Lean In – Our Feminist Manifesto

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم، والحمد لله رب العالمين، والصلاة والسلام على خاتم الأنبياء والمرسلين سيدنا محمد وعلى آله وصحبه أجمعين..

السلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاته..

In 1848 the Declaration of Sentiments was signed in Seneca Falls, New York by 68 women and 32 men. It was the beginning of a movement that would later be called ‘feminism.’ It was a declaration of the issues that plagued the western woman, issues of political exclusion, property rights, marriage and divorce laws, and issues of morality and independent accountability.

In the same year, 1848, Muslims were plagued by the colonial period. The colonial period began in Asia, moved to Africa, and carved out the nation states of the Arab world after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This colonial period brought with it great detriment to the status of the Muslim woman in these countries.

In West Africa during the pre-colonial era, women had benefited from the influx of Islam, and they were scholars and social activists – the most famous of whom is Nana Asma’u, who was a prolific writer, a leader and an educator who developed a system of learning that spread traditional Islamic knowledge throughout the cities and into the villages.

Before the colonialists, women in West Africa participated in the economy and education included functional skills and religious learning. Ogunsheye, a Nigerian scholar, says about women of the pre-colonial time, “a woman who was without a craft or trade, or who was totally dependent on her husband, was not only rare, but was regarded with contempt” (Aliyu, 1992).

Women, before the colonialists came to Africa, had political power. In the Khalifa of Osman Dan Fodio, women were part and parcel of the administrative systems used to uphold the ummah. In Zaria, a Queen “Amina” ruled successfully and turned her land into a powerful commercial center in a walled-off and protected city.

In the subcontinent of India, during the pre-colonial period – we also find women of political and social power..

In the thirteenth century, Razia, daughter of Shams al Din, was appointed as Sultan. Her father left his sultanate to her because he saw her more capable than his son. She did not immediately receive the succession because her brother contested, but not being a religious man, he failed the country and Razia took over. Sultan Razia (and I don’t say Sultana here because it is said that she herself preferred Sultan) established schools, academies, centers for research, and public libraries that included the Quran, books of ḥadīth and books of philosophers.

In the Arab world, we find numerous female scholars including Umm al Khair al Dimashqiyyah, whose death in the early sixteenth century was a prelude to the coming centuries of colonialism, and the upcoming dearth in female scholarship.

When Europe ruled the Muslims, they brought with them attitudes towards women, and a woman’s role, that began to change the norm for Muslims.

For some, women simply ceased to be recorded as educated. Again back to West Africa, families resisted sending their daughters to the western schools of the colonialists. Some still educated their daughters in Islamic sciences – and you can see a woman named Malimar Asha Dakando for evidence of such. But in general the women were recorded as illiterate, and indeed – since the focus of education had changed – women were losing their public presence, which had been the norm of their more Islamic life in the pre-colonial period.

The period between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries is the lowest period of Islamic scholarship for women in our history. Issues of political exclusion, marriage and divorce laws, and independent accountability have become relevant, the reasons for the declaration of sentiments in the United States have become rampant for Muslim women and – though original texts encouraged political and social activism, fair and safe marriage and divorce laws, and individual accountability towards God – Muslim women found themselves in oppressive situations, both publicly and privately.

Reclaiming Our Faith: “Lean In: Our Feminist Manifesto”

In the face of this deterioration of the rights of women, toward the end of the colonialist period, feminism began to find a place to take root. While there were indeed political agendas involved, there were also some real issues that needed addressing. Instead of addressing these very real problems, however, feminism became synonymous with ‘anti-Islam’ or the non-religious women. It became a westernization, rather than a clear and honest look at the political, social, educational and economic situation of women in Muslim countries. The “feminists” called for a removal of the ‘veil’ or hijab – indeed the hijab itself became the symbol of oppression. The religious element responded to what they perceived as an attack on the morality of women and the fabric of society by turning a blind eye to the real issues and pandering clichés about women in Islam.

Our men and women became confused and a rift began to develop.

