Issues faced by Young Muslim Women Today

Speech at AAIIL (UK) Convention, 12 July 2009

by Habiba Anwar

The Light (UK), October 2009 Issue (pp. 1–4)

I have been asked to speak on issues faced by young Muslim women today. This is not an easy topic to summarize in 20 minutes or so, as the world we live in today currently has a female population of over 3 billion, so the sheer variety of issues faced by us everyday is so vast that it would be impossible to sum them up in a few words. Nevertheless, I do hope to cover what I believe are the main issues in my short talk.

Here in the UK, recent years have seen a new generation of Muslims rising. These Muslims are unlike their parents or grandparents who migrated here from other parts of the world; these Muslims were born here and grew up here, study here, make friends here, experience all of their first experiences here, graduate, work and marry here and establish a life for themselves here. If I look out across this hall today, I can see many of these Muslims. I myself am one of these Muslims, and the issues that we face are so different from those that our parents faced at our age that they are often overlooked, which over time can cause you to feel alienated, confused, torn between cultures and unsure of what is right and wrong.

Young women especially are facing a critical time right now. I feel that we are facing what you may call an identity crisis. What society tells us it expects from us is in such stark contrast to what we are told our religion expects from us. Yet we must live with both; we cannot not integrate in the society we live in, and we will not abandon our religion. So at some point in our lives, we are faced with having to chose one or the other. It’s a choice we should not have to make; the women of the time of our Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW) bore testa­ment to the fact that women can successfully integ­rate in the societies they live in, and be ideal Muslims at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive, yet both society and Muslim communi­ties today are constantly sending women the message that they must choose between them.

In the West, women have been placed on a pedestal today that was unimaginable 100 years ago. Thanks to the hard work, persistence and determination of groups of women around the world, we can now vote; we can pursue any career a man can pursue; 12 out of the 500 biggest companies in the world are now run by women CEOs; until 1958, women were excluded from the House of Lords by law, but such a law today would be considered sexist and discriminatory to the highest degree — that is how far we have come in just half a century. Though there are still hurdles and what many refer to as underlying discrimi­nation, especially in the workplace, generally women have much more rights today than they have ever had before.

But some of these rights are not or should not be new to the Muslim community. Let me give you an example; property inheritance rights for women were established in the UK as late as in the 19th century, prior to which a woman could not own or inherit her own property. Islam, however, estab­lished inheritance laws for women centuries before­hand. Chapter 4, verse 7 of the Holy Quran reads:

لِلرِّجَالِ نَصِیۡبٌ مِّمَّا تَرَکَ الۡوَالِدٰنِ وَ الۡاَقۡرَبُوۡنَ ۪ وَ لِلنِّسَآءِ نَصِیۡبٌ مِّمَّا تَرَکَ الۡوَالِدٰنِ وَ الۡاَقۡرَبُوۡنَ مِمَّا قَلَّ مِنۡہُ اَوۡ کَثُرَ ؕ

“For men is a share of what the parents and the near relatives leave, and for women a share of what the parents and the near relatives leave, whether it be little or much….” [The Holy Quran, 4:7]

And this is covered in detail in other parts of this chapter, with specific rulings on divisions. Nevertheless, one of the constant attacks on Islam that is thrown at both men and women is that Islam is an oppressive religion in which the growth and input of women is stifled. Muslim women are nothing more than possessions of the men in their lives; their fathers, their brothers, their husbands, their sons. That is the perception so commonly advocated whenever the status and position of a Muslim woman is discussed in the West. More than often, Muslims stand up and correct these claims and we point out that whereas in the West, women’s liberation has only just begun, Islam introduced the original concept of equality over 1400 years ago. Taking aside the physical and material rights that the Quran generously grants to women, perhaps even more importantly, Allah gave spiritual equality to women and has specifically addressed women in those for whom he has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward. In Chapter 33, verse 35 of the Holy Quran, it is made clear that whatever is required of men to gain spiritual nearness to Allah is required of women; belief in Allah, truthfulness, patience, humbleness, charitableness, fasting, guarding of their chastity and remembering Allah. Both men and women are specifically addressed as being required to fulfill these essential characteristics.

Islam is in no way a man’s religion; there is no glass ceiling preventing women from progressing in their faith beyond a certain point; neither is there any segregation in the rewards for men from those for women. In Chapter 3, verse 195, Allah says:

اَنِّیۡ لَاۤ اُضِیۡعُ عَمَلَ عَامِلٍ مِّنۡکُمۡ مِّنۡ ذَکَرٍ اَوۡ اُنۡثٰی ۚ بَعۡضُکُمۡ مِّنۡۢ بَعۡضٍ ۚ

“I will not suffer the work of any worker among you to be lost whether male or female, the one of you being from the other.” [The Holy Quran, 3:195]

And these are just a few chosen quotations relating to spiritual equality in the eyes of Allah. If you look into other aspects of life, you will find many examples in the Quran of the elevation of women.

So, on the face of it, to be a young Muslim woman in the 21st century should be easier today than ever before. Society is celebrating women and their achievements. Journalists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, you name a profession and women have succeeded in it. And the true interpretation of Islam liberated women centuries ago. So both should, in theory, go hand in hand. I should be able follow my religion and integrate in the society I live in with ease, shouldn’t I? Society tells me that as a woman, I have the right to educate myself, to work, to inherit property, to have a choice in whom I marry, and so much more, and Islam already allows me these things. So I should be able to live as a Muslim woman in the manner that Islam has intended for me, and still be accepted in and fully a part of society, shouldn’t I?

