“If All Knowledge Must be Reinterpreted, Why Not Religion?” Says Islamic Feminist


Vanessa Rivera de La Fuente is Muslim, feminist, and a human rights activist
Photo: Personal archive

Background: Journal O ‘Globo, one of the most important newspapers in Brazil, belonging to the transnational media group of the same name, published this interview with Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente on Islamic Feminism. Given its relevance to the discussion on the subject, it was translated by prominent Islamic feminist and scholar Keci Ali to share it with English-speaking readers.

The Muslim women’s movement has different agendas in accordance with the reality of each country. In Latin America, the Muslim Vanessa Rivera fights against prejudice about Islam.

by Isabela Aleixo*

Vanessa Rivera de La Fuente is Chilean and Muslim. Besides being an academic researcher, she’s also an Islamic feminist engaged with questions of gender, human rights, and social development. Vanessa has wide experience in social projects in Latin American countries.

In an interview with CELINA, she discusses the prejudices that Muslim women face in Latin America, explains the movement’s demands, destroys stereotypes, and declares: “I’m a woman and I demand to be treated as a person.”

Do you consider yourself an Islamic feminist? Why?

I consider myself a feminist woman, who lives feminism in all the distinct facets of her life: I’m Muslim; I’m a single mother; I’m a professional woman, an academic; and I’m a women’s rights activist. I’m feminist with all my life experiences. I think being a woman in male-dominated society is itself a political fact, so everything that I am as a woman can be resignified by feminism, including being Muslim. Islam is integrated into my life and my political struggle, which is intersectional. It’s based on the radical idea that all women are people and we deserve equal rights and a world free of violence.

Continue reading ““If All Knowledge Must be Reinterpreted, Why Not Religion?” Says Islamic Feminist”

#WorldHiyabDay at Issue by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

1-2When World Hiyab Day (WHD) was held for the first time in 2013, I was an enthusiastic supporter. Even my friend Maria de los Angeles from Venezuela, wore a headscarf for a day in sisterhood. She went to her job and celebrated her birthday in a tropical country, fully head-covered.

I am a muslim woman who wears headscarves and turbans. I benefit widely from “Hiyab Fashion,” an opportunity I have to be creative and original with my outfits. I do assume there are good intentions and will of sisterhood behind WHB, but as years go by, I’ve got disappointed about the celebration. According to its founder, Nazma Khan, an Islamic clothing entrepreneur, the purpose of WHD is “the recognition of millions of Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab and live a life of modesty.”

Maybe I am too picky, but this statement disgusst me for its hint of sexism and slutshamming. If heardscarf is equal to modesty and modesty is equal to virtue so, I wonder: Continue reading “#WorldHiyabDay at Issue by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

Religious Practice and Epistemic Justice by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente


One of the topics that has captured my deep interest during the last year is Epistemic Justice – and its absence, epistemic injustice – a concept which I reflect on often, since it has become a backbone idea in the approach of my work, my activism, my diagnosis of the situation of women in the global south and my vision of the world in which I would like to live. These reflections that I share with you do not intend to articulate a strictly academic presentation. They are my “thinking aloud” and don´t pretend to be completely right nor to establish a truth; rather they express the progress of a personal searching.

I speak as a Muslim feminist who loves to read and write about Feminism and Islam, but is not an academic nor aspires to be recognized as such in this field, although she writes papers and offers lectures in her own capacity on that matters. I speak as a community educator and social entrepreneur, who believes in feminism and spirituality as liberation tools. Since I accepted Islam, I took the experience gained in my work for the political empowerment of grass roots women to nourish an activism in the field of religion and gender justice. Continue reading “Religious Practice and Epistemic Justice by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

If this be Madness … by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente


Shamima Shaikh (1960 – 1998) was South Africa’s best-known Muslim women’s rights activist. She was also a brave anti-Apartheid activist, notable Islamic feminist, community worker, journalist and devoted mother who died, 37 years old, from breast cancer. After the Holy month of Ramadan in 2016, I spoke with Islamic Feminist Shehnaz Haqqani about the new-to-me figure of Shamima. I was very excited to know about her and inspired by her fierce and at the same time compassionate moral courage. That year I wrote some pieces about her.

