Friday, December 21, 2012

Celebrating love: Gahmen Style.

Back in Singapore for a few weeks, and already having so much fun! Here's a 2013 calendar sent to me by the Social Development Network of Singapore, encouraging me to date and marry and build the "basic unit of society" -- family! (I guess they didn't get the memo that I got married just like they want me to.)

I'd like to call your attention to the pink heart-shaped candy at the bottom right-hand corner of the calendar. It seemed suspiciously like the candies placed on all cakes at Bagels and Beans, NL, that I picked at it for a good whole minute before realising it was a stack of Post-it!

Bagel & Beans cheesecake

Curiouser and curiouser, the stack of maybe 20 heart-shaped Post-its says "I've a DATE with (blank)". But only 20 dates in a year? How to get married like this leh?

Another tickling feature of the calendar is the inclusion of not only all our national holidays, but also "special dates whereby love is celebrated in other parts of the world"! Because we're emotionless, and unhappy, and we need our government to suggest to us how to celebrate and show love!

So here are the other dates, as bureaucratically suggested by SDN (no offense to those who celebrate these holidays; I'm only critiquing the specific aspects of these holidays as picked out by SDN!):

24 February: Dragobete
A traditional Romanian holiday originating from Dacian times and known as "the day when the birds are betrothed", as it is around this time that the birds begin to build their nests and mate. If the weather allows, singles pick snowdrops or other early spring plants for the person they are courting. It is a common belief that during this celebration, if you step over your partner's foot, you will have the dominant role in your relationship
Source: Wfriends (more fun photos of kids celebrating!)

Alamak. This description is taken almost 100% from Wikipedia! (See Dragobete). It's incredible how non-discreet the SDN is being, what with the building of nests and mating! Come on Single Singaporeans, it's time (tap tap foot)! As for the stepping on your partner's foot  (a belief only in some parts of Romania), can't you see what an unhealthy view of relationships they are promoting? What's up with that?

12 June: Dia dos Namorados. 
In Brazil, Dia dos Namorados means "Lovers Day", or "Boyfriends'/Girlfriends' Day" probably because it is the day before Saint Anthony's day, a day whereby single women perform rituals to find a good husband or boyfriend. On this Lovers' Day, couples exchange gifts, chocolates, cards and flower bouquets.

Also taken off the Brazil section on Valentine's Day! Again, putting the onus on single women to find a good male partner -- fits in well with the heteronormative ideas of family in Singapore (only married couples can get money for having babies!) as well as simmering contemporary patriarchal ideas (women depend on men, reason for fewer marriages are career-minded women).

3 October: Sweetest Day
Friends, family and lovers often give each other candy, flowers and cards on this day; and like Valentine's Day, it is associated with heart-shaped boxes, and the colours pink and red.
Source: Wikipedia

When something is from the US, it's conveniently taken to be universal. But even in the US, this holiday is only celebrated in the Mid-west, and specifically in Chicago. Actually, I think that considering the commercial and materialist origins of this holiday, having been called a "concocted promotion" created by the candy industry solely to increase sales of sweets, this is probably suitable for us Singaporeans.

The date isn't even right -- it's usually celebrated on the third Saturday of each October!

11 November: Pepero Day
Koreans celebrate Pepero Day on November 11, when young couples give each other Pepero cookies to tell their special someone that they are the only 'one' in their heart. The date '11/11' resembles the long shape of the cookie. Some singles also choose to say goodbye to singlehood on this day by attending 'blind date' parties or marrying on this day.
Source: Coreaporsiempre

This is actually pretty cute. And definitely boosting the sales of these long and thin cookies! But okay, we get the idea -- singles have to stop being single. ASAP. (On a side note, I do like these ambiguous representations of Pepero Day!)

Oh SDN, whatever will you come up with next? Pay us to date? Oh, wait.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mak Nyahs: Transgendered Muslims in Malaysia

Mak nyah is the term that transgendered women in Malaysia use to identify themselves. 'Mak' means 'mother', and 'nyah' is derived from the literal meaning of 'running away' to refer to 'transition'. Khartini Slamah, a well-known 49-year-old activist and counselor to other transgendered women, explains how and why this term came about in the late 80s, in her chapter in the book Sexuality, Gender and Rights: Exploring Theory and Practice in South and South East Asia by Geetanjali Misra and Radhika Chandiramani (2005):
“First [...] to differentiate ourselves from gay men, transvestites, cross dressers, drag queens, and other ‘sexual minorities’ with whom all those who are not heterosexual are automatically lumped, and second [...] to define ourselves from a vantage point of dignity rather than from the position of derogation in which Malaysian society has located us”.
Mak nyahs do not necessarily have to undergo, have undergone, or plan to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Khartini elaborates on the groups of people that self-identify as mak nyah:
“Mak Nyahs define themselves in various ways along the continuums of gender and sexuality: as men who look like women and are soft and feminine, as the third gender, as men who dress up as women, as men who like to do women’s work, as men who like me, etc.”
Compare this strong and empowering self-identification by Khartini to an article published a few months ago that featured Adam Shazrul's experiences as a transgendered woman in Malaysia. I found this article as a rather sympathetic portrayal of transgendered women since female pronouns ('she' and 'her') were used throughout. However, the accompanying image seemed to be a bit of a forceful effort to show how feminine she can actually look ("Look Ma, I'm not born a woman but I can still be sexy, as a woman should be").

Adam Shazrul. Via New York Times.
Despite the fact that Adam Shazrul (I would like to refer to him using his preferred female name, but this is kept from the reader for privacy reasons) identifies as a practising Muslim who "fasts during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and sometimes visits the mosque", the accompanying image shows the clear outlines and curves of her body in a lighting perhaps more suited to a more shifty kind of story. I've yet to come across an article about a practising cisgendered Muslim woman being accompanied with such a photograph.

Last year, the Equal Rights Trust (ERT) published a report about four transgendered Malay Muslim women in their biannual publication. Recently, the ERT helped four Malay Muslim transgendered women present a case to the High Court, challenging the unconstitutional basis of the ban on "cross-dressing", which was unfortunately rejected. In this report, the testimonies of these women show how gender, race, class and the religio-political system in the state of Seremban (and Malaysia at large) intersect in structural and physical violence towards mak nyahs in Malaysia today.

The justification for this violence towards mak nyah mainly comes from their race and class. All the four women interviewed explained how it was difficult for them to rent a house, continue their education (the stress of having to room with a male student) or find jobs other than low-paying and precarious ones in the field of administration, food and beverages, or as a last resort, sex work. Even if they looked convincingly female (which even the ERT report also tried to emphasise with one of their accompanying images), their identity card revealed their masculine gender and names, as given at birth, resulting in discrimination and ridicule.

Via Equal Rights Trust
As they identify as Malay and (automatically) Muslim, they are subject to a section in the Seremban syariah code that makes it an offence for a "man to act like a woman". Specifically, "wearing women's attire" or "posing as a woman" is reason for being arrested, having their breasts groped (on the pretext of checking for bras), and being asked to undress in front of other men. The women also state that they do not wear bras because this could be used as evidence of their 'cross-dressing', but sometimes even when they are wearing masculine clothing like football jerseys, they are still arrested for having a "physical appearance [...] of a woman."

The systematic violations of their modesty as self-identifying Muslim women, by the Muslim male officers from the religious department is something that we as Muslims should be ashamed and critical about. Previously on MWW, Alicia pointed out how "sexual immorality is intertwined with class"; that these religious officers mostly target the lower classes of Malaysian society for offenses against 'Islamic law'. One the scale of class and gender, the mak nyah are arguably on one of the lowest rungs of society, despite belonging to the majority ethnic group of Malays, because they fail to act like 'real men'.

As Linda (not her real name) said in her testimony:
These people arrest us, beat us up and break into our properties. They hunt us down as if we are the biggest murderers, when the only “offence” we are “guilty” of is wearing female attire.
In short, mak nyah are those who are not 'real Muslim men', it seems that society still needs to be convinced that they are 'real Muslim women'. (Although then perhaps they are subject to a different standard of sexual policing – you just can’t win.)

Even though Khartini has defined mak nyah as a continuum that encompasses a rich diversity of men and women, I find it unfortunate that the photos in the article and report suggest a rigid representation of women (sexy, must wear make-up).

