In Praise of Mouthy Women by Laury Silvers


Silvers, Bio Pic FRBlogI 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.

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Categories: General

26 replies

  1. Excellent, Laury! Thanks for all these wonderful examples of real, live women who “speak truth to power.” I’ve always liked Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree) 1797-1882, born into slavery (New York) and became famous for her “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, telling it like it is. Thing is, it’s easier for many folks to admire women who only speak from the grave. Women, alive and well, pay a high price when we speak our minds (are “mouthy”), but it’s oh, so essential. Great essay!

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  2. The link you included, thanks Laury, to Samia El-Moslimany, says that she was the photographer of a famous TIME Magazine cover, published on September 19, 2009, and which showed two very different female Arabs standing side by side (one modern, one traditional). I located the cover at TIME Magazine: the headline reads: “SAUDI WOMEN’S QUIET REVOLUTION.”
    http://content.time.com/time/covers/europe/0,16641,20091019,00.html

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  3. Brava! All we hear about on the news is men who have apparently twisted Islam into a misogynistic pseudo-faith that enslaves women and is trying to take over the world. It’s good to know there are strong Muslim women. Heck–it’s good to learn about strong women in any religion who speak out and tell it like it should be.

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    • Thank you! We have to speak because it’s those who speak who make Islam what it is at any point in time and place. Whoever has the mic does the defining. We need to hold onto the mic and not let it go. But it’s more complicated than that as you well know. I am reminded of a friend who went to speak at her local mosque. She has a doctorate and was a professor at a nearby university. They put her in the back of the mosque with a weak mic. Needless to say she gave her talk over the chatting of others, men and women alike. It’s not just the mic, it’s where the mic is located, and it’s also down to others to listen. I probably would have projected my voice rudely into the mic to quiet the rest (because I am obnoxious), but that’s hard to do in a mosque-environment when you are already being pushed into a corner and implicitly told your voice doesn’t matter. Then the mosque leaders get to say, “We asked her to speak, but no one was interested.”

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  4. I am so grateful for this post, Laury, and for getting to learn about all of these amazing women. I love that they are mouthy and won’t be quiet! I was part of an symposium on interrelegious dialogue in which Aysha Hidayatullah and Zayn Kassam both took part. I loved them! They had a no nonsense demeaner and I learned so much from them both and was so inspired. They suffer no fools, that’s for sure! I want more of that kind of fierceness. And, Esther, you raise such a good point about the challenge of speaking up while alive as opposed to from the grave – but, yes, oh so necessary! Thank you, Laury, for introducing me to such beautifully fierce sisters!

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    • Thank you! We may be living in a time in which some of the worst people to call themselves Muslim have been alive, but we are also living in a time in which some of the best people to call themselves Muslim are out there speaking out, walking the walk. And Zayn Kassam is a great example! I am so glad you added her to the list along with Aysha!

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  5. Wonderful list. However and without intention of being a bitch, knowing I will be considered one after this comment, the fact there’s no latin or hispanic women (even I am talking of latinas in USA) confirm my impression that Muslim Feminism is still something that belongs to indigenous and I World Muslims and a matter where still we, some women historically under the label of Othering, must prove our existence and legitimacy, our “right to belong” and the “entitlement to have a voice”. I don’t see either Muslims Feminists from Spain, some of them with more than 10 years of activism. Whenever I see lists of comtemporary Muslim Feminists “doing great stuff”, and I have seen many since I started in this, I never saw a latina or a hispanic woman and the list is always chosen in base of race, qualifications and influence. If Islamic Feminism has evolved enough, is time to be more inclusive and doing some extra research. Some of the new are part of collectives according to ethnicity or other elements of identity. Like one girl from Colombia, called Aisha, who was doing a great work regarding the “Black memory of Islam” but she quit and moved to AfroLatin Feminism since noone considered her work as worthy to be promoted out of South America. Also, a girl from Mexico living in US who moved to explore her indigenous roots. I moved to Postcolonial Feminism since I got tired to be bypassed and see my sisters bypassed. Because what’s the point to be here if noone listen nor see you. There’s a wonderful new generation who don’t have the budget to pay Phds or travel to meetings doing great stuff.

