How We Move the Gender Conversation Forward by K Bassier
The ethos of this mosque is deeply rooted in critical traditionalism. That is – striking the balance or mizan between respecting traditional values which inform the platform of Islam but also recognizing that while the values transcend space and time and are therefore universal, the cultural backdrop evolves and therefore it is imperative for us to re-evaluate elements of the practice which are non-core to those intrinsic values.
Intersectionality prompts empathy and conversely silos prompt discrimination
A large part of the past few months has focused on remembering the 50th anniversary of the death, while being held in detention, of anti-apartheid activist Imam Abdullah Haroon. Why is this topic so relevant for us? It should be relevant because it is a story of the gross miscarriage of justice, it reminds us of how power corrupts and of the darkest side of human nature. Unfortunately, this is often not enough to be significantly influenced by a historical story. Whether is we like it or not – when the political is profoundly personal, that is when it challenges us to move. The story of Imam Abdullah Haroon touches us because it’s so close to home. Because in the story we can see ourselves, our identities so closely linked as black south African muslims. We are forced to confront the questions of how we stand up for injustice in our daily lives. We shudder to think of the horrors that he was subject to – as he is not very different to who we are.
This notion of the ability of humans to feel true sympathy only when people are similar to them is the basis that is exploited by any oppressive system. Arbitrary lines like race, sexual orientation, gender, class and ethnicity are used to divide humanity into boxes that facilitates “othering”. I don’t need to treat person X the same I would person Y because they are black/poor/female/queer. They are different. Therefore, I am entitled to treat them differently. I can justify my behavior on the basis of this perceived difference without my morality or even spirituality being questioned. Or even worse, my prejudice is sanctioned by the difference – I can discriminate because intrinsically I believe that poor people wouldn’t be poor if they just worked harder.
Equality as an extension of God as Divine
This is however at odds with the very essence of what it is to be muslim. To be muslim and the concept of one god is the very definition of humanity was all created by one all powerful entity and therefore each of us is a manifestation of that divine essence; equal and exquisitely beautiful.
There is a hadith which is an instructive reminder and reinforcement of this concept:
Allah (mighty and sublime be He) will say on the Day of Resurrection: O son of Adam, I fell ill and you visited Me not. He will say: O Lord, and how should I visit You when You are the Lord of the worlds? He will say: Did you not know that My servant So-and-so had fallen ill and you visited him not? Did you not know that had you visited him you would have found Me with him? O son of Adam, I asked you for food and you fed Me not. He will say: O Lord, and how should I feed You when You are the Lord of the worlds? He will say: Did you not know that My servant So-and-so asked you for food and you fed him not? Did you not know that had you fed him you would surely have found that (the reward for doing so) with Me? O son of Adam, I asked you to give Me to drink and you gave Me not to drink. He will say: O Lord, how should I give You to drink when You are the Lord of the worlds? He will say: My servant So-and-so asked you to give him to drink and you gave him not to drink. Had you given him to drink you would have surely found that with Me. Related by Muslim.
As a global muslim community we are confronted by several humanitarian and political crises. Islamophobia is also most certainly on the rise. What has been very interesting in this time of flux is how female leaders are shaping the narrative for the better. A few notable mentions are Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Jacinda Arden and Alaah Salah.
Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are two of the four congresswomen of colour who most recently were singled out by President Trump as “needing to go back home”. Both Ilhan and Alexandria have showed us what young, courageous leadership looks like. It’s not perfect and there will be missteps, but they are both speaking truth to power in what can only euphemistically be described as a hostile environment. Their personal courage and conviction around building a better world is inspiring.
Jacinda Arden is the current New Zealand Prime Minister. She presided over the country’s response to the Christchurch Mosque massacre where 51 people were killed at Jumuah prayers in March earlier this year. Her response was comprehensive, empathetic and appropriate. It was universally lauded as the way leadership should confront such events – from the way she took the time to console the surviving families to the decisive leadership demonstrated in her immediate ban of the type of weapon used in the attack and more recent gun-licensing reform passed.
The final person I would like to touch on is Alaah Salah. Alaah made headlines in April 2019 as her iconic figure- clad in white- commanding the crowds, hit the press globally. She was dubbed “Lady Liberty of Sudan”. A 22-year old engineering student her picture sparked the imagination of many while simultaneously reinforcing the incorrect belief that Sudanese women have historically been politically passive. Instead, the history of Sudan has been dotted with iconic female figures stemming from Kandaka the Nubian queen of Meroe whose military strategy prevented Alexander the Great from conquering Nubian lands in 332 BC. The words Alaa chanted (from a Sudanese poet) were poignant: “They imprisoned us in the name of religion, they burned us in the name of religion…killed us in the name of religion. But Islam is innocent. Islam tells us to speak up and fight against tyrants. The bullet doesn’t kill. What kills is the silence of the people.”