Gender isn't everything. The case of mak nyahs in Malaysia show how it is important to consider race and class as well. In any case, it should not stop us from speaking out against violence towards other human beings who only wish to be safe, make a living, and "take care of our people like everyone else."
Cross posted at Muslimah Media Watch.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Just a 'liberal' 'girl'?: Framing of Nurul Izzah Anwar over 'freedom of religion' remarks

Nurul Izzah. Via

Nurul Izzah Anwar comes from a political family. She is the current vice-president of the Malaysian political party PKR (People's Justice Party), is also the daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, a former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister who was jailed in 1999 and banned from politics until 2008 for charges of corruption and sodomy (but arguably because he was a prominent critic of the then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad). Her mother Wan Azizah Wan Ismail is the President of PKR.

Nurul Izzah is the current Member of Parliament for the parliamentary constituency of Lembah Pantai. In the last few weeks, she has been facing "heavy fire" from Malaysian Islamic scholars like the mufti of the state of Perak, the chairman of the National Fatwa Council, and the ulama of the largest and most dominant political party since Malaysia's independence, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation).

What did she say that was so offensive to the dominant religio-political powers?

In a public forum entitled "Islamic State: Which Version, Whose Responsibility?" which discussed the existence of an Islamic society without an Islamic state, she was asked whether freedom of religion applies to Malays in Malaysia (the constitution conflates the indigenous ethnic category of 'Malay' with Islam, making all Malays automatically Muslim).

In her responses, Nurul Izzah quoted the main speaker of the event, who had cited a verse from Al-Baqarah (2:256). She added that this general Quranic commandment should not apply only to non-Muslims in Malaysia.
"And when you ask me, there is no compulsion in religion, even Dr Farouk quoted that verse in the Quran. How can you ask me or anyone, how can anyone really say, 'Sorry, this only apply to non-Malays.' It has to apply equally."
Reporters and other politicians rapidly implied that her remarks were "dangerous and misleading", that she trivialised the issue of belief, and that she was in fact showing "support for apostasy" of Muslims, as part of the larger "liberal ideology" of her political party.

A few days later she clarified in a statement that she was referring to the Malaysian state's enforcement of Islam as the only religion of the Malays, and that while the verse applies to everyone, Muslims fall under shariah laws once they become Muslim. She also reiterated that she supports educational and dakwah programs to strengthen faith in and understanding of Islam.

Throughout this debacle, the infantilisation of Nurul Izzah became clear. A highly-educated 32-year old woman with a Master's degree in International Relations was variously described as a "golden need of help", who was "rapped" for her remarks" and who ought to have done her "homework" and stop "politicising issues concerning the Islamic faith".

Another theme that surfaced was the labelling of her political party as being 'liberal' and 'pluralist'. These labels are used pejoratively in Malaysia's political context, which aims for a conservative and rigidly Sunni and Shafii Islamic approach to issues -- seen as the purest Islam (other self-professed Muslim groups like Shias or Ahmadiyyas are rigorously persecuted). Promoting freedom of religion or other "Western-style freedoms" such as accepting LGBT people which will lead to many problems (duh, obviously!), as argued by the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
"If we are free to do this and that, in the end we end up creating films which insult other religions and as a result, fight among ourselves," he said. "So don't end up being too enamoured by Western ideologies. Men can marry men, women can marry women, and the family is destroyed," he said.
The support of political parties depend very much on the Malays who are the majority population. As they are overwhelmingly Muslim, Islam is used as a rallying ideology together with the special status of the Malays as the bumiputra ("sons of the soil") of Malaysia. The conflation of 'Malay' and 'Muslim' in the constitution creates situations that are absurd such as a non-Malay convert to Islam being legally regarded as Malay, or impossible, where a Malay apostate would also lose his/her ethnic status (what ethnic group are you then?).

Another rebuttal by a religious scholar who said that "ignorance was to blame for her statement" revealed how important the conflation of ethnicity and race is to the existing religio-political structure in Malaysia.
"How can we say religion is free and open, or place Islam on the same level as other religions. If this happens, think of why Islam is enshrined in the constitution and what is the purpose of the Malay rulers," he said.
Ruling Malay royalty such as sultan or raja still exist in Malaysia although they have limited executive powers. Nevertheless, the common idea is that these rulers traditionally have a mandate to rule by virtue of having lineage from the Prophet Muhammad.

Nurul Izzah's father, Anwar Ibrahim slammed UMNO's religious teachers for keeping mum on internal issues of tyranny, graft and corruption. Indeed, what would be the purpose of Malay royal rulers with all their corruption and oppression if they are reduced to merely rulers, without any divine mandate?

As a woman politician, Nurul Izzah is already subject to the kind of infantilising framing that male politicians would hardly be subjected to. However, the descriptions of the events that unfolded after she made her remark on 'freedom of religion' show that in Malaysia, it's more important to not upset the dominant conception of "Islam = Malay". Not only does questioning the status quo result on personal attacks instead of any "argument based on sound Islamic principles", it more dangerously questions the legitimacy of the current system of political governance in Malaysia.
Originally posted at Muslimah Media Watch.

Monday, November 19, 2012

'Our Harsh Logic' by Breaking the Silence

Source: Amazon

Last month, Yehuda Shaul of the NGO Breaking the Silence came to speak at ISS and launch the book 'Our Harsh Logic', a collection of testimonies from Israeli soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories from 2000 to 2010.

What is so valuable about this collection is that it corroborates the stories that have been told countless times by Palestinians, but which have been ignored. I'm sharing the most important part of the book, which is the logic behind the air strikes, forced entry, skunk gas, intimidation of children and families, and the general insanity that the Israeli Defence Forces seems to be doing in 'peacetime' (i.e. when they're not bombing the fuck out of Gaza as they're doing now and before that in 2008-09).

The stories in the book contain lots of jargon as used by the IDF soldiers. Psychologically, this helps them to distance themselves from the gravity of what they are doing to Palestinians. The four terms used in Israeli defense policy are Prevention, Separation, Fabric of Life, and Law Enforcement. The stories in the book are arranged according to these policy terms. I am loosely copying from the book, and arranging the points to be more readable.

1. Prevention (sikkul)

The Harsh Logic
Every Palestinian (whether man, woman or child) is a potential threat. Almost every military operation or military act directed at Palestine can be considered "prevention", gradually blurring the lines between offensive and defensive actions. Deterring the Palestinian population as a whole, through intimidation, will reduce the chances of opposition and therefore prevent terrorist activity.

How to "Prevent"
Abuse Palestinians at checkpoints, confiscate property, impose collective punishments, change and obstruct access to free movement, change rules arbitrarily. The testimonies show that almost every use of military force in the Territories is considered preventive.

The Reality
All military acts are justified as defensive.

2. Separation (hafradah)

The Harsh Logic
Israelis in Israel will be defended if they are separated from Palestinian population in the Territories. After sufficient separation, Israel can withdraw.

How to "Separate"
Channel and monitor Palestinian movement. Create permits and permissions necessary for Palestinians to move around in the West Bank, to limit their freedom of movement and internally divide their communities. Create arbitrary regulations and endless bureaucratic mazes, as effective as physical barriers. Create checkpoints, close roads off to Palestinian traffic, prohibit Palestinian movement from one place to another.

The Reality
Palestinians are divided not only from Israelis, but also their agricultural land, and their own people.
Israel wants to incorporate certain areas into its jurisdiction and creates barriers based on its offensive calculations.

"Separation" is not aimed at withdrawal, but a means of control, dispossession, and annexation of the Occupied Territories.

3. Fabric of life (mirkam hayyim)

The Harsh Logic
Life under foreign occupation can be tolerable, even good. Israeli spokespeople emphasize that Palestinians in the Territories receive all basic necessities and are not subjected to a humanitarian crisis; that there is even economic prosperity in the West Bank.

Occupation is thus a justifiable means of defense, and if there is harm suffered by the population, this is regrettable. Any damage to Palestinians are merely proportionate to the security required of Israeli civilians.

How to create a "Fabric of Life"
Decide on a daily basis which goods can be transferred from city to city in the Occupied Territories, which businesses may open, who can pass through checkpoints and security barrier crossings, who may send their children to school, who will be able to reach the universities, and who will receive needed medical treatment.

