Wednesday was International Women’s Day and as expected, my social media timelines were full of posts appreciating incredible women and recognising their daily struggles in what remains, a male dominated world. From photos of human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney to posts about Khadijah (ra), the idea of feminism has become much more mainstream than in previous years, no doubt in part due to high profile campaigns, such as the HeforShe campaign led by the UN, the normalisation of the once taboo label by mainstream celebrities, and the evolving spectrum, such that extreme organisations such as FEMEN are not the only face of feminism. “Muslim feminists” have also secured their place within this discourse, and use this title as an avenue to promote the struggles faced by Muslim women across the globe.
Yet despite the plethora of issues women around the world face today, I still refuse to identity as a Muslim feminist, for the following reasons:
1. Islam doesn’t need feminism
It is irrefutable that Muslim women suffer due to misogyny and sexism. Whether at the hands of individuals, or in Muslim majority countries, our communities do not have the most just mind-set when it comes to the way in which women are perceived. This manifests in various ways; from crimes such as honour killings, domestic violence and forced marriages, to discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment in public and biased legislation.
But as expressed by countless scholars and activists, Islam itself does not promote discrimination or ill treatment of women. Problems such as domestic violence, biased and oppressive notions of “honour” pertaining to women, forced marriages and forced covering can all be traced back to certain ethnic cultures, and the interpretation of Islam through that cultural prism. There are numerous examples of women at the time of Muhammad (saws) and later in Islamic history who by this standard, would be flouting Islamic regulation, purely because they were educated, had businesses, and were active in the public sphere as judges, teachers, inventors and warriors. Rights Islam gave to women 1400 years ago such as the right to vote and inherit are today denied them in many so called Islamic countries for no ascertainable reason, all on the say-so of a few misinformed, culturally influenced shuyookh.
It is clear that we have drifted far from Islam’s perspective in regards to women. But as a religion, ideology and way of life, Islam does not need third party influence or a reformation of how to view women, and indeed, predates any identifiably feminist movement.
2. Feminism is too vague, yet also specific
This may seem contradictory at first, but bear with me. The fact that feminism has broadened into a spectrum, with topless, body-baring FEMEN at one end and self-proclaimed feminists such as Miley Cyrus and Beyonce at the other, shows that this movement is already considered too vague, such that people have developed individual strands. What it means to be a feminist, or whether an act is considered a feminist action or not is continually up for debate, as shown just this week with the furore over UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson posing for a revealing photoshoot on Vanity Fair. But how can such a broad movement, with so many different opinions and strands actually achieve anything in regards to the perception of women? If there is disagreement on what feminism actually looks like, how is this being preached to others?
Nevertheless, there are some aspects of feminism, which are very specific, and the first of these is that feminism is about the equality of the sexes. Muslim feminists and its proponents argue that this idea is sympathetic to Islam, as Muhammad (saws) said:
“Women are the twin halves of men”
but to take this hadith in isolation at face value is too shallow to be of any real use.
Islam’s understanding of gender relations is not to be viewed in black and white, equal versus unequal. Rather it is a complex and detailed study of the numerous Islamic sources and areas of law, i.e. the Sharia that shape the perspective in regards to women. From this, we can see that first and foremost, whilst men and women are equal, equality is not taken to mean sameness. In some areas, men and women have different roles and responsibilities, and this is why we see differences in laws pertaining to men and women, in realms such as inheritance law, dresscode and maintaining the household. Does this make women worth less? Not at all. It is no symbol of disregard or superiority that women are treated differently to men. Rather we should question why feminism has made men the benchmark by which women must judge themselves.
The second aspect of feminism that is specific is its emphasis on the freedom of the woman to make her own decisions, no doubt spurned in reaction to the idea of being submissive to men. Whether it’s her sexuality, her lifestyle, her clothing; to be a feminist means to support a woman’s agency to make her own decisions. But again as a Muslim (gender is irrelevant here), I cannot support the right of people to make choices that I perceive are against what Allah (swt) has described. I will not endorse the actions of others that are not in submission to Allah (swt), and nor will I encourage people to adopt acts of worship, such as donning the hijab, based on their own freedom of choice. The hijab is not a feminist statement. Rather we as Muslim must act according to our religion based on total submission to Allah’s obligations upon us, and ensure that our preferences are always aligned with what He has recommended to us. For Muslims, Allah is the only one who has the right to tell us how to dress, how to speak, how to behave, as men and women alike are servants to him.
3. What use is another label?
So on the basis that Islam does not need feminism as an external reformer, and that there are intrinsic aspects of feminism that Islam disagrees with, what is the use of having another label by which to define ourselves? Islam’s progressive understanding of women is something inherent in the Deen that everyone know and act upon, and we should reinforce that, not make it a subset of being a Muslim. We would not call ourselves “Muslim anti-racists” or “Muslim anti-animal cruelty” because we know these are things Islam already stands for. Why are women’s rights any difference?
Aside from this, Allah (swt) has honoured us by giving us the title of “Muslims”. As He (swt) says in Surah Hajj verse 78:
It is Allah who has named you Muslims, both before and in this revelation; so that the Messenger may be a witness for you, and that you be witnesses for mankind
If Allah (swt) has given us a name, then it needs no addition, we do not need to qualify that title.
The purpose of this article was not to expose what Muslim feminists are thinking. They are a varied group, each interpreting it in their own way, and many purely see it as a label with which to shed light on the issues our community face, and even show how Islam has the solution to these problems. But regardless, I believe it would be simpler and more effective if we were to do away with this foreign label, and instead actively engage in our societies to seek the justice women are so badly lacking, looking only through the lens of Islam, which ultimately holds the solutions to all our problems.
 Narrated by al-Tirmidhi, 113; Ahmad, 25663