Whenever we talk of Muslim women, two dominant discourses reach our ears. The first is about women of the past who may serve as role models, such as Aisha, Fatima, and Khadija (ra). This perspective, which I call the historical approach, presents an ideal woman with qualities we should strive to develop, values that make life possible with more comfort and a deepening of our imam (faith). These values include wisdom, loyalty, courage, justice, perseverance, faith, independence, and generosity.
The second discourse is based on stereotypes and presents Muslim women as passive and without initiative. I call this the objectification approach, which says that Muslim women are oppressed and sees us as objects without voice or power, subject to the tyranny of the hijab (headscarf), and in need of someone to save us from the bondage of religion and from men, who, incidentally, are all terrorists.
I will not write today about the second approach because there is a lot already written and I think every Muslim woman like me has felt the pernicious effect of this prejudice in her life. Instead, I want to write about the historical approach and why is important to reinforce the recovery spaces that we have historically occupied and which lead to the obstacles we face today.
The historical approach gives fair honor to Muslim women of the past. Without them, and thousands of Muslim women in recorded history who are rarely named, it would have been impossible to develop Islamic civilization and expand our faith. Muslim women have been active agents of progress, social justice, and equity for the Islamic community. For example, Asma Bint Abu Bakr and Umm ad-Darda are highlighted as scholars. Belkis, the Queen of Sheba, is mentioned as an example of good government in the Qur’an, as are Radiya in India, Safiyya Jatun in Syria, and Amina bint Ismail in Malaysia, who were excellent leaders for their peoples. We cannot forget Rabia of Basra, who was the first mystic Muslim woman who gave up everything to seek Allah (her only love), reason, and truth.
But I have a question: what about Muslim women today? Where are we? How is Islam honoring us as women today? When I say “Islam,” I do not mean what the Qur’an says, but the practice of the Muslim lifestyle in daily life; our daily deen. How are we ensuring that today’s Aisha, Fatima, Rabia, and Belkis are participating in building the future of the ummah (community)?
Our Share of the Caliphate
We believe that Allah (SWT)* gave each member of humankind a part of the caliphate on earth, a share of responsibility and leadership to make the creation fruitful. Allah says to the angels in the Qur’an, “I’ll put a successor,” and without distinction, He has created humankind with the same freedom and duties. Therefore, the role of women in the Muslim community is not only an issue to reflect historically, but it should be done without delay.
This notion of caliphate, the core in the management of the world as described in the Qur’an implies equality between man and woman. It is involvement in public space, equal freedom. It is the responsibility to choose, manage, and participate in society. It is not easy today for women to take our place on earth as caliphs. Although worship is a duty and a right of every Muslim, there are limits in our access to the mosque. We face reduced participation in community meetings and decisions, even though the Qur’an gives women the power to participate in the government of the community. There is also gender bias in education in religious matters, even though knowledge is a duty and the right of every Muslim. In general, Muslim women are not trusted to be educators, counselors, mediators, or leaders; even though Allah (SWT) and the Prophet trusted us to hold these roles. When our sisters point this situation, the answer is always the same. Why you complain? The Qur’an came to improve the status of women. There are many traditions (hadith) that show that women could ask questions directly and offer their opinions in matters of religion, economic and social issues, which makes it clear that it is not Islam, but patriarchy that is preventing us from taking the place we deserve by right and filling our roles as Muslims. Limiting the contribution of women in the community and/or remaining indifferent and doing nothing to facilitate our inclusion as caliphs is ignoring the basic teachings of the Qur’an: social justice, freedom, and reason.
What Can We Do?
First, in spite of the numerous cultural forces to which we are subjected, Muslims should engage in self-criticism. If today’s image of Islam and Muslims is negative, this is largely because of Muslims themselves. Second, we must recognize the contribution of Muslim women to the Islamic community and humankind as a whole, not only in the history of Islam, but in our present and future as mothers, workers, professionals, scholars, sisters, wives, leaders, and activists as bearers of a message with unique voices. Third, we must recognize the diversity of Muslim women and humanity. While not all of us have the same talents, tastes, and abilities, all are called to contribute. This recognition must start with ourselves. As Muslim women, we must empower ourselves and each other around this caliphate we have been given. No one will do it for us.
To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, we must be the change we want to see and at the same time recognize the legacy of our sisters from the past. We must acknowledge that our role in history is being written today as we are taking back our caliphate without hesitation. Islam has honored women, and women have honored Islam. It’s in our hands to create a new legacy for the future.
*”Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala,” or “Glory to Him, the Exalted.”
Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Writer, Mentor and Community Educator in Capacity Building for Grass Roots Female Leaders and Advocates. A Muslim Feminist who is an Independent Researcher of Gender and Islam in Latin America on Feminist Hermeneutics, Muslim Women Representations, Queer Identities and Movement Building. She blogs in Spanish at Mezquita de Mujeres, a site dedicated to explore the links between Gender, Religion and Feminism as well to Women from the Global South as Change Makers in their communities.