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 da'wah 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 Qur'an 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 Qur'an 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).

57 Responses

  1. AnonyMouse

    Absolutely beautiful, masha’Allah!

    I can relate somewhat – I grew up thinking that my father/ parents were way too “traditional” until I got married and discovered what it REALLY meant for a guy to be “traditional.” AlHamdulillaah my husband does try to follow the sunnah around the house more than following culture :)

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    • Mrs R

      Beautiful!

      Alhamdulillah I grew up in a household where my dad always picked up after himself, always tried to help my mum. My husband not only picks after himself, sometimes he even picks after me :D, Alhamdulillah. He is a doctor, he cooks, he cleans the toilet, washes the dishes, he makes me tea! Alhamdulillah I never had to question the gender roles in Islam. So, those men are not stuck in pages of history!

      (sorry it was supposed to be a comment in itself, not a reply. I could only edit it (but not delete) after posting)

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  2. Aishah

    I feel like reading my own story. Jazakillah khair for the uplifting article sister Hebah. Great job!

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  3. Sister S

    Assalamualaikum,

    A thought provoking article indeed. I went through a similar inner turmoil for years, wondering why our mothers used to do so much, until I got married. We’ve always been told about women’s rights in islam, that we don’t need to do much except look after the husband, the children and the house. As women, we had minimal responsibility and more benefits, provided we fulfill the minimum requirement of being a good companion to our husbands.

    But when it came to reality, I saw two extremes. One set of women grew up the traditional way, where it was simply expected of them to do everything around the house. In some cultures, it was unquestionable to expect the men to help around the house. The other set of women were growing up assuming that the 1st set was completely off-track and when they do get married, they would assert the fact that they din’t need to do much. Sadly, while our parents’ marriages did last in spite of the cultural perception of do-it-all women, the others din’t. I am not supporting either of them. Although a minority, this generation of women would not cook, clean, change diapers or make any effort to honour and serve the parents on both sides. I’ve seen the way the husbands’ gone all out to provide servants, (who get kicked out quickly), the husband himself cleans cooks feeds bathes children and goes out to work only to return home to a truckload of complains and sour faces. Neither the wife is happy, nor is the husband.

    The challenge resides in balance and being realistic.

    Alhamdulillah, there is another thought process amongst our sisters that will not only ensure a happy marriage but also reap up rewards in the akhirah.

    What I have come to realise is that islam does have minimum expectations from us, the least is to be a good companion. However, we need to understand this. When your husband returns home and you serve him a cold refreshing drink, what do you get? When you prepare a meal for him, what do you get? When you make do with whatever servant is available, or if not available, you do the chores yourself, what do you get? Or you divide the chores and help your husband do his chores. Or if he doesn’t do his share sometimes, you let it go and still be loving to him. What do you get? You spend a few days serving his family and taking care of their needs. What do you get? Girls, all this is Sadaqah!!! If you’re doing it for the sake of Allah, even if you don’t have to…..you get rewards. That’s what you’ll get. Whole lot of rewards, Inshallah. Our mothers will be blessed for all that they did. Inshallah.

    Remember that Prophet Muhammed SAW said, “There is a (compulsory) sadaqah (charity) to be given for every joint of the human body (as a sign of gratitude to Allah everyday the sun rises. To judge justly between two persons is regarded as sadaqah; and to help a man concerning his riding animal, by helping him to mount it or by lifting his luggage on to it, is also regarded as sadaqah; and (saying) a good word is also sadaqah; and every step taken on one’s way to offer the compulsory prayer (in the mosque) is also sadaqah; and to remove a harmful thing from the way is also sadaqah.” (Reported by Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

    None of us can ever be sure that we will be accepted by Allah SWT. When we are so willing to go the extra mile to study and get good marks and that degree, or to lose weight, when we’re ready to do that extra bit to get something in duniya….what’s the big deal in doing extra for your akhirah?? Look at it as an opportunity to reap sawaab and an opportunity to win the ticket to Jannah. And be grateful to your husbands for whatever help they give you in your household work. If he’s doing a wee bit more than his dad ever did for his mom, be grateful. It’s a slow process, a jihad to change the perceptions of people towards women. We can teach our sons to appreciate all that women do for their households for the sake of Allah. Inspire them to be like our beloved Muhammed (Peace be upon him), Inshallah.

