The Feminine in God by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente


An expert traveler knows that the best part of leaving is coming back. I am happy to open another year writing here again, after a necessary break, since writing is the way I maintain my strong ties with my critical spirit and this community that I cherish and has become through the years, my safe space.

Let me start with this. At the end of last year I was teaching a course on Gender, Women and Islam for social science students at a College in Mexico. One of the question I was often asked was: Madam, Is God a She? Continue reading “The Feminine in God by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

Muslim Men and Toxic Masculinity by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

Diseño sin título

Excuse me, but I thought you should know your misogyny is showing.

I have read with deep interest the article written by Ayesha Fakie and Khadija Bawa entitled: Dear Indian Muslim Men: We Need To Talk published by Huffington Post South Africa on March 7th of this year. I would like to add my two cents to this conversation, one that I believe is relevant and very necessary that we address as a community with genuine sincerity and accountability.

Continue reading “Muslim Men and Toxic Masculinity by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

Who Does Islamic(s) Feminism(s) Belong To? by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

Who does Islamic(s) feminism(s) belong to?

The answer to this question seems obvious: Islamic feminism belongs to all Muslim women who wish to adhere to it, and feminism is for everybody, as bell hooks said.

In reality however, it is not so easy. Even the most well crafted theories must be implemented by human beings who have been socialized under the Patriarchy’s rules and practices. Lived experience reminds us that feminisms of all kinds are marked by dynamics of power, internalized misogyny, lack of intersectionality, egos, and personal interests.

In this situation I wonder: Are feminisms, and Islamic Feminisms in particular, truly for everyone?

Continue reading “Who Does Islamic(s) Feminism(s) Belong To? by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

Reconstructions of the Past 8: Hafsa bint Sirin (My Story of Her Life 3) by Laury Silvers

silvers-bio-pic-frblog - Version 2As discussed in earlier blogs, the sources tend to paint pious women as recluses for any number of reasons. No matter the intention, the message transmitted over time–in so many ways–is that pious women should restrict their social lives, especially their public social lives, even if that means restricting spiritual or scholarly engagement. But what I have been arguing over this series of blogs is that pious and Sufi women lives were not restricted in the way they are portrayed. Thus I argue that despite the messaging that silence is the mark of our purity, there is little historical ground for it. If we are to take the Prophet’s wives and pious and Sufi women such as Hafsa bint Sirin seriously as models for women’s piety, then there is no “sunna” of silence or social disengagement to be a good woman.

The portrayal of the tender relationship between Hafsa and her son is out of character in the literature concerning early pious and Sufi women. When children are mentioned in these sources, it is almost always in bare sketches depicting their service to their mothers, transmitting their mother’s wisdom, or, less often, distracting their mothers from their worship. For all the idealization of mothers in Islam from the early period onward, it is surprising to find this aspect of women’s experience missing from biographies devoted to articulating their piety. Even in those very few accounts in which a loving relationship is depicted between mother and child, like Hafsa and al-Hudhayl, the stories seem to be used mainly to portray the mother as an idealized solitary worshipper, not an idealized mother.

After al-Hudhayl died, Hafsa became close with her student Hisham who seems to have become something of an adopted son to her. She shared stories about al-Hudhayl with him which he transmits and are recorded in the sources. But these stories are not transmitted in order to demonstrate the tenderness of their relationship. Consider that Hafsa’s intent may have been to share stories with Hisham about her close relationship with her son, but the transmitter’s intent was first and foremost to show that she stayed awake all night in solitary prayer and that she fasted everyday.

Playing down the presence of children in these women’s lives seems to have less to do with de-emphasizing the women’s identity as mothers or grandmothers as it does with de-emphasizing women as embodied social beings of which motherhood is a part. Women raised their children as part of a community of other women, members of their extended families, and neighbors in which the shared experience of the cycles of life create ineluctable social bonds. Just because these relationships are not documented in the texts, does not mean we cannot logically infer the possibility of them given all the other evidence to hand.

