Event: Women’s Rights in Islam at UCSB
By: Sifat Reazi
Zaytuna College Scholar Discusses Women’s Rights in Islam at UCSB
Social networking, texting, and email were abuzz last month in Santa Barbara. Not often does the small coastal city host Muslim scholars with backgrounds in both traditional and Western education. One might have assumed a pop star was dropping by. As a diverse congregation of about 150 rustled into an antiquated lecture hall, one could see that this was not just a “Muslim” event. Audience members included students, children, faculty, and local community members, some of whom drove over fifty miles to attend.
Imam Zaid Shakir, the co-founder of Zaytuna College and one of the most critically engaged Muslim scholars of Islam in America, visited the University of California, Santa Barbara to share his thoughts on two major topics: the rights of women in Islam and Black History Month. Both topics are important to American Muslims and the treatment of women in Islam is particularly contentious. During the course of Imam Zaid’s talk and ensuing Q&A session, he discussed a myriad of topics, including race relations during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), education, social ills, the war in Iraq, South Central Los Angeles and femininity.
To clarify the importance, contributions, and the misconceptions about women in Islam, Imam Zaid began his lecture by recounting a roster of early Muslim women that reached the pinnacles of society during the time of the Prophet (SAW) in 7th century AD. Despite a culture and people that normalized the denigration and suppression of women, the Prophet’s (SAW) wife Khadijah owned her own business and employed the Prophet (SAW). In Imam Zaid’s words, “She would have been considered a CEO in our vernacular,” and his (SAW) wife Zaynab bint Jahsh (RA) would be have been considered the president of her own non-profit. Ayesha (RA) also led an opposing political faction that engaged the nation’s leadership. Imam Zaid succinctly illustrated many of the accomplishments made by the female companions of the Prophet (SAW) which included mastering of religious law, leading an army of men, and thus creating an indelible mark on Islamic history.
A serious quandary is undeniable, however, when considering the present treatment of Muslim women. Many Muslims are keen to the issue, as well. Samaneh Oladi, a PhD student in Religious Studies, asked Imam Zaid, “Where did it go wrong? We hear these traditions of the women during the Prophet’s (SAW) time, but that is not what we see now.” Imam Zaid answered promptly: “Education.” Limited education, he explained, is the root cause of oppression in many patriarchal societies, as Islam is inherently against the oppression of women. The access and ability of women to attain an education in many Muslim countries is severely limited. When women are unable to read religious texts for themselves and consequently rely on men for the interpretation of those texts, women are often exploited. Societies should focus on the providing education to instill a lasting change. Imam Zaid added that culture stands as the central driving force in most societies and that Islam is not at odds with culture, but with the negative mores of society. In the modern times, especially regarding women, it is critical to understand the nuances between cultural expectations and religion.
Even today there are significant examples of Muslim women accomplishing phenomenal feats. Asma Mahfouz, the provocateur who helped trigger protests in Egypt with a single viral video has declared: “Whoever says women shouldn’t protest [...] should be man enough to come with me.” Women are not taking charge solely in Egypt either. In countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia Muslim women are at the forefront of every facet in society, from government to education. Literacy rates for Muslim women in these countries are higher now and increasing. Yet these accomplishments rarely flash across the television screen. Instead, sadly, we see the usual and constant albatross of negative bias. But in spite of the media, Muslim women continue to progress in the face of glaring adversity.
As the night persisted, the curiosity of the audience peaked as the focus shifted to contemporary politics. During the Q&A, Imam Zaid addressed the bellicosity of American foreign policy along with the idea of femininity. While discussing the matter he touched upon the apparently double standard when it comes to the assessment of women’s rights—that is, women should wear slacks but men should never wear a dress because it would be an affront to his masculinity. With all being said, Imam Zaid Shakir refused to define “femininity” when prompted by an audience member, stating it was a conversation that needed female participation.
In highlighting their achievements and drawing attention to the many setbacks faced by Muslim women, Imam Zaid presented a more lucid picture of the issue and left the audience with the idea that Muslim women cannot be generalized into a snapshot or television blurb. Islam, rather than being oppressive to Muslim women, aims to liberate and nurture their potential. And this is an achievable ideal, as clearly evident amongst the closest companions of the Prophet (SAW).
The event was an admirable collaboration between Islamic Relief, UCSB Women’s Center, Associated Students Finance Board, Student Commission on Racial Equality (SCORE), Associated Students Womyn’s Commission, East African Student Union (EASU), Black Pioneers Renaissance Organization (BPRO) and the UCSB Muslim Student Association (MSA).