I asked, 18 months ago, Na’eem Jeenah, who was married to late Shamima, if there was a book about her where I could amplify my knowledge about her activism. He said, so far, there wasn´t. Later, I commented to my friend and Chilean feminist comrade, Rocio A., that the idea of an anthology book for Shamima Shaikh had arisen in me.

You must be mad, completely mad, you know? – she said

I am a feminist claiming that we women are people in a patriarchal world – I replied – of course I am mad. Continue reading “If this be Madness … 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”

Rape Culture and Muslims by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

rape culture

There is no doubt that Rape Culture is installed within religions and Islam is not an exception. Lately, “honorable Islamic scholar,” Nouman Ali Khan (NAK) was exposed as sexual predator, causing a battle in social media. NAK is only one more in the list of sexual offenders operating in religious spaces, on many occasions with the support of opinions leaders, or the silence and blind eye of the community of believers.

During my months in Cape Town, as you know, I engaged in critical education in Gender and Islam through workshops with Muslim women from the Cape Flats, where the rigid dynamics of researcher-object of study, gave way to an equal interaction of “people talking.” A recurrent theme, as I said in a previous article, was sexual violence and the discursive tenets that facilitate it.

In the light of the controversy aforementioned, I want to share excerpts that I recorded during our sessions of the sincere statements of Muslim women between 25 and 60 years old from different suburbs of Cape Town on Rape Culture and religion as they live it.  Continue reading “Rape Culture and Muslims 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”

Talking Gender and Islam at the Grassroots by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

In my current trajectory linked to community development —  via both activism and my professional field —  I’ve learned that popular education is a very useful practice and methodology to decentralize all types of knowledge. Since I embraced Islam, part of my activity has focused on creating spaces for the production, discussion, and appropriation of religious knowledge for women at the grassroots. Religion is not separated from the daily life of believers, therefore, each of them carries knowledge that has been deliberately obliterated by hegemony.

The feminist hermeneutic of Islam is a paradigm that aims to provide Muslim women with skills and concepts that allow them to boost their agencies in their respective contexts, encouraging a transformation in the understanding of religious phenomena and its trajectory towards gender justice.  For this transformation to be possible, knowledge must be accessible in language, methodology and location.

Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of liberation is a tool I consider to be critical and necessary for feminism, including Islamic feminism, at a time when debates about decolonization are very fashionable in academia. Freire’s methodology is democratizing because it allows, on one hand, to transfer knowledge from privileged circles to the margins and, on the other, to make visible the experiential knowledge produced in the periphery — to include them in the spectrum of what we understand and as such subvert, in this way, the dynamics of power, representation and discourses.

During my time in South Africa, I have engaged with popular education on topics related to Islam and Gender with Muslim women from the Cape Flats. These women have different backgrounds, races, life trajectories, and religious journeys. They exist in the geographic, cultural and epistemological margins of the social reality of Cape Town. Their experiences as Muslims do not appear in academic journals, nor are they even “noticed” by their highly androcentric communities of belonging.

For the past 7 months, I have met with them on a regular basis to talk about Gender and Islam. “Talk” is a methodological definition that means that we are placed in equal and interchangeable positions of teacher-student during our dialog — assuming than rather than learning something new, we are facilitating for each other a way to communicate things we already know. Muslim women of the Cape Flats know, indeed. But they have been told that they do not know by a system of privilege formed for the ulemas, for academia, or for the Islamic institutions. Continue reading “Talking Gender and Islam at the Grassroots by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

Women, Theology and Identity as Believer by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente


Like all my reflections, this is not intended to be conclusive, but rather, to share some impressions about theology and the way in which women are created or given an identity as believers.

In the androcentric and misogynist narratives of religious traditions lies the root of much violence against women. This is not new, since the same diagnosis has already been raised by the theologian José Luis Tamayo when he says that although women are the majority presence of religious communities and those most involved in the transmission and practice of traditions “they are the biggest losers” for all the exclusion and violence exercised against them in the name of religion.