Given the structure of homes at the time in Basra and the common practice of extended families living in related quarters, Hafsa, her son, and his family probably lived in a grouping of rooms with a shared courtyard and an area set aside for his camel. Her son visited with her regularly. Given the social roles of family members during that time, it is likely that her daughter-in-law helped out with cleaning and cooking. After al-Hudhayl died, his wife probably returned to her own family. Hafsa is reported to have purchased an enslaved girl to do the household chores after he died. This girl, about whom we have no other information, was asked about her and transmits a story about her habit in prayer. She was Hafsa’s unwilling companion. Her sister is said to have visited her often, and although we only have the story of the lamp from her, I find it hard to believe that they never spent time with one another as sisters do. Likewise, there are no stories of her and her sister Karima visiting each other or worshipping together, even though Karima was also known for being a devoted worshipper.

Her brother Muhammad’s wife is said to have been almost continuously pregnant and to have lost nearly all her children. These were hard times in Basra and Muhammad had little interest in business. His work as an itinerant cloth salesman seems to have been more of an opportunity for him to sit with other scholars and pious folk. His wife and children seem to have lived in dire poverty. Given Hafsa’s close relationship with her brother and love of her own child for whom she would grieve so deeply, it is hard for me to imagine that she never came to the aid of her sister-in-law. No doubt her sister-in-law’s own family would be there for her, but in this cultural context it would be expected that all the members of extended families would care for one another.

Perhaps more telling for the silence in the texts, we never hear of any grandchildren or her siblings’ children visiting her. She had twenty-two full or half brothers and sisters. A number of her siblings were also scholars and pious worshippers. It seems impossible that any of their children, not to mention Ibn Sirin’s surviving son who would become a scholar himself, never sat with her to learn Qur’an and Hadith as a child. Ibn Sirin sent his own companions to study with his sister, but not his son who would himself become a pietist and transmitter of hadith?  Just because these relationships are not documented in the texts, does not mean we cannot logically infer the possibility of them given all the other evidence to hand.

So despite almost no mention of these social relations in the reports concerning her, I feel comfortable assuming that Hafsa would have spent a good amount of time with her sisters, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, their children, not to mention her enslaved servant.

If my understanding of her life as filled with family, friends, and her students is correct, then it is impossible, as the sources report, that she only left her place of prayer long enough to relieve herself and get some sun. This claim becomes even more implausible when we consider that the very reports attesting to her extraordinary solitude are transmitted by people who so often spent time in her company: the young men who studied Qur’an with her on a regular basis. In particular, Hisham visited with her socially in her old age, learning from her, taking advice from this wise old woman, and listening to her as she shared stories about her relationship with her son.

Most likely, then, Hafsa stayed awake in worship from the evening prayer to the morning prayer, slept until the midday prayer, then received visitors, students, or visited others during the afternoon hours, performing the afternoon and sunset prayers at their appointed times. This schedule would leave her ample time to take part in the social life of her home as well as teach her classes on the Qur’an and Hadith. We know too that she traveled for Hajj several times in the company of others and visited the homes of elites in Basra. Finally, consider that at least on cold nights, her son, and then her slave, kept her company through the night feeding the fire while she prayed.

All of which begs the question, when was this recluse ever alone?

This entry marks the completion of the Hafsa blogs.

(Accounts are taken from Ibn Saʿd’s Tabaqat al-kubra, her transmissions of hadith, and Ibn al-Jawzi’s Sifat al-safwa).

The featured photo is of the Senegalese Sufi leader Sayyida Zeynabou Mbathie and disciples at a Friday ḥaḍra (gathering) and sikkar (zikr, dhikr). For more on the many female Sufi leaders of Senegal see Hill’s linked article or his forthcoming book Wrapping Authority.