This rift – between those who would take on the word ‘feminist’ as a banner to help eradicate the very real issues facing Muslim women around the world to the exclusion of classical Islam, and on the other side, those who would reject the word feminism and all it insinuated and make hollow speeches about the rights and responsibilities of women in Islam, thereby functionally ignoring the very real issues women today deal with.

And thus the theological fault was born. We sit today at the awkward rift of two plates – the plate of a Muslim populace who was brought up under the after-effects of the colonial period, and the plate of that same Muslim populace that is looking at the time of the least Islamic scholarship – for women as well as for men – and thus carries into our perceptions a level of unprecedented ignorance.

Where these two plates crash together, post-colonial culture + ignorance, the earthquake of the issues of women in Islam begins.

Our religion does indeed deal with the issues the feminist movement was originally developed to deal with. Islam provides solutions that are practical. They are without bitterness. They represent equality and fairness at its most elevated level.

Islam addresses political and social inclusion, issues of identity and issues of home and family law and life. Islam does not need western feminism, not in its past constraints, nor in its very modern, updated look. Muslims, who have allowed western thought to intrude into their perception of the Muslim woman, could use a jolt of western feminism – especially that which will bring them back into the foray of the Islamic solutions for our problems.

The western feminist movement was all but dead until Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, published her book in March 2013 and reignited it with new fuel. Her book, Lean In, was fascinating to me because it validated much of what I had been saying to Muslim women – the title itself being the most important point made in the entire book.

Lean In: for Sandberg this phrase summarizes what women should be doing in the workplace; for me it summarizes what women have been ordered to do since the time of the Prophet (saw).

Women at the time of the Prophet ﷺ did not sit back and wait to be asked to ‘join up.’ They did not sit around wondering if it was okay to participate in society. They ‘leaned in.’

They leaned in politically – Nusaibah bint Kaʿb (R) leaned in when she, as one of the two women who gave baiʿah at the second ʿaqabah, gave her full support to the Prophet ﷺ, which included both military and political support. Later, we will see her in battle after battle, fulfilling the promise she originally made. She did not sit at the back of the room and wonder what she should do – she leaned in and made a promise and then made a difference.

They leaned in civically – Al Shifāʾ bint Abdullah (R), a muhājirah, entered Islam as a healer. She used her medical skills and her reading and writing skills to lean in to both Meccan society and Medinan society. The Prophet ﷺ supported her skills and appointed her as teacher of both reading and writing and her healing arts. Later, she will lean into public life, when ʿUmar bin al Khattāb (R) appoints her as the ‘finance minister’ or ‘director of the marketplace.’ She leaned in to the civic sphere of service and succeeded in education, public health and economics

They leaned in socially – During the battle of al Khandaq, Rufaidah al Aslamiyyah pitched her hospital tent and received the wounded. The Prophet ﷺ, in clear support of what she was doing, sent Saʿd bin Muʿadh to her hospital tent for care when he was severely wounded. Rufaidah saw a need, leaned in and provided it.

They leaned in and were paid equally for their work – The Prophet’s ﷺ aunt Safiyyah (R) defended the strong house (or fort) she was in when Hassān bin Thābit proved incapable, and was given an equal share in the spoils of war.

They leaned in religiously – Um Waraqah’s home became a masjid for the women of Medina, she had a beautiful qirāʾah (recitation) and leaned in, asked for, and was given a muʾadhin at her house.

In every way we can fathom, we read stories of the women in Mecca and in Medina, leaning in. The given was: women are part and parcel of society; they are responsible; they must take on their share of work and care for it.

And when the hijab was established – this became the greatest ‘lean in’ of all time.

Now women were asked to be the courageous standard bearers of their faith. They were asked to stand forth as representative of believers. To be known.

