Assalamu Alaikum Warahmatullah hie wabarakatu
Rabbish rahli sadri, wa yassirli amri, wah lul `uqdatan min lisani, yaf qahu kauli
“O my Lord! Open up my heart and make my task easy for me, and loosen the knot from my tongue so that they might fully understand my speech.”
I have been invited to deliver today’s pre-khutbah talk on the occasion of International Women’s Day, which will be celebrated on Tuesday 8 March 2016. This day was declared by the United Nations in 1977, as a day to reflect on progress made towards gender equality. In 2016, the United Nations declared the theme for International Women’s Day to be: ‘Planet 50-50: Step it Up for Gender Equality’.
I am no expert on international gender relations nor do I have expert knowledge on the state of gender equality in the world today. I think of myself as a social justice activist, and as such, I consider the struggle against gender inequality and gender discrimination as a struggle of social and economic justice for women. Furthermore, for me, the struggle for women’s rights, equality and social justice is always framed within a broader discourse of human rights that elevates the concept of human dignity.
So, in my talk today, I wish to use the occasion of International Women’s day as an opportunity to reflect on the struggle for gender justice at a much more local level, at a level I can relate to and have experience of. In particular, I want to reflect on socio-cultural practices within our local Muslim community that perpetuate gender discrimination and marginalise and exclude women, thereby impinging on the dignity of women.
Human Rights and Dignity for All
As a starting point, let me briefly elaborate what I mean when I say that the struggle of social and economic justice for women should be framed within a broader discourse of human rights.
From an Islamic perspective human rights is understood as the honouring and protection of the dignity bestowed on all human beings by Allah, without prejudice or discrimination. In other words, there is no place for distinguishing degrees of dignity that one affords human beings based either on gender, race, class, sexuality, disability, religious beliefs or any other criteria.
Hence the discourse of human rights in Islam is rooted in the concept of human dignity (known in Islamic terminology as karamat al-insan).
Here we are guided by the Glorious Qur’an, in Sura al-Isra’, also known as Surah Bani Isra`il, chapter 17 verse 70, in which Allah the Sublime proclaims:
[Wa laqad karram naa banee Aadam]
We have honored (all) the children of Adam with innate dignity (karram naa) (Q:17:70)
The above Qur’anic verse is crystal clear: All of humankind has been bestowed with this innate dignity. Human dignity thus connotes the sacredness of the human being. From this Qur’anic perspective, protecting the dignity of all people should be the primary objective of human rights and social justice advocacy. The human dignity of someone is violated every time the person is subjected to any form of discrimination, prejudice, exclusion, or act of oppression and injustice. The denial of human rights to anyone, constitutes a violation of their human dignity, and thus contravenes a core principle of Islamic ethics.
Affirming the Full Equality and Dignity of Women
Using this as a broad frame, let me turn to the main focus of this talk, which is the ongoing struggle of social justice for women, entailed in the struggle to achieve the full dignity and equivalence of women in our society. This is a struggle that we at the Claremont Main Road Masjid (CMRM) have described as the gender jihad or the struggle for gender justice. In reflecting on this struggle I will self- consciously use the gender binary terms of women and men or female and male, since it is precisely this gender binary that is invoked to discriminate against women and is often the primary source of ongoing oppression and violence against women in our society.
Once again, I will start with the primary source of guidance in Islam, the Glorious Qur’an. An instructive Qur’anic verse which clearly establishes the full equality and dignity that Allah, the Lord of Compassionate Justice, wills for both females and males is verse 35 of Surah al-Ahzab, chapter 33. Abdul Hakim will recite this verse in Arabic when he delivers the Arabic khutbah.