 Laury Silvers is a North American Muslim novelist, retired academic and activist. She is a visiting research fellow at the University of Toronto for the Department for the Study of Religion. Her historical mystery, The Lover: A Sufi Mystery, is available on Amazon (and Ingram for bookstores). Her non-fiction work centres on Sufism in Early Islam, as well as women’s religious authority and theological concerns in North American Islam. See her website for more on her fiction and non-fiction work. 

Reconstructions of the Past 6: Hafsa bint Sirin (My Story of Her Life 1) by Laury Silvers

silvers-bio-pic-frblog - Version 2In this sixth reflection on the life of Hafsa bint Sirin and in blogs to follow, I will be emphasizing that her much praised great piety was not incompatible with social engagement, or even sometimes a good dose of family drama.

Hafsa bint Sirin was the oldest child of freed slaves. Her parents had been taken as captives and most likely distributed as war spoils to the Prophet’s companions, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq and Anas b. Malik. Because her parents had been enslaved by such significant companions, and after their release became clients and treated like foster family, certain social advantages were open to her that might not have been for a free woman of no connection.

Let me pause here to say that there is no point in pretending, as some do, that slavery in Islam meant that the people they enslaved or clients were “like family,” in any way that makes sense to us now. The wealth of legal injunctions discussing the rights an owner had over those they enslaved makes the point. Likewise, innumerable calls to be good to enslaved people in piety literature demonstrates just how often the free had to be reminded to treat those they enslaved well. Furthermore, conversion to Islam did not mean that enslaved people were set free. I make this point because I do not want the successful story of Hafsa’s family to give the impression that Muslims who enslaved others were somehow less ethically culpable than slave owners in the Americas, nor do I want to minimize the Hafsa’s own purchase of a woman for household labour (who goes unnamed yet is also a transmitter of her story). I look at Hafsa’s story to demonstrate how women’s histories were transformed and worked for elite male purposes, this includes the histories of those who were enslaved. I address this aspect of pious women’s history in my piece on pious and mystic women in The Cambridge Companion to Sufism.

It is often said that with the coming of Islam Arab tribal social hierarchies were upended. While this is true to some degree, in practice, the social levelling that came with Islam was more of a redistribution of status than the elimination of it. Social status came in many modes and often hand in hand with great piety and great poverty. Those who sacrificed everything to join Muhammad early on and fought alongside him had the greatest rank. Those physically nearest to him or his companions had the greatest opportunity to learn about him and transmit his teachings. So even a slave of a household of one of the Prophet’s Companions would have been able to establish higher social connections based on mere proximity to these elites than a wealthy free man who lived in outside Medina.

First as enslaved servants and then clients of close companions of the Prophet, Hafsa’s parents, Sirin and Safiyya, were able to claim such connections and Sirin was eager to make use of them. Sirin had run a coppersmith business before his enslavement. He seems to have been eager to reclaim his lost status. Safiyya was the perfect wife in this regard. She was an appropriate match as a former slave, but she would also have raised him in status through her clientage relationship to the Prophet’s best friend and father-in-law, the first caliph of the Muslim community, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq. Throughout her life, Hafsa’s mother enjoyed relationships with the extended family of Abu Bakr as well as the Prophet’s wives. She was so well-esteemed, it is said that when she died three of Muhammad’s wives laid her out along with other notable companions.

The depiction of Sirin’s wedding to Safiyya bears the mark of a lavish and somewhat awkward event. He is said to have held a celebration (walima) for seven days, most likely paid for by Anas b. Malik, which would have been ostentatious by prophetic standards. Anas was a highly regarded companion, a transmitter of many hadith, but seems to have a sense of wealth that was out of keeping with some other companions of the Prophet. It is reported that Anas demanded 40,000 dirhams or more from Sirin for his freedom. Sirin could hardly afford this. He was forced to go to ʿUmar ibn al-Khattab, Muhammad’s close friend and the third caliph, for help facilitating his release. At the wedding party, the esteemed companion Ubayy b. Kaʿb stopped by, bringing other companions with him and praying for the couple. Ubayy b. Kaʿb was an early companion of the Prophet, one of his scribes and the possessor of a personal copy of the Qur’an. But notably Ubayy refused to eat at the celebration, saying he was fasting, which would have been considered a slight directed at Anas. 

