I’ve been re-listening to two lectures by Dr. Mattson today, they’re short but full of wisdom. I really enjoy listening to Dr. Mattson and wish she had a higher profile in the media because she is simply brilliant. Her lecture Heaven’s Gate: How Muslim Women Open or Close Doors for Their Sisters touches on many issues I have been turning over in my mind recently.
Between Extremism and Moderation: (17:47)
Changes within Us: (16:32)
Ingrid Mattson: Heavens Gate: How Muslim Women Open or Close Doors for Their Sisters (pdf)
The Example of Courageous Muslim Women
…Secondly, ‘A’isha was public in her corrections. Of course she corrected some people privately but she also corrected people in a public fashion when necessary. When she heard that someone was attributing to the Prophet Muhammad something she found reprehensible, she did not hold back. In doing so, she taught that it is perfectly acceptable and sometimes necessary to challenge power publicly.
It is because of the example that she set that we see her students demonstrating the same kind of strength and courage. For example, ‘A’isha bint Talha, who was one of ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr’s students, is well known for very publicly refusing the demands of others that she cover her face in public. ‘A’isha bint Talha was the most beautiful woman of her age, but she was also a great scholar of hadith who learned religious knowledge from her aunt and had the same kind of confidence to articulate her convictions.
…To have solidarity among women, therefore, we do not need to have a utopian sisterhood, where all women are joined in a mystical bond of love and caring. What we can learn from the sometimes strained relationships that ‘A’isha had with other women is that we can stand up for each other’s right, despite such strains.
The Myth of the Idealized Muslim Woman
…We can learn from ‘Aisha’s legacy that, all too often, the fullness of great Muslim women’s experiences is narrowed and appropriated by those wishing to present an “ideal” Muslim woman. Not only is it rare that we hear about the Companions’ weaknesses, as I have already mentioned, but all too often, the words or examples of the female Companions are drawn upon selectively to support a position that the women themselves would have been unlikely to support.
For example, one often hears those who wish to exclude women from the mosque citing a statement that ‘A’isha was reported to have made some decades following the Prophet Muhammad’s death: “If the Prophet had seen how women are behaving, he would have prohibited them from the mosque, as was the case with the Children of Israel.” Although A’isha uses a general term “women” in her statement, any reasonable interpreter would have to agree that it is evident that ‘A’isha did not mean all women. In the first place, ‘Aisha and her fellow widows lived in the mosque, so she obviously did not mean to exclude all women.
Rather than putting women down, ‘A’isha was simply holding women accountable for their behavior, and not expecting anything less from them than the high standard of conduct she expected of men. The fact that ‘A’isha’s words have been used to justify the exclusion of women from the mosque shows how important it is for women leaders to prevent their teachings from being appropriated to exclude women who do not conform to the sanitized, narrow image that others have constructed of them. Here, religious women have to be especially careful to avoid being set up as closed doors that keep other women from accessing the knowledge and sacred spaces they need.
…Another particular risk for Muslim women in our own time is our frequent reluctance to treat other women as individuals, rather than as exemplars of our collective feminine identity. Too often we seem to feel that obtaining a dignified identity for women in general is so vital that we need to sacrifice the rights of some women for the sake of us the group.
It is common in marginalized groups that there is pressure for individuals to conform for the sake of the good of collectivity. Many are afraid that if some of their peers make statements that are too challenging, then perhaps there will be a backlash. However, we need to remember that there is no general woman; there are only individual women, each with their own idiosyncrasies, values and beliefs.
An Act of Protest
…Certainly there is much values in respecting common norms of behavior and not acting counter-culturally simply to provoke a reaction. However, sometimes it is only outrageous behavior that will elicit a necessary reaction in the face of mindless complicity. Who is to judge when it is appropriate to sacrifice individuality for the sake of the common good and when it is necessary to fight for one’s rights, despite protests that one is creating discord (fitna)?
In the end, this is a judgment call that we can all make, but must not assume that any of our judgments are infallible. When it comes to women’s rights, we should not be so terrified of a backlash that we disown our sisters who take a more radical path. We might think that their behavior is outrageous, ridiculous, or over-the-line, and we can make that judgment. Still, we should support their right to be wrong.
You might say that now I have adopted a typical liberal stance on rights, despite beginning my talk with a recommendation that a more conservative path of transformation should be considered. Certainly, I believe that when it comes to gender relations in Muslim religious communities, that an ethical transformation based on spirituality, and drawing upon diverse resources of classical Islam will yield positive results. However, I also believe that this kind of transformation cannot occur today except in a social and political context in which the liberal notion of individual rights is upheld. Authoritarian and patriarchal tendencies run too deep in Muslim communities for any real transformation to occur without grounding our religious choices in a liberal political (in the small and large sense) framework.
The Prayer Space Example
…The Prophet Muhammad said, “Do not prevent the maidservants of God from the mosques of God.” What we have to understand is that women are not prevented from praying in the mosque only by words. They also are prevented when they are not afforded reasonable access to the prayer space and the opportunity to join the congregation.
The female companions of the Prophet Muhammad enjoyed this access during his lifetime; it cannot be anything other than disobedience to his teachings to deny such access. In order to open doors of spiritual opportunity for our sisters, it is, therefore, sometimes necessary to put aside our preferences.