Allah (swt) says in Sūrat al Aḥzāb, verse 59:

{يا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاء الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَن يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُوراً رَّحِيماً.} ]الأحزاب: 59[

{O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to lower over themselves a portion of their jilbabs. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be harmed. And ever is Allāh Forgiving and Merciful.} [al Aḥzāb: 59]

Arabs today run into the mistake of assuming words in the Quran or in the ḥadīth or sīrah carry the same meanings as those words carry in modern usage. The word ‘jilbāb’ is one of these words. If you look up the word jilbāb in Lisān al ʿArab – the quintessence of Arabic dictionaries – you will find that it refers (in this context) to khimār – or a headscarf. And this verse says that this headscarf should be worn that we might be known, ‘an yuʿrafna’.

There are pat-explanations that people like to throw around about ‘why’ women wear hijab in Islam. They are mostly irritating stories about diamonds and pearls and oranges – equating women to objects of decoration or pieces of fruit. But if we peel back the human interpretation we find that Allah (swt) Himself has laid plain the reasoning for hijab. That we may be known.

Like a sports team – We recognize each other.

Like an ethnic background – we feel comfortable with each other

Like a flag held high in the field of battle – we bravely go out each day – in every country of the world – and represent our Prophet ﷺ – our religion. We represent our men, who too often blend into the background, and we represent our hurting women who need our activism. We represent any woman of faith unsure how to outwardly express her conviction. We wear the scarf that we may be known.

The second part of the verse, ‘that we may not be harmed’, is not a guarantee of a flawless life. It does not mean you will not receive hurtful words from an ignorant soul; it does not mean you won’t be mocked, or even that you won’t be oppressed. Indeed, if we look to the prophetic example we understand that neither men nor women ran from physical pain, or life-threatening situations. If we look at Mecca and then later at Medina, women easily put themselves in danger to defend their faith; they did it with the approval and support of the Prophet ﷺ – women at battle like Um Salamah and Nusaibah bint Kaʿb, women on missions like Asmāʾ bint Abi Bakr and Rufaidah al Aslamiyyah, women who fearlessly spoke the truth and risked personal hardship like Um Sulaim, and women who risked their emotional wellbeing like Zainab bint Muḥammad ﷺ.

So the goal is not to protect a woman’s physical or even emotional self, but rather her spiritual and psychological self. That which bolsters a woman’s self the most is a sense of identity. By wearing hijab – regardless of the men in her life, regardless of the society she lives in, regardless of anything but her personal conviction – she gives herself a layer of strength and protection that can be penetrated by no one. Giving women this strength is, in and of itself, the beginning of solving some of our serious issues. Though I realize we have much more work to do than just wear a piece of fabric on our heads.

The women at the Prophet’s ﷺ time leaned in to their religion. When the verse was revealed,

{وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَى جُيُوبِهِنَّ} ]النور: 31[

{that the women should close their scarves at the dress slit} [al Nūr: 31], it is narrated by ʿᾹʾishah (R) that the women tore their embroidered fabric, fabric that was decorated with pictures of tents – in other words, fancy fabric that was more than likely of some value to the women, either in time spent embroidering or in money invested in purchasing. They tore this fabric and covered themselves with it. It is akin to the Muslims throwing their alcohol in the streets when the verse forbidding alcohol was revealed. No one ran around looking for a man to ask permission of, nor did they question their own interpretations of the verse. They understood. They followed through. They leaned in. And we follow in their footsteps when we too lean in and embrace this flag of our religion, this hijab.

With the phrase ‘lean-in’ western feminism has found some truth – the truth of individual accountability. Women, lean in. This is your life, your faith, your family, your country, your job – you are the only one who will be asked. Lean in.

At this juncture, I would like to lean in in a way that I hope will please the female audience, and perhaps give some new perspective to the male audience.

I am going to talk to the men. For years women have had to endure men telling us our rights and responsibilities. This isn’t payback – but maybe just a little.

I counsel and listen to women daily tell me tales of woe. Some of those problems are brought on by their own foolishness, or sometimes their problems are just qadr that must be faced; but a disproportionate number of those problems are stemming from you – the men in our lives.