    So first things first, we need to change our outlook on life and be realistic. Trying to make our men be more like our Prophet SAW is a gradual process spanning many generations to come. Our Prophet SAW advised the women to be grateful to their husbands. So while our muslim brothers are overcoming their struggle with culture vs islam and doing more that their fathers ever did, appreciate it. In the meantime, we need to deal with cultural perceptions of women by teaching our children by example and, utilise every opportunity to gain rewards today.

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    • Hebah Ahmed

      Jazak Allahu Khair for your very insightful comments. I agree with everything you have said. Allah tests each person with their own conflicts and for some women, it is in their husbands. The key is to focus on the positives and use wisdom in changing the negatives.

      For both men and women, there are some things that simply cannot be changed in a spouse. The test then becomes to submit to the relationship by accepting your spouse as they are without trying to change them or resent them. Sometimes this approach leads to the desired change and other times, the mere peace that is felt by no longer struggling against your spouses’ characteristics makes the marriage better.

      The real lesson in this article is to look forward and see how we can raise a generation of sunnah followers who work to ease the lives of their spouses Insha Allah.

      I ask Allah to give peace and ease to all my Muslim brothers and sisters.

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  4. Mahjabeen

    I cant decide if being able to see the difference between the cultural islam and the real thing is empowering.. I am not to sure if I’d want to teach my daughters to be hardcore feminist muslimahs, chances are they will end up getting married to the typical desi man who has no idea that being a hands-on daddy/spouse is actually part of following the Sunnah.. and this mismatch in expectations only causes disappointment and resentment.

    I know I found my peace when I stopped expecting that the husband would help around the house.. he has never changed a diaper in his life, never bathed a kid, never cooked a meal and I am a happier wife now that I’ve stopped wishing he would.

    what I will however do is ensure that if I ever have a son I’ll raise him not to be that desi man!

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    • n

      Have more faith in insh’allah who yur daughters will marry!! =)
      why should they marry a stingy person who cannot help his wife in the home? insh’allah make dua for righteous spouses for your children.

      and if u think the desi culture is the issue at least in your circle lets say…then hey u can always allow your daughters to marry out.

      each culture tends to have a few specific characteristics that pretty much every member of the culture shares. and different cultures have diffrent characteristics subhanallah.

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      • Hidaya

        I think we women have to accept some responsibility, and stop raising such lazy sons. We need to prepare them for their roles as husbands and fathers, and break the cycle. =)

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    • Umm Abdullah

      I feel that way about raising my sons too! They will not be stereotypical desi men insha’Allah!

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    • BintKhalil

      Assalamu alaikum
      I am so glad you brought this up. I think this, right here, is one of the biggest factors contributing to the Muslim American marriage crisis. The fact that women are overshooting their dreams, and that men are content being where they are, which is far short of the Islamic ideal, is why Muslim women are so unhappy with the quality of Muslim men out there.

      Perhaps, we need to start a movement of mass converting non-Muslim men, and grooming them to be husbands in line with the sunnah :)

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      • Yasmin

        wa alaikum us salaam wa rahmatullah,

        This is perhaps the most disturbing comment I’ve read all day. You want to mass convert non-Muslim men and “groom” them to be in line with the sunnah?

        1) Guidance is the domain of Allah ta’ala only. If our beloved prophet (saaws) wasn’t able to change people’s hearts, how can we even assume that we’re capable of such a thing?

        2) Part of the propaganda on Muslim women being oppressed is they myth that white men can and should save brown women from brown men (Spivak). What you’ve just argued sounds like you believe somehow that white men are more appropriate for Muslim women. I disagree completely.

        You see, I’m a revert and I was married to a non-Muslim man prior to becoming Muslim for almost 5 years. We both worked full time, and at one point I even made more money than he did. Guess how much housework he did??? 5% at best. Despite the fact that he was a white atheist raised by a self-proclaimed feminist, he felt that it was my responsibility to maintain the house and cook the meals. We never had kids but I can guarantee you if we had, childcare also would have fallen almost solely on my shoulders.

        3) A good portion of the male reverts to Islam I have met actually go the more “traditional” way when it comes to seeking a spouse for marriage, desiring a relationship like the one described above.

