I cannot express how much I ardently admire the work of Nahida from the Fatal Feminist. So I was overjoyed when she agreed to write for our month of guest posts. Not only is she an amazing and feisty author:
Nahida is an American Muslim feminist who frequently disagrees with the positions of male scholars, including but not limited to the rightful and valid dynamics of feminism in Islam, the certification of halaal meat requiring actual well-treatment of animals and not just ritual slaughter, and the permissibility of eating mermaids. She writes about sound Quranic exegesis as well as spectacular women in Islamic history, criticizes logical fallacies evident in male interpretations, and engages in other such scary feminist activities. She returns the salaams of parrots.
So please join me in welcoming the fantastic Nahida as she shares her thoughts on the erosion of “the feminine” in Islamic discourse and women’s religious right to reclaim their space.
Friday before last, I attended jummah prayer at the mosque, and I wore curlers underneath my hi’jab, because I had just raced there after finals and had barely had enough time to apply my red lipstick (a personal employment of verse 7:31), and why not save some time? Needless to say, it was very obvious I was attending the khutbah while simultaneously curling my hair, and I looked badass, like a malformed dinosaur. Because I have lots and lots of hair, the hi’jab did wonders forcing it to hold together the way I had “arranged” when usually there isn’t enough surface area on my head for curlers wrapped with piles and piles of hair. Before we started one of my friends took one glance at my ginormous, lumpy hi’jab and burst into laughter. “WORST case of hi’jab stuffing EVER!”
I propped myself up against the wall and sat there smugly with a sideways smile. Soon I would be transformed into some sort of elevated reverie of reflection—that usual awed, heart-struck jummah feeling—but for the moment, in a different way, I felt strangely feminine, and peculiarly close to God. And it was not just because my blasphemously high hi’jab was closer to heaven.
The progression of history has shoved women out of the mosque, to the point where the fact that praying at mosques is an obligation for men and an option for women is cited to justify smaller and oppressive prayer areas for women. Vanessa Maher even reports in her study titled Women and Property in Morocco that in the 1960s in some small communities, Moroccan women accustomed to never crossing the threshold to the public sphere after they crossed inward to the private one following marriage feared attending the mosques in their own towns lest they are accused of attending to meet lovers. (Consider for a moment the outrage of that accusation!) Increasingly women have been deprived of the right to pray in the mosque, in place shut away with their cloistering glamorized. Steadily, the mosque became more and more a male-dominated domain, where women are unwanted and femininity is viewed as trivial, sinful, and distracting.
But during the time of the Prophet the religious community had once been so matrilocal and matrifocal that prayers were shortened if there was a mother in the congregation attending to a small child, much less the presence of excuses evoking the mandatory circumstance of men’s attendance versus the optional nature of women’s attendance cited to erect barriers. The Prophet prayed with children running around him and climbing onto his shoulders (he would wait for them to slide off before he rose). And women accompanied him to the battlefield for numerous tasks, even when they were very small girls. Umayyah bint Qays recounts commencing her first menstrual cycle while she was out with the Prophet, surrounded by an army of men, riding a female camel behind him. She saw the blood smear on one of the bags, and in embarrassment she sat in front of the luggage to hide it. When the Prophet saw the smudges, he asked, “Perhaps you have menstrual bleeding?”
She reports, “I said: Yes. He said: ‘Attend yourself. Then take a container of water, then put salt in it, then wash the affected part of the bag, then come back.’ I did so. When God conquered Kaybar for us, the Prophet, peace be upon him, took this necklace that you see on my neck and gave it to me and put it on my neck with his hands. By God it will never be parted from me.”
Not only had the Prophet directly and calmly addressed the issue, but he had not shown hesitation to address it, nor disgust or disapproval that she had sullied the bag. In fact, women were known for approaching the Prophet with questions not only regarding particular nuances and expanses of the Islamic faith as a whole, but questions that were specific to their sex. They would engage the Prophet (a man) in these discussions specific to femaleness, signifying the forging and shaping of a way for women as our own gender rather than a derivative model in which male is default and what works for men is assumed to work for women. The most common inquiries concerned menstruation, the guidelines for which the Prophet would clarify by distinguishing between blood resulting from the menstrual cycle and blood from tearing. Al-Nasa’i notes that Khawlah bint Hakim proceeded to ask the Prophet about women’s (sexual) dreams, and he answered that obtaining a state of ritual purity is required from women following any kind of nocturnal emission, just as it is from men.