Now I will assume that not a single one of you are the cause of any of those problems – but, as men, you also have access to the other men out there that are the troublemakers. I ask that you make a culture that considers the following:

One: Lean in to your household environment.

Stop complaining about the house. Women do not like drudgery. Laundry is drudgery. Picking up junk is drudgery. Dishes are drudgery.

It is often said that the Prophet ﷺ would help out at home. This is not true. The hadith does not say “kāna yusāʿid fī baitihi,” rather it says, “kāna yaʿmal fī baitihi”. This is a semantic difference, but it is an important distinction.

To say he worked at home as any one of you work at home is to take on the responsibility of the home. To say he helped means he’s a good guy ‘cause he picked up his towel…

Housework is not the Islamic duty of the Muslim woman. Indeed in the Ḥanafī madhhab, it is required that a Muslim man relieve her of such duties with household help, and if he does not, then at least to compensate her for those duties if she does them.

So imagine the sin incurred by the man who not only doesn’t work at home, does not provide for household help, and does not hand over cash in excess, but also complains and whines about the state of the house, or uses the state of the house to limit her goings and comings, or worse: yells at her because HIS laundry isn’t done. These are sins incurred and hanging heavily around the necks of our men today.

Start imitating the Prophet ﷺ, not by ‘helping’ at home, but by taking responsibility. Change the culture – remember Muslim women are not first and foremost your cleaning ladies. Your wife is not your in-house maid, and neither is your mother.

Thus if she does clean the house and you have magic drawers – drawers in which, every time you open them, you discover clean socks and clean shirts – then you are at the receiving end of her good will and charity. Treat her in the same way you would treat anyone else who went out of their way on a daily basis to make your life easier to live – by making hers easier to live.

So lean in to personal responsibility at home.

Two: Lean in to her personal development and support and celebrate her accomplishments.

I heard of a man who, upon hearing of his wife’s imminent graduation from college, said, “Good, you will have more time to spend at home now.” What? Does this sound like the words of our Prophet ﷺ? Or of his close companions (R)?

Many young women tell me that in saying to a suitor, “I’d like to work in my field,” she gets the answer, “If your household duties are done,” an answer that says your hope to contribute is not valuable to me.

Our Prophet ﷺ and the early salaf (R) were of those who lavished well-earned praise and supported people for their accomplishments, men and women.

Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ said about Khadījah (R), “She believed in me when no one believed in me; she believed the truth when people thought I was a liar; she supported me with her wealth when nobody gave me; and Allah granted me children from her not from anyone else.” [Musnad al Imām Aḥmad, vol. 5:116] He ﷺ did not dismiss her loyalty as ‘expected’, but continued to appreciate it with his words after her death.

He ﷺ said about Zainab (R), “She was the best among my daughters, she suffered for my sake.” [Majmaʿ al Zawāʾid, vol. 9:37]

ʿUmar bin al Khattāb (R) said about Um Salamah (R), “Let anyone who has a mother like Um Salamah come to me,” and he said that because he had established a salary for her as she was a teacher of fiqh.

The Prophet ﷺ recognized al Shifāʾ’s (R) professional success and rewarded her for teaching Ḥafsah to read and write by asking her to teach her the healing arts.

When Fātimah (R), the daughter of Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ, would enter a room, her father – the prophet of all humankind – would stand to greet her, and take her and sit her next to him.

He ﷺ gave bolstering words to Safiyyah (R) speaking about her to others and saying, “She has embraced and perfected her Islam.” [al Tabaqāt al Kubrā, Vol. 8:126]

He spoke with recognition of strength and devotion, when he ﷺ said about Nusaibah bint Kaʿb (R), “I never turned right or left without beholding her fighting to defend me.” [al Tabaqāt al Kubrā, Vol. 8:416].

Again and again we hear stories of support and celebration of women’s accomplishments – so do not be the one who stands in the way of your daughter’s or wife’s or sister’s or mother’s living a full life.

Pay for extra schooling, for more degrees.

Take care of the children so she can attend classes – without being in a bad mood when she returns.

