Transcript: Misconceptions of women’s rights under Islam

The following is a transcript of a talk by New York Police Department (NYPD) Chaplin Iman Khalid Lathif on women’s rights under Islam, aired on Television Maldives.

It is said that during the time of the Prophet (pbuh), a man by the name of Sayyid bin Zaid comes to the prophet (pbuh) asking about the status of his father. That this man Sayyid bin Zaid comes to prophet (pbuh) and he says “Ya rasoolullah, my father passed away before you started preaching your message, what will his situation be?”

A Nation Unto Himself

We have to understand this man Sayyid bin Zaid, is the son of a man by the name of Zaid bin Amr ibn Nufayl, a man who was known as being Hanif (believing in one god). A man who when he saw injustice being carried out in front of him, in that Meccan society, he would make it a point to stand up for those who were being oppressed.

That amongst the many things this man would do, it is said that it was commonplace at that time when a family would give birth to a daughter they would bury the girl alive because they wanted to have sons. That literally, they would take these women and they would put them into the ground because they did not want to have these women in their homes, rather they wanted to have young men who would extend their lineage.

So this man Zaid bin Amr ibn Nufayl, he would make a point to go into families where daughters were born into and he would say to those in that family “If you do not want them, give them to me, I will look after them.”

His son now Sayyid bin Zaid has come to the prophet (pbuh) and he says “Ya rasulullahi, what is the status of my father?”

The Prophet (pbuh), he says “on that Day of Judgment when each and every individual will be standing behind the person that they claim to be a follower of, when the nation of Moosa (pbuh) will be standing behind the prophet Moses. When Issa (pbuh) will be standing behind Prophet Jesus, when the nation of Mohamed (pbuh) will be standing behind our prophet (pbuh), your father will stand as a nation unto himself.”

That he will be given such a distinction, such an elevation, he will be given such recognition because of the things he stood for. He will be embodied as a nation unto himself, not standing behind anyone else, it will just be him all alone.

Rights of Women As Part of Our Tradition

What we understand from this is that most definitely there is a great reward in being somebody who will uphold the rights of women. As for our tradition, as for our paradigm, we understand that there are individuals who made it a point to go and stand up on behalf of those who were oppressed.

We also understand that at that time, there was a violation of women’s rights. But just as there was violation of women’s, rights there were men and women who sought to be those proponents of justice who would say “we will not stand and watch these women’s rights be violated! We will make it a point to ensure that they are given and restored everything that is owed to them.”

In a common place, in a common time, we find there has become a gross violation of the rights of women all over the world. Both in the Muslim community and outside of it, we see there is a mistreatment of women in a variety of societies and in a variety of communities, in a variety of cultures, most definitely there are women who are abused in all ways shapes and form.

Today’s Transition to Abuse

We want to understand why that is. How do we get to a point where a transition takes place? That our religion tells us, that we need to be upholding the rights that are given to any individual regardless of their socio-economic reality. But we see now specific with this topic of women and their rights, there are women who are being abused everywhere. Where does it come from? How does it transpire? What is it rooted in? Really how do we understand its existence?

I think the question that we pose; are there women’s rights in Islam?

It is something that yields an obvious answer. That if we are to say: is it problematic for a father to hit his daughter? Is it problematic for a husband to hit his wife? Is it problematic for anybody who has been endowed with a certain authority and a certain responsibility that comes with that authority to not uphold the responsibility that goes along with that authority?

But rather violate it and put the people who are in reliance upon them, put that principal of trust in a place where that trust is shattered; most assuredly you would say that this is something that is wrong. But how does it come to pass?

How is it that we make this transition? How is it that these things exist? We want to understand the conversation on a deeper level so that we can find its root and begin to take on solutions that make very viable and credible sense.

We have to understand that it is not right for women to be abused in Islam. It is not right for to abuse the rights of any human being regardless of their socio-economic background. It is not for us to put ourselves in a place where we can find and restrict people to such a way of life that we say that: we will cause you to be oppressed and we will let injustice run rampant because we are in a position of authority! We are of the elite and you have to succumb to the way that we think you should live!

