Welcome to the thoughts, rants and passions of a young Muslim woman seeking soulful enlightenment in cyberspace.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Where are all the Women?

A friend of mine complains that she is discouraged from actively participating in the Muslim community. The culprits? Overzealous male students who believed it is wrong for women to be at the forefront of Islamic activities. She speaks in the context of the Muslim Students' Association, but the lack of female participation in all Muslim organizations is a very serious problem.

There are in fact some male students who refuse to participate in MSA activities because of what they call "mixing". Of those who participate, some brothers believe that it is un-Islamic for sisters to sit with them. In one MSA, executive committee meetings are held with a divider segregating sisters and brothers on either side of the room. One wonders how executive members can communicate with each other when there is such a physical barrier separating them. How would they dialogue or even debate ideas? How would they make decisions? And doesn't it seem silly that the sexes must be curtained off from each other when they sit side by side in class and meet one-on-one with their profs? Then there are some brothers who will not seriously take into consideration the ideas and perspectives of Muslim women who do not wear the headscarf. This fixation on headgear and outward appearance glosses over other measures of faith – including ones' behaviour and morals and the extent to which one observes the regular prayers.

It is no coincidence that female students are often less visible at the executive level. Even when female students are involved, they generally serve as secretaries or sisters' coordinators, leaving the more prestigious positions to male students. One could count on one hand the number of female presidents of MSAs in North America.

I know of very few male Muslim students who would insist Muslim women couldn't participate in public activities according to the Qur'an and Sunnah. Regardless, at times ideas about a woman's place are engrained in the unconscious, affecting a student's actions in ways even he might be unaware of. A student may think, for example, that women are more emotional and thus unable to make wise and often difficult decisions. I've heard men explain away women's irrationality by way of their femininity. One brother, upon hearing that sisters wanted to take a leadership role in emceeing a dinner, made a derogatory statement implying that women who did so were less decent in some way. His remark demonstrates the impression some men have of the way women should be – and their unwillingness to stray from that paradigm.

So one need not deny that Muslim female students have had to deal with idealized impressions of themselves and what their place should be. But what is most intriguing is that it's a two-way street. Simultaneously, this same image is found amongst Muslim female students themselves.

First, there are elements in the female Muslim community who hold very strict views about how Muslims themselves should be. They argue that there must be a strict separation between men and women, and that women can best serve the community if they remain within the private sphere. They are the ones who refuse to participate in MSA activities and events - besides taking advantage of the well-maintained prayer space. These women would look down upon or even denounce other women who are more actively involved. Why is she talking to that brother, they whisper. And why is her skirt so tight? Yes, there is internal censure coming from women themselves.

Second, there are Muslim women who know that Islam does not require these idealized perceptions of women, but believe that most men expect women to be gentle, giving, submissive and shy. These women try to squeeze themselves into a mould that other Muslims create, adopting the very images they so despise. They are the ones who seethe silently at meetings, but never share their thoughts with the group. Most people will admit to attending meetings where the sisters are completely silent. They do not offer their opinions, and when they finally find the courage to open their mouths, it is often to agree wholeheartedly with what a brother has already said. And then, when they leave the room, their tongues loosen, and private conversations reveal the true extent of their discontent. Women have internalized old-fashioned male perceptions of themselves to the point where they are paralysed with indecision about whether or not they should risk speaking out. They do not want to be perceived as aggressive or forward. It might tarnish their reputation forever. Moreover, who would want to marry a woman who speaks her mind?

What these female students forget is that their own perceptions may not be correct. They may be unfairly projecting stereotypical impressions on unknowing male students, in which case not only are they failing to appreciate male students beyond their preconceived paradigms, but they are also sending mixed signals about what they want and need, thus perpetuating the very thing they want to change and limiting their ability to contribute. There are male students who are open to the idea that women should take an active role in the MSA. Some even try to facilitate it. And then they're left scratching their heads, befuddled over repeated complaints of gender discrimination, when they organize events and halaqahs (study circles) specifically for female students and find that women do not wish to participate.