The influence of religion on the lives of women goes beyond the realm of religion itself. From theology comes the gender discourses that impact our lives as political subjects. In all the most obvious (sociological, historical, economics) causes of the weak status of women, we can find theological roots or argument religion-based. These  roots are discursive. What is said about women from religions, as well as from the social and exact sciences, institutions and the media, are stories, narratives that are the product of the interaction of mechanisms of power, enunciation authority and historical accumulation of performative actions. Continue reading “Women, Theology and Identity as Believer by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

Progressive Islam: A Critical View from Latin Muslim Feminists by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente & Eren Cervantes-Altamirano

Progressive Islam(s) in the West, particularly in Canada and the US, have been defined as movements that primarily encompass Islamic feminism(s), LGBTQI affirming movements, anti-Conservative theologies, feminist theologies, women-centered liturgies, etc. From within this umbrella, we have seen calls to embrace women-led prayers, women-only spaces, LGBTIQ inclusive and affirming mosques and practices like ijtihad, which are said to be useful in breaking away from Conservative understandings of Islam. All in all, Progressive movements often depict themselves as “reformers” within a paradigm that is usually conceived to be dominated by Orthodox theologies and attitudes mainly driven by Saudi Arabia and Iran.

However, to what degree are Progressive movements truly inclusive? Are they as “radical” as they have been made out to be? Are Progressive spaces any safer for women and trans-women? Are Progressives free of misogyny and violence? Continue reading “Progressive Islam: A Critical View from Latin Muslim Feminists by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente & Eren Cervantes-Altamirano”

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. 

Have You Seen These Muslim Women? by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

Shia Women AshuraThe photo that accompanies this article, or others similar, have been posted, shared and commented through social networks as expression of the inherent misogyny of Islam, with descriptions such as “DAESH taking women to sell in the concubine’s market” or “Muslim women being carried to forced marriages”. I’ve also seen this picture being used by some feminists in academic conferences to illustrate their presentations on the “Status of Women in Islam.”

This photo has been misused. This image is taken from a religious event which is celebrated for Shiite Muslims to describe the terrible events that took place in Karbala 1,200 years ago. This act recalls the occasion when the family of the Prophet Muhammad, formed mostly by women, was taken prisoner, including children and forced to walk chained. History records and praises the courage of women who bear this painful pilgrimage instead of submit themselves to their captors.

 “Muslim Women” is a Hoax Continue reading “Have You Seen These Muslim Women? by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

Islamophobia and Two Tales about Muslim Women by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

Woman in religion is a story. This means that all that is said about women in all religions, as well as from social and natural sciences, institutions and the media is a  story, a story that is the product of the interaction of mechanisms of power, authority, and performative actions. If gender is a discourse with cultural signifiers, then the “feminine” and “women” in the religious field are too. Speech about women has functioned in patriarchal structures historically, and still now, as a mechanism of control, discipline. and punishment.

In my experience, the situation of women in Islam is generally addressed from two opposing and dominant discourses that I call: The “Idealization of Inequality” and “Demonization.” The “Idealization of Inequality” view argues that the Quran elevated the position of women from a terrible condition of objectification in the pre-Islamic Arab society, also called the age of ignorance or Jahiliyya, a time in which many girls were killed at birth, to a state of full equality and recognition of rights. According to this approach, feminism has no place in Islam. Nothing should be changed. No new hermeneutics must be allowed, since the only differences between men and women stem from biology: women can conceive, men have more physical force. But this does not mean that one is below the other, because, under the “cosmological equality” established by the revelation, the lives of women and men are equal before Allah.

The “Idealization of Inequality” view represents a hegemonic discourse that lacks a strong and coherent response to the prevalence of discriminatory practices against Muslim women based on differences beyond their biological nature: such as the prohibiting women from entering or speaking in some mosques, not allowing women to hold positions of spiritual and administrative leadership, and requiring women to worship in segregated spaces with separate entrances. None of these are related to the “equality” they attribute to the Quran. Nor does the “Idealization of Inequality” standpoint provide real and concrete answers to the other issues affecting Muslim women: institutional violence, racism, stereotypes, and the sexist burden of common narratives.

The “Demonization” view, on the other hand, argues that, with respect to religion, it is not possible to speak of the liberation of women. So all kind of activism or feminist initiatives coming from or seeking background in religion are oxymorons. Accordingly, there would not be Catholic, Muslim, or Mormon feminism or the possibility to develop feminist hermeneutics that can be taken seriously. An important feature of the “Demonization” argument is the assumed axiom of a fundamental difference between East and West, pitting the rationality of “we” against the irrationality of “them,” and the analysis of “our” development versus “their” underdevelopment:  reaffirming the western identity as superior. And here lies its most egregious shortcoming: “Demonization” acts as judge and jury in regard to the description of the oppression of all women perceived as “other.” First, it places them in the category of otherness, and then it defines the causes of discrimination suffered by them in their societies. Finally, it gives “us” the messianic ability to save “those” women. Continue reading “Islamophobia and Two Tales about Muslim Women by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

Mawada, Rahma and Sakina by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

Feminism and Religion Vanessa RiveraLast year I thought, seriously, of getting married. I know, it may be hard to believe, given my image of cranky feminist. But I still have an engagement ring in art-deco style with a bright ruby to show this was true.