Hold the private property of tens of thousands of Palestinians (for supposed security considerations, or for the purpose of expropriating land), arbitrarily confiscate houses, agricultural land, motor vehicles, electronic goods, farm animals. "Confiscate" people to use in training exercises e.g. to practice arrest procedures.

The Reality
The Palestinian fabric of life is arbitrary and changing. Palestinians require Israel's good grace to lead their lives, showing how much they are dependent on Israel. If Israel can prevent a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, it also has the power to create one when necessary.

Israel's claim to allow the maintenance of the "fabric of life" in the West Bank reveals the absolute control it has over the Palestinian people.

4. Law enforcement (akifat hok)

The Harsh Logic
Israel maintains two legal systems: 1) Palestinians are governed by military rule, enforced by soldiers and subject to frequent change, and does not represent Palestinians or their interests 2) Israeli settlers are subject to mostly civil law, passed by a democratically elected legislature and enforced by police.

How to "Enforce the Law"
Settlers play an active role in imposing Israel's military rule. They serve in public positions and are partners in military deliberations and decisions that control the lives of the Palestinians that live in their area of settlement, they work in the Ministry of Defense as security coordinator for their settlement (influencing transportation, road access, security patrols, even participate in soldiers' briefings).

The Reality
Settler violence against Palestinians is not treated as an infraction of the law. Security forces do not treat settlers as regular citizens but as partners, therefore law is not enforced on them by the Israeli police force. Even when the wishes of settlers and the military are at odds, they consider each other partners in a shared struggle and settle through compromise.Security forces also help in settlers' political aspirations of annexing large portions of the Occupied Territories for their use.


These are some of the terms used by the Israeli authorities, concealed under the cover of defensive jargon, with barely any connection to the reality.

Read the book for accounts of the IDF soldiers -- even if just one account -- which show that while Israel gives off the impression that it is slowly and securely withdrawing from the Territories, it is in fact tightening the country's hold on both Palestinians and Palestinian land.

There are many more ways that Israel controls the Territories. This book is just a stepping stone to helping us understand the logic behind occupation and policies of the military.

The best part was the Q&A session. When I asked Shaul to elaborate on the religious justification (the 'Holy Land' argument) used when annexing land, he replied with:

"There are Jewish people who believe the land is ours. There are non-Jewish people who believe the land is ours. There are Jewish people who don't think the land is ours. I'm a Jew and I don't think the land is ours."

Yehuda Shaul
Find their NGO on Facebook and on Twitter @BtSIsrael.

I will post some testimonies from the book in the coming days, inshallah.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

What is nushuz?

This post is part of the "What Is...?" series, which aims to re-read terms in the Quran which I believe have been interpreted to suit those who have more power in society.


The term nushuz/nusyuz/nushooz, commonly used to refer to the 'rebellion' of Muslim wives, which then merits a series of psychological (and some say, physical) punishments, has been interpreted to suit patriarchal ideas of women and men, and wives and husbands. This calls for an attempt at re-reading male and female nushuz, as used in the Qur'an.

The term comes from the root n-sh-z, which appears five times. Three times it is translated as 'to rise' or 'to raise up'. Quite a literal meaning, God can resurrect a dead animal (2:259). In another verse we are told that when we make a certain effort, God will reciprocate with a more supreme reward (58:11).

For example, when we 'make space' in the sense that we embrace diversity or allow for people different from us to speak, God will 'make space' for us in the sense that God will ensure that we can live unimpeded socially, economically or politically. It makes sense that if we contribute towards creating spaces for everyone, we will naturally enjoy such space ourselves.

The other example in 58:11 is that when we 'arise', or challenge ourselves to be people who become by each day, more knowledgeable, better in character and more beneficial to society, God will gradually 'raise' us to become such people, because God knows the efforts we put in.

But here's the best part in Chapter 4 (Al-Nisa): nushuz is something that both wives and husbands can do. Verse 4:34 has been discussed to death. Some justify the beating, saying that it should be done "lightly". Some dispute it outright, calling such an interpretation the bias of (male)(patriarchal) scholars. But not many people bring up another verse found further along Chapter 4, referring to the nushuz of husbands (4:128).

When it comes to the nushuz of wives, it is interpreted by different well-known translators as disloyalty, ill-conduct, rebellion, desertion, non-compliance, or arrogance. Two lesser-known translators also use the terms disloyalty or ill-treatment.

When it comes to the nushuz of husbands (which can happen along with i'radaan), it is translated as contempt, cruelty, ill-treatment, ill-usage (??), non-compliance. The other two translators use the exact same terms for husbands and wives: disloyalty or ill-treatment. Especially for husbands, there is the added fear of their evasion, desertion, veering away (of their responsibilities -- so true, no?), estrangement or turning away.

Taking into account the other meanings of n-sh-z, Shabbir Ahmed elaborates on this term to also mean a behaviour that rises up against virtue, such as psychological or physical abuse. Cheating or other forms of marital disloyalty can also be included, because this is something that both husbands and wives are able to do. If scholars insist on this term to mean rebellion of wives, then they have to accept that husbands can also rebel against wives.

Since they don't, my understanding of nushuz as marital disloyalty, in a variety of forms, seems clearly appropriate for both 4:34 and 4:128.

Deconstructing pre-marriage advice for Muslim couples

My unofficial marriage contract certifies that my husband and I went through a “marriage ceremony peformed under Islamic rites”, and that he had agreed to certain “special conditions” otherwise known as ta’aliq. We didn’t pay much attention to the conditions provided to us by the kadi (judge) from the syariah court, dismissing it as a formality.

Last week, an organisation dedicated to converts in Singapore was accused of teaching future couples to hit their wives if they refuse to have sex. Both the converts organisation and another women's organisation mentioned in the article have since refuted these claims (here and here). It turns out that the claims were based on only the experience of the writer, and not of other course participants.

I knew this organisation and had gone there often for talks and seminars. My husband also did his formal conversion there, despite having to endure a lecturer who staunchly defended against claims of Muslim terrorism that my "Western" husband did not make, and taught us that among other things, that "Islam is the true religion because it's not named after a person" (unlike Christianity or Buddhism). I could imagine such a situation as described by the writer as actually happening, because of the lack of teaching regulations there.

What was more interesting however, were the responses from Singaporean Muslims of different ethnic backgrounds.

Essentially, the discussion centered around the difference of Muslim marriages from "Western", "secular" or "civil" ones because the former contains elements of spirituality. Therefore, Muslim marriage courses are preferable to secular ones because they teach couples the "rights of husbands and wives in the eyes of Islam". Following the logic that a Muslim husband is a pious head of the household, with the right to correct the mistakes of other members of his household, any beating is never meant to be violent, but a mere "expression of disapproval".

In my own my state-approved pre-marriage course, a hadith was provided as guidance to the Muslim husband to "neither hit her on her face nor use impolite language" as part of his obligation to treat his wife "with kindness and equity". In the discussion, a young woman even pointed out that it's not even supposed to be a "beating", but merely a "light tap, like a handkerchief", and therefore not degrading or a demonstration of power. No, not at all.

These were educated, middle class Muslim women and men who chose their own marriage partners and spent many years getting to know them before marrying. I could say with some certainty that they might never experience domestic violence, but they still defended the dominant interpretation of the verse. Taking "beating" as a given, they tried to soften the potential blow by explaining the severity of the blow, where it could be done, and with what. In a way, they tried to speak on behalf of Muslim women who have been abused and had their abuse justified by religious reasons (occurs in many possible ways;see here).

While the discussion revolved around the issue of difference and the accuracy of translating the verse in question (Quran 4:34) as "beating", the underlying issue of the refusal of sex was not addressed. Muslim women could not refuse sex without intangible (whether heavenly curse or a light tap) or tangible consequences.

In my course, I was taught that as a Muslim wife, giving "free sexual access at all lawful times" (in addition to "submission to husband" and "obedience") was a condition to receive financial maintenance (nafkah). She could not receive maintenance if she was physically absent from the home without her husband's permission (for reasons such as traveling or going for haj). She could not refuse sexual intercourse without "angels cursing her until morning", even when her husband was approaching her because he was "charmed by (another) woman". These notions squarely avoid women's sexual agency and place the burden of domestic harmony on women -- the main vision of  the Obedient Wives' Club in neighbouring Malaysia.

