What can women tell us about Islam?

A talk given to a British Council Conference

by Sr Ruqaiyyah

The questions asked of me were: How do cultural or religious practices concerning the place and status of women in Muslim societies survive the experience, over several generations, of western society, and the frequent tensions between women’s aspirations and traditional views of their role? To what extent do symbols like hijab, the arranged marriage or polygamy misrepresent or represent women and their religion?

My first reaction is always to be irritated by this sort of limitation – as I am far more interested in much wider aspects of Islam, but I realise there is a job to be done, and I also realise that my irritation is one fairly basic female reaction to point up for participants. Most women in Islam do not actually go round thinking of themselves as ‘women in Islam’ but simply as Muslims.

I would like to start by making several statements or observations:

  • All the teachings of Islam, the commands, requests, prohibitions, rituals and practices apply equally to both male and female Muslims, unless they involve a specifically biologically feminine or masculine matter, in which case the Qur’an details it using specific reference.
  • There is a tendency for non-Muslims in the UK to think of Muslims as being either Asian or Arab, when Islam is a world faith, and has adherents in every country of the world, from Eskimo to Aborigine, and millions of ‘white’ Muslims.
  • They assume that every brown person is a Muslim, when they could be Hindu, Sikh, Christian, or Atheist, etc. The behaviour of these brown persons is therefore sometimes mistakenly assumed to be Islamic when it may be very far from it.
  • Millions of Muslims are not easily recognised from their clothing or beard status. One thing that always amuses me is that when asked to describe a typical Muslim man, non-Muslims tend to think of a brown-skinned, bearded, white capped and strange ‘pyjama’ outfitted character who will not meet your eye when handing you your change at a clothes shop. On the other hand, for a typical Muslim woman they think of what they have seen on the news – usually not a woman at all but a black chador, or a blue Afghani burqa. And yet, you could travel the length and breadth of the UK and find only the merest handful of Muslim women so attired – most of them are either in what I would call ‘normal’ western clothes with perhaps a headscarf; or are in Pakistani shalwar-qameez outfits – long shirts and baggy trousers in all sorts of delightful styles and colours; or in Arabic-style long flowing coats with neat headscarves.

(I personally love my Islamic clothes and hijab, but I have four problems. The object of Muslim women’s garb is modesty.

–         First is the embarrassment of suddenly appearing in what seems to be foreign-garb, or as my mother puts it ‘dressing-up clothes’ when everyone has seen me for years in normal UK dress.

–         Second is the difficulty of people thinking I am trying to be an imitation Arab or Asian, and having attention drawn to me when I really want to fade into the background.

–         Third is the embarrassment of knowing that many people must think ‘who does she think she is?’ They may assume I am pretending or claiming to be better than I really am.

–         Fourth is the heat factor. Swathing the head and whole body creates a lot of heat, and can be very uncomfortable indeed. I suffer so much from hot flushes that I either get wet through with sweat, or I deliberately soak the clothing and hijab I am wearing in cold water and wear it wet in order to keep cool. This means I can only wear items that do not show up as being soaking wet – such as black crepe. (I happen to have an Afghanistani burqa – not a plain pale blue cotton one, but a very posh number in embroidered purple silky fabric. I wore this in Peshawar in August, when the outside temperature was about 55 degrees. I can assure you that I did not wish to wear it for more than a few moments).

  • Non-Muslims often think of Muslims in terms of the few quirky extremists picked out by the media for constant interviews (eg. the infamous Abu Hamza of Finsbury Park), or perhaps dodgy Asian market traders. These are not representative. I spent a few moments watching the TV to look out for which Muslims were representing Islam that day. The first to come up was Muhammad Taranisi, the consultant paediatrician responsible for the first genetically created baby designed to produce material used to help a sick brother. Later, we had the newsreaders Zaynab Badawi and Sameerah Ahmed, the reporter Rageh Omar, and when the names flashed up after various programmes there was nearly always a Muslim name amongst them. A beautiful Asian Muslim girl Konnie Haq was/is a regular presented of Blue Peter. Of course, it is not flagged up that these people are Muslims, and they do not look like the aforementioned stereotypes.