He and I came across each other in 2011 and we talked about many things. Then, we got caught up in life and lost touch with each other. Exactly a year ago, he found me again and the universe granted us to meet and agree in time, place, intentions, and feelings.

From the beginning, I had faith that what I was living was a gift from God. I received it with thankfulness and opened my heart. I often prayed in gratitude and asked for guidance: “Allah, let me see his heart,” “Allah, grant us understanding.” God always answered me. We had beautiful moments of bliss and deep connection in which we disclosed our wounds and scars as well as learned to appreciate each other. One Sunday, after I showed him how to cook Tacos with Guacamole, he asked me for the third time. I accepted. Continue reading “Mawada, Rahma and Sakina by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

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. 

Women Fighting Patriarchy … Against Each Other by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente. Women and PatriarchyIt is painful to find out the lack of understanding among feminists when controversial issues are discussed, to the point that it seems we have failed in achieving a key factor: transforming the way women perceive and interact with each other. I have been in discussions that begin with great aptitude for addressing issues about which a voice is needed, to finish in symbolic violence by stances in which I can hardly find a trace of feminism. I offer here  just a few examples.

Invisibility: At least in two situations

Case nº1: “No. A woman like you can’t be feminist. That doesn’t exist.” Denying my existence as a feminist is to deny that there are women in the world able to empower themselves, beyond your permission, in their contexts. No one owes you an explanation, by the way.

Case nº2: “She is not my ally (because she is not like me), say feminists who do not accept Muslim women as such, but praise the pro-women statements uttered by a privileged man, well advised by his publicist, because “Everyone can be feminist.” Continue reading “Women Fighting Patriarchy … Against Each Other by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

Reconstructions of the Past 3: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Hafsa’s Hadith”) by Laury Silvers

silvers-bio-pic-frblog - Version 2If you’ve read Part 2, then you know we’ve been talking about how the literature demonstrates that there were attempts in the early period to bar women from mosque attendance and even attendance at the prayers for the two `eids. Our hero, Hafsa bint Sirin, seems to have been part of winning women the right in Basra to attend the `eid prayers. She does so by making a legal argument through the transmission of a hadith.

Hadith are typically transmitted with a narrative frame that describes the circumstances that prompted Muhammad’s reported words or actions; sometimes that narrative frame also includes the circumstances for the transmission of the report itself.  Hafsa’s hadith is the second kind. Since Hafsa’s hadith can be reliably traced back to her place and time, and since we can triangulate its circumstances with other evidence, I am going to accept that her narrative frame is a reasonable account of her telling of it.

I am going to unpack the frame to give some sense of how she argued for women’s right to attend the `eid prayers. And here is where my imagination comes most into play and I will begin to significantly part ways with careful historical writing. To be sure, my imagination is historically grounded. But I’m going just going to tell it like I think it was. And in later blogs, in the reconstruction of her life story, I’m going to tell it as I would have it be.

I will quote the hadith in full at the beginning, then unpack it in parts showing how the narrative frame tells us something about 1. how these reports were used in legal conversations, 2. Hafsa’s role as a discussant in this particular legal question, and 3. the intellectual and ritual lives of women at the time. 

Hafsa said: We used to prohibit our girls from going out [for the `Eid prayer]. But then, I went to visit a woman who had come to stay at the palace of the Bani Khalaf [the governor’s palace]. The woman was telling people about how her brother-in-law fought alongside the Prophet and that her sister [Umm `Atiyya] had nursed the wounded. She reported that her brother-in-law fought alongside the Prophet in twelve battles, and that her sister had been there for six of them. Her sister said, “We used to care for the sick and treat the wounded.”

Once [the sister] asked him directly, “Oh Messenger of God, is there any harm in a woman not going out [to the `Eid prayer] if she has no outer wrap (jilbab)?”