And we see that this was something that was upheld during the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and throughout the history of Muslim community.

That in moments where women’s rights were being violated, a mobilisation took place on a individual level and a mass level to ensure that that woman’s rights were restored.

During the time of Meccan Arabia, slavery was something that was practiced. That it was something that was there, it was something we understand that existed, and Islam very interestingly approaches this issue as well and the processes by which He emancipates women from all over the world.

And so we have the situation in our tradition where there are two women. A woman by the name of Zunaira and a woman by the name of Lubaina. Zunaira is a woman who was the slave of a man by the name of Abu Jahul and it’s said that Abu Jahul used to beat her so hard that she actually lost her eyesight.

Lubaina was a woman who was a in servitude of Umar bin Al Khattaab before he becomes a Muslim and Umar used to beat this woman so often when he would stop he would say: “Don’t think I am having mercy upon you, I am just tired, when I get my strength back I’m gonna start it again.” And Abu Bakuru (ra) he makes it a point to purchase the freedom of these two women.

And when his father says to him “why are you doing this? Why don’t you spend this money on freeing some young men? Who after you free them, they will have your back, they will support you to do anything, and they will be able to offer something to you! What is the point of doing something for these ladies?”

Abu Bakuru (ra) he says that “this is not the intention I am doing this by. I don’t expect something in return. I don’t expect that I will get something out of this. The reason as to why I am freeing these women, it is not because I want something from it, but because I know this would be most pleasing to Allah (swt) that that motivation for me. That I can’t stand by and watch this kind of injustice take place in front of my eyes. If I have the means to help them, if I have the means to preserve them, why would I not do so?”

Then during the time of Caliph Musta’sim Billah, it is said that at the outskirts of a Muslim empire a Roman soldier violates a Muslim woman. And Musta’sim Billah, this woman’s cries go out to him as the Caliph, as the Ameer ul-Momineen (Caliph of Muslims). And she says “Ya Musta’sim, where are you? That you have been entrusted to protect my rights and my dignity where are you? And what are you doing?”

And Musta’sim Billah Ameer ul-Mohmineen (Caliph of Muslims), it is said he deploys 30,000 Muslim soldiers to defend the dignity of that one woman.

Culture Restricts Women, Not Islam

That’s where we used to be. And this is where we are today. Where we have stereotype upon stereotype and misconception upon misconception of how the world perceives Islam because we are in a state where we are oppressing our women.

Deprivation of education. Domestic violence and abuse. Female genital mutilation. Forced marriages. All kinds of things, run rampant in our communities and what are we doing about it?

So we have to try and understand how we can address it.

Primarily, you want to think about what the root is of this issue. We see there is much confusion on issues of gender within the Muslim discourse. Where we don’t really graduate beyond the conversation of what is the permissibility of the interaction between a man and a woman. And we don’t get into deeper conversations that we need to; in terms of responsibilities and duties that are aligned with this concept of gender.

We have to be comfortable with an understanding that many things that are socially constructed are reflective of what is normative within the culture (not necessarily within Islam), and that those things are actually being constructed. And we have to be able to very comfortably distinguish between what is culturally acceptable, what is socially acceptable, and what is religiously acceptable.

And if a culture puts itself in a place where it says it’s ok for us to oppress the rights of any other person, especially women for no other reason than the fact that they are born female, this is something that is very problematic from an Islamic standpoint.

Educate Our Men

Because Islam comes to liberate, it doesn’t come to restrict. Whether it’s a man or a woman who is the point of discussion. And one of the issues we have around this issue of gender is that we don’t really discuss it in modes that it need to be discussed. More often than not in our conversations about gender revolve around the responsibilities of women in Islam.

But how often do you go to a lecture that says to you: this is the responsibilities, this is the thing that you have to be as a young Muslim man? Who teaches our man how to be man? Who teaches them how to uphold the responsibilities endowed to a man for no other reason other than the fact that he is male?

In the United States we see common place in our conversations of gender is that you have a man telling woman how to be a Muslim woman. You don’t have Muslim woman who are sharing their experiences of what it’s actually like to be a woman and letting audiences and men here what in fact they go through in a daily basis.