The verse describes ten exceptional virtues, which should adorn fair-minded women and men and categorically affirms that both women and men who possess these qualities shall be equally forgiven and equally rewarded by Allah. The verse starts with:
Indeed for Men who submit to Allah and Women who submit to Allah
And for believing men and believing women
And the verse continues:
And for devout men and devout women
And for men who are truthful and women who are truthful
And for men who are patient and women who are patient,
And for men who are humble and women who are humble,
And for men and women who give in Charity,
And for men who fast and women who fast,
For men and women who guard their chastity
For men and women who engage in the remembrance of Allah
For all of them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward (Q 33:35)
Through the repetition of both genders ten times – a repetition that you will clearly hear when the Arabic is recited – this Qur’anic verse seeks to emphasize that both women and men have the same intrinsic worth in the eyes of their Creator and as such should be viewed and treated equally by each other in all aspects of their lives – spiritual and social.
As Imam Rashied has argued in a previous khutbah, this verse is the lens and hermeneutical key through which all other verses pertaining to gender relations in the Qur’an should be interpreted. This verse affirms that women and men can attain the pleasure and mercy of Allah in exactly the same way. The verse describes virtues that should adorn the lives of both women and men in all spheres of their lives and affirms that there is no basis for women to be treated differently from men. In other words, gender differences do not affect the rank or reward that Allah will bestow on women and men.
In fact, according to the tafsir of Ibn Kathir (d.1373), the verse was revealed soon after the revered Companion, Umm Salamah, posed a question to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). She asked, ‘How is it that women are not mentioned in the Qur’an in the same manner as the men are mentioned?’ She wanted to know if the omission of women suggested that women are of less importance. Shortly after she posed this question, this verse was revealed.
This lends credence to our understanding of this verse as an affirmation that women and men should be treated with equal dignity, compassion and justice in our society. The verse affirms that there is no place or context that we should tolerate where women should be made to feel lesser human beings, or where the dignity of women is violated or undermined, or where women are marginalised and excluded because of their gender.
Given this evidence from the primary source in Islam affirming the dignity and equality of women, why is it that the gender jihad is still so prominent in our struggle for social justice in contemporary times? What gains have we made in this struggle and what more can we do to advocate for and achieve social justice for women in our local spaces? Allow me to share some brief reflections and to offer some modest suggestions in this regard.
Socio-cultural practices and spaces that marginalise and exclude women
In particular, I wish to reflect on what I believe are socio-cultural practices within our Muslim communities that create and maintain spaces in which women are marginalised and excluded. By socio-cultural practices I mean our local lived experiences and expressions of Islam and practices as Muslims.
The effect of some of these practices, whether intentional or not, is that they constitute women as lesser human beings, as less worthy or eligible of full participation in ritualistic and cultural practices and men as somehow more entitled and privileged within these spaces.
There is no doubt in my mind that the younger generation of today are much more ‘woke’, as Mujahid would say, to issues of gender inequality. The younger generation are witnessing how gender inequalities are being challenged at a broader societal level and so, many are also questioning some of the exclusionary practices and marginalised spaces for women within our Muslim communities. And we, as the older generation, should be supporting them in taking on some of these challenges.
Let me turn to some examples, starting with masjid spaces.
- Masjid Spaces
Unlike some masajid in the North of the country, we in the Western Cape are very fortunate that most masajid welcome and have facilities for women to attend. And yet, if you look at the proportion of women who attend masjid, on a Friday for jumu’ah, for example, it is disproportionately low. The cultural tradition of women not attending jumu`ah prayers has clearly been engrained in all of us, as we see from a young age, that boys are encouraged to attend jumu’ah and working men make every effort to attend jumu’ah every Friday, while girls grow up accepting this as a non-obligatory prayer and so make little effort to attend Friday jumu’ah prayers.
If you consider, that jumu’ah is not just about the congregational prayer that is being performed, but it is also about the delivery of a khutbah that is meant to share a message (a nasiha) of social and spiritual import and upliftment for the whole community. Why would we not want to equally encourage young girls and women to share in such an important message and congregational prayer? If working men can make the effort and negotiate time off from work, if necessary, why can working women not do the same?
Moreover, the literal language of the Qur’an in Sura al-Jumu`ah (Chapter 62, verse 10), is emphatic – Ya Ayyuhalladhina Aamanuu – in calling on all Believers (both women and men) to hasten to the jumu`ah prayers to remember Allah when the call is made. It is intriguing to note that women, when they go on `umrah or hajj, do not exhibit the same behaviour. On the contrary, even if al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah or al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Madina are overflowing, women who do not normally go to jumu`ah at home, would never contemplate staying at their hotels during jumu`ah services.