Despite this implied criticism, Anas held great status and was able to give Sirin and his spiritually and intellectually precocious children the best opportunities for success. Through her father and mother’s connections, Hafsa, her two sisters Umm Sulaym and Karima, and her brothers Muhammad and Yahya–not to mention her half-siblings, some of whom also transmitted hadith–would have grown up in the deeply intertwined social, scholarly, and devotional circles of the Companions and Followers in Medina and Basra. Because her family had access to these elite social circles, Hafsa had the opportunity to memorize the Qur’an by the age of twelve as well as sit with companions such as Umm ʿAtiyya, Abu al-ʿAliya, and Salman b. ʿAmir from whom she transmits hadith. Ultimately, she became known as a reliable scholar and a woman of great piety and was taken seriously in influential circles (as we saw when she argued the legal status of women’s right to pray the ʿeid prayer at the mosque).

Later Anas contracted a second marriage for Sirin to one of his former slaves, then, again decades later, to one of his nieces as a third or fourth wife, thus elevating Sirin from client to family. Given Sirin’s multiple marriages, Hafsa grew up around many siblings in what was likely to have been a bustling compound of rooms. Her father tried to make space for his children’s devotional needs. It is said that he built separate prayer spaces of wooden planks for her, Muhammad, and Yahya. But such quiet spaces devoted to piety did not keep Hafsa from family drama arising from Sirin’s marriages.

When Anas offered Sirin his niece in marriage, Hafsa was supportive of the match despite her mother’s clear objection. Hafsa may very well have accepted the multiple marriages. She may have felt some advantage to them given her close relationships with her siblings and the social ties it further afforded them. Marriage was primarily a social arrangement for families, not solely a matter of legitimating desire or love. Or she may simply be portrayed this way to promote what male transmitters would consider a proper pious response highlighted against that of her mother. Whichever the case, it is reported that when given the news, she congratulated her father for a tie that would raise them from a clientage relationship to family with Anas. But when Hafsa delivered the news to her mother, Safiyyah insulted Hafsa for supporting her father and retorted, “Tell your father, ‘May you be distant from God!”’

To be continued…

(Accounts are taken from Ibn Saʿd’s Tabaqat al-kubra, her transmissions of hadith, and Ibn al-Jawzi’s Sifat al-safwa). Thanks goes to Yasmin Amin for clearing up a few matters, including the nature of Safiyya’s message to Hafsa’s father [literally, may God keep you young, but meaning, may you be delayed in meeting God and so distant from God]).

 Laury Silvers is a North American Muslim novelist, retired academic and activist. She is a visiting research fellow at the University of Toronto for the Department for the Study of Religion. Her historical mystery series, The Lover: A Sufi Mystery, is available on Amazon (and Ingram for bookstores). Her non-fiction work centres on Sufism in Early Islam, as well as women’s religious authority and theological concerns in North American Islam. See her website for more on her fiction and non-fiction work. 


Reconstructions of the Past 5: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Women’s Withdrawal in the Literature”) by Laury Silvers

silvers-bio-pic-frblog - Version 2As I mentioned in the last entry, the textual idealization of women’s pious withdrawal extends to secluding women from public exposure in the texts themselves. Sufi and pious women were mentioned in very early sources, then dropped almost in their entirety. They do not (re)appear until the fifth century, and then only in two biographical sources in significant numbers: Sulami’s Early Sufi Women and Ibn al-Jawzi’s Characteristics of the Pure. As is the case with all biographical literature, their accounts reveal the editorial impulses of their compilers, both of whom emphasize pious withdrawal from social engagement in many of the narratives.