More often than not to take on stereotypes, you see perhaps the panel of women that are empowered by their Islam discussing why they should be role models to other Muslim women, but you don’t have conversations of who needs to be a role model for a young Muslim man. And then you get confusion on responsibilities that pertain to gender.

Why is it fair for a mother to have to be a father because a father was never taught what kind of responsibilities he should be upholding because when he was younger nobody presented to him what were his responsibilities as a man.

And we see that throughout the hadith, throughout our tradition, that Prophet (pbuh) primarily is making Islam very tangible for all his community members – putting it in a place, where it takes direct consideration of their specific circumstances and within that he is showing young men how in fact to be men.

We don’t do this in our conversations on gender. Have you ever had a lecture here that talks about principals of “futuwwa?” Principals of chivalry that exists in Islam? Where the Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) is described in the Quran as being futaah; described as being a young man who espouses such a nobility and from that word we derive the characteristic of futuwwa that we translate as nothing else other than chivalry, which puts you in a place where you are seeking to serve others and that is your primary mode of thought.

Not looking to bring them down, but putting yourself in a place where you seek to act justly with somebody else, without demanding justice for yourself. (But sometimes) it doesn’t happen. And when it doesn’t happen, you see the violations that take place.

It’s important for the stories to be heard, it’s important for the experiences to be heard, because the rights are there. It is written. It’s just not observed.

Starting the Conversation

And starting those conversations on gender, they become important. And then we have to begin to develop resources where we understand that although it is an unfortunate reality; it is a reality nonetheless that women are oppressed. And they have their rights abused all over the world, whether they are Muslim or not.

But one of the biggest issues they face is not only the fact that their rights are being abused, but after they’ve been abused they don’t know where to go. Where do they turn to? What are the viable organisations and institutions? What kinds of services are provided for them? Where can they let out everything that is taking place within them, because they have been mistreated in some way?

I was 19 years old the first time I met a young woman who had been beaten by her father. She came to see me and speak to me about what had taken place and she had bruises on her face, that she tried to cover up with some kind of makeup, but you could see that they were there.

When she came to speak to me about what she had gone through, I had no idea what to say to her. I didn’t know where to direct her, I didn’t know what to tell her to do, I didn’t know that you could go to speak to so and so and go to this place and they will help you out. I had no idea whatsoever.

We need to ask ourselves the same question. If somebody came to speak to you, to ask you for help if they found themselves in that situation, would you know what to do? Would you know where to direct them? Would you know where to send them? Would you know how to help them? That’s a big problem.

We don’t necessarily have access to leadership. We don’t have access to scholarship that sometimes understands these very real experiences.

[In the United States, we, as Muslims] have big trouble communicating our life experiences. It’s tough for us to be Muslims in situations that we are in because more often than not we see somebody sitting on the other side of the table who doesn’t really get what we are going through.

I am a young woman who finds myself beaten and abused at home. I run out in the middle of the night into the Masjid and I try to find somebody to tells me something that is empowering and uplifting. What kind of response will I get? “The women’s section is someplace else. Why is your head not covered?”

As opposed to how can I help you go through what you have gone through? This is a big problem!

I’ve gone to the hospital numerous times in the middle of the night to meet with young Muslim girls who have been raped by people. I’ve gone into counseling sessions, I’ve seen girl upon girl all over the world, literally every place that I’ve gone to speak to; including this country, this city.

There has not been a time where I’ve travelled to a lecture where at least one woman, if not many more, has come to me to say that she have a problem – that her rights have been violated.

Proactive Action

So what are we doing to fix this situation? If we are not the ones who is doing the violation, but we have the means to help them get back on their feet and we are not doing that, does that make us ok as well?

If you have a skill set, you have resources. You have a drive and compassion; start to change the circumstances and situation based off of what you can offer. Islam most assuredly gives the right to women and enables them and empowers them via their Islam and it’s something we have to begin to understand in the very specific context in which we are living here.