As a community, we should do more to encourage girls, from a young age, to make an effort to attend jumua’h services on Fridays so that this too becomes ingrained, and they too can reap the same spiritual benefits that men are privileged to every week. So, instead of making sure only your teenage sons can go to jumu’ah, do the same for your teenage daughters.
It is my contention that the embeddedness in our community consciousness of this cultural tradition, of women not attending the jumu`ah service, has contributed to a more pervasive belief that masjids are privileged spaces for men only. And so we see also, in other practices how women are marginalised or excluded in the masjid space.
For example, the Claremont Main Road Masjid, is rare in making space for women in the main prayer area, which we have been doing for more than 20 years. While this space is available, some women still prefer to use the upstairs floor. At most other masajid it is common for women to be accommodated upstairs only, with often no view or a limited view of the mimbar. This masjid is also rare in having a long tradition of women on its masjid Board of Governors. At most other masajid, often the only voice that women have is on the women’s committees of the masjid who are mainly responsible for fundraising, catering and madrasa only. CMRM is also unique in its practice of regularly having women speakers address the whole congregation, whether this is for pre-khutbah talks such as this one, or post-tarawih talks or at other events. At most other masajid, women speakers, if they have any, are allowed to address only women congregants.
These exclusionary practices at most of our masajid infringe upon the dignity of women in that they marginalise both the presence and voices of women. They preserve the sacred masjid space as a privileged domain for men only, as if women are not equally worthy of inhabiting or contributing to such sacred spaces. These are practices that go against the spirit of the Qur’anic verse from Surah Al-Ahzab that I referred to earlier (Q33:35).
Constituting the masjid space as a privileged space for men only also spills over into other socio-cultural practices in our community.
Consider for example what happens at janazahs. When the mayyit (body or corpse) leaves the home, it is traditional for only the men to follow the mayyit to the masjid to perform salatul janazah and thereafter to the maqbarah (graveyard). The women stay at the house, some await the return of their menfolk, and others just stay to eat the food. In some rare cases, a small group of women may perform salatul janazah gha-iba at home, that is, janazah salah in the absence of the body. Not even the mother, the sister, or the daughter of the mayyit is encouraged to attend the masjid to perform salatul janazah for their loved one. Why do we behave like the masjid is for men only?
It is a lasting regret that I have, that I never attended the masjid to perform salatul janazah at my father’s janazah 21 years ago, and today I regret I did not insist on going. Nobody stopped me, but nobody encouraged me to go either. Nowadays, when I go to a janazah, I make every effort to go to the masjid to perform salatul janazah as well. At least, on the occasions when a janazah has been close to a masjid, I have witnessed women going to the masjid to perform salatul janazah, but still, it is a small proportion of the women who were present at the home of the janazah. Again I ask, if the men who attend a janazah make the effort to go to the masjid to perform salatul janazah, why are women not equally encouraged to make the same effort?
The same goes for attendance at the maqbarah/ koebis or qabrstan (the graveyard). Just last month, a dear aunt of mine passed away. She had no husband or children. My brothers were not here to attend the janazah. I have no idea where she is buried. At least my brothers could show me where my father was buried. How many women do not even know where their beloved husbands, mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters or children are buried, because we have been enculturated into accepting that women do not attend the maqbarah. Is it because the presence and prayers (du’ah’s) of men at the maqbarah are more accepted than the duah’s of women?