It would be wonderful if someone would do a full study on these gendered editorial agendas. To date, I have only seen Rkia Cornell’s account in her introduction to Early Sufi Women and heard Aisha Geissinger’s analysis of Ibn al-Jawzi’s biographies in a paper she gave at the American Academy of Religion in 2014. Meghan Reid’s excellent work is not discussed here because she does not take up a gender analysis of the sources.

Cornell argued that Sulami chose to emphasize the spiritual vocations of these women to strengthen their spiritual authority, whereas Ibn al-Jawzi tended to portray the women as emotional thus undermining them. Geissinger argued that Ibn al-Jawzi tends to present women’s interactions with the Qur’an in ways that reinforce stereotypes of women as less knowledgeable and their piety as more experiential, domestically focused, and individual. I have suggested that some transmitters and editors were protecting some women’s reputations by distancing them from their social contexts and their female bodies.

Looking at the historical context, although many Sufis believed themselves to be in the mainstream of the developing Islamic sciences, non-Sufis (and some Sufis) did not always agree. At times they faced serious threats. Many Sufi works, including that of Sulami (d. 1021), reflect an effort to explain or justify their rituals and beliefs and emphasize their sobriety (and marginalize male or female ecstatics). Sufis may have dropped women or portrayed them in a cautious manner to protect their communities from accusations of impropriety and to control a “proper” expression of Sufi experience.

Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1201) was virulently critical of Sufis. Nevertheless, he admired those aspects of Sufism that he saw as universal to Muslim piety and included stories of those Sufis who exemplified them in his biographies. He wrote from a position of scholarly power which might explain why he included so many biographies of women in greater detail than Sulami and in a more ecstatic light. Nevertheless, since sobriety was highly valued among scholars, his portrayal did not risk giving those women any institutional authority.

The only thing I can be sure of is that no matter the respect Sulami and Ibn al-Jawzi had for the women they depicted, they were not challenging the primacy of male authority. The primary mode of transmission and guarantee of Sufi knowledge or religious piety was through men. So while they chose to acknowledge women’s piety and their spiritual authority, they did so from within well-established androcentric parameters.

In their distinct ways, both Sulami and Ibn al-Jawzi emphasized modesty and seclusion in their stories of women. Hafsa’s biographies are a case in point. Because other accounts of Hafsa’s life and work are available in a number of sources, we can see how their accounts of Hafsa end up either erasing or backgrounding her engaged scholarly life by so strongly emphasizing her seclusion and immaculate modesty.

Sulami and Ibn al-Jawzi’s Portrayal of Hafsa

Sulami’s entry on Hafsa is one of the most austere treatments in his entire book (see Cornell, 122). He mentions that Hafsa was a renunciant, scrupulous, and known for “signs” and “miracles.” Then, he relates only one story about her:

Hafsa bint Sirin used to light her lamp at night, and then would rise to worship in her prayer area. At times, the lamp would go out, but it would continue to illuminate her house until daylight.

He does not mention her highly respected knowledge of Qur’an and Hadith, her ability to reason legally from these sources, nor that male students came to study with her. I agree with Cornell that Sulami is primarily interested in calling attention to women’s spiritual vocation in these reports, portraying them as “career women of the spirit.” It is telling, though, that honoring women’s spiritual vocation seems to require removing them from their social contexts such that, for example in Hafsa’s case, there is no trace of a woman left, just a pure soul that kindles lamps.

Ibn al-Jawzi has a fuller treatment that allows Hafsa some bodily humanity and cites her intellectual and pious achievements (see Cornell, 270-74; IJ #585). But the narrative flow of the accounts ultimately portrays Hafsa as a learned woman whose interpretive choices and piety kept her at a remove from others. Ibn al-Jawzi opens his entry on Hafsa with several accounts that act as the lens through which one reads the others. One pays tribute to her as a scholar of the Qur’an and its legal interpretation; but more importantly, it assures the audience of the reliability of her opinions by pointing out her scrupulous modesty even in her old age.