        4) I am NOT going to give up on my brothers in Islam. I’m just not. They deserve to hear the truth and have their views challenged by authentic sources. I don’t care if I am wasting my time and energy on some of them – all we need to convince are just a few percentage points. The real effort we need to spend is on our children, our sons and daughters. We are raising our children out of fear of poverty, to only focus on their “marriageability”. This is from Shaytaan (wa audhubillah), who whispers to us that we cannot possibly succeed by following Islam so we need to bend or break the rules (and this is not just on marriage but on all things).

        There are Muslim men out there who are good. I actively sought a husband for well over two years until I found one who met my standards of adab and deen. Of course he had been divorced a few times and has children from previous marriages, but I was much more willing to accept someone who wasn’t the “ideal” spouse according to the duniya. And you know what? I don’t regret it at all, alhamdulillah. My husband has not once confused my wearing of hijab with something he must supervise or a protection of something he is entitled to. He knows it is my struggle and he leaves it for me, offering advice when I ask it but otherwise leaving it alone.

        We need to teach our daughters to not be so picky when it comes to cultural standards of who their spouse should be. Let’s be honest, our daughters are hindered because we expect the men who come seeking them for marriage to be:

        *doctors or engineers
        *previously unmarried and currently unmarried
        *of a certain race/ethnic group/nationality/tribe
        *from a “good” family
        *looking a certain way (maybe a beard is OK but not a mullah beard)
        *displaying the appropriate amount of wealth (not too lavish but certainly not poor or even middle class)

        And because we push our sons to meet these requirements, we’re hamstringing everyone! No wonder there’s a marriage crisis. No wonder our daughters are not happy in marriage. No wonder the divorce rate is increasing in the ummah. No wonder.

        OK I’ll get off my soap box now. You were probably kidding about the mass conversion of Muslim men, but that did not sit well with me even as a joke.

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  5. Muhammad Umaish

    Masha Allaah sister may Allaah (swt) bless you and your family, Here and in the Hereafter
    may Allaah (swt) bless you even more and more and more
    i m a pakistani and beleive me sister SUBHAN-ALLAAH to read something like this is very rare for a person who lives in a city(which is the case in most of the areas) where education and especially knowing what Islam authentically is a far fetched idea, no where wil u see such realities of our Deen.
    people’s ideas of Islam are based on rationalism and traditionalism

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    • Hebah Ahmed

      Ameen to all of your wonderful duaa. Jazak Allahu Khair!

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  6. n

    I enjoyed reading about you experience mash’allah.

    i think it is in line with Islam to expect that a man be involved with his family. What that involvement looks like is definitely for each couple to decide themselves depending on their own skills/likes/dislikes.

    The only thing that doesnt quite go together to ME is that the west unfortunately tends to define exactly what that ‘involvement’ should like. In other words, suppose when a couple has their first child, the guy is instead helping to vacuum and iron clothes and [insert other chore here] and burping baby for instance, and not washing the dishes or changing diaper. Some women still wouldnt be happy with that because they specifically want the diaper thing done.

    so because those two specific things aren’t being done, in their mind, perhaps he’s not ‘involved’. thats the only danger.

    my other fear in using the whole feministy thing sometimes is that we dont want to influence women to be like only worrying about their cake and wanting to eat it too.

    also in our times today its acceptable to speak about men like that but it doesnt seem acceptable by a brother to speak like that bout a woman if he wants specific things from her. he’d have like 300 comments by now bashing him =)

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    • Hebah Ahmed

      Jazak Allahu Khair. I agree that involvement does not have a specific meaning and each couple must decide for themselves what works for them. I used dishes and diapers as merely examples but by no means to strictly define men’s involvement at home. Some women prefer to do everything themselves because they are perfectionists or feel pride in totally running the household. I commend them and would never try to force my views on them.

      The essay is my own personal experiences and struggles, that’s all. If it helps to change stereotypes of Muslim women and gives hope and comfort to others who may be going to the same struggle, then alhumduliLah.

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  7. Muhammad Umaish

    Pakistan, a country of muslims majority is given the label of Islamic Republic but unfortunately seeing Islam in its true essence is very very rare
    our sisters here dont even know wht are their rights in Islam and the lack of this knowledge gives them the idea that islam is not free and they start to show their freedom by rationalising wid western modernism over Islam.
    Sister i pray to Allaah (swt) that our ignorant society is also gifted with people like you and to guide us & our sisters to authentic Islam

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  8. ahlam

    MashAllah, it is amazing how reading the life of the Prophet and the Sahabah makes one change on the inside before the outside, it only points to the truth of the words of Allah subhaneh when he mentions: ”And verily, you (O Muhammad) are on an exalted standard of character.” (Quran 68:4) and the variuos ayahs that encourage us to follow his footseps and those of the Sahabah ridwanulahi ‘alayhim.