“He replied, ‘Her neighbor should loan her one of her own wraps to wear, so that she may also be present to take part in the good works and the gatherings of the believers.'”

Hafsa added: So when Umm `Atiyya [herself] came, I asked her about what I had heard.

Umm `Atiyya replied, “On my father’s life may he be sacrificed for the Prophet’s sake, peace upon him, yes.” [Hafsa added:] She never mentioned the Prophet without saying, ‘On my father’s life may he sacrificed for the Prophet’s sake, peace upon him’.”

‘The Prophet said, ‘Adolescent girls who are only seen by related men and servantscurtained off [from non-mahram men]–or adolescent girls and those who are curtained off [from non-mahram men], Ayub [the transmitter of Hafsa’s report] was not certain–and menstruating women should go out on the ʿeid. The menstruating women should keep away from the prayer area. But all of them should be present to take part in the good works and the gatherings of the believers.'”

Hafsa said: So I said to Umm `Atiyya, Even those who are menstruating?

Umm `Atiyya replied, “Yes. Are they not also present at `Arafat [during the pilgrimage], and for this [ritual] and for that?'”

Hafsa visited well-known female and male scholars and was a well-respected scholar of hadith and Qur’an who taught male and female students out of her home. Perhaps while sitting in one of these scholarly circles, a discussion arguing for excluding women from attending the mosque was raised and an argument was made for it. Hafsa disagrees. She has heard a Hadith that can be used to argue for the exact opposite. In fact, this report demonstrates that women not only attended the mosque for `eid prayers during the Prophet’s day, but that Muhammad insisted that women attend even if they are menstruating or sexually vulnerable. But Hafsa does not just relay the hadith to her companions and hope for the best, rather using the hadith as a proof-text, she argued brilliantly for women’s right to attend the prayer.

She starts out by rhetorically taking the side of those arguing against women attending ʿEid prayers. It is a disarming ploy. She begins by saying, “We used to prohibit our girls from going out [for the `eid prayer].”  “But then!” she adds. The “but then” indicating that something changed her mind. It is as if she is saying, “Really, fellows, I’m on your side!” It is a rhetorical claim that sets the whole story up as her objective discovery of the facts of the matter.

After that move, she establishes her own authority and that of the secondary transmitter of the hadith by pointing out (1) their connections to political elites. (2) Then she points out the unassailable moral authority of the primary transmitter as a woman who went into battle with the Prophet, (3) which also demonstrates the transmitter had the opportunity to hear these words directly from the Prophet thus guaranteeing the accuracy of the tradition itself. In other words, these are women whose opinion should be taken seriously.

Hafsa said: We used to prohibit our girls from going out [for the `Eid prayer]. But then, (1) I went to visit a woman who had come to stay at the palace of the Bani Khalaf [the governor’s palace]. (2) The woman was telling people about how her brother-in-law fought alongside the Prophet and that her sister [Umm `Atiyya] had nursed the wounded. She reported that her brother-in-law fought alongside the Prophet in twelve battles, and that her sister had been there for six of them. Her sister said, “We used to care for the sick and treat the wounded.”

(3) Once [the sister] asked him directly, “Oh Messenger of God, is there any harm in a woman not going out [to the `Eid prayer] if she has no outer wrap (jilbab)?”

Here is where she begins laying out her argument. The Prophet’s response to Umm `Atiyya’s question establishes three points: (1) Umm `Atiyya’s question and Muhammad’s answer begin with the assumption that women had already been attending the ʿeid prayer. After all, the question would make no sense if women were not already attending. So it sets a precedent. (2) Attending `eid benefits women’s moral character. And (3) While acknowledging the need for modesty, it asserts that women are not simply permitted to attend, but Muhammad urged them to attend.

Once she asked him directly, “Oh God’s Messenger, is there any harm in a woman not going out [to the `eid prayer] if she has no outer wrap (jilbab)?”

“He replied, ‘Her neighbor should loan her one of her own wraps to wear, so that she may also be present to take part in the good works and the gatherings of the believers.'”

Now, while any reliable hadith narrator would seek out confirmation of the report, the rhetorical tenor of the opening to her argument–taking the side of the opposing opinion–suggests that she continued to use this device. In this next part, she sounds like she nevertheless remained wary about this permission. She is letting her listeners know that she cannot be swayed from prohibiting women’s mosque attendance so easily!