During my pre-marriage course, I was warned as a Muslim wife to uphold my husband's "conjugal rights", but I was assumed to have no sexual needs or agency. The sex education provided by the elderly male heterosexual lecturer only consisted of a rapid and awkward speeding through of the restrictions of the 'when' and 'how' of sexual intercourse from only the husband's perspective. Sadly, the sexual agency of Muslim women remains virtually non-existent in the consciousness of Singaporean Muslims. Arguably, this is also the case of Muslims in general, which as Eren has rightly pointed out, explains the popularity of writing that explores Muslim women's love lives.

The contradiction between the pre-marriage advice I received, and my own vision of marriage as an uplifting spiritual union reveals the tension between what we are taught to be a "properly Muslim" marriage and the reality of the diverse lives we lead. We read online articles with titles containing "Muslim wife" or "Muslim husband" (examples here and here) which cater to hypothetical couples who have never interacted with each other (or perhaps not even any member of the opposite gender) before marriage.

We are expected to have our Muslim and gender identities supersede and disregard all other identities like ethnicity, class or age. There is scant advice for intercultural couples, or wives who earn more and/or are older than their husbands. This implies that couples should be of the same ethnic background, or that ethnicity never matters when one is truly Muslim, and that the husband is always wealthier and/or is older than the wife.

The gendered roles and rules of behaviour in the form of "rights" and "obligations" place fixed expectations on each spouse and leave no room for individual circumstances and personality, and instead create possibilities for resentment. But in the highly institutionalised practice of Islam in Singapore, due to the semi-government regulation of Muslims, deviations from the legal Islamic standard on what constitutes a Muslim marriage, the roles of the husband and the wife, and assumptions on which partner possesses sexual agency, is seen to be deviant and unIslamic.

For example, even though Muslim couples are free to make a marriage contract and place any conditions in it, in practice all Muslim marriage contracts in Singapore include wifely "obedience" (and all its assumptions about gender roles and sexual agency) as a condition for financial maintenance.

During my third marriage* in the presence of a judge from the Singapore syariah court, my husband was required to read this out loud:
"On every occasion that I fail to maintain my wife whereas she is obedient to me... and my wife complains to the Syariah Court, and if her complaint is proved, then she is divorced by one talak."
I had heard this read out so many times, at so many weddings, for so many years, that I never thought twice about it. But now I think it carries too many implications.

And it's not something I want for my own marriage. Even though marriage, and especially Islamic marriages, are highly structured and legalised in Singapore, the syariah laws are not perfect (not to mention influenced by colonial British law) and don’t fit my vision of marriage. I want my husband and I to be able to think for ourselves, and for our own situation, knowing that this will change materially and ideologically over time.
* The dual marriage system and social norms in Singapore mean that there is only one kind of valid marriage for Muslims: marriage in the Syariah Court. This meant that although I had already married twice: once at home with all the Islamic requirements, and a second time in a Dutch civil court for a marriage certificate, I had to marry a third time in the presence of a judge from the syariah court, who produced a legally non-binding letter that certified that I had indeed married Islamically.

Cross-posted at Muslimah Media Watch.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Coming out of the purity closet.

I'm coming out of the purity closet: I pray and fast while menstruating.

It was a slow process -- the start or end of which is difficult to point out -- to where I stand on issues today. I can recall that I gradually started rejecting ideas that this or that made me pure or impure. It maybe first started with the fact that touching your own genitals (even accidentally, as I was taught) nullified your state of purity.

Purity is so important. An entire chapter on taharah is devoted to people who are learning about Islam before wanting to convert. A state of impurity makes all your acts of worship invalid (if you look at worship in that way). Converts are told to take a bath after conversion because being a non-Muslim is itself a major impurity.

Women are told to take a bath at the end of menstruation, before praying or fasting (the bath doesn't work mid-menstruation, obviously). Sometimes we are also taught that we should cut our fingernails or any hair while menstruating because those bits remain impure 4EVAZ (although I think this is not such a common teaching today). Sometimes we don't pray because we can't find a place to do ablution.

Let's backtrack a bit to explain purity. We are taught, growing up, that acts of worship require certain states of purity. States of purity are important because they determine when you can be in a mosque, whether you can pray, fast, and touch or recite the Qur'an. There is physical purity (no dirt on you) and then there is spiritual purity. Physical purity is important, but for times of emergency it can be modified because the ibadah takes precedence (see Quran 4:43, 5:6).

Spiritual purity only becomes applicable when you hit puberty, and it's a little tricky; it is usually broken down into two further states: minor and major impurity.

Minor impurity is usually taught to be caused by normal bodily functions: urinating, defecating, passing gas -- applicable to everyone. Sometimes you are taught that pus, blood, touching your genitals (in a non-sexual way, for example to wash yourself) are also factors. Regaining minor purity can be done by taking ablution.

Major impurity is taught to be caused by sexual intercourse (and for women, menstruation, childbirth and post-partum bleeding) and requires a ritual bath to regain it. As children we are taught these concepts to be universal, but as we grow up we realise that as women of childbearing age we cannot enjoy the same period (pun intended) of purity as everyone else.

The lack of female perspectives in Islamic jurisprudence also results in situations where young women are wondering if their daily vaginal secretions are impure. Menstruation is straightforward, the overwhelming majority of opinions state that it is a spiritual impurity. Therefore, no fasting, praying, touching Quran, or sitting in the mosque (this I understand the least -- is impurity contagious?). Even though there are hadith sources that imply that this is an exaggeration of the original rule that excused women from acts of worship if they were sick (and some women are quite ill during menstruation, varying from backaches to vomiting).

From merely being excused (tak payah) on account of sickness (and even when ill you are allowed to pray while sitting or lying down), it becomes forbidden and invalid (tak sah). Some even make menstruation out to be some kind of 'vacation' from worship. But if worship is pleasurable and I need it, why must I take compulsory vacation from it? (Don't tell me that I can still dhikr and read translations -- I'll dang well choose what kind of worship I want to do.)

Because of a natural bodily function indicating the health of my body, my bones and my reproductive system, that I was not allowed to continue a daily act of worship that I found meaningful for myself, that I was restricted on where I could go, that I was be continuously spiritually impure for eight days -- I rejected it all.

I rejected this because I looked up menstruation in the Qur'an, where it only appears twice, and found that the restrictions were sexual intercourse (addressed to men, in case they didn't know that it hurts, besides being bloody) (2:222) and a detail about divorce waiting periods (65:4).

The Qur'an describes one state of impurity (junub) only, a result of going to the toilet or sexual intercourse (4:43, 5:6). To regain purity, you simply take standard ablution if you have water (wash hands, face, arms up to elbow, wipe head, feet up to ankles). In exceptional cases where there's no water, you're sick, or you're traveling (4:43, 5:6), you can take dry ablution with dry earth (wipe face and hands).

"If the ocean were ink for writing God's words, it would be exhausted before God's words are exhausted..."(18:109)

Rules can be so detailed when they have to be (e.g. inheritance in 4:11-12, 4:176; valid wives in 4:23-25, modesty in 24:31), so why can't we accept that sometimes the rules are so simple?

That there can be a lot of room for your own circumstances, your level of comfort and your conscience. Going to the toilet and having sexual intercourse as impure, and washing afterwards encourages good hygiene (goodbye urinary tract infections!). Wet dreams, menstrual blood and vaginal discharge and everything else uncontrollable as pure, although keeping physically clean still remains part of good hygiene.