Misquoting Shakespeare when he said: ‘Some people are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’ – I would like to comment that in the UK, some women are born Muslims, some women become Muslims, and some have Islam thrust upon them. This origin can make all the difference.

In the UK, the majority of born Muslim women at the moment (things always change according to influxes of people of different backgrounds) happen to have been born into a Pakistani, or Bangladeshi family. Apart from these, are the women who are born into a Turkish, or Egyptian, or Bosnian, or Malaysian, or Iranian, or Iraqi, or Somalian, or Moroccan, or maybe even a Saudian family. Born Muslims cover the whole range of types, from extremely devout and practising Muslims to those with lifestyles flagrantly abusing their faith; from highly educated religious experts to complete ignoramuses. As regards born Muslim women who came to the UK from Muslim communities – on the good side, many of them grew up used to various commendable practices and with Islamic attitudes and a collective knowledge of Islam that came from generations of living amongst other Muslims. On the bad side, they might also have had cultural backgrounds that were incorrectly  perceived as being Islamic if the majority of Muslims in their society concurred with them.

However, for those ‘born’ in the UK their only education in Islam has been the traditions handed down in their own families (which would be as good or as bad as the understanding of Islam in that family), and the introduction to Islamic thought and practice offered in their local mosques. Sometimes this is little more than performing the prayers and learning with no great enthusiasm how to read the text of the Qur’an parrot-fashion in a foreign language (ie. Arabic), with little real understanding. Moreover, these studies would generally take place after the normal school day, when children were tired and hungry, with the thought of more homework to follow when they got home.

If the Muslim girls born and bred in the UK are not fluent in, or cannot speak their original ethnic language, they have an extra disadvantage if their teacher is not fluent in English and sticks to that language. A big linguistic gap has been building up between children and their grandparents. The ‘old’ language becomes one more difficult subject to master – and it has to compete in the same time available for all the youngster’s other subjects. Not everyone is a talented linguist. Arabs may not realise how lucky they are that the Qur’an was not revealed in, say, Chinese.

Moreover, young Muslims do not yet know that the vast majority of their elders cannot speak Arabic at all, and although they may have learned the Qur’an by heart, have no understanding of an Arabic qutbah, and could not read an Arabic book. The elders might feel ashamed to admit that, and keep silent. They have kept up their ‘old ways’ probably out of duty, and hopefully out of love for Allah. However, it does seem that some of them do feel inferior or guilty, and react towards the rebellious souls beginning to resist the pressure to keep up this traditional form of learning Islam by inculcating in them the notion that they must fear God, and beware of serious punishment in Hell to Come if they give up the struggle, or dare to regard it as extremely boring. Numerous texts are bandied about on the advisability of fearing Allah – nearly all mistranslations. Allah should be loved, not feared – unless one has a good reason to fear Him.

I have highlighted some problems – but at the same time, one must also realise that there is also an upsurge of Muslim women in the UK these days who are determined to get on in life, and arehighly educated – not only in Islam but in general terms too. Statistics about boys and girls in ordinary State Schools, moreover, suggest that Muslim girls are part of the general trend of girls achieving more academic success than boys, wanting to get on with it, determined to learn, and in the future take up useful and frequently noble careers.

There are few facilities for Muslims to study Islam in State Schools, so one task I took on myself was to create course materials to enable any interested person to study outside the school situation, and to achieve the basic GCSE level in Religious Education, Islamic Studies. To my great delight, this is now snowballing throughout the UK and even reaching students in the wider world – but it is interesting that the vast majority of those taking advantage of it, and carrying it through to success are female!

Now, what about those who become Muslims. To me, these are twofold – they are the white indigenous women of the UK who happen to become converted to Islam; or they are women born into the cultural Muslim families who suddenly perceive true Islam in their own hearts, and have a kind of moment of ‘being born again’ – a phrase most Christians would understand. Naturally, I have most knowledge of the experiences of white convert Muslims. I have often wondered how many of them have come into Islam via the route of the heart – that of being ‘dated’ by attractive Muslim men, falling in love, becoming interested in Islam and accepting it for themselves, then on discovering that sex outside marriage is actually forbidden to Muslims, seeking marriage, being dumped and abandoned, perhaps pregnant with a mixed-race child, but clinging to the faith while the lover moves on.

