Anyone who cares about the present as well as the future of the believers, has to be concerned with the social conditions under which believing women live and their sense of security and stability. If the purpose of the Prophet’s polity was to provide believers with “security to replace their fear” (24:55), then in general, such objectives ought to also be our own. It was such security that not only allowed believers to grow and thrive but also facilitated the spread of the nascent faith. Women tend to be the pillars that hold up the structure of society, they are the carriers of culture, the (more significant) nurturers of today’s citizens, as well as the cultivators of future generations. The future isn’t bright if they’re not happy, and the future won’t be consequential if they’re not content (and resultantly committed). Yes, it requires women to be sensible and realistic in discovering contentment, but it also means that believing men need to provide the conditions for them to be able to do so.
If we think about it from the perspective of our communal interests and the cause of Islam:
Social and political progress tends to be slow. It does not predominantly occur through revolution (an idea that popular culture has come to embrace) but by gradually cultivating today and tomorrow’s citizens – it’s the reason Gove was so happy to be education minister. For the sake of the future, we can only expect tomorrow’s people to be confident, faithful and educated folk IF they’re cultivated by equally confident, faithful and educated folk (and of course that includes men as well). Yet despite its demonstrable importance, the environment in which this might occur hasn’t significantly developed. Rather than being supported and permitted to get on with it – to seek an environment that’d help to shape confident, faithful and informed believers, many Muslim women find themselves having to battle social and ethno-cultural pressures as well as reductive, condescending and unrealistic ethno-cultural assertions about their ‘place’. It wears them down and inhibits constructive activity. And no, rhetorically referring to Muslim women who are practically treated like mindless maids as ‘queens’ or ‘jewels’ doesn’t make them feel valued – and this isn’t lost on anyone with a semblance of intelligence. Furthermore, it certainly doesn’t lead to the members we all need believing women to be.
Instead, what we regrettably continue to see is a milieu that produces countless restless beings with various worries, who frequently have their good and charitable nature exploited, who remain greatly unappreciated for their labours, whose views might be overlooked simply because they’re women, and who are given legitimate cause to be anxious about their prospects rather than thrilled at the opportunities and positive challenges the future ought to bring. Whilst some men might put it down to “women’s nature”, God tells men to challenge their own perceptions:
“Live with them in accordance with what is fair and kind: if you dislike them, it may well be that you dislike something in which God has put much good.” (4:19)
Of course, not all believing women find themselves in such a situation, but even they would acknowledge that the current environment promoted by most ethno-religious communities isn’t one conducive to high aspirations, or one that reflects a godly and productive lens that provides the holistic type of security and stability believing women desire. As believers, we are morally obliged to build an environment where women are able to flourish and become the best women on earth (and the same obviously goes for our men and children).
Some men suffer from protest fatigue. I accept that, as is the case with complaints in any setting, not all are always legitimate. But there needs to be a constructive way of discussing worries in a spirit of cooperation and reason, rather than falling into reductive arguments, belligerence, or retreating into silos and talkshops. I also accept that many believing women have some way to go to become substantial contributors to the future of an inspirational Islam in Britain, but so too do many men – it’s not a gender issue but one of general development. However, if women aren’t provided the space, opportunity and know-how to develop a holistic approach to īmān which improves the intellect with reason and knowledge, the body with vitality, and the spirit with civility and resilience, as well as an emotionally and psychologically sound atmosphere required to achieve all of these, then as a believing community we won’t get very far. It’s easy to put women down, which occurs in some cultures, and claim they don’t know much or that they’re ‘slow’, but if resources in many communities are mainly geared towards men, and women frequently infantilised, how can we expect them to be on level par? Studies show that where women are given the same educational opportunities as men, they outperform them. Evidently, a phenomenal human resource is being squandered, and in some cases, actively undermined. Is it any wonder that some Muslim women opt for Eurocentric feminism when it seems to offer them more equitable terms? “Islam gives women rights” becomes an empty slogan if not practiced by adherents to that Islam, not to mention that the use of this slogan can inadvertently suggest that if Islam hadn’t advocated such rights, such sloganeers simply wouldn’t bestow equitable treatment to women out of a sense of decency and some good old logic.
استوصوا بالنساء خيرا
The Prophet put it: “Treat women well,” (al-Bukhari) and ‘well’ is not only determined by the situation, but also in the context of being sensitive to the needs of women whilst simultaneously encouraging them to strive higher. In a gender-conscious verse God spells out the relationship between the two groups: “The believers, both men and women, are allies supporting each other (awliya)…” (9:71) and such support includes men cultivating their vital team members and expanding their capacities rather than simplistically putting them down. That’s actual leadership. Furthermore, as believers we inspire one another to be the best reflections of ourselves with the Prophet having put it, “The believer is the mirror of a believer”. So if some men hold the women around them in low stead then they must consider what they themselves actually look like!
As for believing women, it’s up to them to assert themselves and take the bull by the horns, and neither squander nor disregard the opportunities they’re availed by emerging opportunities. Complaints about lack of resources and/or access are often inaccurate or a pretext for some to veil their laziness or lack of commitment. In the end, the effort needs to be made by both sides.