Some introspection is required. Female students must ask themselves whether they would organize for a cause they are passionate about, or how many of them would be willing to run for office. Many have shied away from running for high positions simply because they fear being perceived in a less than womanly fashion. These women should consider whether they're willing to put themselves out there to make the change they want to see. And if they're not, then it is unfair to place blame on the entire male population for the lack of female participation in Islamic organizations. What is striking is that many women desire change – but they themselves do not want to institute it.

It is troubling that women are not more involved in their student associations. Students at the university level are typically rethinking and revising entrenched paradigms of belief. Worldviews shaped at this level may stay with them for their entire life. The MSA helps to shape this newly constructed worldview. It is thus the training ground for Muslims who will go out into society and translate what they have cultivated and developed at the student body level to the wider population. The MSA, then, is a model for the rest of Muslim society. It is also a good indication of the future direction of the Muslim community. Success at the MSA level seems to fasttrack an individual to success in the Muslim community as a whole. Hence it is absolutely necessary that Muslim women are made to feel that they are contributing members of the MSA.

Improvement will be made when both men and women recognize the need for it. But neither side must wait for the other to act. The Muslim community needs women who are brave enough to battle through cultural prejudices about the place of women in Muslim societies. But these women must approach the task in a reasoned, intelligent manner - through close reference to the Qur'an and Sunnah. And they must gain credibility within the community.

The community also needs men who are courageous enough to speak out when there is no imperative to do so - visionary men who will seek out the opinions of women, engage women in discussion and decision-making, and involve women in planning activities and events. Most significantly, these men should support women who take on active roles and positions within Muslim organizations, and they should encourage gender-inclusive policies and guidelines along with community education about the limits of male-female interaction within the Islamic tradition. There is a greater obligation upon the male population because it has historically held the reins of power.

The Qur'an encourages the believing men and women to be supportive of one another. Without the active participation of women, the community is merely using half of its collective potential, and it is depriving the other half of the spiritual nourishment, social networking and personal development that one experiences within the organized structure. It will be up to the younger generation of both men and women – particularly those coming from within the Muslim student movement – to recognize the pressing need to seek out solutions to gender exclusivity and to act on those solutions within the context of the Qur'an and Sunnah.


  • At 5/28/2005 09:14:00 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    could you please explain what is your connection to shabbir ally? it's a simple question. why can't you answer?

  • At 5/28/2005 11:28:00 p.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Here's my simple question: Why does the answer matter? This blog is about my ideas, not my lineage.

    Anyway, it's no secret he's my father. I just don't see why it's relevant. Do you have any comments on the post itself?

  • At 5/29/2005 12:37:00 a.m., Blogger Hajera said…

    Salaam Safiyyah,

    I've been visiting the blog on and off and I must say, I really enjoy it :)

    As for this post, I do agree with you for the most part. However, I don't think we should be so hasty as to interpret a sister's silence in the way that you have. I too have attended meetings where some sisters, including myself at times, don't speak very much at all and don't participate in the discussions. But I’ve only taken their lack of participation to mean they haven’t any strong opinions on the matter and are willing to wait to see where the discussion should lead to, or that they don’t know much about the matter at hand and thus keep quite and try to make sense of the different issues involved. At least that’s the way I explain my timely silences. What’s more is that some people, both males and females alike are simply shy and don’t tend to speak much in group settings at all, unless they’re familiar with and know everyone around the table. And strangely enough, its these people that usually are the most shrewd and wise if you do get to know them, and they can also turn out to be the most effective leaders whilst staying out of the limelight. Moreover, we have this perception that the more a person expresses him/herself and the more he/she shares their ideas with everyone, the stronger his/her personality is and the smarter he/she is. You only have to look, for instance, at the number of courses that offer “participation marks” and the increasing weight of these marks to realize how true this is. So long as the person speaks and takes part in discussions, they get the mark, regardless of the quality of their speech or the strength of their ideas. So being the idealist that I am, I hardly think it fair to criticize such sisters for having internalized a male perception of what they should be like and intuitively acting out these perceptions.

    On the flip side, what can be even worse sometimes is when some people, both males and females, tend to talk way too much than needed and never let the discussion proceed so that’s it always hinged at that one point and no progress is made. These are the people that feel that their voice must always be heard and no matter how mundane or trivial the matter, they have to get a word in edgewise. Worse yet are those that always have to go against the flow and disagree on every single point with the most trifling reasons, making you wish you never did wake up on time that morning after all!