Sometimes a UK girlfriend or wife suddenly realizes that her boyfriend has a previous wife and family back home. She may demand the divorce of that wife, but discover that when it comes to making a choice, she is the one that gets dumped. One major reason is frequently that the wife back home is a cousin, and if she got dumped a whole range of uncles and other relatives would fall on the husband’s head, especially if there were children involved. It could even spark off feuds and death. The man may find it far easier and less stressful to get rid of his UK wife, and start all over again, replacing her with some other unsuspecting woman.  In any case, even if the boyfriend chose the white convert, he would still be obliged to maintain his existing children properly, and not avoid that responsibility.

Those who have Islam thrust upon them are women who have either grown up in Islam, or married into Islam, but who really have little inclination for it, are not deeply committed in religious terms, and find the rules and rituals tedious, whether they would care to admit that or not. Many born Muslim women who have settled in the UK are unable to prevent themselves or their offspring succumbing to the temptations of western life which are unIslamic, and fall into danger of losing Islam altogether. If their Islam is highly bound up in their original ethnic culture the offspring may wish to retain the faith and practice of Islam, but abandon a culture which becomes increasingly alien to them. Incidentally, no person who has been a Muslim for years likes to be informed that he or she is wrong by a bumptious teenager.

It seems to me that in societies like the UK, where converts to Islam have to learned the faith by individual effort, and studying the Qur’an in their own native language, plus reading for themselves the most authentic hadith collections, they may actually have an advantage when it comes to grasping the spirit and essence of Islam. They have studied because of their owninterest, and not through any pressure from family or peers or mosque elders. One developing result will hopefully be that Muslim women’s roles and aspirations and halal careers and occupation will be given their rightful place, rather than the somewhat limiting culturally affected expressions of Islam that have resulted in places where Islamic education has been dumbed down, or has wandered very far from the right path.

So, for example, we hear of Afghan women being refused education, but we should know this is the very opposite of what the Prophet (pbuh) taught – Muslim women were to seek education from cradle to grave and from any source available. We hear of women being obliged to live in sexually segregated communities, whereas many of the Prophet’s (pbuh) women companions in Madinah were his staunch friends and supporters, with whom he mixed happily. We hear of women not being allowed to be taught by men, when all the women of Madinah were taught by the Prophet (pbuh) himself; and moreover, even before his demise, men were also being taught by intellectual women – such as Umm Waraqah, Shifa bint Abdullah, Umm Darda, and the Prophet’s beloved Aishah, despite her youth. The Prophet’s daughter Fatimah is reported to have moved congregations to tears with her sermons, as did also her daughter Zaynab.

We hear of Asian women being obliged to find dowry money to attract prospective husbands, when in Islam the husband should be paying his new wife a negotiated sum which is hers to keep. We hear of girls being obliged to marry men they have no inclination for, whereas in Madinah any girl forced into such a marriage could go immediately to the Prophet (pbuh) and have it annulled.

We hear of men claiming that Islam gives them permission to beat their wives (by misappropriating one specific verse subject to all sorts of interpretations out of the context of divorce proceedings), when they know perfectly well that the  Prophet (pbuh) never once struck either a female, or a child, or an old person, and specifically taught his followers in countless hadiths never to strike ‘Allah’s handmaidens’. We hear of women being dismissed from their homes who do not even know they have been divorced, despite the stringent rulings for iddah.

We have mosques which are men-only prayer-clubs, even turning away travelling Muslim women who arrive looking for a place to pray – when they should function as useful community centres with all sorts of facilities, and not only allow womenfolk to pray there too, but to utilise their talents in the general running of the place. Beards, short trousers and hijabs have somehow or other become symbols of Islam, instead of the far more important matters such as honesty, tolerance, courage, hospitality, compassion and nobility.