ʿAsim al-Sahawal said, “We used to visit Hafsa bt. Sirin [to study with her]. She would pull her outer wrap in such and such a way and would veil her face with it. So we admonished her, ‘May God have mercy on you. God has said, ’Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage, there is no blame on them if they lay aside their outer garments, provided it is not a wanton display of their beauty (24:60). [ʿAsim explains], This refers to the outer wrap known as the jilbab.

She queried us then, “And.. what comes after that in the verse?”

We answered “But it is best for them to be modest (24:60)”

Then she replied “That part of the verse is what confirms the use of the outer wrap.”

The two other accounts establish her as a woman of extraordinary piety and a committed recluse.

Hisham b. Hassan said, “Hafsa used to enter her prayer area and would pray the midday, afternoon, sunset, evening, and morning prayers. She would remain there until the full light of day; then she would make a single prostration and leave. At that time, she would perform her ablution and sleep until the time for the midday prayer. Then she would return to her prayer area and perform the same routine as before.”

Mahdi b. Maymun said, “Hafsa remained in her place of worship for thirty years, not leaving it except to answer the call of nature or to get some sun.”

All of the other accounts depict her likewise. She is scholarly, standing at length in prayer, fasting, patiently bearing up under the grief she felt over the death of her beloved son, and most of all secluding herself from others.

Then Comes My Portrayal

In the following blog entries, I will share my “feminist reconstruction” of her life from the available sources. Suffice to say, I’ll be portraying her life as more socially engaged than the way she has been portrayed by Sulami and Ibn al-Jawzi.

(to be continued…)

 Laury Silvers is a North American Muslim novelist, retired academic and activist. She is a visiting research fellow at the University of Toronto for the Department for the Study of Religion. Her historical mystery, The Lover: A Sufi Mystery, is available on Amazon (and Ingram for bookstores). Her non-fiction work centres on Sufism in Early Islam, as well as women’s religious authority and theological concerns in North American Islam. See her website for more on her fiction and non-fiction work. 

The Pilgrimage We Need Is Not To Mecca by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

PilgrimageMany people have been writing about the Hajj from a critical perspective, telling Muslims it is a time to reflect seriously and deeply about what is happening there in Saudi Arabia with our sacred places and rituals. I am here to add my two cents to that fountain but also, to say that the Hajj we need is not in Mecca.

Even when the season of Hajj is over, it is never too late to ponder the idea that Islam is a spiritual path that encourages a way of life based on reflection, responsibility and ethical decisions. The Qur’an encourages believers through many verses to reflect on the reality surrounding the way of life and on our role in it like in 29:43, 30:21, & 30:22. Among the things Muslims should reflect on and take action concerning are firm opposition to oppression and raising their voices against injustice. That is the call of Allah  in 57:25, 4:76, 4:135, 5:8, for example.

We all know what happens in Saudi Arabia. So, I wonder, if we believe the word of Allah is true: why do some of us, declaring ourselves believers, continue to fuel the arrogance, injustice and oppression of the usurpers of our Faith? Why are we still funding the oppression occurring in Saudi Arabia with performing the Hajj? Are you naive or sheep-minded or unwilling to take responsibility for the role you play in the maintenance of oppression in the name of Islam?

You pay thousands of dollars to the Saudis for the Hajj, and with that you finance a million dollar business that has nothing spiritual or halal .. yes, hear me well: HAS NOTHING HALAL ABOUT IT! Then at the Mosque, Mussala or Derga you are shocked that the Saudis invaded Yemen to kill Muslims, make deals with Zionism, leave thousands of people to die at sea without giving them shelter, torture dissidents and activists and treat women like animals.  After all of that, why do you complain if you don´t have the courage to act as prescribed by the Quran and oppose injustice? Instead you fund oppression and become part of the problem. You are an oppressor by omission and payment via PayPal or Visa! Continue reading “The Pilgrimage We Need Is Not To Mecca by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

Islam Is Out There, Among Women by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente. Women and SpiritualityLast week I was touring the capital of my country, Chile, for conferences and workshops on Islam, Gender and Human Rights. One of the issues I address there was the tyranny of stereotypes Muslim women carry with us and the difficulties we women in general face in order to embrace our spirituality,  and to accept ourselves and each other just as we are. It was a nice weekend and a great joy to meet people and make new friends. I learned a lot from colleagues and attendees. One of the happiest moments in my life is talking about Islam outside of religious spaces with non-Muslims – especially with women.