Hafsa added: So when Umm `Atiyya [herself] came, I asked her about what I had heard.

When she asks Umm ʿAtiyya, Umm `Atiyya confirms the report, swearing on her father’s life, and relays what she heard directly from the Prophet to Hafsa. This direct report from Umm `Atiyya shortens and strengthens the line of transmission making the report even more reliable. The version of the report she hears directly from Umm `Atiyya builds on the argument that the Prophet insisted all women go to the mosque as he insists that even sexually vulnerable women and women who are menstruating should go.

Umm `Atiyya replied, “On my father’s life may he be sacrificed for the Prophet’s sake, peace upon him, yes.” [Hafsa added:] She never mentioned the Prophet without saying, ‘On my father’s life may he sacrificed for the Prophet’s sake, peace upon him’.”

‘The Prophet said, ‘Adolescent girls who are only seen by related men and servantscurtained off [from non-mahram men]–or adolescent girls and those who are curtained off [from non-mahram men], Ayub [the transmitter of Hafsa’s report] was not certain–and menstruating women should go out on the ʿeid. The menstruating women should keep away from the prayer area. But all of them should be present to take part in the good works and the gatherings of the believers.'”

But Hafsa continues to play the part of the skeptic in her transmission!

Hafsa said: So I said to Umm `Atiyya, “Even those who are menstruating?”

In other words, how can it be that menstruating women who cannot even perform the prayer itself should go?!

In the closing words of her case, Hafsa shares Umm ʿAtiyya’s answer to this question sealing her argument with a legal analogy. Umm `Atiyya states with clarity that the attendance of menstruating women is certainly permissible because it is legally analogous to their attendance at other rituals.

Umm `Atiyya replied, “Yes. Are they not also present at `Arafat [during the pilgrimage], and for this [ritual] and for that?'”

The narrative frame of Hafsa’s hadith gives us some insight into scholarly women’s experience in legal discussions of the day. Asma Sayeed writes in some detail about a number of female hadith transmitters whose transmissions demonstrate their active engagement in legal discussions. All evidence points to Hafsa’s close involvement in the scholarly circles in Basra and that her opinion was taken seriously. I believe that Hafsa helped women retain the right to attend the `eid prayers in Basra at least. But the report also indicates the kinds of struggles women were facing in their public ritual lives, and so it gives a sense of the gravity of the efforts to disenfranchise women from the public ritual life of the community at that time.

(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. 

Reconstructions of the Past 2: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Women’s Mosque Attendance”) by Laury Silvers

silvers-bio-pic-frblog - Version 2There is significant historical scholarship demonstrating that women’s public lives were coming under increasing restriction during the first few hundred years of Islam. Despite the differing modes of analyses and conclusions of such scholarship, there seems to be agreement that the Qur’an, Hadith, legal, and biographical literature advocate for increasingly restricted public social and religious engagement for women.

While piety and Sufi literature may have called for and depicted women in seclusion, in practical terms, the available historical sources suggest that women’s “secular” public activities–such as manual labor, buying and selling, teaching, and socializing–could not be controlled. Likewise unofficial religious activity such as pious and Sufi men and women visiting each other, attending mixed-gender gatherings, and, in some extreme cases, women setting up camp at the Kaaba or even preaching in the streets was not uncommon. Continue reading “Reconstructions of the Past 2: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Women’s Mosque Attendance”) by Laury Silvers”

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”

Stop. Drop. And Pray. by Valentina Khan


The other night, it was close to 11:00 pm and I was finally enjoying my own little ‘midnight’ snack and a healthy dose of reality TV when I got a phone call from a cousin I haven’t heard from in quite some time. He is in the East Coast and it seemed too late for a leisure phone call from him. So I answered in a panic, yet, all he wanted was to say “hi” and to talk a little bit about the obligation of a Muslim to pray the five daily prayers. OK, this is odd, I thought, but I guess I could entertain this topic for a few minutes. Might be better for me than the junk TV I was winding down to anyway.