    My apologies on the long comment, but I did feel the need to comment this time, as I have :)

  • At 5/29/2005 01:27:00 a.m., Blogger Nzingha said…

    As Salaam Alaikum

    hmm intersting. I never did get invovled with an MSA. And maybe this is because of where I sit and the position of women, but I wonder why more don't take an active role to change things.

    Last time I was in the states no muslim woman was going to be arrested and jailed for taking a more active role in such orgs. No womans family was going to be ostersized by the government or society for a woman being more assertive.

    The freedom to instill change is at the hands of women in Canada and the US but still nothing. I'm confused, and it may be due to the society in which I sit in where women are routinely denied even a voice. And when you try the consiquences won't be muslimah sally sue wondering how tight your skirt is, your arrested.

    I know there are attitudes that need to be changed. But my goodness sisters i have very little sympathy that you don't creat change on your own. That you don't storm the MSA offices and just sit your tails there, not from behind a curtain (unless someone is the prophets pbuh wife I don't see much point in it) and force men and other women to get over their petty rediculous notions of women in the ummah.

    This might seem a bit harsh, but Im totally confused by the lack of effort from sisters in parts of the world. Maybe I'll be more sympathetic tomorrow ;)

    And don't take my words to mean you specifically but its more of a sisters in general thing.

  • At 5/29/2005 03:15:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…


    Thank you for commenting. This is the kind of quality comment that I really look forward to. I did receive your email, by the way, and I must apologize, because I didn’t get a chance to reply. I know I will be seeing you later today;-)

    Your comments are very wise. I agree with you completely. I write about women who want to speak but feel they cannot because they will be labelled unwomanly. These are the kinds of women who subsequently run off and mutter about the decisions being made. I do think our MSA has advanced significantly in that respect, so I don’t share those concerns. But your statements about people who feel obliged to offer their opinions, even if they may simply be regurgitating that of the person who spoke before them – yes, it is very tiresome indeed. This is also a problem in lecture halls and tutorials, where students are forced to sit still while others take pleasure in voicing their brilliance before all. The brilliance gets stale after a while. As you’ve rightly noted, often the wisest stay silent, only voicing their opinions when it is absolutely necessary that they do so. But there are some women who will not do even that – simply because they feel they must not break out of the sweet persona that is Woman.


    I love your fighting spirit;-) I’ve argued that the women who complain must take partial blame upon themselves. But I think one would have to be here to appreciate just how complicated the whole situation is. When women ‘storm the MSA offices’, they seem like rowdy yahoos. I wouldn’t want to be associated with them. In fact, most women wouldn’t, as we’ve seen with the response to Amina Wadud and other maverick individuals. Rather, change will arise as prudent individuals make incremental improvements within the established institutions. At least that is how I see it.

  • At 5/29/2005 05:03:00 a.m., Blogger dawud al-gharib said…

    ma Salaamah;

    I'm not a muslim woman, so I can't speak for them or adequately on their behalf;

    i do insist that culture and Islam be recognized as distinct categories, the first being perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, where it doesn't violate or go against the spirit or laws of the Shari'ah and the Noble Sunnah of our Beloved Messenger, Sal Allahu alayhi wa Salaam.

    nor am I noble in my own character and behaviour, such that I should be a judge for others - I can only say that I find over-sexualization and objectification to be offensive & repulsive; Islam, as a deen of fitra, has an intense respect for sexual difference 'the male is not like the female - SubhanAllah!' without diminishing either, their rewards for their endeavours, or their rights and responsibilities under the Shari'ah

    sub-continental and Arab 'jazirah' (peninsula) views, in particular the attitude (of some, not all)that women are best locked away in fabric, doused in ignorance, beaten into quietude, and prettied up for male consumption - has it's mirror and opposing faults in the European civilizations' objectification of sex, abuse and rape of women, and obsessive-compulsive disorders relating to sexuality.

