Liberating Fatma: the centrality of the need to address the rights and roles of women in Muslim societies

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Anisa Abd el Fattah

Ramadan 16, 1422 2001-12-01

Islamic Movement

by Anisa Abd el Fattah (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 19, Ramadan, 1422)

During a conversation with a friend whose father had served in the US Foreign Service in Morocco during the 1960s, she mentioned how easy life in Morocco had been for her mother compared to life in the United States. This ease she attributed to the domestic service one could purchase in Morocco for very little money. She told me that the first thing the wives of foreign diplomats would do, on arrival in Morocco, was inquire about “Fatmas,” Muslim women who worked as servants for the diplomats and their families, cleaning homes, caring for children, cooking and doing other similar work.

I asked why these women were called Fatmas, and she had no answer, except to say that the name Fatma was easy to pronounce and that every female servant, regardless of what her name actually was, was called “Fatma.” I wondered if these “Fatmas” knew that by permitting themselves to be called by one and the same name, one stereotype, they were effectively consenting to being depersonalized, havng their personalities and their dignity buried alive.

Following current events in Afghanistan, and the emphasis being placed on the new-found “freedoms” of women there, it is obvious that the West is using the situation of Afghani women under the Taliban to attack Islam.

Following current events in Afghanistan, and the emphasis being placed on the new-found “freedoms” of women there, it is obvious that the West is using the situation of Afghani women under the Taliban to attack Islam. Unfortunately, it is true that some Muslims have tended to be oppressive of women, and to abuse Islam for that purpose, just as extremists of other religions have done. Christian and Jewish extremism have also committed gross abuses against women, and many of their religious doctrines and practices teach or imply the inferiority of women. Irreligion and immorality have also proven dangerous to women. There are few examples of oppression and exploitation af women that rival the abuse of Western women during the period of industrialization in the West under the banner of capitalism.

It seems that women, regardless of our faiths, nationalities and cultures, have historically been the prime targets of social and religious engineers who sense the enormous power of femininity yet, rather than allow this strength to influence and shape societies positively, seek either to suppress it or exploit it. Our historic experience as Muslim women holds some of the most poignant examples of exploitation and repression, including as it does the savagery of pre-Islam, as well as a recent history that includes the repressive laws of the secularized Muslim world that deny women their basic human and gender-specific rights.

In the contemporary Islamic movement, Muslims have placed great emphasis on the fact that Islam is indeed the original liberator of women. Yet few have been willing to recognize, let alone challenge, the erosion of Islamic rights and practices pertaining to women, the re-emergence of pre-Islamic attitudes and customs in the Muslim world, and the effects of these dark traditions on generations of Muslim women, their children and societies. Perhaps the greatest failing of many Islamic scholars has been their apparently deliberate failure to correct gross distortions of the faith, such as the idea that women’s voices are haram because they are seductive, or that women are the property of husbands or other male family members. One need not look far to correct these and other misconceptions. In Surah al-Azhab, it is clear that women’s voices were not condemned or prohibited, nor were women blamed for whatever evil lurked in the hearts of those men who could be seduced by the mere sound of a female voice. This surah begins:

“O Prophet, fear Allah, and hearken not to the unbelievers and the hypocrites: verily Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom. But follow that which comes to thee by inspiration from thy Lord: for Allah is well acquainted with all that you do. And put thy trust in Allah, and enough is Allah as a disposer of affairs.” (33:1-2.)

Verse 33 of the same surah reads:

“O consorts of the Prophet, ye are not like any of the other women: if you do fear Allah be not too complaisant of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire: but speak ye a speech that is just.” (33:33)

Most Muslims will tell you that the wives of the Prophet (saw) were held to a higher standard of conduct than other Muslim women, yet here we do not find them prohibited from speaking to men, but only cautioned that they should speak “justly”: in other words they should not speak seductively, or with an intent to incite affection, or stimulate interest that was unseemly. Nowhere do we find that Allah prohibited their speech, or implied that their voices were haram.

Interestingly, little emphasis is placed on the part of this verse that tells us that those who are seduced by women’s voices are those “in whose heart is a disease.” This puts the burden squarely on the men to cleanse their hearts, rather than on the women to be silent. Yet for decades, if not centuries, Muslim women have been taught that our voices are “prohibited,” implying that they have some hidden capacity to make men sin, blaming the women for the weakness and immorality of men, and so relieving men of any responsibility to purify their “diseased hearts.”

As men’s hearts increase in disease so does the repression of women, to the extent that in some places women are not even allowed an education. They are covered from head to toe in public, or shut up in houses, and denied the right to speak and be heard. All this is only one step short of burying them alive, the pre-Islamic custom that found its justification in the idea that women’s sexuality was such an uncontrollable evil that, to avoid the dishonor that her immorality might bring upon a family, it was better to kill her.

There are other examples of attempts to limit the impact of Muslim women on their societies by repressing and demonizing women, and things associated with women, including the sounds of their voices. We should consider that perhaps the reason for this repression is that women throughout history have served humanity as “civilization builders.” If we look at the Muslim world, a civilization that has been all but cleansed of women’s influence, we can appreciate how important women’s freedom, inclusion and influence is to the social and cultural advancement of societies.

Nearly every attempt to advance the Muslim world by various economic and political schemes has failed to bring about any significant amount of social development. Perhaps by a process of elimination we will come to what seems an obvious conclusion, that the area of women’s rights and the roles of women in Muslim societies is what must be developed and reformed before there will likely be any substantive change.

In Surah al-Nahl, the Qur’an sets out a warning to Muslims:

“Allah sets forth a parable: a city enjoying security and quiet, abundantly supplied with sustenance from every place: yet it was ungrateful for the favors of Allah; so Allah made it taste of hunger and terror, closing in on it like a garment from every side because of the evil which its people wrought. And there came to them a messenger from among themselves, but they falsely rejected him, so the wrath seized them even in the midst of their iniquities...” (16:112-113.)

The surah go on to say:

“But say not for any false thing that your tongues may put forth: ‘this is lawful and this is forbidden,’ so as to ascribe false things to Allah. For those who ascribe false things to Allah will never prosper. In such is but a paltry profit, but they will have a most grievous chastisement.” (16:116-117.)

If one were planning the destruction of a society, it would be simple to render its women illiterate so that their children, the future of societies, would also be illiterate and uncultured, all on the basis that religion dictates this. Demonize the sexuality of women to confuse and complicate men’s natural attraction and affection for women. Then introduce homosexuality into these societies, and replace pious women in the society with irreligious women, and put prostitutes into their husbands’ beds, or the thoughts of such things into their minds. Add to this other forms of immorality, drug abuse, intellectual repression, religious fanaticism, ‘honor killings’ and a myriad of unjust laws, and you have a civilization that is ready to collapse from the weight of its sin, ignorance, and injustice.

As I thought about “Fatma” it came to me that the re-liberation of Muslim women, in Afghanistan or elsewhere, has little to do with removing a veil or working in a public office. The freedom of Fatma will be found in the words of the Qur’an that make it clear that God’s intention towards women was that they should and must stand side-by-side with men, hearts joined in mutual respect and affection, as equal and natural mates and companions; that these two would procreate, and educate, and build and sustain Islamic values, Islamic society and Islamic civilization together.

Before “Fatma” can be freed, we must acknowledge our crimes against her, listen to her story, and seek guidance from the Qur’an on the ways and means to restore her status in Muslim society. Most importantly, we must help her to recreate her vision of herself as a being of personality and dignity that is loved and respected by men, and protected by God.

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