Ramadan in lockdown has been interesting and it has created new and exciting opportunities for learning, for connecting, for developing.
I have connected with the Qur’an and its teachings in different ways to how I have before. As I get older and as I learn more, I have an interest in looking beyond the common narrative, thinking about the lives of people, trying to connect with those who have gone before us and thinking about how it must have been for them and how the teachings apply to me now, a woman in Britain in 2020.
In the Qur’an there is a whole chapter called Mary, ‘Maryam’ in Arabic, relating to the mother of Jesus, peace be upon them both. She is a central figure through the Qur’an and we learn about her character, some insights about her life and the lead up to the birth of her son.
This year one thing that really struck me was listening to a commentary of the part of the Qur’an where Mary is basically in labour, in pain, wondering if she will be able to cope. As someone who has given birth four times, I can relate to that feeling! The (male) commentator referenced the verse but spoke about it in a way I found surprising and I guess disappointing. He had taken her crying out in pain as an indication of her shame and embarrassment at being pregnant, without a husband, and wondering what people would think. I discussed it with a few women friends and none of us saw it in that way!
Over my 25 years of being around Muslims and more recently developing deep connections and friendships with women of all faiths, I have realised that so much of what we read, so many of the commentaries, so many of the books we use to help us understand our faith teachings, are by men. And that in itself is OK, but not if that means that women’s perspectives and experiences are erased or simply not heard.
We live in a world where there is inequality in every place you want to look. Board rooms, charities, communal organisations, government. And the gender pay gap is still a thing. Yes, things have shifted massively from where they were 100 years ago, but we can’t be complacent.
And then we come specifically to religious spaces, to places of worship, to leadership positions in our faith communities. It is often an easy fix to speak about Muslim women as oppressed, to look at Islam as teaching that women are inferior to men. Of course, even a basic reading of the Qur’an or a very brief overview of Muhammad’s life will show you otherwise, peace be upon him.
The challenge for women like me is that when we highlight inequalities or show how biased towards men many of our spaces are, we are often accused of being radical feminists trying to change the faith.
Earlier this week a new Government task force was launched to look at how we move forward as faith communities and come out of lockdown, ease back into our places of worship and manage the risks as much as we can. A great and noble effort of course and really good to see all faiths at the table working together with government on this. The problem? All of the people listed on that taskforce are men. How can that be OK? Women’s voices are crucial at this time and they need to be heard and given a seat at that table too. Women’s perspectives and experiences are often different and can give an outlook that needs to be considered. As I like to point out, women are half of humanity and gave birth to the other half!
So we as women of faith need to be seen and we need to be heard. We need to find more ways to come together, share our learning and challenge the status quo when we see it. And to do that I believe we are stronger, together. Our shared experiences of how our faith teachings play out in our lives are more common than many people realise. Muslim women have become an easy scapegoat for what are actually much wider inequalities: “the poor Muslim women who need saving from the evil men around them”. While I am among those who will call out issues in Muslim communities where I see them, I also know that view and approach is patronising and counter-productive. We want you to walk with us, work with us, challenge with us. Let’s develop opportunities and strong voices, together, as women of faith. We can highlight and challenge the bad, we can celebrate and bring to the fore the positives and inspirational.
So I go back to Mary, mother of Jesus, to Khadijah, to Aisha, to Hajar, to Fatima al-Fihri (who established the world’s first ever university in Morocco in 859) and to so many other brave and noble women in the Qur’an and throughout our shared history. Let’s bring out their stories and those of other women whose names have been lost.
I believe it is us as women of faith who can lead this, we have a vested interest, we see ourselves in those women’s stories, we want the world to know them and learn from them. We must be seen and heard.
Together, we can thrive.