    Hamza Yusuf argues that Muslim attitudes towards women shifted due to the influence of the Byzantine Empire and dominant attitudes towards women found in the Persian empires and old attitudes from the Manichean 'East'

    while there are definite questions to be raised about problematic interpretations of the original texts, I think most fair observers consider the Prophet Muhammed (sal Allahu alayhi wa Salaam) the most compassionate and kind to his wives, the women of Madinah (the hadith: 'the best amonst you are those who are best to their wives, and I am the best amongst you to my wives'), and a Mercy to all the Worlds, masha Allah.

    and may Allah guide all of us

  • At 5/29/2005 10:00:00 a.m., Anonymous Ummhana said…

    Wonderful topic of discussion. I, being a revert to Islam after graduating from college, never got to experience the whole MSA thing. Although, I did think it was a bit strange while working on some post bach studies at a historical woman's university that there was no shortage of Muslimahs and no MSA. When I inquired to one of the sisters why we didn't have an MSA she explained "there is an MSA at the other university in town." Still not understanding I probed farther but only got a shrug. I felt disheartened that here we were at a predominently Woman's University and we couldn't even get together to establish our own MSA. After that semester I moved away due to a job opening. I think sometimes as Muslimahs we ourselves buy into the helpless victim personae. Here I will chase a wild rabbit so bear with me. Muslimah Victim - This is problem the most disheartening of all. I can not tell you how many sisters I know either born muslim or reverts who buy into "the world is against me." They always are looking...seeking out if you will people's scorn for the very essence of who they are. Ex. Out on a shopping trip with some friends. Time and time the conversation will turn to "Everyone hates us...They hate Islam and they hate us...bunch of kaffirs." Ok I am just guessing here but if one goes around thinking the world is against them the world is going to be against them. How many Muslims have you seen walking around with a black cloud over their head? Ok tangent over...thanks for bearing with me. I guess I am saying all this because we only have ourselves to blame. We buy into perceptions of who we "should" be. I am guilty of it myself. Upon taking my Shahadah I became a piece of clay for whoever to mold into what they felt I "should" be as a Muslim. Alhamdulillah I married an awesome brother who was like, "hello..what are you letting these muslims do to you?" I agree with what Nzingha said about beating down such perceptions here in the US. I really shouldn't give a care...I backed away from the community a long time ago. However, there is this small little part of me that still wants to feel a little accepted. Sorry so long.


  • At 5/29/2005 03:24:00 p.m., Blogger Nzingha said…

    AS Salaam alaikum

    Not storming like a 'guns a blazing' sort of thing. But more of imposing womens presense. And I'm sure things are complicated, but I've found, probably from living in this culture, that there are usually easy solutions to the obstacles we create upon ourselves.

    Granted I'm an outsider looking in and I don't have to walk the steps for sisters in the MSA. But I'm still left wondering why more don't take full advantage of the possiblities that are there.

    Again my frame of reference is so much different. Women don't have the freedom to make much needed changes. Yet women, with full freedoms, can't seem to take on MSA ??

    Maybe I'll fell more sympathetic tomorrow :)

  • At 5/30/2005 08:56:00 p.m., Blogger kaleidomuslima said…


    "And doesn't it seem silly that the sexes must be curtained off from each other when they sit side by side in class and meet one-on-one with their profs? "

    I will never understand this. It's simply ridiculous.

  • At 6/02/2005 01:27:00 a.m., Blogger muslim momma said…

    I've been to a few universities and two had plenty of women active in the MSA, one where the president of the MSA was a woman. I did attend one that didnt encourage women to participate mainly because it was an technical uni with mostly men, there were just not many Muslim women, although they were pretty conservative.

    The barrier thing confuses me. Scholars I respect encourage it but it makes no sense to me to have a barrier with Muslim women who actually care about the deen and then interact freely with non-Muslim women in class. In fact I remember once there was this brother who didnt want women to participate in the MSA, would barely talk to us, but then I would see him joking and being really open and friendly with non-muslim students (he was a TA). Anyway its all really strange, although Im sure the path of taqwa is with the barrier but I dont know in this day and time with Muslims students doing everything under the sun on campus, do we need another reason to allienate them?

  • At 6/02/2005 07:41:00 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    a very insightful post, and i'm glad to hear your perspective. i think the major untapped resource of the middle east (and of islam) is women in general. a women's rights movement in those countries would do much for the world, although i fear it would be violent at times.


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