In mainstream Islam, the ways and sayings of Prophet Muhammad are second in importance only to the Qur’an. There are two prophetic sayings pften quoted when speaking about the high status of women in Islam: 1) “Whoever has two daughters and treats them kindly, they will be a protection for him against the Fire;” and “Paradise lies beneath her [the mother’s] feet.” These sayings influenced a growingly famous Islamic scholar who stated, “When she is a daughter, she opens a door to jannah [paradise/heaven] for her father. When she is a wife, she completes half of the deen [religion/way of life] of her husband. When she is a mother, jannah lies under her feet. If everyone knew the true status of a Muslim woman in Islam, even the men would want to be women.” This quote is being reposted all over social media sites by both Muslim men and women.
On the surface, the quote is lovely. It works to combat the stereotype of the lowly Muslim woman who has no standing in her religious community. It is posted as proof that women have great status in Islam. However, this quote and the prophetic sayings also have a problematic implication. When I read these quotes, I don’t see them talking about the status of Muslim women. The quotes are very specific and apply ONLY to women who are daughters, women who are wives, and women who are mothers. The implication is that, even though Muslim women and men are from a single soul and have the same essence (the Islamic perspective), women still are not sufficient enough for praise, reverence, and respect just by virtue of being women. They must be some man’s daughter, wife, or mother in order to enjoy elevated status. What does this say to women without fathers, women without husbands, and women without children? It tells them that they have not yet arrived; they are goals yet unrealized. Simply put, they are not enough.
Another problematic implication of these quotes is that the daughter, wife, and mother are not valuable in themselves but only in relation to the men their lives. So, a woman’s elevated status is based on how she helps men; she is a pillar on which they stand to reach the gates of paradise. The father enters paradise because of his daughter, the husband’s religion or way of life is completed because of his wife, and the son’s ability to enter paradise depends on his making his mother happy. How does the daughter, wife, and mother benefit from these arrangements? Or should the fact that she serves an intercessory and intermediary function for men’s spiritual success be benefit enough?
The quotes can be further problematized if we delve into defining what a woman is. Quite clearly, cisgender women have privileges that transgender women do not enjoy, and the mainstream default understanding of the quotes involves cisgender women. I can only wonder how I might make sense of these quotes if I were a transgender daughter to my father, a transgender wife to my husband, a transgender mother or second mother to my child. Would my father, husband, and child still go to heaven through me or would my trans status prevent that?
Many Muslim women may look at these quotes and adore them, but I look at them and see women not as subjects in their own lives but as objects in the lives of men…objects through which heaven is attainable for the men. In the end, the objectification of women is disguised as reverence. Reverence has not avoided objectification and seeing women as tools of spiritual gratification for men. And, too many people in religious communities confuse reverence with respect. On any given day, this Muslim woman would rather be respected than revered in a way that is not attached to my ability or desire to marry or reproduce.
Jameelah X. Medina is a Ph.D. candidate at Claremont Graduate University. She is also an educator, author, orator, and business owner residing in southern California with her husband and daughter. www.jameelahmedina.com She is also a contributor to I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, a collection of 40 personal essays written by American Muslim women under the age of 40.