After the event on Queer Spiritualities, I was approached by a young woman who told me:

I attended one of your lectures on women in Islam last year. I came from my town (two hours away) just to listen to you today and thank you. Last year, I left your conference with a lot of motivation for finding my spiritual path, my head free of prejudices and my heart full of joy. I did what you said: To read by myself and reflect in my heart. Today I came to tell you that two weeks ago I CONVERTED TO ISLAM. I AM NOW A MUSLIM. Thank you for introducing Islam in such a beautiful way, thank you for your words that gave me confidence, thank you for your passion and honesty. Thank you. Blessed you always be.

Something similar happened the next day, at the end of the workshop on ¨Muslim Women and Stereotypes.¨ Several of the female attendees approached me to ask: ¨Where can I learn more? Can you recommend books on Islam?¨ And, ¨Is there a Mosque I can visit? – I see you so happy, so free, your smile comes from the heart, I want this joy for me too.¨ ¨I am in my spiritual search, that’s why I came…¨ Continue reading “Islam Is Out There, Among Women by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

Reconstructions of the Past: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Introduction”) by Laury Silvers

silvers-bio-pic-frblog - Version 2This blog and those to follow will be taken from an academic talk I gave on the life of the early pious worshipper, scholar of Qur’an, Hadith, and their legal meanings, Hafsa bint Sirin (d. ca. 100/800). I used some of the material for the talk in my chapter on early pious, mystic, and Sufi women in the Cambridge Companion to Sufism, but most of what I will share with you here and in the future has never been published. Whenever I sat down to write this material up for a journal, I realized I would not be able to expand the piece in the way I wanted in keeping with a properly skeptical historical attitude. I would need to hem and haw in all those places I just want to be bold and write what I think, without concession.

I want to tell her story as I have imagined it. Granted, what I have imagined is rooted in what can be known about the historical circumstances of her life and the lives of other women in that time and place. But I want to be honest about my agenda. My feminist agenda. In telling Hafsa’s story, I want to address and produce my own counter narrative to those stories told about pious and Sufi women over the years that hold up women’s silence and seclusion as the height of women’s piety. Continue reading “Reconstructions of the Past: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Introduction”) by Laury Silvers”

A Reflection on Feminist Theology and the Real Woman by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

 Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente. Feminism and TheologyThe XVII Conference of Latin American Religious Alternatives is being held this week in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This event will bring together scholars and researchers from across the continent to talk together about religion, integration, and identity. I will be presenting three papers, all about Islamic feminism. I am pleased to have such a space to discuss new ways of understanding the phenomenon of religion in Latin America and the role of feminism in Latin American religion.  I want to share some of my personal reflections regarding gender, feminism and religion with you today.   

It is true that today all so-called ‘major’ religions—Islam, too—are patriarchal and male minded. It would be a fall into denial to say that abuses in the name of religion do not have a concrete impact on the lives of many women around the world. While it is possible to differentiate between what the Qur’an says and the discourse of patriarchy on Islam, the reality is that it is this patriarchy that dominates our understanding of religion

The revealed messages have been used to reinforce gender oppression in bans on “women’s issues” from therapeutic abortion to driving a car. But we know these bans do not come from the holy books themselves, as the revealed messages can support a reading of oppression or liberation. The problems are the historical authority of sexist readings as criteria of truth and the incorporation of androcentrism as the axis in relation to the divine. Sexist readings and androcentrism both give rise to oppression and violence in the name of God.