It's been three years since I first prayed on my period, and it's been a regular part of my life ever since.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

4 Tips to be an Extraordinary Husband.

Disclaimer: Tips 1 to 3 are sarcastic. But you can take Tip 4 at face value :)

Another cartoon that's been making rounds on Facebook. It's often reposted by women because it addresses men (when household advice usually addresses women) and especially how men can be Extraordinary Husbands! A translation in English below:

My Home, My Paradise 
The main factor that shapes the Muslim family or household is the husband and wife. Households must be built upon firm piety -- that is, making God as the aim and the main goal. That's the difference between an ordinary household and an extraordinary household.
1. Ordinarily a husband... Merely provides physical sustenance (food and drink). The main responsibility for providing knowledge and religious education is neglected.
An extraordinary husband...Takes care of the daily needs of his family members, and prioritises providing knowledge and religious education. 
2. Ordinarily a husband...Quickly lashes out when his wife or children make mistakes. Or they let them do whatever they want, without caring for right or wrong.  
An extraordinary husband...When wife or children make mistakes, he gives guidance in correcting the mistake. He knows they made mistakes because of their shallow knowledge, lack of guidance, neglect, or selfish desires/appetites. 
3. Ordinarily a husband...Completely surrenders all household tasks to his wife even though he knows that his wife is tired from also working. For him, housework is women's work.  
An extraordinary husband...Always gives support to his wife in household tasks, her career and the children in order to seek God's pleasure. Doing housework is one of the most important jobs for a mother, to produce future leaders that fear and love God.
4. Ordinarily a husband...Likes to look at other women in the workplace or outside the home. That's why there are many cases of cheating husbands. Causing chaos in the household.  
An extraordinary husband...Holds tightly to God's warning to not to look at other women. That is, not just looking, but also not giving attention or feelings to other women. His heart is then only for his wife. This is how a household becomes peaceful.

At a first glance, it sounds great right? Finally, it's not all about women and their modesty! But yeah, sometimes you fall out of the frying pan and into the fire. I read somewhere that "Islam honours women" and "Islam hates women" are just two sides of the same coin. So while this cartoon initially looks like it promotes 'extraordinary' fatherhood, husbandhood and general manhood, it mostly still reproduces the same normative ideas around gender (women, men) and age (parents, children).

1. Provide not only financial maintenance, but also immense religious knowledge and education. 

Yeah... sometimes men don't even manage to fulfill that first requirement, what with the amount of money that Malay society demands of men. (Yes guys, I'm being understanding towards you.) After paying the brideprice which can run above ten thousand of dollars (according to the wife's educational level), the wedding reception, and if you want to make it strictly "Islamic" then he should also pay for the house, the car, her clothes, her food, her shopping, and everything for the children.

This was perhaps true in my parents generation, but this might not be realistic for everyone in today's economic circumstances. The reality is often that the couple both work and contribute towards household expenses. And not all women want to always have everything paid for -- don't want to feel like we're on social security handouts here.

As for the religious knowledge, like everything else, that's also a two-way street in marriage. But it's often men who are made out to be the glorious providers of everything including education. Newsflash: men are human beings, with imperfect knowledge. This also clashes with the dominant idea that the wife should be super pious; because then she should be teaching everyone in the family instead. This norm also has a racial bent to it: only local men can lead local women. Foreign men? Only Arabs or bearded men can be taken seriously as teachers, white men can only hope to be guided by their (local) wife instead.

Alternative! Both wife and husband provide financial maintenance to the household and for the children, with the one earning more contributing proportionally more. Feel free to give each other gifts (tangible or intangible) on special occasions, or just for the heck of it because you love each other! Both should have religious knowledge or seeking it together, and teach each other and their children, who can see what good role models their parents are.

2. Be kind to those who are inferior to you.

Wow -- this one made my jaw drop. Firstly, there is no indication that husbands can (gasp) make mistakes. And the advice to him to not lose his temper is only because he should be thinking about how inferior his wife and children are to him. It's like telling the white man he should be kind to his black slave because the latter is too stupid to know better! This is a great example of how NOT to show respect to your family members.

Yes, husbands should not lose their tempers over small things. But they should also not maintain their cool because of feelings of superiority.

Alternative! Feel free to hit the roof when it's your fault that something serious happens e.g. you smashed the car. For all other reasons, talk it out and listen to the other person. Come to an agreement together and enforce it. Be humble and be ready to accept criticism of your own shortcomings. Respect your wife and children as other human beings and treat them like how you would like to be treated (yeah, women want respect too, not just love). Maybe then they can love you back!

3. Assist your wife in housework because this is her most important job.

I must admit I was disappointed with this one, because it started out so good ("support his wife in housework, career and children") but ended so typical ("because housework is the most important task for a mother"). Assistance implies that the husband is not taking ownership of the tasks. So if his wife is not around to say what should be done, perhaps he wouldn't (or couldn't) know what to do. 

And children are the product of both parents -- a husband should be the best father he can be. Often women are burdened with childcare in its entirety simply because they give birth and breastfeed. But there are also a million other tasks that have nothing to do with the female body -- it just requires any human body. One could also argue that if men are so macho and strong they could also offer to do the dirty and dangerous jobs in the house.

Alternative! Both wife and husband are responsible for certain tasks. Feel free to try out all possible household tasks so that in case one partner is sick or absent, the other can cover. Both should know how to cook, de-clog sinks, work the washing machine, and change diapers. Feel free to swap tasks or reassess them on the basis of time, physical ability or effectiveness. Do also feel free to do some tasks of the other person  because you love each other!

4. Keep your heart only for your wife.

Not all men talk to women with the sole purpose of ogling or flirting with them. Come on, give these guys some credit for being able to respect other people too. I don't think it's very productive to categorise this as 'ordinary' behaviour because it lowers the standards. 

However, I do 100% agree that his heart should only be for his wife! :) But merely not cheating on your wife is not enough -- there needs to be lots of work before a household and a marriage becomes successful, inshallah!

Alternative! None. This advice is pretty good by itself :) Just remember that it's not enough that we don't do bad things, we have to do some good things too!

Monday, October 29, 2012

A box of chocolates is like... with the Dutchman.

A few days ago I received a box of very pretty, artisanal, handmade chocolates and a bouquet of flowers from my colleagues (for falling off my bicycle -- I ought to do that more often!).

I looked at the label and most of the chocolates had some sort of alcohol in them. Now I've never intentionally had  a drop of alcohol in my life, but I have had several unpleasant and unexpected experiences with liquor chocolates. Because when it comes to miniscule amounts of alcohol, the irony of never having tasted Irish Coffee or Bailey's Cream meant that I had no idea if there was some of it in a piece of chocolate (at least until I feel flushed and unbearably hot for no good reason).

In this box, some were liquor free and some were not. The problem was, there was also no way to identify which one was which. Hmm, there was one mocha-flavoured piece. I picked up the one that smelled most strongly of coffee and bingo!

But now there was a missing piece -- I couldn't possibly give it away to someone else. But maybe I could still offer a piece or two to my friends if they came to visit.

So when the Dutchman came home he decided that these chocolates were too fabulous to leave in peace, and he decided to take a tiny bite out of every piece to figure out and match it to the description on the box.

There was one piece with an orange dot on it. I was convinced that was the one containing "mandarin liqueur" because it was well, orange!

Me: Leave that one alone, I'm pretty sure it's the mandarin one.
Dutchman: (Picks it up)
Me: Nooo!
DM: (Nibbles) Yup you're right, there's alcohol in this. (Puts it back in the box)
Me: That's what I said! Now there's a bite taken out of it -- who's going to eat it now?
DM: (Shrugs)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Eid Mubarak!

Happy Eid to all my readers! I hope you had an amazing three days of festivities with your families, loved ones, communities -- with lots of good food.

I've only just begun to be active on Twitter in the last few weeks, so I'm really happy to announce that my tweet about love was picked as the winner for Love, Inshallah's Eid contest!

For all the fans of the Dutchman, the Netherlands, or Couchsurfing, this tweet is for you:
I came to a foreign town & Couchsurfed while finding an apartment. Moved out in a week & moved back in 10 mths later, married.
As regular readers of my blog would know, the first of two marriages did not go down easy! Surf on over here for all my related posts on marriage. Love, InshAllah has invited me to write a post for their blog about how I met the Dutchman (which I've never really wrote about in this blog), so look out for that in two weeks time, inshallah!

Reinforcing the second shift: Malaysian PM Najib Razak talks about women in the New Economy

Who would choose, on a day dedicated to honouring women in his country, to completely discount all previous work done by its women?

That’s exactly what Najib Razak, the incumbent Malaysian prime minister, said during his speech during the National Women’s Day celebration on October 2. In addition to being the prime minister, Razak also holds the portfolio of Women, Family and Community Development – one of the few male ministers in the world (alongside Samoa) to head a ministry dedicated to women.

