Published in the Muslim Views Eid al-Fitr edition in August 2013.
As the Ummah approaches the beautiful celebrations of Eid al-Fitr, all Muslims - women and men alike will rejoice in the return to our fitrah, that innate disposition of purity which we are all created with. As we celebrate, let us spare an extra prayer for Muslim women, who in many cases, not only observed their own fasts but also prepared the Suhoor and Futoor meals for their families and communities.
As we approach the days of Eid, we also find ourselves in August – women’s month. In reflecting on the divergence of these two significant events, it is essential to reflect on some of the current challenges facing women, both of the Ummah and of humanity. Muslim women in South Africa are a whirlpool of talent and have certainly made great strides both educationally and professionally. Whilst on the national level, the visibility and contribution of Muslim women in the spheres of government, media and the corporate world are promising, on the community level, both socially and spiritually, there still remain some gaps. I refer here to the lack of inclusive sacred spaces in the masaajid and Eid musallah, as well the absence of a considerable active presence of women in key leadership positions in Muslim organizations – particularly scholarly bodies. I do not mean to generalize to the point of claiming no presence of women in these areas at all, because progress has certainly been made – however, there remains a strong need for more visible and significant contribution by women, which follows in the trajectory of the Quran and Sunnah of Muhammad (pbuh).
As important as continued activism to highlight the need for gender justice is in our communities, there is also an equally serious necessity for more women to become competent and expert in traditional Islamic sciences, with the same rigorous levels of study of the authentic Islamic disciplines, to gain deep understanding of our classical legacy, enabling us as women to embrace its profoundness whilst at the same time –challenge and critically assess its discrepancies based on sound methodology.
Just recently, we witnessed 16 year old Malala Yousfzai present her historic address to the United Nations wherein she stressed the dire need for access to even basic education for girls in many parts of the world in order to fight the extremism and conservatism which seek to deprive women and girls of their full God-given humanity. Malala so beautifully articulated that “we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced”, and as Muslims, part of our obligation to humanity is to speak up, not to remain silent, in the face of injustice and oppression. However, we should remain wary of young women such as Malala becoming the pawns of imperialist forces, who through their military occupation and disproportionate aggression on civilian populations in the name of liberating oppressed Muslim women, have done more harm and taken the lives of too many Muslim women and left too many innocent children motherless.
Besides access to education, we see gross escalations of violence towards women – in the forms of rape and domestic violence the world over. We live in a world where practices like female genital mutilation and child marriage still operate in various parts of Africa and the Middle East, some of which happen to be Muslim majority countries. We live in a world where some women still lack personal and political agency, where they cannot drive, work or vote. Muslim women are currently among the most vulnerable in places of political upheaval – even as they go out to bravely protest for their political rights in places like Egypt, they face astonishing risks of being sexually violated. In the Syrian refugee camps, so many mothers and children wait languishing, vulnerable to the assaults of foreign men who visit there to prey. In Palestine, particularly in the month of Ramadan, women are especially harassed and robbed of dignity on a daily basis at Israeli checkpoints whilst making their way to the various sacred sites to pray.
Even as some of us may laud some of the ideals of Islamic movements like the Ikhwan and Hamas, we should not remain uncritical to their increased severity of late in policing women’s behavior, dress, education and work. The bodies of Muslim women need to be returned solely to them – even as we protest against European legislation which rob Muslim women of their choice to don headscarves and face-veils, so should we protest against those Muslim majority countries which force women with recourse to punishment, into certain dress codes based on singular interpretations of “Shar’iah”.
As important as our struggles on the communal level are, in facilitating the participation of women at all levels of religious life, let us not alienate and ghettoize ourselves in squabbles which prevent us from seeing the bigger picture – of standing up for gender justice for all women, regardless of race or religion. In contemporary South Africa, it is often women who suffer the most from setbacks in the economy, from rising unemployment and from lack of service delivery. In some sectors, there is still salary discrimination based on gender. Young women bear many burdens, from an alarming increase in sexual violence, teenage pregnancies and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, in which it has been shown that women are more often infected by their partners. A generation of women also find themselves having to care for ill relatives and younger siblings from as young as ten years old, due to the fatalities of the virus.
When we review all of this, from the perspective of a community who have just experienced a month of Divine felicity through fasting, in order that we may attain Taqwa (Living in God-Consciousness), as the Qur’an emphatically states (2:183), we are reminded that in striving to attain Taqwa, Allah also commands us to strive for Justice, as Allah says “Be Just, it is nearest to Taqwa” (5:8). Of the various forms of justice, the struggle for gender justice remains a pressing necessity of our times.
As we approach the days of Eid and reflect on the month of Ramadan, we see that fasting is at once a spiritual exercise which forces us to come to terms with our social realities, in order to bring about a state of Justice. In doing so, can we only truly embody the profound Qur’anic precept of believing men and women embracing as Awliya (helpers, supporters, friends and spiritual saints) of each other (9:71). This is part of our Fitrah because we are all created in the Sunnah of Allah Ta’ala and so, when we meet on the day of Eid al-Fitr we should meet in a spirit of celebrating a return to that ontological natural, unadulterated and pure condition, which gives us all the potential to affect spiritual and social change within ourselves and our communities through the recognition of Allah as our creator.
Safiyyah Surtee is a post-graduate candidate and teaching fellow at the University of Johannesburg in the department for the Study of Islam. She teaches Islam and Gender Justice and is a faith-based public speaker and writer.