Monday, April 29, 2013

Why women shouldn't lead prayer Part III: On society.

This is the final post on why women shouldn't lead prayer, addressing the following assumptions in this article entitled 'Dr. Amina Wadud and the Progressive Muslims: Some Reflections on Woman-Led Prayerwritten by Zaynab Ansari. (More information behind this post here, or read Part I and Part II.)


This final post addresses the following assumptions:
  1. Progressives are one homogeneous group of people as represented by PMUNA.
  2. Progressive movements have no credibility because they promote sex outside of marriage.
  3. Non-Muslims have values different from 'traditional Islamic values'.
  4. Female imamate divides society, so we shouldn't discuss it.
  5. Harsh male imams prevent women from going to the mosque. Not humiliating women will make them feel welcome in the mosque.

1. Progressives are one homogeneous group of people as represented by PMUNA.

The author refers to progressive Muslims as 'The Progressives' as if they were one group of identical people. The point of a progressive movement that tries to bring in different perspectives is diversity, not homogeneity. There is a remarkably high level of tolerance, open-mindedness and acceptance in such groups. There is no point in working towards giving more voice and space to one marginalised group e.g. women, by excluding another group e.g. LGBTIQ. Providing a safe space for everyone is the objective, not replacing one point of view with another.

In short: 'Progressive' is a way of thinking, not an identity. Two people with progressive values can disagree.

2. Progressive movements have no credibility because they promote sex outside of marriage.
Ms. Nomani also has an "Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom," which asserts, "Women have an Islamic right to exemption from criminalization or punishment for consensual adult sex." What is most troubling about this latter "Bill of Rights" is that it directly goes against the Qur'anic and Prophetic proscriptions on sex outside of marriage. This apparent appeal to sexual license does little to aid the credibility of Ms. Nomani's movement.
This is an example of both an ad hominem argument (aims to reduce the esteem or moral value of the person making a point) and straw man argument (aims to distract the reader from the topic). Pointing out someone's different point of view on sex and then using it to discredit their argument for another topic is an example of a straw man argument. 

And why sex? Because it's the easiest way to discredit someone's worth in society's eyes. Especially in Muslim societies. (Perhaps not so relevant but nevertheless entertaining: a Muslim cyber-harasser tried to intimidate me by saying he had sex videos of me, thinking I would be scared and do what he asked. Too bad I was more interested in seeing the non-existent video!) 

The bill of rights for women in the bedroom that the author is referring to is found here (it's actually quite useful). Briefly, this particular bill that the author refers to does have Quranic backup (4:15-16), including a punishment prescribed for the people who accuse or criminalise such women without proof (24:4). More relevant for the topic at hand would be Asra Nomani's bill of rights for women in the mosque
This topic really hit home for me, because as a woman, I too have experienced discrimination in the mosque.
Why didn't the author bring up the fact that Asra Nomani also thinks women should have the right to enter a mosque, to address any member of the congregation, to be greeted respectfully, and to participate fully in congregational activities -- issues of possible discrimination that the author also alludes to having experienced herself.

In short: Counter someone's argument with an intellectual response, not irrelevant sexual information.

3. Non-Muslims have values different from 'traditional Islamic values'.
Granted the Islamic Bill of Rights has some merits. In a very public way, Asra Nomani and Amina Wadud have uniquely managed to draw attention to the marginalization of Muslim women. Ultimately, however, the airing of this particular dirty laundry only serves to reinforce the stereotypical portrayal of the oppressed Muslim female and her Muslim male oppressor
While I'm pleased that the author is able to point to the tendency of liberal feminists to portray Muslim women as all being oppressed, and by their men, problems in a society are still problems. It is not your responsibility to hide 'dirty laundry' in the hopes that Muslim women will not be seen as oppressed; that is the responsibility of liberal feminists and others who are looking at the problem. There is a fine line to tread when making an internal critique of Muslim societies, and then raising the issue at a global level (case in point: FGM).
It is also noteworthy that the most ardent supporters of this event are non-Muslims, many of whom stand in complete opposition to traditional Islamic values.
The recourse to 'traditional' and 'Islamic' values is the same as a recourse to 'family', 'Eastern', or 'Asian' values. Often, this involves women and men playing specific gender roles, often men in the public sphere (working outside the home) and women in the private sphere (housework, childcare). Beyond this, 'traditional' can cover many issues, some of which are common across religions, cultures and societies, and not especially or uniquely Islamic.

It's strange that the author highlights non-Muslims as the 'most ardent supporters'. Who knows how many people were there and how many of them were non-Muslims. But I think the author has missed out the 'most ardent supporters' of female imamate of all: the members of the congregation. As Asma Barlas has put it, the members of the congregation were not forced to pray behind her; they selected her as their imam.

In short: The definition of 'traditional' varies across space and time. Used usually to refer to the status quo. Using 'non-Muslims' as scapegoats for problems within Muslim societies is counterproductive.

4. Female imamate divides society, so we shouldn't discuss it.
Is it wise to make the prayer a bone of contention among Muslims? The Imam should be someone who can unite the congregation, not divide them. The issue of female imamate has the potential to divide rather than unite.
Just because society doesn't agree on one issue, it doesn't mean that society falls apart. When the Prophet called to his people to worship one God, he divided society and there were always people who disagreed and hated him throughout his life. Important issues have to be discussed, and should not be swept under the carpet just because society disagrees on how to deal with it (cases in point: domestic violence, rape, teenage pregnancies).
Ustadh Recep recollected the story of Iblis, defying Allah's command to bow down to Adam. Iblis tried to use the 'aql, or intellect, in matters of worship. But for Ustadh Recep, this debate represents a misuse of 'aql; such issues are beyond the realm of human reason, though not contrary to reason. Thus, we do not model our religion after social change.

Did the author just compare female imams, or people who use their intellect, to Iblis? Let's keep it classy, people. The story of Iblis bowing down to Adam was an issue of recognising his role as a human on earth, as a vicegerent. Iblis was not supposed to bow down to Adam as an act of worship -- that is only reserved for God.

In short: Islam is all about social change and moving the world towards justice. Not discussing important issues only maintains the status quo.

5. Harsh male imams prevent women from going to the mosque. Not humiliating women will make them feel welcome in the mosque.
When the Imam in the masjid harshly tells the women to sit in their own space, tells them to be quiet because their voice is a private part, tells them that he has to protect the men from them because "the worst rows are those nearest to the women," honestly, how do you think these sisters are going to feel? and who will they feel the most welcome with, the local Imam who humiliates them, or the Progressives who greet them (literally) with open arms?
I've saved the best assumption for last, because this is so obvious! The author definitely thinks that rude male imams are a problem. She also thinks that such mainstream teachings and etiquette related to women in the mosque should not be perpetuated. But she doesn't think women should be imams. I can fly with that, but then there is no reason for her to demonise Muslims who think differently from the mainstream.
I believe that it is time that Muslim women reclaim their rights from within Islam. I humbly suggest that our scholars be more aware of the sensitivity of women's issues. The Progressive Muslims raise some important points, and while we may not accept their philosophy, we do ourselves a disservice by dismissing legitimate concerns that affect Muslim women today.
In short: Welcome to the world where women in the mosque are treated with respect!

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