Razak has a record of saying contradictory things: after launching a “new economic model” in 2010 to shift the basis of affirmative action to class instead of race, he then launched a program to help increase the economic participation of the indigenous Malays.

Malay leaders in the region are only starting to speak about the need to formally acknowledge women’s political and economic participation. While Brunei’s minister of Youth, Culture and Sports recently spoke about the need for Bruneian women in addressing environmental sustainability, Razak spoke about how Malaysian women are needed to work in both the private and public spheres.

Below is a loose translation of his speech in English from Malay, as edited in this video (with emphasis added):
“If we look back in our country’s history, women in Malaysia are different from women in many countries… no need to fight for women’s rights directly, as a united movement… because from early on we had already decreed the equality of women in our country (by giving them voting rights).
We chose the theme ‘Women as Catalyst for the New Economy’. Women shape families, healthy families. Not only from the aspect of physical health, but mental health, moral health, healthy values, healthy manners…Women play an important role…At home they nurture with love, but in this love there is firmness.
In empowering women there are three important aspects. First is education. Education must be provided to the highest level possible. Second is skills and capabilities, we must stress this. Third is that women competing must have capabilities to compete. Definitely not women who think they cannot succeed. We want women who dare to be competitive.
Private sector gets a RM10000 grant, double tax deduction, and allowance for building and so on. We reduce their tax burden so they can build crèches so that women if they want to work they can bring their child to their workplace. Hope to get another RM1000 soon. Each company and government office must have their own crèches. The Chief Secretary can encourage this, send a directive to all Ministry Offices to set up crèches.
Based on the theme ‘Women as Catalyst for the New Economy’ and with the hope that all of us in and outside this room today because of our work to honour women, there must be sharing and partnership between the government, women’s groups, NGOs, and the private sector. Everyone should join forces, because this is an important part of the national agenda.”

Source: The Choice
As Razak’s speech was edited and then posted on Youtube by a government agency, I find it a good representation of what Malaysian women are supposed to be according to official political rhetoric. A quick summary:
  1. Malaysian women are equal to men because they have the right to vote.
  2. Malaysian women shape the economy by nurturing future citizens and economic actors to be healthy, moral, polite, responsible, etc.
  3. Malaysian women are empowered women if they are educated, skilled, and confident.
  4. Malaysian women should work if there are childcare options available.

First of all, I think it’s a great starting point that the economic contributions and potential of women are recognised to be important for Malaysia’s economic development. I think, in the context of Southeast Asia at least, it would just be really naive to ignore this because of the historical record of women working alongside men in this region. Women staying at home is likely a luxury for most families today.

It’s also a good to recognise that Malaysian women enjoyed voting rights ahead of other countries. Like many Muslim communities, Malays tend to look to the Middle East as the standard, so yes, Malaysia is way ahead of Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and especially Saudi Arabia (but of course!) when it comes to giving women suffrage. But even other Malaysian women can tell you that gender equality encompasses more than just the right to vote.

This representation of Malaysian women only becomes problematic because of the multiple roles that women are expected to play. Besides calling to women to work outside the home, he still calls on the notion of women as primary caregivers, in a society with strict gender roles – men only work in the public sphere. However, while women are encouraged to be both workers and mothers, men are not similarly encouraged to take on their share of housework and childcare.

The solution proposed by Razak is more childcare centres in public and private businesses. This scheme was started under the economic plan of the previous government; families with lower incomes cannot afford to place their children in a high-quality childcare, depending instead on informal childcare networks like relatives and grandparents.

Razak makes the argument that the only successful and empowered working women are those who “dare to be competitive.” A recent event on women’s leadership in Indonesia highlighted the individual woman in the same way. By focusing on individual factors of success, Razak is indirectly blaming ‘unsuccessful’ women for not having enough self-esteem or confidence. Less focus is put on addressing larger structural factors, such as the lack of affordable childcare or insufficient male household participation.

Encouraging educated women to participate in the labour force requires a re-shuffling of larger society; otherwise, women will be still be stuck with the “second shift.” Malaysian men could be encouraged to participate in household work and childcare and to be allowed paternity leave. The socio-religious basis of excuses allowing women to work only if their “primary” caregiving roles have been fulfilled should also be addressed.

Women’s organisations in Malaysia were in uproar (here, here and here) over Razak’s comment that a women’s movement was no longer needed. Since the Malaysian women’s movement has a strong track record of lobbying for and achieving formal rights for women (details here), Razak’s comment only served to make Western women the “Other.” By telling Malaysian women that they are “different” from those in “developed countries,” Razak implied that they should not “ape their Western counterparts.” In other words, Malaysian women should not organise for gender equality because these are “Western” concepts.

Female political and economic participation is already fraught with multiple and intersecting issues – confused politicians are an additional burden. It is ironic that Razak dismissed the efforts and achievements of women’s groups in obtaining legislative equality for women in marriage, child custody and employment, while at the same time he lauds the liberal feminist goals of equal voting rights and promotes equal economic participation.

Razak wants Malaysian women to be workers, just like Malaysian men, to contribute to the country as a “Catalyst for the New Economy.” But Malaysian women still have to be mothers, according to Malaysia’s traditional/Islamic/Asian values, while Malaysian men don’t necessarily have to be fathers. Without addressing Malaysian men as a “Catalyst for the New Family,” there seems to be no way out of the “second shift” for Malaysian women.
Cross-posted at Muslimah Media Watch.

Friday, October 26, 2012

What are you imitating?

I've been trawling through a lot of Islamic cartoons lately, as research for an article I wrote some time ago on the gendered messages in them. I found this cute little gem:

Panel 1 of this cartoon reminded me of a religious class I once attended, based on a book by Imam Nawawi called 'Al-Maqasid'. Because the word maqasid had been translated to as 'what was necessary to know', I thought I would be learning about the Quranic fundamentals of Islam (I was just getting into studying sources and original references then). Silly me.

Putting aside frustrating moments of insisting that the female students in the class should be allowed to read out loud from the book, I still remember fondly the class where chapter on taharah, or purity, was discussed.

The teacher (kept anonymous, obviously!) pointed out a recommendation from the book for us to take wudu' just after waking up. Similar to this cute little cartoon above, right? I asked him if there was any reason given for doing so. I was expecting some practical reason about how we were going to pray fajr anyway or a spiritual reason like refreshing ourselves, so imagine my shock when he recounted to me this instead:

"I read in some narrations that, upon hearing the words of the Prophet: "If one of you awaken from sleep, then he should not dip his hand in a container unless he washes his hand because he does not know where it was while he was sleeping," an innovator said: "I know where my hands went while in bed, so I do not have to fulfill this command!" 
Consequently, upon waking up the next morning, his hand - up to the forearm - was found inserted into his anus." ['Bustan al-'Arifin' by an-Nawawi; p. 94]

The reason for morning ablution was because some guy a long time ago woke up with his hand in his anus? If there was ever a mockery of religious education, this would pretty much win hands down, I think. While sitting in that class, I was thinking: these are the valuable gems he learned from scholars in Yemen?

[Digression: Interestingly enough, the source to the story above is one of many other stories used to illustrate the bad things that will happen to you if you don't blindly follow what the Prophet (supposedly) said. Which brings us to Panel 3 below.]

Panel 2 reminded me of an issue that I wrote about elsewhere, on (mis)using the verses of the Quran as a magical protective spell, instead of unleashing the magic of human potential when we actually strive towards Quranic ideals of social justice.

Panel 3 led me to think of the many discussions I've had about what exactly it is about the Prophet that we follow. Another teacher in some other class I used to attend used to say that he used miswak everyday (not sure if it was a replacement for or an alternative to his modern Western plastic toothbrush) and he would not feel confident about leaving the house if he didn't.

At seminars I used to see Malay men who had gone to study in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and upon coming back would start wearing triangular turbans, eyeliner, and thobes with various kinds of shawls over their shoulder -- the reason being that the Prophet dressed like this. And if we dress like this, or eat like him with 3 fingers, or sleep on-the-right-side-with-hand-under-cheek we'll get points!