Feminists have denounced these abuses over and over again. Many feminists say religions are patriarchal, so let’s leave them without feminist intervention. I think this is not enough. We need to recognize that the religious world is patriarchal. We must name and draw attention to women and their contributions to the development of religion. We must also remove the legitimacy and authority of the androcentric understandings of the spiritual, which have caused much damage throughout history. Feminism in religion is essential.

It is often said that feminists want to undermine the foundations of the faith. Who says this? The same people who justify the exploitation of human beings, the degradation of women, and wars in the name of a God whose message is peace, mercy and social justice. But I ask—is it so dangerous that women and groups historically segregated from society want to own their spiritual experiences and live them autonomously?

What kind of God is adored by those who oppose our approaching the Divine from a feminist point of view? Just listening to their diatribes is to know that it is misogyny and not piety that motivates their messages. Misogyny also lies behind the violence against women. And behind the violence lurks the fear.

Beyond the Female Believer

Patriarchy has silenced its fear and built an “ideal believer” to legitimize the control of women in religion. But feminists no longer want to remain silent and obedient. We are seek to respond by creating our own theologies.

However, even in feminist theology, heteronormativity is still present. It is a bias that still sees gays, lesbians, trans and queer people as “abnormal” outsiders. This approach validates the patriarchal ideas of “minority” and “marginality” regarding the male-female heteronormative assumptions that dominate the religious world.

Dismantling the patriarchy in religion is not only about making the feminine more visible in the mystical, historical, and experiential approaches to religion. We must also demystify and dismantle the axis of androcentrism and heteronormativity and the hold it has in the academy and the “mainstream”.

For example, more than once, sisters who call themselves feminists, have called me “whore,” “deviant,” and “immoral” for my queer understanding of gender roles and my critique of marriage as “half the Deen” [the Islamic idea that for women marriage completes their faith, which in Arabic is ‘Deen’], a replica of the romantic patriarchal discourse of the “other half” that is so damaging to the autonomy and the self-esteem of women in the real world.

This is a problem. Feminism in religion is not landing in the everyday lives of women. Feminist theology still speaks to a woman who is cis-gendered and heterosexual, who wants to marry and have children. Feminist theology is still quoting patriarchy.

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house

The reality is that not all women in religious communities are heterosexual, not all heterosexuals wish to get married, and not all married woman understand their position in marriage as subordinate and complementary to the male.

Along with eliminating the patriarchal “revelations,” feminists who theorize regarding faith must be decolonized from the need to build another “perfect believer.” We should not assume an archetype of woman, as this exercise gives authority to patriarchy’s model of the female believer that imprisons women in destructive and limited dimensions with labels like saint, mother, and whore.

I think we must remove from women the roles that are supposed to make them proper “believers.” In fact, I think we have to destroy once and for all both the concept of “believer” itself and the category of “woman” as we know it in religion. Assessing the degree of spiritual development and the agency of the religious woman according to the degree of her functionality as a “Model” is NOT emancipatory, but is both limited and sexist. If there are “role models,” someone will always be outside the norm.

Instead, let us take over the theologies and feminisms, regain power over ourselves, and raise awareness in communities that feminism is not only a field of study and analysis but also an outlook on life. We can legitimize the authority of the feminist perspectives of religion, and commit sacrilege against the exemplary women and models that are imposed on us.  Let us not talk anymore about “Muslim women” or “Christian women” or “Jewish women,” but about ourselves as women.

Above all, and essentially, we must act on behalf of women of everyday, on behalf of those women who do not want to be “perfect believers,” but who want to be happy and fulfill their goals in a world that belittles them in many ways on a daily basis. Reasonable, imperfect, diverse and ‘under-construction’ women were created by God to be in this world as an expression of life and humanity.

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.

Taking Back the Caliphate: The Role of Muslim Women as Agents of Social Justice by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente. Muslim Women as Caliphs.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. Continue reading “Taking Back the Caliphate: The Role of Muslim Women as Agents of Social Justice by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

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