As many of us are aware, there is much out there about Muslim women. We seem to hear about how Muslim women are oppressed, beaten, tortured, manipulated, brainwashed, and mere pawns of men. Wars are fought in order to liberate us and laws are passed to protect us from our own choices. Well, it is high time Muslim women are given the opportunity to speak for themselves. “I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim” (www.ispeakformyself.com) is just the kind of anthology to help understand the diversity among Muslim women as well as to counter their misconceptions. The book is a compilation of 40 essays written by 40 different Muslim American women, of which I am included. The essayists represent a large spectrum of Islamic thought ranging from mainstream, to the varying sects, to those only exposed to cultural Islam. I encourage those who choose to read this book to do so from a non-judgmental perspective, extracting lessons rather than condemnation. The book is a valuable read to those who want to make dawah and work with the youth. It shows the struggles that Muslim American women go through in balancing their parents’ culture, their view of religion, and the societal norms and pressures surrounding them. It also highlights the importance of organizations such as campus MSAs and youth groups. I wanted to share with you the following essay I wrote for the book, which describes my own personal struggles, my complex relationship with my father, and how I came to finally submit myself to Islam.
The Muslim Feminist
By Hebah Ahmed
Growing up, I was exposed to a double standard that I assumed was a genuine part of Islam. In my family, as well as my Muslim community, there were differences in the way sons were brought up versus daughters. Boys and men seemed to be afforded a much greater freedom than girls and women. Many of the Muslim women around me worked just as hard at their careers as their husbands, yet when they returned home, the women seemed to bear the brunt of the responsibilities. They cooked, cleaned and took care of the kids, while their husbands sat catatonic in front of the TV, issuing requests and commands to their wives.
As a young child, I never saw my mother complain about her role in life. She had a Masters degree in Civil Engineering and yet my perception of her was very limited. Rather than help her around the house, I added more to her load. I refused to wash my own dishes or pick up after myself, assuming she would take care of it all. At this point in life, I had not yet identified myself with my mother nor begun to compare her present reality to my future one as a Muslim wife.
As I entered high school, the realization finally hit me that when I married and had a family, my fate would probably be similar to that of my mother’s. My mind churned over this newly understood concept. I rebelled, trying to convince my mother that she was doing too much and pleading with my father to do more. He would tell me that this was what women were created for: he truly believed that women had the desire and patience to cook, clean and deal with a screaming child, while men did not. I begged to differ. Internally, I began to develop arguments against his position but I did not have the experience or confidence to boldly confront him. I was still developing my identity and preferred to take on an observer’s perspective, mentally collecting data on the various ways families, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, operated.
Although my father subscribed to what I consider a traditional view of women, he contradicted this view when it came to his daughters. He was the proud father of three intelligent girls whom he constantly pushed to overachievement. My father would always tell me that I could be the best at anything I did and to always aim high.
Once while in second grade, prior to the school’s annual field day, my father gave me a pep talk about the race I was about to run.
“Make sure you set your goal to a point way beyond the finish line. That will ensure that you run hard the entire race and finish strong. Most people set their sights on the finish line and then slow down as they near the end. If you look beyond, then you will always have an advantage.” I did not realize then that this would become an analogy I would use my whole life.
My father was always on us about our school work, and he would quiz us daily on our grades. One day, in third grade, I returned home with apprehension.
“Did you get that quiz back that you took yesterday?” he asked.
“Uh, yes,” I responded with gloom.
“What did you make?” he said with increasing concern.
“Um, well, it was hard.”
“Okay so what did you get?”
“Um…Uh…I got a D.”
“You got a what????”
For the next month my father jokingly nicknamed me “Captain D”. It was his way of reminding me of my failure in order to dissuade me from a repeat. It worked. The nickname irritated me, but rather than get upset or rebel, I developed higher standards for myself and worked hard to regain my father’s respect.
During my sophomore year at my Catholic, all-girls high school I received a letter in the mail inviting me to apply for early admission to college. Since it was a college five hours from home, I assumed my parents would not even consider it. Without even bothering to show my parents, I resigned myself to the fact that this was going to be an unfulfilled opportunity. I was used to limits and strict rules from my parents, so I did not dwell on the letter very long, although I felt a profound sense of loss and disappointment.
As I was throwing the invitation away, my father asked me what it was. I told him and he was immediately (and unexpectedly) encouraging, telling me to apply and see what would happen. I was completely shocked as I realized that my father’s deep love of education and overachievement dwarfed his traditional views on women. The instantaneous switch from a complete sense of loss to a sense of hope and support left me reeling, my mind racing with possibilities I had not yet allowed myself to entertain. I excitedly applied and was accepted. As I timidly showed my father the letter of acceptance, I internally willed him into agreement. Despite my mother’s protests and concerns, my father’s deep pride in my achievements won out. At the age of 15 I was on my way to college!
As I weaved my way through college, I was exposed to many different philosophies and worldviews. I was especially impressionable at the age of 15, having lived a relatively sheltered life. I was thrust into a co-ed environment and began to see the pitfalls of early sexual experimentation and drug abuse among my friends. This reaffirmed my Islamic beliefs on pre-marital sex and abstinence from drugs and alcohol. I stayed up all night debating the merits of religion with atheists who scoffed at my “naiveté”, pushing me to defend my beliefs from a logical and philosophical approach. I read academic books that attempted to define man’s purpose and motivations, arguing man-made systems versus Divine systems. All of these experiences were new to me, and in the end they served to deepen my conviction in Islam.