I find it hard to understand how imitating the Prophet's daily habits = following his way of life. Surely it's to be compassionate to the old and the young (and even carry children during prayer!), to listen to all his followers, to be humble and not extravagant whether in consumption or in demeanour, to be kind to all his neighbours Muslim and non-Muslim -- in short, to live by the ideals set out in the Quran, the word of God.

Anyone seen any cartoons addressing these ideals instead?

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Social Involvement of Women in Islam

I don't usually re-post entire articles, but this rather old article by Imam Zaid Shakir is no longer found on its original publishing site, and I found it here in an obscure forum. and I think it contains many useful arguments for the political participation of women. Enjoy!

The Social Involvement of Women in Islam
Imam Zaid Shakir
4 Jan 2004

One of the persistent attacks against Islam is that it is a religion which stifles the social involvement of women. By social involvement, we mean involvement in those spheres of endeavor which occur outside of the home and impact on the general nature and direction of society. Islam, it is said, desires to divest women of any meaningful social role, to keep them “trapped” in the confines of their homes, under the constant surveillance and control of men. This claim, as we will endeavor to show, does not accurately reflect the fullness of Islamic teachings on this issue.

While Islam does advocate a social scheme which places great emphasis on the domestic role of women, it also creates ample space for their meaningful participation in public affairs. The purpose of this article is to examine aspects of that social involvement based on the Qur’an and the prophetic tradition. That examination will be preceded by a brief expose on the fundamental equality of men and women in Islam.

The Fundamental Equality of Men and Women in Islam
The Qur’an emphasizes that men and women are equal in their essential physical and metaphysical nature. We read in that regard,
“We have surely ennobled the descendants of Adam.” Al-Qur’an 17:70
This ennoblement of the human being precludes any claims to gender superiority, or any feelings of inferiority based on physical, or metaphysical composition. Such feelings underlie schemes of gender-based oppression, and have no place in Islam.

We also read in the Qur’an,
“We have surely created the human in the best of molds.” Al-Qur’an 95:4
Again, this process of human creation is not gender specific. It includes men and women. As human beings, they have both been created in the best of molds, and their respective ability to fulfill their human potential hinges on factors which have nothing to do with their physical differences.

Islam also emphasizes that both men and women are equal in their servitude to God. Neither gender is a greater or lesser servant of the Divine, even though that servitude may vary in some minor details. For example, women are ordered to cover their hair, while husbands are ordered to spend for their wives’ maintenance. In the modern human-centric worldview, both of these orders would be considered manifestations of oppression; of women in the first instance, of men in the second. However, as Muslims we understand that these are simply two varying manifestations of servitude. We further understand that
“God does not desire to oppress His servants in any way.” Al-Qur’an 40: 31
Furthermore, men and women are rewarded equally for their righteous deeds. God says in the Qur’an,
“And your Lord replied, ‘I shall never cause the deeds of any of you to be lost, male or female, you are of each other.” Al-Qur’an 3:195
This verse, and those immediately following it, advocate that women and men are equal in their religion, human worth, the rewards they receive for their worship, and the recompense for their worldly struggles. Imam Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi summarizes these meanings in his commentary on these verses:
There is no difference in God’s response [to their supplications], nor in the recompense received by the male and the female [for their righteous deeds], as long as they are equal in steadfastly maintaining the obedience of God. 
This indicates that virtue in religion is based on deeds and not accidental attributes. The fact that some people are male or female, or from lowly or lofty lineage has no bearing in this area. [5]

A related verse mentions that this fundamental equality also pertains in terms of their susceptibility to the punishment of God as a consequence of transgression. God says,
“Whoever does wrong will be recompensed accordingly. And whoever does good, male or female, as long as they are believers, they will enter Gardens, provided for therein without stint.” Al-Qur’an 40:40
Even if one believed that men are “better” than women, that belief has no meaning in practical terms, as a particular woman can be better than a particular man, based on her deeds and actions. Similarly, the generality of women can be better than the generality of men in a particular time and place. The great grammarian, Ibn Hisham al-Ansari, elucidates this point in his explanation of the use of the definite article in the Arabic language. He says:
The definite article is for demarcating a category. Hence, your saying, “The man is better than the woman,” if you do not mean by that statement a particular man or a particular woman. Rather, what you mean is that the [former] category in and of itself is better [than the latter]. It is not correct to say that every single man is better than every single woman, because reality contradicts that. [7]
Hence, there is no basis in Islam, if it is properly understood, for any woman to believe that she is inferior to any man. The deeds of the individual are what distinguishes him or her. One whose deeds are best, be he male or female, is best. As God proclaims,
“The most noble of you with God is the most pious.” Al-Qur’an 49:13
The Social Involvement of Women
God says in the Qur’an,
“Those who when we give them authority on earth, establish regular prayers, pay the poor due, command good, and forbid wrong. And unto God is the end of all affairs.” Al-Qur’an 22:41
This verse presents four pillars of an Islamic social order, specifically:
  • Establishing regular prayer.
  • Paying the poor due.
  • Commanding the good.
  • Forbidding the wrong.
In a functional Islamic society women share all of these duties with men. This is made clear from the following verse in the Qur’an:
“The believing men and women are supportive and protective friends unto each other. They enjoin the right, forbid the wrong, establish regular prayer, pay the poor due, and are dutifully obedient to God and His Messenger. They will receive the Mercy of God. Surely, God is Almighty, Wise.” Al-Qur’an 9:75
In this verse, the four duties mentioned above are restated, and then mentioned as being undertaken by both men and women. The socio-political implications of this verse are made clear to us if we consider that the relationship it articulates between men and women is one of tremendous relevance in the greater societal sphere. This relationship is described by the Arabic term “Wilaya.” This term is defined by al-Fayruzabadi in al-Qumus, one of the most authoritative Arabic dictionaries, as involving, “Planning, governance, and authority.” [11]

In all of these duties, men and women support and strengthen each other, as Ibn Kathir, among others, makes clear in his commentary on this verse.[12] The result of such a healthy relationship between the sexes would be a strong, balanced, just, and pious society.

The political implications of commanding the good and forbidding the wrong are further clarified by the wording of the Second Oath of ‘Aqaba, which is referred to as the Oath of War, because of its clear political implications. This oath is distinguished from the First Oath of ‘Aqaba, which focused on issues related to personal piety and individual conduct, and was known as the Oath of the Women. [13]

The former oath, as related by Ibn Hisham, reads as follows:
The Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God upon him, spoke. He recited the Qur’an, invited [people] to God, encouraged them to accept Islam, and then said: “I take the oath from you that you protect me as you protect your women and children.” Al-Bara’ b. Ma’rur took his [blessed] hand and said, “Yes, O Messenger of God! We will protect you as we protect our womenfolk and our very souls! We take the oath from you O Messenger of God! We are a warrior people, armed with weapons we have inherited over long generations. [14]
In addition to the men taking this oath, which clearly delineates socio-political duties and obligations, it was also entered into by two women, Umm ‘Umarah Nusayba bint Ka’b, and Umm Muni’ Asma’ bint ‘Amr, and accepted from them by the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him. [15]

This is a clear proof that both men and women are equal partners in the Islamic social project. From this general description of the social involvement of women in a Islamic society, we wish to move to specific examples.

Women Fighting to Protect Islam
During the Battle of Uhud, Umm ‘Umara Nusayba bint K’ab, one of the women present at the Second Oath of ‘Aqaba, valiantly defended the Messenger of God, sustaining twelve wounds in the process. She nearly killed Ibn Qami’a, one of the fiercest warriors in the opposing force. After the fray, the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, praised her courage and skill. [16]

This affirmation from the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, prevents anyone from denying the permissibility of women fighting under similar circumstances, even if other prophetic traditions argue against such fighting being obligatory for them. [17]

The Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, also gave tidings to Umm Haram bint Mulham that she would fight in a naval battle. This came after she sought his permission to go forth in a military campaign. She subsequently married Ubada b. as-Samit, and participated with him in a naval expedition.  [18]

The fact that her participation in that battle occurred with the foreknowledge and permission of the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, is again a powerful argument against those who would refuse to acknowledge the permissibility of this and far lesser significant types social involvement.

