In breaking down the term Muslim women, and understand how we might view the interests of believing women, the following points might provide a clear account:
1. The operative word in the term Muslim women is the word ‘muslim’, one who aspires to be subservient to God in accordance with the creed of Abraham and the final amended Law as revealed to Abraham’s descendant, Muhammad. The next word ‘woman’ informs us that she is speaking from a point of the experiences of such subservience to God as influenced by factors specific to womanhood (whatever that might mean in the context). Generally, that’ll mean that the issues that most resonate with her are those to do with women, as well as those that are equally relevant to men and women (people often forget the second).
2. Any moral agent who actively wants to be as subservient and worshipful as possible will seek both access to, and participation in, those things that contribute to maintaining and increasing subservience. What might that include? Firstly, they’ll seek their Lord the Creator, knowing that any tenuous link with the Most High leaves them vulnerable and without the greatest of protectors. Secondly, they’ll want to be informed by God as to what He expects of them. And thirdly, they’ll want to engage the world around them for God, as advocates and helpers of God.
3. Those who seek to impede these righteous aspirations are blameworthy. And those who do it to women for simply being women exhibit cultural remnants of ancient Arab paganism (jahiliyah) which the Prophet was sent by God to redress. Paganism removed and undermined the moral autonomy of women, their freedoms and rights, and inhibited their intellectual expressions. God sent His messenger to preach hanifiyyah (Abrahamic monotheism), and an aspect of it was to reinstate the moral autonomy of women and establish equality of opportunity. The way of God is one of inclusion: when Umm Umarah said to the Prophet, “Everything seems to be addressed for men, and women are left out,” God revealed, ‘For men and women who are devoted to God- believing men and women, obedient men and women, truthful men and women, steadfast men and women, humble men and women, charitable men and women, fasting men and women, chaste men and women, men and women who remember God often – God has prepared forgiveness and a rich reward.’ (Q 33:35)
4. Today we see aspects of jahiliyah raise its ugly head again in the form of reactionary religion. Advocating on behalf of women seeking to be subservient or seeking to optimise their subservience, and addressing the affairs that have a real impact on their lives is a charge the Prophet took on, and passed on to those who follow him. In the farewell sermon, the Prophet said, “I exhort you to treat women well” and often framed women as a vulnerable group, not to infantilise them, but speaking to the reality that they are easily and frequently wronged by the opposite sex who are usually in a position of power. Thus, if we understand the grander scheme of human existence and the purpose of creation, it is unacceptable to demand silence or acceptance of a status quo – and of course not every complaint is a valid one. However, many of the ‘religious’ narratives we hear around women are the product of reactionary religion or ethno-cultures conflated with God’s word, reacting out of cultural anxieties or in opposition to the scary bogey(wo)man called feminism. What God wants is defined by God Himself, not in mindless opposition to the other.
5. Given the challenges we face as western believers, we need all hands on deck, in all realms. Undermining women or devising religious clauses to impede their productivity only hamstrings us. And often, the simplistic notion of male superiority is very misplaced; one example being that statistics clearly show the aptitude of female intellects, where they surpass their male counterparts in a range of academic disciplines. As believers we owe it to God to raise and support one another to be the best we can, so as to fully serve the cause of righteousness.