Inclusion as a solution to current crises
I have divided my lecture up until this point very distinctly. Firstly, I reminded us of our position as (in general) black south African muslims in a post apartheid south Africa. Irrespective of other facets of oppression we know what it is like to be subjected to discrimination (explicitly where some of us in the congregation still remember the signs of “whites only” or implicitly where you are subtly excluded from social settings or made fun of because of how you roll your r’s). Secondly, I wanted to emphasise how discrimination of all types is actually against the very essence of what it is to be muslim. Of how equality is a cornerstone of our faith. Thirdly, I wanted to point out the caliber of strong female leadership we have shaping our contemporary landscape. How are these connected?
My considered view is that we are missing out a vital opportunity to channel our values into creating a better future. If we recognize the current state of islam as at a critical juncture, we cannot apply the same yesteryear’s solutions. The problems today are multi-faceted, complex and anything but straightforward. Therefore, the type of solutions need to have diversity of thought and approach to get us to a better outcome.
Our environments are not inclusive
As a muslim woman, it is easy to internalize the messages of “when it comes to religious engagements, you are not good enough” from a very young age. This is firmly in contradiction to the what the religious doctrine espouses but instead is an unfortunate cultural assimilation that has resulted in prevailing misogyny.
This ranges from our mosque spaces which (if they exist) are often dark and physically unpleasant. To our beautiful family traditions of gadats or thikrs where women occupy the kitchen space or that of the periphery. Our agency as women is denied at almost whenever our rituals and our daily lives intersect. Women are often forced to “watch themselves” being married at the nikah ceremony without the option to be involved. Whether we like it or not we have a cognitive dissonance where, on average, middle class privileged black south African women are encouraged to excel at school and be educated at a tertiary level. However, despite the immense professional credibility when it comes to religious and domestic leadership – this is portrayed as the religiously sanctioned preserve of men alone.
My 30 something female peer group often contribute financially to the household but are still expected to bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to household chores. Women who do not work in formal employment are ‘expected’ to be ‘on’ and at work – engaged in unpaid labour of cooking, organizing cleaning and looking after elderly parents and/or children without acknowledgement or appreciation. Instead of recognizing that running a household is what enables the other partner to earn and therefore means that the earnings should be pooled – there is a sense of inferiority bestowed on the partner that stays at home. This applies to men and women who are not formally employed.
I am not standing at this hallowed hour of Jumuah bemoaning what is a reality. What I want this to be is a call to action. Specifically directed at the men among us. There is a concept that people speak about known as “ally-ship”. It is about being an ally for change where the change is led by those who are affected but where those who are not directly affected help effect the change. In other words- in the scenario where muslim women are not given the choice to be empowered and influence, muslim men need to step up and actively support and promote women in every context.
Practical steps for ally-ship
Super practically, what does this look like? An acquaintance of mine, Refliwe Moloto recently used Trump’s call for the congresswomen to “go back home” as an opportunity to demonstrate the white democratic congressmen who responded appropriately as allies. She articulated four steps that I thought would be very useful in this conversation:
- Recognize your privilege
As men, often there are situations where you are given opportunities just because you are a man. Within Capetonian cultural contexts, men are often asked to say a prayer, have an opinion, influence a budget just because of their gender. Not because they are particularly more skilled or the right person for the task at hand. As a qualified actuary I know my fair bit about risk and finance. However, in casual conversation there has been too many a time where my husband has been asked for his view on issues he has no clue about just by virtue of his gender.
- Acknowledge your privilege
Recognising where your voice/contribution is being privileged because you are a man is not enough. Acknowledging that privilege is key. Actually calling it out when you see it is such an important step. Often people may be doing it subconsciously, and this helps the others realise what they are doing.
- Guiltlessly wield your privilege for good
This is such a key part of being an ally. As a man you have a unique lens into a world, women are excluded from. Next time somebody invites you to speak on a panel – point out the lack of diversity and for example say, this conversation would benefit from male and female perspective. My parents recently went on Umrah and asked me to do a short duah when they left. This was powerful because it came from my father specifically and him asking for me to do it lent a sense of legitimacy (rightly or wrongly).
- Expand beyond myopic cognitive dissonance
This is a very complicated way of saying – try to remedy inconsistencies where you see them. I spoke earlier about how we raise women to be educated and empowered but then expect them to keep quiet and obey in any setting that vaguely resembles the “religious”. This is unacceptable and starting to question our own Jekyll and Hyde approach will lead to longer term more sustainable solutions.
These conversations are difficult. They are difficult for the men and women involved. It means reinterpreting what we may have felt was right before to be relevant for our challenges today. But we have such a solid moral framework in our Islamic principles to guide as in navigating these changes. Many of us being black south African muslims have a specific vantage point of having lived experience of what it is to live on the edges, excluded and without a voice. To perpetuate the disempowerment of women is not where many of us want to land. Empowering women to contribute actively and be valued equally means that all genders have a chance to change how our story is written. I have to believe that this is possible.