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    • This is a welcome correction! Other than your Powerhouse Self, can you help me with some names? I have to plead ignorance [and forgetfulness]. But then, I have to plead ignorance in a lot of cases. I’m not much of a player in the local or global scene. If you look at works about Muslim feminists my name is not there, if the book focuses on North America perhaps I am mentioned in one sentence, but more likely only a footnote or nothing at all. I don’t go to global conferences. I don’t research much outside the academic work I do. My own activist work at this point is limited to our local mosque. So I don’t really meet the other women out there in the world! In fact, to get some of the non-US/CAN names of the most well-known movers and shakers I put out a query on my FB for suggestions. All to say, you are correct that my ignorance is my own responsibility and in taking on this topic I had an obligation to research it more thoroughly. In fact, I could have dropped you a message on FB and asked for help. I did not do that and I am sorry. PLEASE share with us the work of these women! Maybe you can share some more names now in the comments section and write your own post bringing their work to light in greater detail?

      Finally, I don’t understand the line about you being thought a bitch when your typically sharp contributions are exactly the kinds of interventions that I am praising in this piece.

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    • Yes, please name some names. It does not make you a bitch, informant perhaps.

      I only know of Abdennur Prado because of a beautiful essay she wrote called “Muslim Masculinities”.

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      • Abdennur is a guy, but guys can be Muslim feminists, too!

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      • Here you have some names I remember right now just passing by:

        Ndeye Andujar and Laure Rodriguez in Spain
        Eren Cervantes. Mexican in USA. She writes for Aquila Style

        In Latin America:
        -Aisha Erlendy. Colombia. Afro Muslim Feminist
        -Daniela Muñoz Rocco. Chilean. Working on representations and stereotypes of muslims in schools and high schools
        -Gisele Marie Rocha: Brasil, she organized the last year a protest against Femen and forced them to apologize formally for protesting in front of a mosquee and spread islamophobia. She’s a Niqabi and Bass in a Heavy Metal Band (Yes! Latinas are wild)

        Not a Muslim but doing a lot of research in Islamic Feminism:
        -Mayra Valcarcel. Argentina

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    • I’ve noted your correction in the blog itself and added names of women I know already and whom I should have mentioned. I’ll do some more research tonight, but I really hope you’ll help out here in the comments by telling us about some of the women you admire.

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      • I know I know more women but I can’t remember them right now. Also I will meet others soon. This is something it has been unfolding for a while and I am glad to know that I am not alone, just our land – latin america is too vaste sometimes that we find difficulties to meet and link. I know there is a woman in the north of argentina too. As I said, I have found some of them not in Muslim communities but in non-religious Feminists collectives, linked to race, sexuality or history. About the mention of being a bitch.. I think is a Pavlovian thing. I have been called such too many times for my sharp, non popular and annoying opinions and that has created in me a negative expectation on myself.

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    • Thank you! I didn’t know most of these names, and they ought to be better known.

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  6. This article is so timely, Laury – exactly what I needed to read before almost giving up hope for my community. Thank you for writing it.

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  7. I was really hoping readers would add names to this list! Please do!

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  8. I’d like to send a shout out to my favorite Mouthy Muslimahs. Raquel Evita Saraswati works against the systemic oppressions that Muslim women face globally, all while having her own safety concerns disregarded by agencies and communities that still don’t consider violence against women to be a big deal. I also have to raise my glass (full of White Privilege Tears, so tasty!) to Saliha DeVoe. African American Muslim women get stuck between the patriarchies and are subjected to Muslim-flavored misogynoir, and it takes an enormous effort to fight back.

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    • You too, Nakia. People may not know that Nakia led Eid prayers in 2005 and 2006 back when it wasn’t a welcome thing to do and people were afraid to have their picture taken for fear of being identified. Nakia continues to lead and educate women through her work online. Her work as a mother is as feminist as you can get…..she pushes against systematic oppressions to get what her son needs.

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  9. I love this post. Thank you, Laury, for telling us about your favorite uppity Muslim women. And for adding the Latina Muslims to the post. This is a great example of the kind of real conversation taking place here on FAR.

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  10. I think you should follow up with a piece entitled:
    “In Praise of Men Who Strive to Make Space for Mouthy Women”

    All of the authors you listed, and rightfully so, were women. There are indeed some men that stand with y’all, too! Don’t leave us behind.

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    • I will either have a section of a book (the translation and introduction to the translations of Ibn al-Jawzi’s Sifat al-Safwa on men who backed up women or an article on it’s own. There were a good number of men who supported these women….starting with the Prophet, alayhi salam. Unfortunately, that we have evidence that they needed backing up (along with lots of other evidence, sadly) means that there was a concerted effort to keep women in “their place.” But there have always been men willing to walk the walk of the Sunnah.

      When I get there with the material, I’ll do a companion piece to this….maybe by my next post (I only do these quarterly so there is time). Thanks for the idea.

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