    As for Muslim men following the sunnah in their married life with regards to lending a hand in their homes, many times some follow it without even realising it is a sunnah…ask my dad! lol

    Also I have a bit of a reservation towards using the term Feminist or Feminism because I have the belief that we should strive to give each individual/gender their Allah- given rights and not go past the boundaries of the shari’ah as can happen in some cases. So it should be about restoring the Islamic rights of each gender and keeping a balance with the Shari’ah as the standard/base and not our own wishful thinking of what is to be expected. This would I think require, the education of the Muslimat of their Islamic rights and duties and the same goes for Muslim males.

    BarakAllahu feeki .

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    • Hebah Ahmed

      I agree with you about the use of the term feminist and I in general do not like to use it. Please understand that the primary audience for this book is Non-Muslims who have very negative views of Muslim Women. Sometimes you have to use the vernacular of the audience you are targeting to get your point across in the most effective way. In the book the essay title “The Muslim Feminist” is right beside a picture of me in Niqab…this is a powerful juxtaposition that could do more than even the essay in creating a new view of Muslim women.

      Feminism to most Americans is an attempt to undo the systematic disrespect and discrimination against women by empowering them and ensuring they are treated equally. It is this meaning that I use in order to show my belief that only Islam can restore women to their rightful places with full respect and dignity.

      A secondary audience for this book are other American born Muslim young women who are raised amongst the philosophies of Western Liberal Feminism and who are struggling to define a woman’s role and rights. In an attempt to relate to them and show them my own journey, I have to put the essay in a context they can understand.

      We are losing so many young muslim women because we are not speaking at their level and are not showing them that the negative cultural practices they turn from are indeed not from Islam. Insha Allah I hope this essay will challenge them to study Islam themselves and not just take a parent, sheikh, or auntie’s word for it.

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  9. Umm Abdullah

    Great post masha’Allah!

    I grew up watching my mom take care of all the house chores, most of the parenting and even a running her own business for a while. My parents were always equal partners and my dad never acted as if he was superior to her. My mom’s respect for my father was enough for us kids to realize the special place he had and if he never did any house chores it was because my mom never asked him to. He cooked on vacations, when my mom was away and when he brought me to Canada with my hubby. I am the oldest of 4 sisters and we were never made to feel as though we were less capable of anything that boys would be able to achieve, my father never made us feel as if he longed for sons and when Allah blessed our family with two boys within two years us sisters were never made to feel as though we were secondary to our brothers.

    My husband does help around the house. Mostly because I ask him to but also because he wants to. He has cooked, changed diapers, swept and mopped floors and almost every other chorea round the house. I am still the main person doing all the housework but he does still help out. We have 2 kids under the age of 2 and I am so grateful that Alhamdulillah my husband realizes the difficulties that I have to go through. His day is not easy either as he is still and undergraduate and working full-time this summer as well as taking night classes. I can’t expect him to do all the work around the house too but he does help out as much as he can.

    I really loved this post and cannot stress enough the need for the Ummah to be educated about the differences between our culture and our deen. May Alla SWT grant us all the tawfiq to follow the true deen and educate our brothers and sisters about it too!

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  10. F

    Perhaps one solution can be to find husbands that try their best to follow the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him). They are hard to find but if you keep the right company and make lots of dua, insha Allah your daughters will find a good home :) Keep your faith in Allah sister.

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  11. BintKhalil

    Assalamu alaikum

    I am going to the second person to tell you that I felt like I was reading my own story. Jazak Allah khair sister Hebah!

    What is it with these Muslim fathers? Do they not see the hypocrisy between being told to reach for the stars in their academic and professional careers, and being told to expect to work their fingers to the bone when it comes to dealing with their husbands, in a manner that is decidedly un-Sunnah like?

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    • Hebah Ahmed

      It is amazing how many of us struggle with these issues. Insha Allah we are always in a period of change and each period has its struggles. May Allah guide all the young Muslim women who are searching for their identities and faith.