If you don’t have access to scholarships that understand you, the solution isn’t that we have to sit back and do nothing. But put yourself in a place where you go out and empower yourself with access to knowledge. And you begin to develop an Islam that makes sense, given your experiences.

What is keeping you from dedicating your life to spending some years to a course of study that you can then bring back here and begin to say that this is the kind of Islam that we understand to make sense? One that honors and upholds the rights of our women.

One that says to me that I can be who I am and I can be comfortable in navigating through my own process of development, without having to be restricted by somebody else’s understanding of the way that I should be living my life.

If you don’t enable yourself to do that, you are gonna get stuck.

Restrictions on Women

Our religion, it does have guidelines on gender. It has guidelines on understanding gender to a certain extent.

Are women allowed to be leaders in Islam? Yes they are.

Can women govern their financial affairs? Are they allowed to work in Islam? Yes they can.

There’s numerous examples, there numerous evidences for this. We see it throughout our tradition. Are women allowed to be scholars in Islam? Of course they can and they definitely have to be.

Aisha (ra) she was a woman who thought both men and women. There’s a sheikh by the name of Mohammad Akram Nadwi who lives right now, he is still alive. He has recently written a book that is called Al-Muhaddithat. It is a compendium of female hadith scholars. Just women who worked within that science.

And the muqaddimah (introduction) of this text is available in English. And with this compendium, he highlights the narratives and the biographies of 40,000 women who are female hadith scholars. And he stops at 40,000 not because he ran out of women to write about, but he was scared that if it was to get any longer, people just wouldn’t read it.

But we have it in our tradition. It’s there. We see it. It’s there. But we are not necessarily doing the things that our text tell us to do. We are governing our actions via a cultural imperative that does not necessarily find synergies with what our religion says to be imperative.

And this is something that was mentioned before, that we can’t equate our subjective understandings of morality and ethics to every single circumstance to make a determination as to whether something is appropriate or not. Because from culture to culture you will see that different people have different ways of doing things and we from the outside might not agree with the way somebody does something on the inside but then there are things that are most definitely obvious that we can say are outside of the fold of Islam.

Focusing On a Different Narrative

Where in the hadith do we find Prophet (pbuh) violating the rights of any women? Where do we see him mistreating and abusing his daughter? Where do we see him having any kind of domestic issues with his wife?

Our teachers, they say if physical abuse starts coming into a marriage, that’s the first sign that you need to start thinking about whether you should be married at all. Not forcing somebody to stick with it, not saying that: “no this is something that you can just get through” but really understanding, does it make sense for those people to be together? That their understanding of the rights they have over one another has gotten to such a level, that they don’t know how to deal with each other. And the last resort that they have, is they are raising their hands to another! It’s crazy, but we see it everywhere.

And we have to start offering a different narrative. We have to start offering an alternate reading that pretty much is the mainstream perspective. Prophet (pbuh), he has a daughter by the name of Fathima (ra).

Fathima has such a unique relationship with her father, to the extent that people would call her Umm Abiha (the mother of her father) that they said she resembled the prophet (pbuh) more so than anybody, else in terms of the mimicking of the actions, the way that he walked, the way that he talked, just his very carrying of himself, she had a unique relationship with him.

The prophet (pbuh) demonstrates over and over and over that he loves his daughter Fathima. He doesn’t mistreat her, he doesn’t abuse her, but he seeks to uphold the rights that she has over him, as being his daughter, whenever he gets the chance.

When the Prophet is leaving from the world, he whispers something in to Fathima’s ears. And Aisha (ra) she sees it and she later asks Fathima: “what is it that he said to you?” And Fathima (ra) she says that “the Prophet, my father said something to me that made me cry, and he said something to me that made me laugh.”

She says that “what he said to me that made me cry was that he was soon leaving from this world; his days in this world were limited. But what he said to me that made me smile was that I would be amongst the first who would be re-united with him again.”

To the extent that when Fathima knows she is passing away, that she is about to pass away, our tradition tells us that she takes her bed out into her courtyard. She lies on the ground with a smile on her face, facing the heavens, because she’s gonna be with her father again. How many daughters do we know that has this relationship with their fathers? And why is it that they don’t?