We chatted for a few minutes and he started to get very heated about the requirement of the five daily prayers.  To back up a little, let me paint a quick picture of this eccentric cousin of mine. He is smart.  A New Yorker.  Middle-aged. He has studied at prestigious universities, has traveled the world, and even delved into religion so much so that he used to give sermons on Fridays, the holy day of the week for congregational prayer in the Muslim tradition. His main question for me, “Do you really believe in the flying white horse story?” Continue reading “Stop. Drop. And Pray. by Valentina Khan”

The Season of Pilgrimage by amina wadud

amina - featureThis weekend those of us not performing the ritual pilgrimage, or Hajj, will enjoy the Festival of the Sacrifice of Eid al-Adha. Celebrated on the 10th day of the 12th lunar calendar month, it tends to creep up without warning, since we operate on the solar Gregorian calendar. The next day I jump a plane to Southeast Asia so my attention is already diverted.

The sacrifice here refers to Prophet Abraham’s botched contract with God over his first son. Muslims stick with the sheer biology that it was his first son, Ishma’il rather than Sarah’s first biological son, Isaac as recognized in Christianity and Judaism. It’s political, I won’t go there.

Instead I want to focus on this veneration of things masculine across all three Abrahamic faiths with the attention surrounding this particular patriarch. For example, I recall an Eid sermon which dwelt at length on Abraham circumcising himself in full adulthood without anesthesia. All I could think was, WHO should care about that? This particular manhood seems to excel over any reminder of his humanity, or of his devotion to monotheism in a community steeped in Idol worship. Continue reading “The Season of Pilgrimage by amina wadud”

Racism from Born Muslim Men is Hurting Latino Muslim Women by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente. Racism against Latin WomenOne of the first things a newly Muslim woman convert learns is that Islam makes people equal and the only thing that differentiates a believer from another believer is their level of piety. They also learn that Islam raises the honor of women to levels that no religion has done, that they, as Muslims, have rights, and they are encouraged to get marry since marriage is a half of the Din.

However, when it comes to Latino Muslim women of marriageable age, some have not received respect in terms of their honor, their rights as Muslims, or equal treatment as with other Muslim born women. It seems racism and stereotypes about Latina women are stronger than faith and piety. Continue reading “Racism from Born Muslim Men is Hurting Latino Muslim Women by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim and Ar-Rahm by Jameelah X. Medina

 [The Most Compassionate, Beneficent, Ever-Merciful and the Womb]

In the Islamic tradition, there are numerous Names of Allah of which 99 are said to be known. Of these 99 Names or Attributes of Allah, two open the Qur’an in the very first line in the first chapter: ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim. The Qur’an begins with, “Bi ismiAllahi ar-Rahmani ar-Rahim [in the Name of God, The Beneficent, The Merciful]…” These two names are also ubiquitously repeated by Muslims when reciting from the Qur’an, initiating prayers, commencing events and gatherings, and more.

Although I am not particularly interested in etymology, I have long been fascinated by these two Names or Attributes of Allah coming from the same root as the word for “womb” and “mercy”—ar-rahm and ar-rahma respectively. Since all of human creation is brought into physical being through a womb I had so many questions: 1) Of all the root words that could have been used to establish the meaning of these opening words of the Qur’an to describe the Creator, why were words that relate to the womb, wom(b)anhood, female anatomy, and motherhood chosen instead of some phallic symbol of power and creation?; 2) How is mercy, beneficence, compassion, and graciousness related to the womb in Arabic?; 3) Was this Allah’s way of elevating the status of women at that time in that time and among the people to whom the Qur’an was originally revealed?; 4) If the female attribute of a womb  is related to these two Attributes of Allah, is the womb godly? Is the wom(b)man divine?; and lastly, 5) Could we have all been created from the figurative or even literal Womb of Allah making Allah The Great Mother of all creation? Continue reading “Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim and Ar-Rahm by Jameelah X. Medina”

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.

Men, Men, Everywhere by Kecia Ali

dissertation, Advising, feminism and religion

I recently published an essay in the British quarterly Critical Muslim. In it, I chose books on Muslim thought and reform by three prominent, well-regarded male scholars and I counted mentions of individual women in their indexes, their texts, or both. I didn’t have to count very high. I looked at how often they cited – or didn’t cite – books by women in their notes and bibliographies. And then I wailed and gnashed my teeth.

I didn’t really. But I wanted to.


A study of modern Muslim intellectuals with a chapter on women, law, and society, that names only three women, none of them Muslim as far as I can tell, in an index which names 240 individuals?