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  12. Safia Farole

    Mashallah, this was a great read. It always surprises me how similar culturally minded parents act – I see this mentality in the parents of many Muslim children. Rather than lashing out at your dad, it seems like you kept your cool and maintained composure (despite interal emotions). Parents can be such a difficult test; Allah grant us all patience.

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    • Hebah Ahmed

      I have such a deep respect for my father and know that I am who I am because of him. I ask Allah to give him and my mother Jannat Ul Firdous Insha Allah. I was worried about his reaction to this essay but Masha Allah we had a create conversation and he forwarded it to everyone he knows.

      For the record, I am actually very much like my mother now….I am in charge of most of the household duties. The difference is I do not work outside the home so the same pressures and inequality are not there. On the other hand, because I homeschool my kids, my husband recognizes that I have an even harder full time job then him (we say he is going to the country club when he goes to work compared to teaching young children!) So we view any household chores I cannot get to during the day as shared between us when he gets home or on the weekends. Masha Allah may Allah reward him and protect him.

      The main thing is for us housewives to get appreciation and respect for what we do instead of being taken for granted and treated like slaves.

      My martial philosophy is “If you are putty in your spouses hands, they will be putty in yours”. And of course don’t forget to constantly make duaa for your spouse…not just to change but for Allah to give them paradise. :)

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      • ukhti

        Yes, this is a good clarification of you article. Although I do think you are setting girls up to be disappointed when they get married. Most guys are not that helpful around the house. My husband is a convert and does very little, probably never changed a diaper. But he is an awesome dad and is highly involved with our kids activities. He just will not wash dishes. I used to get so angry about it because I came in with the 50-50 mindset. It really does not exist with most guys. But we have to appreciate them for what they do and accept what they don’t with patience. Lastly, I think girls should really think about their responsibilities at home when they decide on career. I choose to work part time because its just too hard to keep up with 2 kids and house plus working.

        jak for your writing

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  13. Mrs R

    Beautiful!

    Alhamdulillah I grew up in a household where my dad always picked up after himself, always tried to help my mum. My husband not only picks after himself, sometimes he even picks after me , Alhamdulillah. He is a doctor, he cooks, he cleans the toilet, washes the dishes, he makes me tea! Alhamdulillah I never had to question the gender roles in Islam. So, those men are not stuck in pages of history!

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  14. Mrs R

    also, my dad always encouraged my Mum’s career and my career, equally. While my mum has double masters and working, I am doing my PhD.

    I guess the only reason my dad is like this despite his family being completely different (read: cultural Muslim) is because he tries to practice Islam to the best of his ability. So does my husband, who is a huffadh of the Quran.

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  15. Humble Muslim

    Salam

    Allahu Akbar! Wonderful article, will send to my daughters to read Inshallah. You know, I “try” to be the kind of “good” man described here, but I still have a lot of work to do… :-( I am very lazy when it comes to chores.

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    • Hebah Ahmed

      Barak Allahu Feek! May Allah put baraka in your marriage and give your daughters the most righteous husbands Insha Allah. Ameen.

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  16. Olivia

    Hebah,

    What a great essay. I could totally feel myself in it, when you described having to find the peace of mind regarding gender roles in Islam after being exposed to Muslims/culture first then learning about true Islam (and no, it wasn’t Siraaj, who is both desi and an amazing hands-on Dad and a far better housecleaner than me. not that I don’t also clean, he just does a far better job that leaves me feeling rather ashamed =) ). Even now when I see how many Muslim men are, and the general direction gender roles have taken in Muslim culture, it creates a great sense of unease within me. When I see that so many Muslim guys can be rather misogynistic, and yet we have the perfect religion and Prophet, it leaves me with concern with how we view our scholars, may Allah preserve them. This is not way meant to belittle any of them and they are always doing a great service to our ummah, yet they are not immune to the cultural attitudes that are present in their own countries and cultures, and I honestly feel that in many cases religious advice and fatwas have unintentionally reinforced some negative attitudes about women and marriage. Of course cultural attitudes come from many other places as well, but when I consider how many American Muslim men are so willing to divorce themselves from their parents “jahil” culture in every other way because of what their deen teaches them, doing so in marriage could have happened as well had that advice really been there (and it is in some cases, but its often presented as what an “ideal’ man should be like, not what the norm should be). As a person who has a great deal of respect for our ulema and seeks knowledge from them, I eventually came to the realization that they are scholars of our deen and their advice and knowledge regarding deen should be saught, they are not experts in human relationships, psychology, or marriage. Like you mentioned about your father, it was a realization that although someone may have an elevated status for whatever reason, only our Prophet was perfect.

