On Gender Mainstreaming and Male Solidarity

An important component of Wadud’s Qur’anic exegesis is gender mainstreaming: that is, approaching female figures discussed in the text as paradigms of piety for all Muslims, men and women. As Muslim progressives have noted, a pressing problem in Muslim women’s leadership is not that it does not exist, but rather that it is largely restricted to women’s issues and thus the leadership of other women.157 The confinement of female participation to women’s committees in the mosque, as opposed to wider leadership roles concerning the whole community, is an everyday example that immediately comes to mind. Yet the Qur’an, Wadud interjects, discusses a number of female figures in starkly universal terms. Q. 66:10-12 is a compelling case in point:

God draws an example for those who are faithless (lilladhina kafaru): the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot. They were under two of our righteous servants, yet they betrayed them, and even they [Noah and Lot] could not avail them in the least against God, and it was said to them: ‘Enter the Fire, along with the incomers.’ God draws another example for those who have faith (lilladhina amanu): the wife of Pharaoh, when she said, ‘My Sustainer! Build me a home near You in Paradise, and save me from Pharaoh and his deeds, and save me from a wicked people.’ And Mary, daughter of Imran, who guarded the chastity of her womb, so We breathed into it of Our spirit. She confirmed the words of her Sustainer and His Books, and she was one of the obedient ones (qanitin).

Highlighting the Arabic usage of the masculine plural, which grammatically includes both men and women, as opposed to the feminine plural, which denotes only women, Wadud comments that this passage is usually interpreted as being applicable to women alone—a problematic reading given that the above wording is gender neutral, referring to ‘those who are faithless’, ‘those who have faith’, and ‘the obedient ones’.[1] These women, therefore, are being used as parables for both men and women to reflect upon. Whereas figures like the wife of Pharaoh and Mary are presented as paradigms of spiritual leadership, the Qur’an also speaks of a woman who embodied the qualities of political leadership. Like Engineer,[2] Wadud points out that the Qur’an not only praises the personality of the Queen of Sheba, singling out her political wisdom and diplomatic skill (Q. 27:29-35),[3] but that she is also the only ruler, other than the prophets, who is portrayed in a favourable light.161 Yet despite the text’s celebration of this sovereign, she has curiously not become a paradigmatic figure in Islamic political thought. As the Qur’anic scholar Barbara Stowasser has shown, classical and medieval commentators, while ascribing various legendary tales to the Queen, showed little interest in fleshing out wider lessons from her example, examining how the queen’s astute leadership skills could contribute to Muslim thinking,[4] such as in the field of political theory. Indeed, in direct contradistinction to the Qur’an’s positive portrayal of the Queen, as well as the fact that the text never presents men as natural leaders,[5] many Muslim men continue to approach leadership—political, social, religious, or otherwise—as a male prerogative, dismissing women as being inherently incompetent for the task of leadership.[6]

Women’s leadership in ritual worship is a crucial aspect of gender mainstreaming. The struggle for gender justice, or what Wadud calls the ‘gender jihad’, is therefore a thoroughly comprehensive struggle, calling for the full and equal participation of women in every aspect of Muslim life.[7] While Wadud has popularized the term gender jihad, especially through the publication of her second book—Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam (2006)—the origins of this phrase can be traced back, as she herself notes, to radical Muslim discourse in Apartheid South Africa. Here, the term was first used by Imam Rashied Omar,[8] the spiritual guide of the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town, and Esack, who actually has a section titled ‘The Gender Jihad’ in his book on Islamic liberation theology, published in 1997.[9] In fact, the first time that Wadud seriously considered the idea of a woman delivering the Friday sermon (khutba) and leading the prayers was whilst undertaking a speaking tour in South Africa in 1994, in which audience members asked her about the possibility of women’s leadership in ritual worship.[10] As it turned out, she delivered the Friday sermon during that very tour, speaking at the Claremont Main Road Mosque on the timely subject of Muslim women and ‘engaged surrender’, or the act of wilfully submitting to God through personal and social struggle.[11] As Esack recounts, despite the fact that the prayer organizers (of whom he was one) had diplomatically advertised Wadud’s sermon as a ‘pre-sermon lecture’, this initiative was met with intense hostility by mainstream South African Muslims, who marched on the mosque in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to shut down the programme.[12] This impassioned condemnation of woman-led prayer, spearheaded by conservative men, became internationalized in 2005 when Wadud led the Friday Prayer in New York City, speaking on the Unity of God and the nature of divine disclosure.[13] Traditional Islamic scholars from around the world vehemently voiced their disapproval, contending that a female prayer leader would only distract the male worshippers sexually, hampering their ability to concentrate.[14]