There were men who made mistakes and did things that were wrong during that time. Umar (ra) he knows and he understood the mistakes that he made. We made mention of what he did to this woman Lubaina. Umar has a hadith where he narrates his own account; he says that “there is an instance that I remember from the days that I was not a Muslim that makes me laugh and an instance that makes me cry.”

And he says that “the instance that made me laugh was that I was on a journey and one occasion and I had forgotten my travel idol at home, so I fashioned one out of the dates that I was carrying with myself, and then I got hungry so I began to eat the idol that I had made. When I think about this it makes me laugh.” And he says that “I remember also an instance that brings tears to my eyes. That I had a daughter that was born into my family and I buried her in the ground, and I can remember her hand going limp in my hand. And when I think about it – it brings tears to my face.”

But Umar wasn’t the kind of person that didn’t learn from the things that he had done wrong. During his Caliphate, the situation comes about that the people of Egypt, who were now part of the Muslim empire.

[They] had a custom that they would sacrifice a young woman into the rivers of the Nile because they believed that in doing that, it would cause the water to raise and will help them in their harvest.

Umar, he has a companion of the Prophet (pbuh,) who was there as the governor and this man is telling his people to not do this. That it’s something that is unIslamic – you shouldn’t do it, that it’s a violation of female rights amongst other things. And Umar (ra), he himself, says as well to “don’t let the people do this anymore.”

In that year when he tells them to stop, the waters of the river they don’t raise.

And now the governor the mayor of the city, he has to deal with the population that is saying “you told us not to sacrifice this woman and the waters, they have not risen.”

And so he writes to Umar (ra) who is there in Medina where the Caliphate is based and he says to him “what am I supposed to do? These people, they are going to kill a girl, if we don’t come up with something.”

So Umar (ra), a man who remembers what he has done and the tears comes to his eyes. He does not say that “this is what you should do,” but he makes it a point on his own to go from his place in Medina all the way to the land of Egypt and to engage that community and to engage that population with an air of faith he addresses the creation of Allah (swt), and he says speaking to the river, that if in fact you are from the creation of Allah than let yourself raise because in doing so you’ll be protecting the dignity of this woman.

This dua’ (prayer) is answered. But it requires a certain effort and a certain acknowledgment on his part. He doesn’t just sit back and say “I am gonna do what I need to do from here,” and [instead] goes to whatever extent possible to ensure he will not fall into a mistake that he had fallen into many years before.

Importance of Counseling

Other things that we want to understand is the importance we had alluded to before, of just being that person that can speak to somebody. But more importantly listen to them, when they have gone through this kind of test. I see people all the time who have kept within them horrendous stories of atrocities that they have experienced and they don’t have anyone to speak to.

The Prophet (pbuh) is such a unique individual that his companions were able to come and speak to him about things that they did, that were blatantly unIslamic and they knew he would help them become better by it. They didn’t have a worry that he would be judgmental. They didn’t have a worry that he would be condescending, but they felt comfortable in seeking this advice and counsel and reaching out to him with the issues that they have.

A man comes to the prophet and says “Ya rasoolullah, I have committed zinna! Help me.”

Can you imagine today a person coming to another Muslim and saying that I committed adultery last night? How they would be understood in the community?

But the Prophet, he has this relationship and the stigmas that surround counseling in a lot of our communities – we have to start overcoming them. Because our young women they are looking for somebody to speak to. And they keep it within them for years and years and as they keep them within them for years they begin to assume all kinds of things because the questions that they want to ask, are only being asked internally.

And as the doubts start to mix in, they take on a lot of blame for themselves.

Maybe my husband was right in hitting me. Maybe my father, he was justified in mistreating me. Maybe it was ok for them to abuse me the way they had done. Maybe I deserved it. Maybe I did something wrong. They didn’t do anything wrong. For the most part these women find themselves in situations where they are being held down.

But when they don’t have anybody to ask or speak about it, it just builds up inside and it starts to hurt. It starts to hurt so much, that they unleash it when the first opportunity comes and if they are not met with a good response, they might not talk to anybody about it ever again. I’ve seen so many young women who have been sexually abused as they were children. Molested by people who they thought they could trust.