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  17. chuck hird

    It was refreshing to read Hebah’s journey as a young Muslim woman. We non-muslims need to see more that Muslims do question orthodoxy and custom. So many of us view the Muslim faith as some monolithic belief system that all Muslims believe the same.

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    • Hebah Ahmed

      Thank you Chuck for your comments and positive response. What you have written is the exact reason we wrote this book. Please share with everyone you know and help us to create peace by really understand the other and challenging our stereotypes about one another!

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  18. Sadaf Farooqi

    What a beautiful post! Barak Allahu feeki, Hebah!
    Your journey towards understanding the true role model of a Muslim man via studying the life and conduct of Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) seems so similar to my own journey of coming towards Islam; of differentiating between cultural norms/beliefs about gender roles and those mandated by Islam, by studying the sunnah.
    May Allah guide us to raise our children according to Islam. Ameen.
    You did good by telling others that your husband washes his plate and does diaper duty too. :)
    Barak Allahu feekum.

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  19. Umm Reem

    Amazing post Hebah, mashaAllah!

    may Allah azzawajal guide Khadeeja and allow her to follow in Khadeeja, radiAllahu anha’s footsteps :)

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    • Hebah Ahmed

      May Allah accept your duaa and make all of our children of the most righteous and give them spouses who pull them to Jannah INsha Allah.

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  20. KNewMuslim

    Your article made me cry, so many questions that I still have, and previous experiences have left a sour note in my mind. Not so much in regards to Islam, but previous experiences of my own, and my revert friends. Thank you for posting this article!

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  21. Rationlist Muslim

    What do you mean when you say “cultural Islam?” What is cultural Islam? How is this Islam any different from that of Prophet Muhammad pbuh? Was Prophet Muhammad’s Islam not cultural, according to culture of his society? Or are you trying to say that Prophet Muhammad pbuh was actually culture-less and hence we need to follow that utopian Islam? So basically dont we have to adapt some parts of Arabic culture in order to become a Muslim? For example, learning Arabic, keeping beard (which is very cultural), etc. When do you differentiate between culture and religion? Which one should a person prefer: culture or religion? Both cultures and religions change, neither is superior to the other.

    And more importantly, what is Islam of a “desi man?” How is his Islam different from that of Prophet Muhammad pbuh? Is there just one type of a desi man or there are variances among desi men?

    What is Sunnah of Prophet while dealing with issues at his home? What kind of foods Prophet cooked? And what kind did his wives?

    Can you answer these questions for me?

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    • Hebah Ahmed

      Asalam Alikum and Jazak Allahu Khair for your comments and questions. Let me try to answer them as best I can Insha Allah.

      1. What I mean by “cultural Islam” is the Islam that is taught based on what has been passed on from one generation to the next without going back the the original text of the Quran and Sunnah. In this type of Islam, some things are indeed Islamic, but other things are merely infused from cultural practices or the fear of what others will think of you. If these practices do not contradict Islam, then they are fine but many times they are innovations or actually in contradiction to Islam. For example, some people say that after praying on a prayer rug you should fold it up so Satan does not pray on it. Many people pass this on to their children and think it is haram if a pray rug is left open. There is no evidence for this innovation and even so, let Satan pray! Another example is insisting on your children marrying from your same tribe or family and not considering a pious spouse with good manners simply because they are from a different area or the parents are worried about what the people will say. If there is not valid Shariah reason for rejecting such a person, this practice is actually in direct contradiction to a hadith of the Prophet (SAWS). A third example is in India some Muslims actually have the girl’s family give a dowry to the guy’s family instead of the man giving the wife the dowry. The list goes on…

      2. You differentiate between culture and religion by not claiming something is religious if it is merely a cultural practice and making sure the cultural practice does not violate any Islamic rulings. Of course SAWS had culture, but there is clear delineation between acts of worship (which cannot be changed or added to), cultural practices that he (SAWS) forbade in Islam, and everything else which falls into the permissible category.

      3. As Muslims, we choose Islam over everything else in our lives. It should not just be our belief system but our lifestyle and wordview. It should be the litmus test with which we compare all other things. We believe since Allah is our Creator, He knows best how the creation should live, of course better than the creation itself. This is why Islam means complete submission to the Will (and commands) of Allah.