But despite all these heated responses to woman-led prayers, a significant number of which were personal attacks levelled against Wadud’s character, what bothered her the most was the problematic attitude of progressive Muslim men who supported her leadership of the prayers. For far more attention was being paid, she laments, to the wonderful fact that a woman was finally giving the sermon (the form) rather than what that human being was actually saying at the pulpit (the substance).[15] Reflecting on the South African sermon, Wadud recounts that she was informed that she would speak less than an hour before the prayer and that flyers, as she would later find out, had been circulated before her arrival in Cape Town.174 The substantive message of the lecture, then, was clearly not a priority for the organizers. She sums up her grievances as follows:

the planners were thinking and acting like men in exclusion of women’s

full humanity, while yet pretending to employ a woman as an agent of

gender transformation. They were thinking for the woman, rendering her a mere object of their privileged agency. How can a woman be a full and equal human being when the details of her public role are orchestrated without her consultation? ... informing me at the last minute also indicates that very little value was attributed to the content of my actual khutba [sermon]. This event was about form.[16]

In other words, in order for women to become meaningful leaders in ritual worship—rather than simply being tokens pushed to the fore by progressive men—not only must the substance of their religious discourses be taken as seriously as the form (or the fact that a female is delivering the sermon and leading the prayer) but women themselves need to play the chief role in planning and executing these gender-inclusive activities.[17]

This brings us to the complex question of male solidarity: that is, how can progressive men stand alongside women and partake in the struggle against patriarchy? When I posed this question to Wadud in our interview, she responded:

The thing is that women have to be able to speak for themselves, even if they don’t speak sufficiently at first. I mean they have to. So what happens? What’s the role of men? The role of men is to inform themselves and then to advocate on behalf of gender justice with other

men. That’s the biggest role that they can do____If men are together and

other men make condescending statements about women, that’s what men can do. But it’s not that you speak for women.[18] [My italics]

So in order to avoid (mis)representing women and reproducing gender inequality in the very struggle against patriarchy—such as that of progressive men speaking over the voices of women, whether these women are progressive, conservative, or otherwise—men need to combat gender asymmetry within specifically male spaces. In forwarding this argument, Wadud draws upon the ideas of the

Black American revolutionary Malcolm X and his stance on White solidarity,[19] summed up in his famous autobiography as follows:

What can a sincere white person do? When I say that here now, it makes me think about that [White] little co-ed [college student] I told you about, the one who flew from her New England college down to New York and came up to me in the Nation of Islam’s restaurant in Harlem [asking how can a White person contribute to the struggle against racism?], and I told

her that there was ‘nothing’ she could do. I regret that I told her that____

The first thing I tell them [White people] is that at least where my own particular Black nationalist organization, the Organization of Afro-

American Unity, is concerned, they can’t join us____Where the really

sincere white people have got to do their ‘proving’ of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is—and that’s in their own home communities. American racism is among their own fellow whites. That’s where the sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work.[20]

Wadud’s discourse on gender segregation, then, is a nuanced one. Whereas earlier on this chapter showed how she used the Qur’an to critique forced female seclusion, here she embraces segregation as not only a strategy to pre-empt the formation of patriarchal hierarchies that typify mixed gender spaces, but also as a means of enabling women to meet and work with other women, exchanging one another’s experiences and struggles.[21] This is not to suggest, however, that she is dismissive of the commitments of progressive men. In fact, Wadud attributes the origins of her decades-long work on Islam and gender justice to the inspirational figure of her late father: a poor,