I’ve seen young women and young men who have been beaten, who had been abused in a variety of ways. They carry it with them, but they want to be able to voice that pain and that hurt and they don’t have the outlets to do so.

You Can Help Society Too

So we also have to get to a place where we go and begin to take on these issues in a more systematic way. If you are a good listener, than let yourself go into the field of being a counselor. Try to understand mental health. Try to understand the issues that revolve around it, and let yourself develop things that are very viable for these people to deal with some of the things they have inside of them.

You don’t have to be the most learned, most religious person, to bring benefit to a society. That if you have a certain skill, if you are endowed with certain ability – let that be your access point into helping people who are around you!

We have a lot of stigmas, where I come from, for somebody to go and speak about things that they have experienced. Issues of honor come about.

“Don’t let people know what has happened to you they will say, they will think poorly of you.”

All kinds of and the person has to just keep it inside. This isn’t very healthy. Because if you set down with someone with [these] experiences and they’ve kept it within them, just for decades – and you see them unleash it, you can’t even begin to describe what that moment is like. And then the question that they want an answer to, that we don’t very readily have an answer to: is why did it actually happen?

Why was it something that happened to me? Why was it something that was allowed? Why was it something that was permitted? And more often than not the response you get is very mechanical, it’s very regurgitated: “Allah is just testing you. Put your trust in Allah, put your faith in Allah, and you will be better by it.”

Look for Real Answers

You gonna tell a girl who is 20 years of age that when she was five years old, her teacher molested her because its God who is testing her? What sense does that make? Where is the indication that you have any connection to what a human experience is like and [how] our people will grow and develop.

So that can’t be the only option. That can’t be the only alternative, because people begin to equate that experience with Islam, they become very disenchanted with the religion. Because they don’t see it as something that is empowering, but something that is holding them down.

So if you are good at it and you know how to listen, put yourself in a place where you offer that to people who are around you. And if you know somebody whose rights are being violated and they don’t have the ability to speak up for themselves, be mindful of it. And think with an air of foresight as to what would the ramifications be, but if they can’t speak for themselves – help them to speak!

Don’t let them have to go through it, don’t let them have to experience it but be somebody who helps them to be better by it. I don’t know how to answer the question of “why?” I haven’t been able to give an answer to anybody who has asked me. And I think that within our theology there are some things that we just have to say, “I don’t know! I don’t know why this happened to you. I don’t know why this was allowed to happen to you, but despite the fact that it happened to you I will enable you and help you get through it; and overcome it, and develop a sense of self-esteem and self-confidence so that you can get back to living a normal life, just as anybody else.” And any of us can do that; any of us can be those individuals.

Find and Focus on the Good

The Prophet (pbuh), he was a man who sought to find what was inherently good in that person and empower them based off that goodness. He wasn’t telling them that “this is what you do that is wrong, this is what you do that is wrong, this is haraam, that is haraam, you are going to hell.”

This is not the way the Prophet spoke to his companions. But he sought to find what was good about them and he sought to make them better by it.

We have to begin to start doing the same thing. If we don’t like the way people treat us, then let us not be the people who treat others in the same way. If we know what it feels like feel alone and to feel misunderstood, let us not let anyone else feels as if they were all alone and no one in the world understands them. If you can offer yourself to somebody in a way that brings them benefit, don’t let those opportunities pass you by.

Because Allah, (swt) he looks for moments to be forgiving. And your attainment of that mercy is conditionalized upon being merciful to those who are around you. Because if one day you are going to ask Allah (swt) to allow you to have entrance into His paradise by His mercy, but you yourself have not extended mercy upon the people who are around you, how will you be able to do so?

We have to think about these things while we have the time.

Iman Khalid Latif is the Executive Director and Chaplain for the Islamic Center at NYU. At the age of 24, his dedication to working across the boundaries of faith and culture lead to his appointment as the youngest chaplain in the history of the New York City Police department. In 2009 Imam Latif was named one of the 500 most influential Muslim in the world by Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talaal Centre and the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center.