It is a well-known principle in the Divine Law that in the face of a direct invasion of a Muslim land by non-Muslim forces, it is mandatory for every able-bodied woman to join the Muslim defenses to repulse the aggressor. [19]

As a general practice, the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, would bring women along on military campaigns to function as nurses and to undertake other support and logistical roles. [20] ‘Aisha, Umm Sulaym, Umm Salit, and many others distinguished themselves performing such duties.

Direct Participation of Women in the Political Process
If we can generally define the political process of a particular society as the method by which publicly binding decisions are made, then it is clear that women were an integral part of the political process in the polity presided over by the Prophet Muhammad, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him. An example of this would be the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, accepting the advise of his wife, Umm Salama, to go out and sacrifice his animal then shave his head during the crisis which occurred at al-Hudaybiyya.

All of the companions, dissatisfied with the conditions of the treaty that had been struck between the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God upon him, and his enemies, refused his order to end their lesser pilgrimage. However, when they saw the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, undertake the rites of release they quickly followed suit. Hence, it was the counsel of a woman which ended one of the greatest political crisis yet to occur in the nascent Islamic state. [21]

A similar example can be taken from an incident which occurred during the conquest of Makka. Umm Hani’ bint Abi Talib, the sister of Imam ‘Ali, granted an oath of protection to two idolaters who had actually fought the advancing Muslim forces. When she informed the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, of that, he responded, “We give our collective oath of protection to anyone you have pledged to protect, Umm Hani’.” [22]

This act of Umm Hani’ was a state-level political edict which was affirmed by the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him. These and many other examples clearly indicate that the social involvement of women in Islam reaches the highest levels of public affairs.

The social involvement of Muslim women is further illustrated by the controversial issue of ‘Aisha leading a military campaign to seek retribution for the murder of ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, the third leader of the Muslim community after the passing of the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him. ‘Aisha did not enjoy universal support in the endeavor. Among those refusing to endorse ‘Aisha’s mission was Abu Bakra. [23] He based his refusal on a tradition he had heard from the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, mentioning that a people who depute their affair to a woman will never succeed. That tradition reads as follows:
In the days prior to the Battle of the Camel [24], God benefited me from a prophetic tradition I [recalled] hearing from the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God upon him.
When it reached the Prophet that the Persians had elevated the daughter of Kisra to the throne, he said, “A people who depute their affair to a woman will never succeed.” [25]
Hence, Abu Bakra deduced that ‘Aisha’s effort was futile. However, this conclusion was not shared by other companions, many of them more learned than Abu Bakra. ‘Aisha, a great jurist in her own right, agreed to lead the expedition. Talha and al-Zubayr, two of the ten specifically promised Paradise, supported her decision. Hence, from this earliest time, there was a difference of opinion as to the scope and parameters of a woman’s leadership.

This difference of opinion occurring amongst the Companions, concerning the extent of a woman’s political authority continued among latter jurists. While they agreed on the prohibition of a woman ascending to the highest office in the Islamic state, the Caliphate, they differed concerning other high level positions. For example, Imam al-Tabari and Ibn Hazm considered it permissible for women to serve as judges, unconditionally. Imam Abu Hanifa viewed it permissible for a woman to serve as a judge in those issues where her witness is accepted. Others viewed it as being impermissible for a woman to serve in the judiciary under any circumstances. [26]

We should note that the interpretation of the Prophet’s, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, words concerning the outcome of a woman’s leadership, may involve intangibles which we are incapable of comprehending. In that context, they might not be the expression of a binding historical law. Were they the expression of such a law, they would seemingly be contradicted by events which occurred both before and after its utterance.

As for pre-Islamic times, the Qur’an itself relates the story of Bilqis, the legendary Queen of Sheba. She is mentioned in the Qur’an as attaining worldly success [27], and as eventually accepting Islam. Ibn Kathir mentions that she commanded a council of 312 delegates, each of whom represented 10,000 men [28]. She was a very successful leader, and her people prospered under her reign.

After the time of the Prophet, Peace and Blessing of God be upon him, there are similar instances of successful woman leaders. Both in general, and in specific military campaigns, of the type undertaken by ‘Aisha. In this latter category, we could mention the British rout of the Argentines during the 1982 Falklands War. That victory occurred at a time when England was under the leadership of two women, Queen Elizabeth II, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

These two examples in no way contradict the statement of the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him,
“A people who depute their affairs to a woman will never succeed,” 
if we accept that the tradition in question has an interpretation beyond our superficial understanding. Surely, God knows best.

In conclusion, Islam is for all people, all times, and all places. It is flexible enough to accommodate many different types of societies, and societal arrangements. It advocates a balanced social order where men and women occupy largely complimentary roles. Although these roles are not always “equal” as we have come to use that term in the context of contemporary analyses of gender relations, they have enough flexibility to accommodate the dignified social involvement of women. The examples used in our brief analysis could have been expanded to include areas such as seeking knowledge, teaching, commerce, business, professions, and other realms. However, what we have mentioned should suffice to show that claims which posit that Islam denies women a space for meaningful social involvement are both misleading and inaccurate.

[1] Al-Qur’an 17:70
[2] Al-Qur’an 95:4
[3] Al-Qur’an 40: 31
[4] Al-Qur’an 3:195
[5] Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi, at-Tafsir al-Kabir, (Beirut: Dar Ihya at-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1417/1997), vol. 3, p. 470.
[6] Al-Qur’an 40:40
[7] Ibn Hisham al-Ansari, Qatr an-Nada wa Ball as-Sada, ed. Muyiddin ‘Abdul Hamid (Sayda, Lebanon: al-Maktaba al-‘Asriyya, 1421/2000), p. 135.
[8] Al-Qur’an 49:13
[9] Al-Qur’an 22:41
[10] Al-Qur’an 9:75
[11] Tahir Ahmad az-Zawi, Tartib al-Qamus al-Muhit, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, n.d.), vol.4, p. 658.
[12] See, for example Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Adhim, (Sayda, Lebanon: Al-Maktaba al-‘Asriyya, 1421/2000) vol. 2, p. 336.
[13] For an English language account of these two oaths in see Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1997), pp. 108-112.
[14] Ibn Hisham al-Mu’afiri, As-Sirah an-Nabawiyyah, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1410/1994), vol. 2, p. 75.
[15] Ibn Hisham al-Mu’afiri, vol. 2, p. 74.
[16] For one of the earliest accounts of the heroics of Umm ‘Umarah during the Battle of Uhud, see Muhammad b. Sa’d az-Zuhri, At-Tabaqat al-Kubra, (Beirut: Dar Ihya at-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1417/1996), vol. 8, pp. 440-441, #4535.
[17] This would include those traditions that mention the best Jihad for women is the Pilgrimage. See for example, Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari, (Riyadh: Maktaba Dar as-Salam, 1418/1997),vol. 6, p. 96, #2875, 2876.
[18] For an account of her story, see Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, vol. 6, pp. 94-95, #2877-2878.
[19] Muhammad Khayr Haykal, Al-Jihad wa’l Qital fi as-Siyasa ash-Shar’iyya, (Beirut: Dar al-Bawadir, 1317/1996), vol. 2, pp. 880-881.
[20] See Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, vol. 6, p. 96, #2880.
[21] For an English language account of this incident, see Lings, pp. 254-255.
[22] For a narration of this incident, see Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, vol. 6, p. 328; #3171.
[23] Abu Bakra’s full name is Nufay’ b. Ma’ruq. He should not be confused with Abu Bakr as-Siddiq.
[24] The Battle of the Camel, 35AH/656AD, involved the forces of Imam ‘Ali and the hosts supporting ‘Aisha. Imam ‘Ali’s forces achieved a quick and decisive victory. For an account of the events leading up to that conflict, see Marshal Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), vol. 1, pp. 212-215.
[25] Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, vol. 13, p. 67; #7099.
[26] Wahbah Az-Zuhayli, Al-Fiqh al-Islami wa Adillatuhu, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1418/1997), vol. 8, pp.6238-6239.
[27] In the Qur’an 27:23 she is mentioned as having been given, “An abundance of all things.” Ibn Kathir, qualifies this as meaning that she was given everything needed by a successful, well-established king. See Ibn Kathir, vol 3, p. 338.
[28] Ibn Kathir, vol. 3, p. 338.


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