Black Methodist minister who, despite overwhelming odds, strove tirelessly to provide for his family.[22] Moreover, it is important to note that while she sharply criticizes the gender dynamics of the South African sermon, she also salutes the courage of the male organizers, acknowledging that this event would not have been possible without their support.[23] Rather, the point that Wadud is driving home here is that social struggle requires the self-representation of the oppressed and because women alone are the owners of their experiences—lived realities that can only be understood and explained by women—it is paramount that they speak for themselves.[24]

  • [1] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 33-4.
  • [2] Engineer, The Rights of Women in Islam, 17.
  • [3] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 40-1. 161 Ibid, 89.
  • [4] Stowasser, 65. 2 Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 89.
  • [5] 164 In the previous chapter on Engineer it was shown that the hadith literature has
  • [6] been used to justify women’s exclusion from leadership roles.
  • [7] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 10. As noted earlier, although the Arabic wordjihad is commonly understood as holy war, it literally means to struggle or to exerteffort and, therefore, includes all forms of strivings: individual or communal, peacefulor militant, expressly political or ‘purely’ spiritual.
  • [8] Ibid, 264. Omar (b. 1959) is a well-known progressive Muslim figure in SouthAfrica. Like Esack, he has a traditional Islamic education—studying in South Africa,Pakistan, Sudan, and Malaysia—as well as a ‘secular’ academic one. Omar received hisPh.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Cape Town and is currently ResearchScholar of Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for InternationalPeace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in the USA. He spends two-thirdsof the year in Cape Town serving as the coordinating imam of the Claremont MainRoad Mosque. See Rashied Omar, faculty website, available at: http://kroc.nd.edu/facultystaff/Faculty/rashied-omar, accessed 13 August 2016.
  • [9] Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 239. An earlier reference by Esack to‘Gender Jihad’, describing the 1994 Friday sermon in South Africa (which will bediscussed next), can be found in Farid Esack, “Between Mandela and Man Dalla,Kafirs and Kaffirs: Post Modernist Islamic Reflections in a Post Apartheid SouthAfrica,” Reviews in Religion and Theology 2:3 (1995): 25.
  • [10] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 166.
  • [11] For the full text of the Cape Town sermon, see ibid, 158-62.
  • [12] Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 246.
  • [13] For the full text of the New York City sermon, see Wadud, Inside the GenderJihad, 249-52.
  • [14] Ibid, 222. 6 Wadud, Interview 2009.
  • [15] 174 Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 167-8.
  • [16] Ibid, 172. It is perhaps precisely because of the effective silencing of her voice at,ironically, the very moment that she spoke that Wadud includes the full texts of theSouth African and New York City sermons in her second book, Inside the GenderJihad.
  • [17] For a critical feminist perspective on woman-led prayer in Islam, arguing thatsimply placing women at the helm of a hierarchal and exclusionary liturgical structureis insufficient, especially in terms of fostering inclusivity and community, see: ShadaabRahemtulla, ‘Toward a Genuine Congregation: The Form of the Muslim FridayPrayer, Revisited’, in Only One is Holy: Liturgy in Postcolonial Perspectives, ed.Claudio Carvalhaes (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
  • [18] Wadud, Interview 2009.
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (London:Penguin, 2001), 494-5.
  • [21] Wadud, Interview 2009. Although Wadud does not explicitly situate herselfwithin a wider theoretical discourse here, it is important to note that separatism has along history in feminist thought, particularly as a political strategy, as a short-termmove in order for women to empower themselves collectively before re-enteringpatriarchal, gender-mixed spaces. On feminist separatism, see Dana R. Shugar, Separatism and Women’s Community (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press,1995) and Marilyn Frye, ‘Some Reflections on Separatism and Power’, in FeministSocial Thought: A Reader, ed. Diana T. Meyers (London: Routledge, 1997). As theabove quotation from Malcolm X suggests, separatism as a tool of empowerment alsohas deep roots in African American intellectual and social history. For an excellent,though admittedly dated, reference work on this body of literature, see BettyC. Jenkins and Susan Phillis, Black Separatism: A Bibliography (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1976).
  • [22] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 4. 2 Ibid, 179.
  • [23] 183 Wadud, ‘Sisters in Islam’, 131.
  • [24] 184 Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 28. While this text was published in 2006, it is
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