In the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful
Claremont Main Road Masjid
Women’s Day Reflections
Hanaa’ Khanyisa Toefy
I am a young Muslim woman and consider myself to be a part of Claremont Main Road Masjid community. Some of you may have seen me here during Ramadan, for Jumu`ahs, `Id Salahs and other special religious events.
Let me start off by saying that my sharing some of my thoughts in this pre-khutbah talk is by no means intended to change your mind about your own understanding and interpretation of Islam. I am merely wanting you to see through the mind of a young woman growing up as a Muslima within a South African context strongly influenced by western society.
With it being Women’s Day yesterday, I wanted to remind everyone of the constant struggle of young women in challenging cultural expectations and stereotypes of women.
While I am committed to my religion, Islam, I have struggled over the last five years while being in high school with some issues related to the patriarchal culture that strongly influences the way in which Islam is being interpreted and practiced. Many of these cultural biases allows for what I believe to be oppressive practices towards women which contradicts the egalitarian teachings of Islam.
Allah, the Most High, proclaims in the Holy Qur’an in Surah al-Tawbah, chapter 9 verse 71:
Men and women are (awliya) supporters and protectors of one another:
They enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil,
they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity
and obey Allah and his Messenger,
on them will Allah pour His Mercy
for Allah is Exalted in Power, All-Wise (Q9:71).
The above verse of the Holy Qur’an outlines the foundation of gender relations in Islam. The verse defines the relationship between men and women as equal partners (awliya’) in establishing a healthy family and society. The verse further expands that concept of awliya’ to give each person (male and female) equal responsibility for their actions and fulfilment of religious duties.
Although women are given recognition as awliya’ equal partners to men in the Holy Quran, in reality most women don’t get the respect they truly deserve in contemporary Muslim society. We are treated as less important, inferior, and less powerful and the worst part is that we often eventually internalize and believe we are less worthy than men.
Young girls like myself grow up greatly influenced by our surroundings and culture. Every advert, billboard, and snide comment, is part of the patriarchal culture which creates empowered vs disempowered women in this world. For example, adverts that show little boys playing soccer in the garden with their dad and then switching over to young girls inside helping their mothers with washing. This is something we see every day yet we fail to see its power.
What is really upsetting is that women start to subconsciously believe these oppressive things, no matter how strong and determined they may be.
I would like to share personal experiences which provide everyday examples of the strong patriarchal culture that subtly permeates our society and powerfully influences the way women see their roles in society.
On `Id al-Fitr Day this year, one of my uncles made a sexist joke about the role of women in society. He said “why do women go to space? Because someone needs to make the food and clean up around the spaceship” and his 7 year – old daughter being quite feisty, stood her ground and made it very clear to everyone that this was not true and that women can be whoever and whatever they wanted to be.
In this moment while being so proud of my young girl cousin I felt a deep sense of sadness and despair. I began to realize that this young girl, no matter how determined and headstrong she may be now, if she constantly hears that she belongs in the kitchen, if she hears those sexist jokes about her role in society enough times, unfortunately she will begin to internalize and believe it and we would have lost an incredibly determined, powerful and intelligent young woman in Islam.
The second personal experience I would like to share is from my High School.
A few years back I captained the first girl soccer team at my school and we were scheduled together with our schools’ boys teams to play our respective matches at the same time. To our dismay the boys teams were allowed to play on the designated soccer fields and the girls teams were relegated to the inappropriate hockey field. As Captain I fought against that injustice and stood my ground, but what disappointed me the most was that these young girls had so internalised this idea that they were inferior to these boys that they gave in and I was left standing there alone.
This is an example of how young women, going to a good progressive school, succumb to the daily and constant everyday challenges, which each might seem like a minor issue but together and collectively create a dominant culture that indoctrinates us into believing that girls are less worthy those boys.
In the face of these two disheartening experiences it’s hard to believe that having grown up in a family and a masjid environment where my empowerment as a woman has been a priority, I still feel inferior and less capable in some situations.
Leadership in my own household has never shifted towards men but are shared equally with the women, even when it comes to leading the Salah.
Emulating the example of Umm Waraqah who was given permission by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to lead the Salah for the people of her household, in my family everyone gets a turn to lead the Salah.
I have done it on many occasions and so has my brother, but for some reason that I cannot explain, I feel less inclined to offer to lead. My brother doesn’t even need to be asked, and if he is he will lead. When I am asked to lead by my dad or my mum there is this horrible uncomfortable and nauseous feeling in me that I don’t want to do it and I don’t know where this feeling comes from. It is extremely frustrating and scary. Because I know that standing in front and leading the Salah could empower young women, that it’s giving women the role of leadership in a Muslim family. I know how important it is yet when the moment comes, it’s like there is this invisible force field in my mind that I struggle to get through. This is, I realise the effects of a culture on a young woman who hears messages constantly, in small everyday experiences, that she is simply not good enough to lead. This tendency is magnified in religious spaces, where the broader Muslim community and the Muslim friends you have at school all believe that it is automatic for only men to lead- EVEN if you come from a progressive family.
So, can you imagine a young girl whose father doesn’t ask her to lead Salah, whose brother makes jokes every day about her role in society, who’s friend at school says she can’t play soccer because she’s a girl? Can you imagine the girl who didn’t, unlike me, have two parents who are feminists sheltering her from societal expectations of women.
It is one of the big challenges facing us as a progressive masjid and a Muslim community to make sure that we do not lose our young girls to wrong and unjust cultural interpretations of Islam that undermine the full worth and dignity of women.
Religion is something a lot of women hold dear to their hearts and it forms an integral part of their spiritual understanding of themselves within their religious context. False traditions of the role and expectations of women make these young women wonder whether a tradition that disempowers women is actually good for them. This pushes young women away from having a strong relationship with Islam.
I would like to end with an inspirational quote from a young Canadian Muslim advocate for inclusive gender processes, Dr. `Alaa Murabit, who said the following:
“It is not easy challenging distorted religious messaging. But we have to do it. We have no other option than to reclaim the message of human rights, the principles of our faith, not for us, not for the women in your families, not for the women in this room, not even for the women out there, but for societies that would be transformed with the participation of women. “
In conclusion, it is our responsibility as a loving and caring Muslim congregation to make sure that every girl grows up with equal opportunities to flourish and reach their full human potential, and for each of us to reflect on how we can encourage change in our own families, in our work spaces, in our schools, in our communities and in our broader society
At this time when we celebrate the women in our country, I make du’a and pray that Allah blesses all of our women, young and old to reclaim their rightful roles as awliya’ equal partners to men in fashioning loving and more compassionate families, masjid communities, societies and the world.
Shukran and thank you so much for listening.