However, my conviction was incomplete because I was still struggling with an internal conflict. I defined the Islamic view of women by my parents’ relationship. They claimed that they were acting in line with Islam, and yet this meant a view of women that I was not quite able to accept. I began to confront the contradictions of my upbringing, searching for my true identity and role as a Muslim woman. This manifested itself into arguments with my father in an attempt to prove them wrong.
“When you marry you will have to serve your husband just like your mother,” my father would say.
This struck at the root of my identity, since my father had always raised me to aim high yet within the context of marriage he was suddenly asking me to do something that I perceived as settling.
“But I don’t want to live my life like mom! My husband will pick up his plate when he finishes eating and he will wash it! He will change diapers too!”
“If you keep thinking that way you will be divorced for sure,” he would respond.
How could my father tell me to be the best and push me to get the best education money could buy, and then tell me my lot in life was to be subservient to some man?
My internal turmoil increased. I could not give up my identity in Islam, because not only did I have a very strong belief in God and His final revelation, I also appreciated the many logical and beneficial aspects of the Islamic lifestyle. Nevertheless, I was very conflicted over my father’s view of women, which he claimed was preached in Islam. I highly respected my father and was not yet mature enough to admit that his understanding could be mistaken or imperfect; thus I was unable to merely reject his position. Instead, the conflict seemed to create a split personality inside me. I upheld and acted on one set of beliefs in line with my father’s teachings at home, fearing I would otherwise be turning my back on Islam or disappointing my father, while developing a much more analytical and questioning attitude when away at school.
This conflicting value system came to a head in graduate school. I lived by myself, which gave me the time and confidence to really think through my life philosophy and goals. I always believed in the basic beliefs of Islam, to worship only One God, the Creator of all, and to follow the way of His Prophets. It was the practical application and human example I struggled with. I began to regularly attend the weekly prayer services at the local masjid and meet other Muslim girls. Many of them wore the hijab (headscarf) and had attended Islamic schools prior to college. Their conviction intrigued me and I began to ask questions.
Zoha, one of the Muslim girls who became a close friend, loaned me a book** on the life of Prophet Muhammed (SAWS), set 1400 years prior to my time. It was the first time I had ever read a book about him and it changed my life.
As I read the pages, I felt my world had been turned upside down. The manners Prophet Muhammed (SAWS) exhibited and the compassionate, giving manner in which he interacted with people brought me to tears repeatedly. I began to compare the Muslim men I knew to the way Prophet Muhammed (SAWS) was, and it left me confused and doubtful. Either the book was a lie or somehow the men I knew had veered way off track.
Then I began to read about a woman named Khadijah (RAA). According to the book, she was a 40 year old woman** of great nobility, a widow and a very wealthy businesswoman who employed men to take her goods and trade them abroad. After hiring Prophet Muhammed (SAWS) as one of her traders, and observing his impeccable manners and actions, she sought him out in marriage. Although he was 15 years her junior, he happily agreed to her proposal. She was the love of his life (as he was hers), and the accounts of his home life with her would make any woman jealous.
Upon reading this story, I felt something change inside of me. Tears gushed from my eyes and a deep sense of awe, relief and empowerment overtook me. Could this be true? The wife of our revered Prophet, the example for all men, was a wealthy businesswoman who was older than him and had proposed marriage to him? Is this marriage really the example that all Muslim couples should be following?
“This is true feminism!” my mind screamed. “This is the missing piece, the solution to the contradiction I have been feeling in my belief. This is the religion I love!” I was finally able to accept that my father’s view of women was partially based on his cultural upbringing. The Islamic perspective, as displayed in the Quran and life of Prophet Muhammed (SAWS), was something different, something respectful, honoring and completely validating.
It was then that I swore to myself that if I ever had a daughter I would name her Khadijah.
That point in my life, that deep epiphany, was the beginning of my real journey to Islam. It was the point when I finally saw the difference between the cultural Islam I was raised in and the true Islam based on the authentic texts. I began to see that whenever I visited my Muslim relatives, it was their ignorance of Islam and preference towards cultural innovations that created the inequality of the sexes. Such ignorance was the reason for actions such as honor killings and abuse of women occurring in the Muslim world, and they were in contradiction to the teachings of the Quran and the example set by Prophet Muhammed (SAWS).
At last I had achieved the inner peace that comes with the synergy between one’s beliefs, one’s logic and one’s relationships. I was flooded with a deep sense of liberation and relief. After searching so sincerely and wading through the enormous pressures and contradicting perspectives of life, I finally felt comfortable in my own skin. I had found the truth: a faith I could fully submit to without hesitation or doubt, knowing that my Creator understood me so completely and gave me true guidance that would not fail me. This pushed me to commit to a life of learning and practicing Islam based on the authentic sources and teachings, rather than based on man-made systems that result in injustice and oppression.
It is this true Islam that I am now teaching my precious daughter, Khadijah.
And yes, my husband picks up his plate and washes it, ignoring my father’s protests. He also has changed his fair share of dirty diapers.
*The book I refer to is called “Muhammed: His Life based on the Earliest Sources” by Martin Lings.
**There is a disagreement over Khadijah’s (RAA) exact age among the scholars. In the book she was described as being 40, 15 years older than Prophet Muhammed (SAWS).