Female ejaculation was recognized.
The Prophet did not shy away from these topics, and encouraged women not to shy away from them. In fact, Ibn Hajar writes, “Shyness is a part of the faith through which happens praiseworthy respect for elders and great people. As for the shyness which leads to abandoning legal matter—that is rebuked and not lawful shyness; rather, it is timidity and lowness…” In the 9th century, Jahiz observes, “Many of the people who display their piety and ascetic way of life are disgusted and turn away when such words such as vulva, penis, or coitus are mentioned, but most of those who behave thus are men whose hypocrisy is greater than their knowledge, noble-mindedness, refinement, and dignity.” The disgust leveled at the female body, and at sex which has been associated with the female body through the relegation of women to the sex class and as representatives of the body and worldly pleasure, is an aberration, a misogynist infection climbing up the righteous shaft of patriarchy.
Despite the claims of defensive men who assert that the traditional roles of women were not viewed as inferior to those of men and therefore none of the first female scholars were feminists (while the same men simultaneously admit openly that they are not familiar enough with ‘women’s studies’ to make such a claim), the female Companions of the Prophet were inarguably feminists. They were feminists who were acutely aware of the disparity between men and women in honor and reward—or else they would not have confronted the Prophet himself on these matters.
Ali Ibn al Athir, the historian, writes that Asma bint Yazid, asked the Prophet, “May my father and mother be sacrificed for you, oh Messenger of God, peace be upon you. I am the representative of the women to you. God has sent you as a Messenger to all men and women. So we have believed in you and your God. We women are confined to the houses and bearing your children. You men have been preferred over us by the jummah and other congregational prayers, visiting the sick, attending funerals, performing hajj after hajj, and, more than that, the ji’had in the path of God. When men go for hajj or umrah or ji’had, we look after your property, we weave your clothes, and we bring up your children. Will we not share with you in the reward?”
The Prophet then turned to his Companions and asked, “Have you heard any woman asking about her religion better than this?”
His Companions replied that they had never thought a woman could be guided to something like that. And the Prophet turned back to the woman and said to her to tell all the women she represents that the responsibilities they have taken are of equal value to all that the religion had commanded from men. Asma bint Yazid returned to the other women, her face bright with happiness.
Of course, this changed at an alarming rate, as reflected by Mihri Khatun, a 15th century poetess who writes,
Since they cry that woman lacketh wit alway,
Needs must they excuse, whatever word she say.
Better for one female, if she worthy be,
Than a thousand males, if all unworthy they.
lamenting the (by then) well-emerged derogatory views toward women. When once men took no issue with women approaching the Prophet on any kind of subject, even “scandalous” matters specific to the female sex, and when husbands even saw no harm in their wives speaking with the Prophet about topics the husbands themselves could have inquired, and when women taught classes with students who were of both sexes, women and femininity are ridiculed, derided, shunned, and denied interaction.
The history of religion is essentially women’s history: Qur’anic verses that restored women’s rights were met with angry reactionary Muslim men just as a feminist movement—yet God firmly sealed women’s rights into morality!—and the cultural attitudes towards women in religious spaces that were once accepting of the feminine as normal and human quickly changed approach. Islam is feminist, and so are these scholars. The accusation that they cannot be, because feminists are seeking to “invade” men’s spaces or “become” like men is fearful and misogynistic, and it blatantly overlooks (1) the fact that men have defined what is feminine in the first place to conveniently call the shots on when women are “becoming” like them and (2) what the Qur’an states over and over: women don’t have to become men because men and women are 4:1 made of a similar nature; more similar than different, we are the same species of human. Accept it.
So sitting there, ready to start the prayer, with my hi’jab wrapped around the curlers in my hair, I felt as though I had brought the affectionate quality of ease, the value of embracement and personal familiarity with the feminine, back into the center of the mosque where it belonged. And the goodness of the feminine—comfort, cultivation, trust, contentment, affection—is what both women and men should embrace.