An inspirational and empowering hadith recorded in the collection of Imam Tirmidhi informs us that the beloved wife of the Prophet, Sayyidatina ‘Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her) said that the Prophet (pbuh) not only gave her permission to visit graves but he taught her exactly how to do so and what to recite at the maqbrah. Sayyidatina `Aisha’s brother by the name of ‘Abd al-Rahman bin Abi Bakr subsequently died in Abysinnia, Africa, and his body was taken to Makkah and buried there. When his sister `Aisha came to Makkah from Madinah, she asked, “Where is the grave of my brother?” Then she went to the grave and prayed over him, a month after his death. (The same hadith is also narrated by the compnaion Abu Ya`la with a sound chain in the collections of al-Hakim and al-Bayhaqi). On the basis of this evidence renowned classical hadith specialists such as Al-Bayhaqi, Ibn Hajar and al-Nawawi conclude that it is permitted for women to visit Maqbarahs or graves.
Again, we note, that when hujjaj were still allowed to visit the cemetries and burial sites of the Companions in Madinah, our women hujjaj did not stay behind. But here at home, we make as if it is not permissible for women to visit the maqbarah.
- Nikahs and Walimahs
A final example of socio-cultural practices that exclude and marginalise women that I want to reflect on, is what happens at nikahs and walimas (wedding receptions). Again, Claremont Main Road Masjid has a long tradition of encouraging brides and women family members of both the bride and groom, to be present at nikah’s performed at this masjid. However, this is a rare practice. More traditionally, only men are invited to the nikah. Besides the absence of the bride and her female family members, not even the mother, the grandmother, the sister or aunts of the bridegroom are invited to the nikah. Why is it that women are not also invited to witness this sacred exchange of marital vows and the undertaking of the marriage contract? Is it because it takes place in a masjid, and this space is the privileged domain of men only?
Consider what happens at the walimah, the wedding reception, when it takes place for example, through the waqt of Maghrib. Invariably, arrangements are made to perform the Maghrib salah, but often with sufficient space to accommodate men only. It is as if, women on this occasion, do not have to perform Maghrib salah. When women do want to perform salah, there is often a scramble to find additional space to accommodate them as well, or they have to wait for the men to finish. Many women too, do not appear to come prepared to make salah, so sit out anyway, as if they too assumed, that on this occasion they do not have to make Maghrib salah. Why do we accept and go along with such discrimatory practices, as if performing prayers in the waqt is more important for men than for women?
In conclusion, it is my contention that the practices I have described here are largely due to enculturation, in which all genders are sometimes complicit, rather than necessarily deliberate attempts to undermine the dignity of women. And yet, that is exactly the cummulative effect of these exclusionary practices that marginalise women in our communities. These are practices that discriminate against women in a way that undermines the egalitarian spirit of Verse 35 in Surah Al-Ahzab. This is not to say that women can still choose not to particpate in any of the practices I have described here. The point is, that current practices often take that choice away from women.
I have mentioned only a few socio-cultural practices with which we are all familiar. But there are many more that I am sure you can think of that follow similar patterns of exclusion and marginalisation of women in our communities. Furthermore, my talk has been limited to socio-cultural practises within the Muslim community, but what is still required is a deeper structural critique of patriarchy and other systems of oppression and exclusion and gender based violence (in all of its forms) that permeate our society.
The socio-cultural practices that I have mentioned reflect dominant patriachical practices that have become the norm over time. As such, as long as women do not challenge these practices, we become complicit in our own marginalisation and exclusion. And as long as men do not challenge these practices, they cannot make claims of fighting for gender equality or social justice for women. This should be the struggle for men to restore the dignity and reclaim the spaces for their mothers, their sisters, their wives and their daughters. So, the onus is on all of you present here today, to take this message home to your family and friends. We should all take collective responsibility to challenge exclusionary and discriminatory practices that continue to marginalise and infringe the dignity of women in our communities.
At this time of International Women’s Day and at this sacred time of jumu`ah please join me in a special du`a for restoring the full dignity of women:
Ya Rabbal `Alamin – O Lord of the Universe – You created all human beings from the same essence and breathed of Your spirit into each one of us.
Ya Rabb al-Nas – O Lord of all Humankind
You made and fashioned us into females and males not that we may discrimante against each other, but to cherish, get to know and love each other and to find gratification and peace of mind in one other.
Ya Rabbal Qist – O Lord of Compassionate Justice – Assist and enable us to affirm the full dignity and honour of all human beings, especially our women.