      4. As for the “desi man”, it is wrong to make such generalizations. Each human is different and although there may be common cultural practices, the degree and type depends on the individual. Also, each person’s level of Islamic knowledge, practice, and fear of Allah will effect who they are and how they treat others. The key is not to judge Islam by the Muslims but by researching the authentic texts.

      5. From my limited research and understanding, I know that SAWS was fair and just in his dealings with his wives and family members. I know that whenever he was at home, he spent the time serving his family. He would mend his own clothing. He lived a simple life that did not require a lot of effort and he encouraged others to live simply through his example, be it in their clothing, food, housing, etc. He (SAWS) slept on the floor and ate on the floor. There is so much more and I encourage you to read an authentic autobiography of SAW to really get to know him, understand his prophethood, and Insha Allah love him. Others please add or correct me if I am mistaken.

      Insha Allah I have answered your questions to the best of my ability and I encourage you to keep questioning and reading and seeking your answers Insha Allah. I ask Allah to guide us all to the truth and the straight path Insha Allah.

      Jazak Allahu Khair!

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      • F

        Assalamu Alaikum,

        After my young fiery days of blaming everything on culture, I’ve come to realize that culture actually plays a big role in fiqh. Many aspects of life not related to worship have been left open and decided based on the customs of the society and the day. From matters related to marriage to financial transactions, many of the rulings depend on culture/customs of the society. It is really mind blowing once you begin to study fiqh and realize how much integration there is between rulings and customs of the people.

        One usually hears complains of culture from non-Arab practicing Muslims who are often embarrassed of their native culture and try to emulate what they perceive as closer to the sunnah.

        I agree with you sr. Hebah that we need to ask questions when accepting information passed down.

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  22. Halima

    I loved this article. I love the last bit about your husband cleaning up after himself and changing diapers. A lot of Muslim girls that were brought up in their own culture can relate to this. Having the whole tradition obsessed atmosphere can be really suffocating sometimes epscially when it makes certain things that are perfectly fine in the deen seem so unacceptable. Awesome job.. :)

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  23. Michele

    thank you so much for sharing your perspective. There is a huge crisis in the American Muslim community directly related to the hypocrisy highlighted when educated thinking Muslims start to question cultural chauvinism and patriarchy cloaked under the guise of Islamic mandates and/or sharia. I have noticed that the young women in our community are often high achieving, motivated and engaged in community activism at a much higher level than the boys. There is a collision that occurs when the families attempt to push the girls into arranged marriages with men from “back home” . While the girls are often highly educated with advanced degrees they are distressed when their future spouses expect little more than the traditional “desi” wife. We have many already divorced young women in our community who were “forced” through emotional intimidation into these marriages and are now divorced. Unlike their mothers they are not able to accept the double standards and unwilling to acquiesce to the cultural norms of pretending that men are more capable and/or knowledgeable in making life decisions. This crisis will continue as future generations of smart, educated women will not accept that male leadership in the Masjid is intrinsically more capable and that women should take a backseat in decision making and leadership positions. If the Muslim community fails to recognize these issues we will have Mosques and community centers full old immigrants and the younger generations will find outside organizations in which to utilize their talents and skills.

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    • Rationlist Muslim

      Michele, you have raised some good points. What solutions do you propose to solve these issues?

      And I was wondering what should one do if getting advanced education makes one critical of one’s culture to which one’s mothers somehow adapted to?

      From the trend globally and in Muslim communities that I can sense, I feel that atheism will continue to increase among highly educated Muslim men and women as later generations will get rid of Islam from their lives. As Muslim immigrant families in Canada/US and their later progeny (born and raised here) continue to integrate into the “white” milieu and get higher education and start earning more money, tendency to follow Islamic religion will decrease and many will end up as ex-Muslims, opting for atheism.

      One important factor that will make such ppl disillusioned from Islam will be the current conflicts ideas we see in highly educated Muslimahs and their old school traditional mothers, among males as well.