But things are changing. Muslim women in the UK are seizing the opportunities to study Islam for themselves, in depth, and in gaining knowledge are gaining in influence and authority; insha’Allah, it will not be long before all Muslim women understand their rights and responsibilities in Islam, take them up, and in some cases re-educate their menfolk. They are persuading their parents that there is a desperate need for Muslim women to acquire a good education using modern methods, and tomorrow’s technology, and to achieve useful qualifications. We cannot assume that Muslim girls are going to be ‘just’ housewives. Most homes in the UK cannot afford that luxury. Parents may think of their male offspring as future breadwinners, but ignore the fact that all too often in the UK men are unemployed and the females are the breadwinners.

Educated Muslim women are a necessity. We need their services – as tailors, bakers, librarians, chemists, engineers, nurses, secretaries, teachers, police, those who work with the mentally ill, marriage counsellors, ambulance drivers, doctors, dentists, midwives, lawyers and so on. It is highly preferable in Islam for women to be treated by female nurses and doctors, dentists and midwives, and taught by female teachers, and counselled by female lawyers.

To educate each girl from the age of five to the GCSE level costs around £30,000. Each. The top brains may then go on to take AS and A levels, and a degree at university. The total cost of their education must be at least £80,000. It is vital not to waste it. Not every person has a brilliant brain – but Muslim parents need to value and treasure their academic and determined Muslim daughters, even if they do not take up a profession but become wives of intelligent sons.

Muslim men need to treasure educated women as wives, and appreciate the value of these women who have perhaps passed the traditionally accepted age for marriage by concentrating on their qualifications.

In the Prophet’s (pbuh) own family:

  • his life-partner Khadijah was a wealthy trader, and for some time his boss
  • his cousin-wives Zaynab bint Jahsh and Umm Salamah both earned their own livings
  • his Jewish wife Safiyyah did so well at her business she died a very wealthy woman
  • his wife Aishah bint Abu Bakr was very well known as an academic and teacher, and so were his wives Hafsah bint Umar and Umm Salamah, who had been educated by their fathers to the same standard as their sons.

Other female companions well known for their wisdom, teaching etc were Umm Waraqah bint Abdullah of Banu Najjar, and Umm Darda (Khayrah) bint Abu Hadrad, who both became famous scholars, Umm ‘Ala, Shifa bint Abdullah, and many others.. The Prophet (pbuh) appreciated forthright women who were not frightened to speak out, or discuss and debate matters. He appreciated women who were educated and had knowledge, who were also kind and compassionate, and hard-working and hospitable.

So, I do not find it a great loss when cultural misinterpretations of Islam are allowed to bite the dust, to be replaced by an Islam that draws closer to what Allah ordained for us and the Prophet (pbuh) actually taught. This is in fact what I see happening, in an accelerating manner. Of course, there are islands of dinosaurism, places which drive up-and-coming Muslim women to despair, where nothing is likely to change – but these bastions will find more and more people voting with their feet, leaving them to their contentment with their own little community of like-minded souls, and joining other more progressive communities.

I give an example of a men-only mosque in London which sacked a dynamic white male convert off its committee as they were Deobandis, and did not want to be involved with non-Deobandis, converts or women. They knew who they were and how they liked their Islam – and outsiders were a problem to them. The sacked white Muslim and his wife started an excellent Islamic centre of their own, [1] which is now a bustling community full of converts male and female, with a considerable proportion of Muslim women on their staff and organising committees. The need for a prayer-place has expanded into providing a shop for Islamic books, artefacts and clothing, a library, social clubs, homework clubs, IT facilities, facilities for learning native ethnic languages as well as Arabic and madrassah-style courses, hospitality and function rooms, and so on – all of which are open to female Muslims as well as males. Women may organise functions, lectures, training groups, special events, and so on. If the sacked man prayed istikhara in trying to decide what Allah wanted him to do, it seems to me that he certainly made the right decision, and as that one forbidding door closed, a wonderful inviting door swung open, with a huge and exciting vista beyond.


[1] Al-Ansar Centre
833 Ilford High Rd, Goodmayes,



source : ruqaiyyah.karoo.net