I was reading the highly enjoyable piece on Mary Beard’s online sexist-troll slaying and couldn’t help but think how much I admire “mouthy” women. Most of my female friends and women I admire have not been the timid sort (beginning with my mother and my sisters).
Beard expressly reminds me of Amina Wadud who needs no introduction to readers of FAR blog and is equally hooked into social media. She slays trolls with a flick of the keyboard. In person, online, or in passionate academic prose (not an oxymoron in her gifted hands). Or what about Asma Barlas, who is also known for not suffering fools lightly and whose academic writing has likewise challenged received patriarchy in the academic, public, and policy worlds? In 1997, when activist Hadayai Majeed and three other women announced the opening of Baitul Salaam, the first Muslim women’s shelter for victims of family violence in the US, she was met with spitting and insults by the men in the mosque and sisters who turned them. She keeps fighting the good fight and raising funds (sometimes 2 dollars at a time) to help Muslim women and children in need.
To mention a few women of the next generation: Kecia Ali’s book Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam is a superb example in which she nicely disposes of the notion that Islamic marriage for the early jurists was about creating a fair, just, and loving household in the way that we imagine. In the same vein, Ayesha Chaudhry’s book on Domestic Violence does the same when she demonstrates how early scholars sanctioned wife-beating and then takes down contemporary traditional scholars who are unwilling to say those days of sanctioned wife-beating are over. And Sadiyya Sheikh envisions a gender-just Sufi cosmology through the work of the great Sufi master Ibn al-ʿArabi expressly at odds with readings of Sufism that can, and have, marginalized women.
The feminist work of the newest generation scholars also includes explicit critiques of the feminism that has come before them (a sign that Muslim feminism is alive and well): academic-activist Fatima Seedat who works on anti-colonial feminist analysis of Islamic law and publicly comments on contemporary issues. And fierce feminist theologian, Aysha Hidaytullah‘s book Feminist Edges of the Qur’an speaks loudly and clearly not just at patriarchy but in critique of earlier Muslim Feminist theology as well.
There is no space to mention all the Muslim women globally who tell it like it is. Asma Jahangir is a human rights activist for women, children, and religious minorities, lawyer, advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, and President of Supreme Court Bar Association. She just won the “Right Livelihood Award,” sometimes called the alternative Nobel. Academic activist Ziba Mir-Hosseini fights for gender justice through multiple organizations globally as a co-founder, board member, and consultant (such as the following). The women of Sisters in Islam (co-founder, Zainah Anwar!), Musawah, and those Muslim women who work with Women Living Under Muslim Laws. Journalists such as Wajeha-al-Huwaider, who have been heavily persecuted for pursuing justice for women. And women like photographer Samia El-Moslimany who through hard-won experience have sought gender-justice for themselves and other women.
Since being properly called out by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente, a powerhouse who blogs here at FAR, in the comments, I’d like to add a few names of the Latina Muslim feminists I know other than Vanessa who are blogging, tweeting, and speaking their piece: Eren Cervantes-Altamirano who writes for Muslima Media Watch. Here she writes about some of the identity struggles of Latin American Muslimas. I feel like a real idiot for forgetting Natalia Andújar who I first got to know when the woman-led prayer movement got started. She is a Spanish feminist educator, blogger, conference organizer and speaker. She was outspoken about feminism in Islam at a time when it was certainly not safe to do so.
There are all the voices of Queer Muslim women/female-bodied persons and those that support them out there such as the Safra Project in the UK, Queer Malaysians, The Inner Circle in South Africa (Amina Wadud writes about a conference there in her blog), or Salaam Canada, El-Tawhid Juma Circle, or MPV.
Muslim women have been changing their worlds by speaking out since Muhammad’s day.
There are some fantastic examples of early Muslim women with little patience when it came to important matters even going so far as to challenge God, who responded to their challenges through the Qur’an. Famously, a female companion (either Muhammad’s wife, Umm Salama, or Asma bt. Umays) spoke to Muhammad because God seemed to only address men in the revelations of the Qur’an. After this, the verses addressing the male believers and the female believers distinctly was revealed.
Mohja Kahf, another North American based Muslim woman who will not keep her mouth shut, wrote about Khawla who challenged Muhammad and God when she was dissatisfied with the resolution of a legal issue that threatened her marriage. Her challenge was heard, and verses revealed, and the chapter is even named after “She Who Disputed.”
After Muhammad’s passing, his wife Aisha told off the companion Abu Hurayrah when he recited “a hadith” saying that women, donkeys and dogs annul the prayer saying, “You have compared us to dogs! I saw the Prophet praying when I used to lie in my bed between him and the direction of prayer (1.9.490).”
There was a real appreciation for such women in pious and Sufi circles back in the day. There are a good number of stories told, real or imagined, about women who let great men have it. The most famous of these stories follow a set-piece in which, for example, Abu Yazid al-Bistami visits Umm Ali of Balkh (d. 240/854), the wife of Abū Hamid Ahmad b. Khidrawayh, to discuss the divine realities. He makes a comment about the henna on her hands at which she dismisses him sharply for falling prey to the desires of this world. These stories seem to be told with real relish by the very men who have been humbled.
Other stories told to highlight these great women, not criticize them, can be a bit shocking given modern expectations of pious behavior. The daughter of Abū al-Hasan al-Makkī (d. 224/838) nearly cursed a man who compromised her scruples by trying to trick her into taking his money by mixing his money with her father’s gift to her which she knew had been earned by ethical means alone.
[The man] said, “Then take the thirty dirhams from father just as he intended and return the rest to me.”
She replied, “If I could tell the difference between [his coins and your coins], then I would take it, but it is all mixed up such that I cannot tell which is which. So I won’t take a thing from it. Now I am going to have to eat from the garbage until the next season because that was all I had for this year. You will be to blame for me going hungry. Had you intended any of this, I would have cursed you! (Ibn al-Jawzi, Sifat al-safwa, 232)
One unnamed woman, who performed one hundred cycles of mid-morning prayer every day, recited a short chapter from the Qur’an 10,000 times a day, and stood in prayer through the night was overheard letting her husband have it for not living up to her standards of piety:
“Get up! Take care! How long are you going to sleep? Get up, you heedless man! Get up, you idle oaf! How long are you going to be heedless? I swear that you will only provide for us by permissible means. I swear to you that you will not enter the Fire on account of me. On the piety of your mother, pray that God has mercy on you! Do not slack, for God will decide your case!” Ibn al-Jawzi, Sifat al-safwa, 1011)
Even more shocking to our ears are the words of the famed Umm al-Husayn al-Qurayshiyya who reportedly visited the circle of the great Sufi Abū al-Qāsim al-Nasrābādhī and berated him with criticism until he snapped at her to be quiet, to which she replied, “I will be quiet when you are quiet!” (Cornell, Early Sufi Women, 224).
Hearing these examples of these powerful women it is little wonder that men have concocted degrading fatwas saying that women’s voices are “awrah” and must be “veiled,” thus likening women’s mouths to their sex organs, and women speaking to something like spreading their legs. Yes, it is degrading, but I’m sure I’m not the first woman to want to own it too. Yes, the whole of my person speaks and they should be afraid. Because when women speak the truth mountains shake and even God answers our complaints!
I could only begin to share a few names here. I hope readers will share your own stories and stories of other Muslim women globally who would not and will not shut up.
Laury Silvers is a Muslim academic and accidental activist. She is a sessional professor at the University of Toronto for the Department for the Study of Religion. She writes on Sufism in Early Islam, as well as women’s religious authority and theological concerns in North American Islam. See her website for her publications.