to think critically on the messages we are accepting into our lives. The Prophet (peace be upon him) did not train people to warp into who they are not. Rather, he built people to become better versions of themselves. God brought you to Islam to help you progress towards a better version of your own self and to benefit humanity. Seek Him, study seriously under solid mentors, and be a means of transforming yourself and those around you for the best.
- The way I was introduced to the concept of ‘and stay in your homes’ (Ahzab) was one in which leaving the house for any reason other than strict necessity was inappropriate. So for example, getting together with other sisters for lunch was not taught as commendable because it was not out of strict necessity. The concept of a Muslim woman’s haven being her home is present in our text but sometimes misunderstood in the way it is taught and often practiced. It is not a black and white issue, as it is often taught. My statement is not in reference to the women who choose the hardest job in the world and become stay-at-home moms, nor is it in reference to women who nobly choose to be housewives and focus on maintaining her home. This is not the place for further fiqh discussion on this matter, but I did want to make sure to clarify in case there may be confusion by readers. We pray to discuss this issue in a future article. [↩]
- Note: I absolutely understand and respect women who choose to wear niqab (face covering) as a means of coming closer to God, as following the footsteps of the Mothers of the Believers (May God be pleased with them), or as the fulfillment of an obligation. My personal experience should not be taken as a generalized reason for which women wear niqab or other outer garments. [↩]
- I absolutely recognize the social problems Egypt has, but this article is focusing on my personal transformation through my interactions with Egyptians. Kindly keep your focus on that point. [↩]
- Qur’an 2:143 [↩]
- Bukhari [↩]
- Please note: this article is a personal narrative aimed to provide a perspective not often discussed in our community. The fiqh issues mentioned here are not covered at all in this article, as fiqh is not the focus. God willing, those issues will be covered in other articles. [↩]