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the case at all. In fact, I think that the single biggest issue being faced by young Muslim women today is the pull they feel between society and religion. As parallel as you would think they should be by now is how polarized they in fact are. As I already mentioned, we seem to be faced with a choice that perhaps previous generations did not have to face. We must either choose to be closer to our faith and to live in line with what Islam requires of us, or liberate ourselves from those requirements in order to be, “accepted”. The more Islam seems to grow and gain attention, the harder it has become for young women to move closer to their religion and be accepted in society at the same time.

Let me give you some examples. If a young Muslim woman decided to dress in a certain way, for example, if she decides to cover her hair when she is outside of her house, she tends to be catego­rized immediately. Of course, as soon as someone sees her, they can identify her as a Muslim straight away. But in addition to that, common stereotypes are affixed on her too, such as, this woman must be extremely conservative and ortho­dox in her views, and probably does not interact with any male members of her community, sees things in a very black and white manner and is generally quite unapproachable. Then there are some who assume that she must be dressing in that way because she has been forced to, or the cliché that she is oppressed. I don’t deny that in certain cases, these assumptions may well be true, but in most cases they are not. So how does this majority fight these stereotypes and prove they are not narrow-minded and unapproachable, are capable of engaging in intelligent dialogue and are just as much fully functioning human beings as women that dress differently to them? More importantly, why should they have to prove themselves, and why do these stereotypes exist in the first place?

Muslims themselves, including Muslim women, are largely responsible for this and the issues we face today. The problem is that our communities no longer adhere to the correct teachings of Islam. There was a wonderful lecture I recently listened to on this topic in which the speaker talked about cause and effect. When you see certain effects, you try to pinpoint the cause, which is difficult to deter­mine and thus often incorrectly judged. So, when a non-Muslim community looks at an Islamic community and sees certain dysfunctionalities, they assume that the cause is Islam. But as Muslims, when we look at them with a true understanding of our religion, we know that the cause is in fact the abandonment of Islam.

For example, there is a practice in many Muslim countries in the East whereby women are forbidden from appearing in public. This is largely tied to culture, but often you hear this tradition being justified from an Islamic point of view, that Islam does not allow or encourage the free mixing of males and females, and thus women should be confined to their homes. To justify it as part of your culture is one thing, but to say that Islam does not allow women to leave their homes is one clear example of the abandonment of the true principles of Islam. Chapter 24, verse 30 of the Holy Quran reads:

قُلۡ لِّلۡمُؤۡمِنِیۡنَ یَغُضُّوۡا مِنۡ اَبۡصَارِہِمۡ وَ یَحۡفَظُوۡا فُرُوۡجَہُمۡ ؕ ذٰلِکَ اَزۡکٰی لَہُمۡ ؕ اِنَّ اللّٰہَ خَبِیۡرٌۢ بِمَا یَصۡنَعُوۡنَ ﴿۳۰﴾

“Say to the believing men that they lower their gaze and restrain their passions. That is purer for them. Surely Allah is Aware of what they do.” [The Holy Quran, 24:30]

If the intent of Islam was to confine women to their homes, then why would there be a need for men to lower their gaze? Above that, there are numerous examples from the time of the Holy Prophet Muhammed (SAW) of women who played extremely important roles in society — something they could never have achieved through seclusion.

Similarly, there is no decree in Islam that for­bids women from working, but there is a common perception that according to the correct principles of Islam, it is not appropriate for Muslim women to seek employment. This is despite the fact that during the time of the second caliph of Islam, Hazrat Umar, a woman was appointed as the marketplace supervisor, which today would be the equivalent of the post of Director of Consumer Affairs. Nevertheless, a recent report shows that only 49% of second generation British Muslim women are active in the UK labour market. There may be numerous reasons for this, but the generally negative outlook towards working Muslim women by Muslim communities is certainly an undeniable factor.

Now this is not to say that because Islam allows a woman to seek employment, she must do so. The point is she should have the freedom to choose. If she wants to work, it should be her prerogative to do so. And if she doesn’t want to work, that should be her choice too, not something forced upon her as incorrectly part of her religion.

Instead, Islamic principles today have been interpreted in a rather patriarchal fashion, whereby the choices women make are not their choices at all, but the choices made for them by the interpretations of Islam presented by the Muslim communities they live in. It is almost as if a woman’s intelligence is no longer trusted, as if left to her own determi­nation, perhaps she would make the wrong choice and thus it has to be made for her. Both the general Western society and Muslim communities tells her she must dress, act, walk, talk and live in a certain way in order to be accepted by either of them. How do you find the right balance? This is the issue, this is the question, this is the central concern of young Muslim women today. It is much easier to pick one way or another; either accept the sometimes skewed Islamic interpretations of how a Muslim woman should live, or embrace how society wants you to live. To find the correct balance is the hardest task we face.

I am one of these women myself and am finding my own balance, so I certainly cannot end my talk with the solution or the way forward, nor was it my intention to do so. I just wanted to highlight the key issues we are facing on behalf of the young Muslim women not only here today, but part of our worldwide Jamaat [Movement], so that our respected elders and brother and sisters can help us make the right choices ourselves, and I pray that Allah guides us to the right choices, and enables us to be fortunate enough to become honorable Muslim women in the spirit intended by Islam. As at the end of the day, whether male or female, our purpose on this earth is the same: to recognize the existence of Allah, the Almighty, before our chance to do so is over. May He enable us all to be better Muslims, and take away the issues that all young Muslims are facing all over the world — Ameen.