Newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ran an election campaign with the promise that, if elected, he would appoint a cabinet of ministers that had an equal representation of men and women. On November 4, he delivered exactly that, appointing 30 ministers from both genders. Some commentators have raised the question of merit and tokenism as a concern with this apparently arbitrary condition that Trudeau has imposed. Interestingly, it seems that whenever the question of merit is raised, an implicit assumption many tend to default to is that if the cabinet had mostly men appointees because they were the most qualified, so be it. However, who is to say that this would have been the more likely situation? Are we to assume that Trudeau would have had an easy time finding qualified men to fill their postings? What if those qualified for cabinet positions were mostly women? What makes a candidate “qualified” anyways?
The issue of equal representation and how it can be ensured in a government or any organization presents opportunities for debate. The charge here is that imposing an artificial quota for a particular gender may unfairly exclude more qualified prospective candidates. However, this argument assumes there are precise objective criteria that assess candidates strictly on merit and nothing else, which is not the case. A subjective element in hiring decisions is always present, and while we might want to move past gender and other such categories, the available evidence suggests that unconscious biases we gain from our upbringing, education, culture and general life experiences influence our decision making in ways that can lead to disparities if left unchecked by external measures. Such external measures include the conscious decision by Trudeau to ensure that equal numbers of men and women ministers were appointed to his cabinet.
Outside of government, gender disparities are seen in other contexts as well. Lack of women representation in Muslim organizations and events has recently been gaining renewed attention among Muslim activists. A movement within the Western Muslim community highlighting the lack of female teachers among public speakers is gaining momentum. A number of activists have taken to Twitter with a #NoAllMalePanels hashtag to voice their frustration, with some going so far as to pledging to boycott events with all male speakers. Some may dismiss this as another attempt to “liberalize Islam” under the guise of reforming the religion to fit “modern” notions of “feminism” and “equality.”
Notwithstanding the intellectual bankruptcy of such responses, these remarks highlight a deeper problem in how many Muslims see the relationship Islam should have with modernity. Rather than Prophet Muhammad’s description of his message, stating that he was “only sent to complete virtuous qualities and ethics,” and that “wisdom is the lost property of the believer, wherever they find it they have more right to it,” we instead see a reactionary starting position that views the modern world and anything arising from it with deep suspicion. Much of this may be due to religious tribalism, where anything coming from non-Muslims is consciously or unconsciously viewed as bad or evil by definition. Nevertheless, the question on the lack of representation of Muslim women in scholarship and leadership positions within the Muslim community remains.
Contrary to protestations against setting quotas for gender representation, this is not a “modernist” or “liberal Muslim” concoction from nothing. Pointing to his wife Aisha, Prophet Muhammad said to his companions, “Take half of your religion from this fair skinned one.” It is interesting that the Prophet would take Islam as a whole and tell his community to take half of it from one woman, and the other half from the rest of his companions. We know from his biography that although he spent a significant portion of his time with Aisha, Prophet Muhammad also spent a significant amount of time with her father Abu Bakr As’Sideeq, as well as with his prominent companion and friend Umar ibn Al Khattab. If one refers to Aisha being young, thus allowing her to be a reliable source of religious education for the Muslim community for a long time after the Prophet’s passing, the same can be said about his servant Anas ibn Malik, who lived with him since he was 10 years old. The reason Prophet Muhammad commanded his community to take half of Islam from Aisha may be due to his recognition that transmission of the religion was going to be dominated by male voices, and Aisha served as the female prism for him through which half of it was to be delivered. Thus, a gender balance in transmission can be struck.
One can analyze a context and attempt to shed light on oppressive practices and actively seek to change them to create a more equitable environment for men and women. But it cannot be overstated that no matter how much a man or a woman tries to “walk in the shoes” of the opposing gender, it is impossible for them to truly know what it is actually like. Parental background, education and religiocultural upbringing combine with one’s natural disposition to create the individual. As a man, no matter how much feminist literature and women’s personal accounts I read, I will not fool myself into pretending that my intellectual comprehension of what life is like for women can substitute for the personal experience of being a woman. This also applies to any other group that has lived as a subordinate to another for generations. Lived experience is a powerful force that affects human beings at the nonrational level in ways that affect how one perceives the world. It is also heritable, transferring between generations to become part of identity.