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      • Michele

        I think that we have to challenge the religious institutions and the tendency to pander to patriarchal misogynistic mentality. and the cultural stifling of free thought when it comes to Islam. The problem is clearly not with Islam but with those that seek to control others by insisting on incorrect interpretations of hadith and shariah. Just recently was banned for commenting on the CAIR FB page for a comment suggesting that I was concerned for the women of Afghanistan if the military pull out and the taliban have free reign to impose their twisted ideology on it’s people. I love Islam and it is for this reason that I seek clarity on issues that do not seem to be in keeping with the spirit of Islam as revealed in the Quran or the character of the Prophet Muhammad. We must educated our sons to respect and value women and see them as partners in life not subservient , inferior doormats.

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      • Carlos

        Michele, “Keep on rockin’ in the free world!” – Neil Young

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    • Yasmin

      This is more than just a female problem. There are also a lot of men out there who are emotionally blackmailed into marriages they do not want. Their divorce rates are also rising.

      I know of a very specific example from my community where a brother was emotionally blackmailed into marrying someone who met his family’s approval (his mother would have a ‘heart attack’ every time he mentioned marrying a sister of his choosing). He caved in and married his family’s choice, only to be divorced six months later. Then the local Desi community sided with his ex and dragged his name through the mud.

      Even after all of this, when he was ready to marry again (after having a lot of debt from both the wedding costs and paying the mahr after talaq) his mother again tried to emotionally blackmail him into marrying someone else of her choosing! And when he refused and married the sister he originally wanted to marry, she got his siblings and others in the community to tell him he was going to Jahannam for disobeying her.

      Let’s please not imagine that it’s only women who are affected by families and their attempts to control their children. It’s just not true.

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  24. Carlos

    Good article, Hebah. Thank you for giving an example of a feminism that belies the argument that feminism is solely a Western concept.

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  25. Belgian muslim

    I checked the site and I was rather confused by the fact that I saw women there who occupy themselves with professions or hobbies that do not reflect our islamic norms and values.

    So I wouldn’t have a problem if the site wants to show the diversity of women in general or let’s say the Arab women. But the phrase “I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim” is kinda lost.

    Being muslim still means holding yourself between some lines, it does not mean doing what you want and afterwards saying that there is diversity of muslim women.

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    • Michele

      Nice to know there is someone “checking” on other Muslims and passing judgement on their activities. I really don’t think Allah needs any help with this job.

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  26. Carlos

    Happy Independence Day! Today we celebrate freedom and independence from foreign rule and the suffocating constraints of old world ideas. We celebrate our unique American identity. The American tradition of freedom of conscience is what enables us to speak freely about our ideas, no matter how unpopular or revolutionary they might be. Under American law and social tradition, all people are equal. That includes women, of course. It is in this setting that all of the different variants of feminism, including Islamic feminism, can flourish.

    Spend the day with your family and friends and enjoy a hamburger or a potato salad or some apple pie or whatever traditional American cuisine you like to eat on a hot day, and remember those who came before you and who fought for your right to live as a free individual. Take full advantage of the opportunity that living in America presents. Many in this world are not so fortunate.

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  27. kacm@s7

    Hebah, your writing is profounding! I’m deeply touched with your view & comprehension about real Islam guided by our beloved prophet (pbuh). I’ll make doa to Allah swt so that many muslim women will be like you in term of spirit & intellect. Keep it up sis!

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  28. Mama_of_2

    Salamu Alaikom Hebah,

    Ever coming Calgary, Alberta? I want you to know that if you ever thought about coming/visiting, you’ll have the home of someone who loves you for the sake of Allah :)

    I keep watching your debate video on Youtube about Niqab just to get inspired by your confidence and personality..I pray I’ll be able to put Niqab on one day. I also love that video of yours on “Why They Chose Islam”.

    I have two beautiful twin daughters that are about 2.5 years of age and want a different kind of upbringing for them from my own. And would like a live reference. Having said that, can I write to you questions that pop up in my head about children upbringing in the light of Quran and Sunnah? Not only children-related but also social, family…etc. In other words, I would like to ask you if you could be my mentor. If so, could you drop me a line from your private email address to mine?

    Jazakki Allahu Khairan wa hadana wa iyyaki ela al Sirat Al Mostaqeem.

    Mama_of_2

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  29. Mariam

    Dear Hebah,
    Thank you for this inspiring article. You made me aware of things I didn’t realize before. Still, my inner conflicts are not solved. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t marry at all & no matter what. It came out as a result of the society’s tradional views about women & marriage itself. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back on this promise or how I’ll spend my life in such society. I never told anybody about this, but I thought that you may help me some way or other. And thank you again.
    Mariam

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