Pay for a nanny to care for them twice a week while she gives back to the community and spends time learning.

Be the crutch she leans on, the person she laughs with, the person she knows will stand beside her.

Be as our Prophet ﷺ was.

Lean in to her personal development.

Three: Lean in to a spiritual life and a joyful life.

Create a serious worship schedule for yourself. Enough of the paltry farḍ prayers that are the habit of most of the serious of our ummah. It is time to get up at night. We as an ummah must bring back this most important sunnah prayer. We must pay heed to Allah (swt) when He says to us,

{قُمِ اللَّيْلَ إِلَّا قَلِيلاً} ]المزمل:2[

“Stand at night, but for a little,” [al Muzammil: 2].

And when he says in Surat al Insān,

{وَمِنَ اللَّيْلِ فَاسْجُدْ لَهُ وَسَبِّحْهُ لَيْلاً طَوِيلاً} ]الإنسان: 26[

{And of the night, prostrate yourself to Him, and glorify Him during the long night.} [al Insān: 26].

And in Surat al Isrāʾ,

{وَمِنَ اللَّيْلِ فَتَهَجَّدْ بِهِ نَافِلَةً لَّكَ عَسَى أَن يَبْعَثَكَ رَبُّكَ مَقَاماً مَّحْمُوداً} ]الإسراء:79[

{And rise from sleep during the night – it is an additional prayer for you. Perhaps your Lord will raise you to an honored position.} [al Isrāʾ: 79]

We must come to this prayer as Tamīm bin Aws (R), who, when he missed his tahajjud prayer on one lone night, he repented for an entire year; praying all night, every night.

The result of this spiritual leaning in should be joy.

Bring joy into your home.

Smile. Make a conscious effort to smile.

Say thank you. Thank your wife, your mother, your sisters for the nice things they do.

Compliment. Find something nice to say, every day.

Celebrate. Find reasons to give gifts – the Prophet ﷺ said “tahāddū, taḥābbū,” you will find a happier home is a home wherein lots of gifts are given.

Read Quran in your homes, play, smile, and laugh. Bring the prophetic example into your homes. Cheer up.

Lean in to your families with your own worship schedule, and with smiles, thank yous and celebrations.

Finally:

The situation of Muslim women today is not one that would be recognizable by our beloved Prophet ﷺ. In his time, he turned a patriarchal society on its nose; he supported women in the military, women working, women in all aspects of social and public life. Because we are a faith – and not simply a social theory – the core issue for men and women was, and remains, his and her relationship with Allah (swt). In order to live this life; he ﷺ taught all of his companions to ‘lean in.

Faced now with a post-colonial culture and unprecedented ignorance, women – and men – must imitate this sunnah, and start leaning in once again.

* We must learn and seek knowledge. Men – be your wives’, daughters’, mothers’, and sisters’ greatest cheerleaders. Spend your money on their education. Do not find yourself bitterly resenting less service at home. Remember that women were not created to do laundry, but rather to worship Allah (swt) and serve humanity, as you. Follow in the footsteps of Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ and be of those who can say proudly when you speak of your wife, or one of your female relatives, “Take of your religion from this one.”

Men and women, lean in – learn Arabic, memorize Quran – celebrate each other’s victories. Get degrees, study Islam, learn in an organized fashion. Attend Zaytuna College, attend the Ribaat Academic Institute.

* Lean in with hijab. Men – you cannot force a standard bearer to carry the flag of war, for if it is not carried with strength, the entire army will suffer. So do not be of those who force your womenfolk into hijab – however – be wary that you are not of those who deter her. Do not be of those who fight against her desire to carry that flag. Women – lean in to the responsibility. Wear it, and stand proud. You are not an orange. You are not a diamond. You are a Muslim woman. Stand up and be known.

Let us nod at the declaration of sentiments, with our own declaration – a declaration of sunnah. Let us not run from the word ‘feminist’ but recognize what is within it that is valuable to our path.

Let us lean in – and be, finally and again, believers – men and women alike.

والحمد لله رب العالمين..

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