Muslim women are living a schizophrenic existence in Western communities. On the one hand, many of them are visible in society and easily identifiable due to how they choose (yes, choose) to dress in ways that identify them as Muslims. On the other hand, these same women are hardly visible, if at all in most cases, in leadership and public positions within Muslim organizations. Furthermore, the underrepresentation of female Muslim scholarship means that the dominant androcentric perspective continues to maintain the current status quo where even women participate in their own marginalization in their sincere desire to be authentic to Islam.
A typical rejoinder to this proceeds by pointing to the veracity of interpretive scholarly tools that must be used when approaching Islamic texts. However, this response fails to address the fact that the very act of interpretation involves a text, a context, and a person with an educational and cultural background. Interpreting texts is not limited to revealing their meanings; it also reveals the mind of the reader. While this may be intriguing academically, if readers are in positions of power or influence over a social or political group, a lack of balance in subjective perspectives being imposed upon a community will inevitably lead to dysfunction.
Umm ‘Amara Al Ansariyyah was an outspoken and quite active member of the early Muslim community. She came to the Prophet one day and complained that the Quran does not address women with much. Had the Prophet adopted a current anti-modernist approach to answering her, he would have explained how the Arabic language uses either gender inclusive or feminine pronouns only, which means the Quran does not specify men in terms of language and that women are automatically included in its message. But he did not do that. Aside from how the verses in the Quran are linguistically constructed, the practical reality of life can give the impression that the Quran addresses men to the exclusion of women, which is how it was perceived by women from the early community who not only understood Arabic at a level higher than Arabs today, but it was also more natural to their tongues. In response to Umm ‘Amara’s complaint, the following verse was revealed:
“Surely the men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and the obeying women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women, and the humble men and the humble women, and the almsgiving men and the almsgiving women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their private parts and the women who guard, and the men who remember God and the women who remember — God has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward.” [33:35]
Scholars of exegesis point that due to this incident, verses revealed afterward addressed women explicitly using the feminine pronoun alongside the inclusive one. This does not mean the Quran was negligent of women before. The way Arabic language and rhetoric function was not lost on Umm ‘Amara and Arab women from the early community. But given their understanding of revelation and its relationship with the community as a guiding source they must defer to in matters of dispute, they needed it to explicitly address women alongside men.
A crucial lesson to be learned and applied from Umm ‘Amara is that if eternal revelation explicitly addressed women only after they prompted it, mortal men will continue about their ways until women take matters into their own hands and, for lack of a better term, impose themselves. Managing boards in Muslim mosques and organizations are led and in many cases completely dominated by men. In many mosques, women have embarrassingly small spaces and accommodation services because they are often an afterthought to all male building committees. A good majority of conferences and teaching events present rosters of all male teachers. Some communities form separate women chapters and say this is an “Islamic” way of giving women positions of leadership. It is as if women are a problem for men and must be isolated and self-contained.
In his essay titled The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill states, “We have had the morality of submission, and the morality of chivalry and generosity; the time is now come for the morality of justice.” The current situation for Muslim women will not change until they assert themselves as contributing free agents equal to their male counterparts. Furthermore, Muslim men who wish to support this will need to be active in suppressing their own desire to be experts on everything including women’s issues. An intellectual interest in women’s issues is not the same as being a woman. There are enough Muslim men assuming the role of telling women what to be and how to behave in an “Islamic” way. It would not be progress to have another group of Muslim men assuming the role of speaking on behalf of women to explain how they feel. Muslim organizations and conferences would better serve their Muslim congregations and communities at large by applying the Prophetic command to deliver half of Islamic knowledge through the female voice. Otherwise, we deprive ourselves of gaining the needed insight to develop half of our religion.