What Happens When Imams Become Islamic Feminists?

“You are not allowed to attend the funeral, because there is a chance you may be inclined to jump in the grave or disrupt the ceremony with your crying. Women are just too emotional.”

On the day of the burial of my late uncle, the women in my family and I were confronted with a new ruling. The imam leading the burial proceedings prohibited all women, including my uncle’s young daughters, from attending the burial ceremony based on the fact that there is a hadith – a narrative of a tradition from Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime – that discourages women from attending burial ceremonies because they are too emotional. Their absence from cemeteries is, according to the imam and many of the men within the community, more appropriate for the deceased.

Although the banning of women from Muslim burial ceremonies is not a grievance experienced by Muslim women in their day-to-day lives, it does underpin a much graver issue, which is the structural misogyny that exists within many Muslim communities as a result of patriarchal interpretations of the Quran and Hadith narratives and lingering pre-Islamic cultural traditions. Moreover, it also demonstrates the unquestionable authority that Muslim religious leaders – who are predominately men – have in setting norms and values within Muslim communities.

It is that same mindset that deprives a girl from attending school and instead forces her into marriage, that leads one to kill the female family member on the basis that she has dishonored the reputation of the family, and that justifies the disciplining of wives by beating them lightly.

So how to do we tackle the mindset within Muslim communities that deems women as inferior beings to men and how do we eradicate the notion that men are the guardians of women in such a way that regards them to be in charge of women’s day-to-day affairs?

Well, let’s turn to the example that Prophet Muhammad, as a feminist, set. In an era of rampant female infanticide and when women were regarded as the property of men, Prophet Muhammad granted women avant-garde rights, including the right to choose her spouse freely and also inheritance rights. He is even known to have said “the best among you is he who is best to his wife.” So where is present-day Muslim religious authority on women’s rights issues and how are they moving forward on raising women’s status in society?

Religious leaders who actively work on gender justice issues do exist, but they are in need of support so that their voices are amplified in a noisy world full of bigotry and violent extremist expressions. This is why I created the #ImamsForShe initiative in early 2015 as a human rights consultant for the faith-based human rights organization Muslims for Progressive Values, to build a movement of solidarity for imams, Islamic scholars and Muslim community leaders – both men and women – in their efforts to promote women’s rights.

When women’s rights are affirmed and protected, a country is less likely to experience conflict, according Harvard researchers. The security of women in society is a determining factor of the overall level of a country’s peace and security.

An Islamic feminist is someone who advocates for women’s rights and gender justice from within an Islamic paradigm by drawing their inspiration from the Quran and the Sunnah. The existing scholarship coined as Islamic Feminism is rich in analyses re-examining Islamic tradition through a social justice lens. Muslim leaders as Islamic feminists would be able to change the world as we know it by:

  1. Opening up a dialogue on contentious issues like inheritance rights in Islam, which would recognize that women in today’s world shoulder most of the economic (unpaid) burden of providing for their children and families. Equal inheritance laws for daughters and sons would therefore respond to the current lived realities of women and enable the full economic autonomy and security of Muslim women.
  2. Calling all harmful cultural practices to be un-Islamic, like female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C), honor killings, and child and forced marriages.
  3. Debunking any inauthentic hadith narratives that undermine women’s political participation and leadership and that run contrary to the examples of female leadership within Islamic tradition, including Khadija, Aisha, and Umm Waraqah.
  4. Denouncing all forms of violence against women by asserting that Surah 4:34 does not condone domestic violence in cases of marital disputes.
  5. Setting a positive example for Muslim men and boys to encourage women and girls to reach their full potential in all realms of life, as a way to prevent and counter violent masculinities.

It is only when imams, as influential leaders in their communities, equally participate in the quest for women’s rights that we, as the human family, will be able to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5 on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment by the year 2030.

So what is stopping your local imam from becoming an Islamic feminist?

This article was written by Shafferan Sonneveld.

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