Monday, April 2, 2012

Muslim Women and the Challenge of Authority Conference

As salaam alaikum,

This weekend, I attended this conference. What can I say,! What an awesome conference! It definitely helped exercise the humanities side of my brain that I haven't used in a while (except, to blog, heh), but it brought up key issues about what it means to be a woman in Islam domestically and internationally and some of the things that are holding us back. I would probably write more about it if I hadn't reflected extensively with two of my friends the day of the conference, but suffice it to say, I really enjoyed it.

Plus, I got to meet one of the contributors to the anthology. We totally missed our photo opportunity because I had to run out of the conference for a previous engagement...

But this was the third sign I got this week that my next spiritual endeavor will be exploring my role as a woman in Islam. The first sign was the finale of Big Love, which pertained to Barb's quest throughout the season (if not also the season before) to be a priesthood holder. The second sign was one of my best friends asking me if I ever considered becoming an imama, and how loaded of a question that was for me that brought questions into my own mind about Muslim woman leadership and my...being too intimidated to talk to most imams about anything...

And then this conference brought it all together for me.

And I'm not talking...I want to go out, attain some scholarship and become an imama right now. No. Alhamdulillah, I accept that medicine is my field and a worthy career and I'm sticking to it. I'm just talking about ways in which I think, consciously and subconsciously, my own religious pursuits were curtailed because I learned that there are certain things that women aren't required to the sense that we are "spared." Oh, well, you don't have to go to Jummah like men do, and it's a mercy for you. This article in Altmuslimah on Islam and menstruation also gave me pause, and the fact that some men consider our spirituality inferior because we have to break salat and fasting for something that enables us to, oh, I don't know, carry children, the most important part of carrying on the human race as God intends?

 Because really, when I'm menstruating during the year, what comes of that week? We're given little guidance about what we can do to not wreck our spiritual continuity during time of menses. I guess it's up to us to come up with that on our own, but I feel like on this and many other issues, we Muslim women are left to fend for ourselves in ways that seem incongruous to the amount of guidance other aspects of our daily lives is afforded in practice.

One woman in the audience talked about making Hajj and being in a women's tent where they were left alone to perform prayers. As you know, according to one's madhab, some women opine that a woman should not lead a congregational prayer, even of other women. So eventually, the most learned woman among them took over the leading of prayer. However, she had several rules for herself...that her voice should not be raised beyond a certain decibel because of her consideration of the female's voice as awrah, thus making it impractical for her to lead prayers because no one could hear her. Another woman was a hafiza and did not want to lead prayer because she believed she could not recite the Qur'an out loud as a woman. I guess they eventually figured something out...

"...although they had almost left it undone!" (2:71)

That story was heartbreaking. Here are women on Hajj who could not accomplish something as simple as salat because we have been so limited in our practice...we are to avert our eyes, not raise our voices, be unassuming and sit behind curtains in the masjid so men cannot see us...or better yet, stay in our homes! What do we do when we are alone?

When I learned that there were women of some madhab who don't subscribe to women praying together, I was heartbroken. Really? So I can be in a house of sisters and we all pray separately. What happened to the blessings of praying in jama'ah? Is that, too, only for men?

Yes, I remember hearing this, when I was coming into Islam and I was sweating about the fact that I hadn't attended Jummah since I was 11 years old, and I didn't know how to go about it...what it entailed, proper Jummah etiquette, etc. I looked it up on the internet to learn before I went to the first campus Jummah to find an article that said that Jummah was only obligatory for men and optional for a woman. They believed this to be so to not be a burden on women who had children at home to tend to. It went as far as saying that a woman perhaps attained greater blessing if she stayed home.

And me, confused, but too embarrassed or intimidated to ask anyone, gave in, and the time for Jummah came and went and I didn't go to campus Jummah.

And in my learning about Islam, which was very much online much of the time because I am not a convert and I was embarrassed to ask the very basic things that I felt like I should know...I read a lot of things like this that yes, curtailed my practice. Though me not making Jummah these days is more about my not being able to leave my hospital or rotation to get to a place...what if I were a practicing male Muslim student? I would have felt a greater obligation to talk to my course directors to make allowances for my religious beliefs, right? And this would probably make me more comfortable about piecing out at opportune times to pray in the hospital's chapel...

In the end, I'm not really blaming my own deficiencies in practice on the complex (and corrupt) gender politics of Muslims. More, I'm recognizing how they influenced me and I will shape my future practice being mindful of the fact that this particular gender politic is not absolute and not necessarily condoned by Allah (swt).