Two books about Blackamerican Muslim thought and identity that do not mention Amina Wadud, the African-American Muslim thinker who has had the most significant global impact?

A book about Muslim reform that names only four Muslim women, all from Muhammad’s seventh-century community, and all but one from his household, in the main body of the work? Which segregates every book by a Muslim woman into one lengthy endnote, and says nothing about them or their authors anywhere else? Continue reading “Men, Men, Everywhere by Kecia Ali”

Size Islam: Where do I fit in? by Jameelah X. Medina

Size Islam: Where do I fit in?

Reading Laury Silvers’ recent post caused me to reflect upon not only how my body is gendered in worship as a Muslim woman, but how my body is displaced, inconvenient, and often seen as an assault on thinner women’s, and even Islamic, sensibilities. This is a phenomenon in the prayer line, on prayer mats, in socio-religious gatherings, and even in online discussions with Muslims and other major religions.

I am usually the tallest (or among the tallest) women in mosques I have frequented. I am also obese and among the largest women in the mosque. I enjoy lifting weights, which also causes me to have very large thighs and arms and broad shoulders. Additionally, I have long feet, as well as wide hips and a large backside that no amount of fabric can hide. Among girlfriends, I’ve often referred to my shape as a “three-hour glass.” Needless to say, some shorter and smaller people find my frame imposing. Continue reading “Size Islam: Where do I fit in? by Jameelah X. Medina”

Muslim Feminism: On Finding Meaning in the Struggle by Jennifer Zobair

painted hands, Jennifer Zobair
Photo Credit: Brian Ziska

I threw Catholics under the bus at a book reading.

I didn’t mean to and, as a former Catholic, I felt awful about it. I was promoting my novel, Painted Hands, about dynamic, successful Muslim women in Boston. During the Q&A, someone asked why I’d converted to Islam. Pressed for time, I explained that I’d tried hard to be a Catholic feminist, referenced the fact that there was no Original Sin imputed to Eve in Islam, and admitted I’d struggled with the Trinity and welcomed a religion where Jesus was revered but not divine.

Afterwards, I fretted about the comparisons. “That was bad, wasn’t it?” I asked my husband. “Maybe,” he said gently, “stop at the fact that there are feminist interpretations of Islam. Maybe don’t say anything about other religions.”

When you’ve left one religion for another, the implication is that you did find something better.  Continue reading “Muslim Feminism: On Finding Meaning in the Struggle by Jennifer Zobair”

Letter to Allah by Jameelah X. Medina

Would we eat without the pangs of hunger? Would we drink without feeling thirst? Would we sleep without feeling fatigue or drowsiness? Would we cry without feeling sorrow? These are some questions I’ve asked myself when I wonder why so many people tend to find God, religion, or spirituality in times of great dis-ease and despair. Suddenly, I felt inspired to write a letter to God thanking Her for all that She is and for all that I am. In labyrinthical terms, this is my letter to the God in me that resides within me in God.

Letter to Allah Continue reading “Letter to Allah by Jameelah X. Medina”

Tug-of-Warring over the Female Body (Part 2 of 2) by Jameelah X. Medina

Cover up! No, get naked!

Haraam [Sin]; cover yourself! Be free; show some skin!

AstaghfirAllah [seeking forgiveness from God]; aren’t you ashamed?! Damn, aren’t you hot in that?!

The Muslim woman’s body feels like a battleground with essentialized feminism on one side (covered in Part I) and patriarchy on the other. Both sides have Muslim women on their team, but both sides also harm and silence them. This second part deals with “Team Haraaminator.”

The Haraaminators are kind of like “Daddy Longlegs” or “Momma Longreaches” who hold their wives, daughters, sisters, and even extended sisters in faith close to the chest with their long-legged grips. They come in the male and female variety. They believe that all women should be covered and wearing at least a headscarf. They speak with authority about the headscarf and how important it is for a woman in her pursuit of piety, virtue, modesty, chastity, and heaven. Some allow questioning the headscarf while others take it as a decree from Allah that should never be interrogated. Many use the Qur’an and ahadith (prophetic sayings and doings) to arrive at their opinions while other haraaminators just go by what their shaykh, imam, father, mother, friend or others have told them is the Islamic ruling on the headscarf. Continue reading “Tug-of-Warring over the Female Body (Part 2 of 2) by Jameelah X. Medina”

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