The conference was excellent. It began with the story of Khawla bint Tha'labah, her questioning of the Prophet (saw) and what that should mean we as Muslims should do in the face of contemporary problems in our society. The first panel was on Qur'an hermeneutics, a word that I have never used and will never use again, probably. Panelists spoke about ayah 4:34, what it means to be a Muslim feminist, if that is the correct term to use at all, and of feminist interpretations of the Qur'an, leading me to have to read Dr. Amina Wudud's book, Qur'an and Woman. My favorite paper in the panel was by Dr. Aysha Hidayatullah and her piece "Women's Experience as a Source of Scriptural Authority." There, she set up an argument that we as Muslim women, and indeed, we as Muslims period, are well within our right to question, discuss and challenge interpretations of the Qur'an because the Qur'an, though our ultimate textual authority, is not to be equated with the Word of God inasmuch as we recognize that the Qur'an is, in fact, limited as we humans are limited. It's limited by the language and is also limited by the time and context in which it was revealed, whereas the Word of God is Greater and is beyond all of the wisdom in the Qur'an. A powerful concept, but a difficult one to swallow and one I would most certainly not offer in mixed Muslim company, haha!

Next was an excellent keynote address by Dr. Amina Wudud. Just a word here...I haven't yet read any of Dr. Wudud's work because, coming into Islam, I immediately understood her to be controversial and one overstepping the bounds. Why was she pushing so hard to be an imama? I believed that God laid out the gender roles clear in Qur'an and Sunnah, and if we follow these sources so closely in determining how we pray, why should we then disregard them when it comes to female's role. I just understood that my role as a Muslimah was not to be one of leadership in the Muslim community, and that Dr. Wudud was creating fitna at the very least.

Having now lived as a practicing Muslimah for almost 9 years and feeling my practice curtailed by other things I'm supposed to do or not do, supposedly in the name of God...I have been questioning things as late. This is, after all, the religion of those who think...

The next panel was on Prayer and Authority. This panel may have been the most relevant to me. Dr. Aisha Geissinger discussed the history of texts about how woman should pray, something that I've always wondered about. I've seen so many different sources discuss how women's salat is different than men, and in relearning salat from the way my mother did it, I learned to keep my fingers closer together and bear my body closer to the ground than my mother did, because I thought this is what women were supposed to do. Dr. Geissinger discussed this, the separation of men and women in prayer spaces over time since the time of the Prophet (saw) to the periods after, and traced the gradual increased separation of the sexes more. At the end, she offered that she was a historian and not a theologian to be able to speak about "what was right," but just hearing this history makes me wonder if these were not differences that weren't just arbitrarily chosen over time in an act of relegating the female body...

"...although they had almost left it undone!" (2:71)

Chaplain Bilal Ansari's work for helping to enable worship for practicing Muslim female inmates really brought out why the prevailing Muslim gender politic is is impractical, if not dysfunctional.

On a side note...arrrrgghh! I know Muslim men shouldn't wear gold, but can you wear silver instead? I feel like it's wrong for brothers to not wear some sort of wedding band...anyway, hehe, digression...

The next panel...yeah...the next panel was the Pious Movements Panel, which was a very interesting look into Muslim female leadership into various religious movements overseas. The last panel was on Sufi women and leadership. Both panels brought up the interesting question of whether these women, in denying at all being feminist organizations, had a sort of agency and what this agency took the shape of. One of the presenters, Dr. Joseph Hill, posited that the women, in assuming what could be construed as "traditional," deferent roles in the community and their own homes (ex. woman as homemaker) were actually, covertly, expressing their if they were pretending to go along with the gender-role program while, within these confines, being somewhat revolutionary.

The whole while, I was thinking about a story idea that's been brewing for a while whose working title is "Black Widow," which will likely morph into something else. It's precisely about a woman who assumes a very deferent role in her marriage but in fact each of her actions, decisions and attitudes toward her husband are coolly calculated...or, at least the way her daughter sees it. ...anyway...digression again. This is why it's hard for me to read books. I get my own ideas and then I want to run off and write...

And those two panels concluded an excellent conference!

I'm still processing what all of this meant for me and will mean for me. It will probably be a topic in this blog for days to come. Stay tuned!


  1. Thank you for the lovely recap. I'm sad I missed the conference, which I had been looking forward to attending since I first heard about it.

    Seems like there was invigorating discussion.

  2. I was saddened as read this article. This is an intelligent woman. Yet she writes filtering her feelings and her intellect through the framework of Islam, making sure not to offend the bigoted religious followers or leaders. I am amazed that really smart women in a search for significance are not honest with their-selves about this barbaric, and historically inaccurate, religion.

    1. I was saddened as I read your comment, because you felt so distant from my humanity because of my beliefs that you couldn't bring yourself to address me directly, instead in the third person.

      Hiiiii! :D I'm still real, even though this post is a year old. Don't feel sad for me! I'm a doctor, a resident in the program of my dreams and have loving and supportive family, friend and SO. My life has been full and I have found significance, but maybe in a different place than your Islam.