Can we as Muslim women say that we aspire to be “strong, independent, empowered” women? Can we say that these terms aren’t loaded and that this phrase isn’t exclusively used by feminists? Was Khadijah radiya Allahu `anha a “strong and independent” woman? Was `Aisha radiya Allahu `anha? Were the rest of the female Sahaba?
In order to get this discussion started, let’s first examine how the phrase and the concept first emerged. And then we will have to define the following terms: “strength,” “independence,” “empowerment,” and “woman.” Our definitions must account for the origin and the application of this modern phrase, the particular context in which these words arose together to mean something: the “strong, independent, empowered” woman.
What is the historical origin?
The full colloquial phrase is a “strong, independent woman who don’t need no man.” This is the cultural phrasing that became popularized in the form of a meme that has since gone viral around 2010 and is still referenced now after more than a decade. It specifically delineates women’s independence vis-a-vis men: a woman who doesn’t need a man.
Yet prior to the rise of this particular meme, we have seen over the last century the concept of the “strong, independent woman” in works of literature and popular books tied to the rise and spread of feminism from its inception.
The original term was the “New Woman,” a fist-wave feminist ideal that emerged in the late 19th century which had a profound influence on feminism well into the 20th century. In 1894, Irish writer Sarah Grand introduced the term “new woman” in an influential article, to refer to independent women seeking “radical change,” by throwing off cultural and social norms and spitting in the face of tradition. The term was popularized and used to describe the rapid growth in the number of feminist, educated, independent career women in Europe and the United States. This independence referred to changes in thought and ideology in women, but also involved physical changes in activity, dress, and posture. The New Woman was a white upper- or middle-class woman who turned her back on marriage, family, motherhood, sexual propriety, and chastity–in favor of extended education, career ambitions, financial gain, and sexual autonomy and promiscuity.
Among the most popular literary works of this era was Kate Chopkin’s The Awakening (1899), which echoed the storyline of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), both of which chronicle a woman’s search for independence and self-realization through “sexual experimentation.”
This was one of the primary aspects of this new female “strength and independence”: unfettered sexual autonomy. Mary Heaton Vorse wrote about sexual promiscuity (which had up until that point been considered “being compromised”) this way: “I am trying for nothing so hard in my own personal life as how not to be respectable when married.” She wanted no restrictions, legally or socially, to hamper her efforts to do whatever she wanted sexually. Some followers of the New Woman trend were emboldened to engage in lesbian relationships through their networking in women’s groups. Such women saw loving other women romantically and sexually as a way to escape what they perceived as male domination inherent in any heterosexual relationship. For others, economic independence meant that they were not answerable to a guardian for their sexual or relationship choices, and they exercised that new sexual freedom.
Since that time, the original term “New Woman” has morphed into its final form: the “strong, independent woman.” This phrase still pops up in modern literature, but mostly it is found in movies, music, and social media videos and posts. Popular contemporary movies like Wonder Woman, the Hunger Games, and Captain Marvel feature the new standard protagonist: a feminist, gender-role-defying female lead who doesn’t need any help from a man in defeating the bad guys. She is a warrior, a fighter, aggressive, violent, and ruthless.
Now let’s unpack each term in turn.
What does “strength” mean?
When this word is used in the context of the “strong, independent” woman, strength is almost always referring to her ability to fend for herself in the world and to take hits without showing emotion or weakness. Basically, it is used in the sense of invulnerability.
But this attribution of invulnerability and constant strength to women does nothing but burden women. It’s taxing, draining thing to be told constantly that you are strong, you can do this, you can take it. This limits a woman’s options and forces her to endure beyond what her natural capabilities are and pressures her not to show any emotion lest it betrays a sign of weakness. This kind of “strength” does not make a woman happy. Just the opposite.
There are different kinds of strength. There is feminine strength and there is masculine strength. Neither is “better” or “worse.” But these two kinds of strength are drastically different in many ways, even if they also overlap.
Masculine strength is the kind that most of us instantly go to in our minds when we think of the word “strength.” It is the overt, obvious kind of strength that is physical, involving big muscles and high stamina. Men win in this kind of strength, hands down. Anyone with two eyes in their head can see that men have bigger frames than women, larger bones, heavier muscle mass. Men are taller, have broader shoulders, weigh more than women at the same height. Men have much greater upper body strength, a much stronger grip. Men can run faster than women, jump higher, punch harder. This is why we have men’s sports and women’s sports separately so that men don’t hurt women in these various physical activities because the disparity in physical strength between the genders is so vast. There is no debating this biological reality.
But even along the plane of physical strength, there is a feminine counterpart: women’s physical strength in the context of pregnancy and labor. Particularly labor, which is a very physical (but also emotional, mental, psychological) effort: birthing a human child. The uterine muscles contract with enough force to push a human being out of a woman’s body. The female body has been designed by Allah to accomplish this herculean task seamlessly, with the muscles involved all equipped with the necessary strength for it. Men don’t have this ability, unequipped as they are in the tools of uterus, ovaries, birth canal, mammary glands, estrogen and other hormones, etc.
I remember what my husband told me immediately after the natural unmedicated birth of our first baby. He looked at me and said earnestly, “You are so strong mashaAllah!”
I smiled at his compliment. “Aww, thanks. You mean mentally? Emotionally?”
“No. Physically. You are physically strong.” He clarified.
And this physical strength is not unique to me. This is female physical strength, granted to women by their Maker.
But strength is not only physical. There are many different kinds of strength that exist, like mental, emotional, psychological. The ability to endure, patience, steadfastness. Men are better at some types of strength while women are better at others. This is just as true and just as real as the disparity in the dimension of physical strength. Each gender has its forte.
As a concrete example of non-physical strength that is gendered: men are strong when it comes to stoicism and disciplining of emotion, whereas women are strong when it comes to unpacking and harnessing emotion. These are different types of emotional strength and both are necessary. Men have a unique ability to shut off their emotions and compartmentalize in order to get things done in an emergency without collapsing under the strain or caving to panic. Women, not as much. But women have a unique ability to express, share, and understand their emotions and their root causes and can use this key knowledge in order to heal old wounds instead of letting them fester, to assuage hurts, to nurture growth and warmth in relationships and contexts of family. Men, not as much.
But generally, these fine details are missed in the feminist claim that women are “strong and independent” and they usually just mean that women are strong in the sense of masculine strength. Rosie the Riveter posters show a woman with a bandana tied around her head and her arm flexed with a fist held up to show physical strength like that of a man. She can deal with the things a man can deal with just as easily, if not better! Anything he can do, she can do better! Take that, men!
But this childish attitude, petty and small-minded as it is, only serves to force women into awkward roles that do not come naturally to them. This is attributing to women a type of strength that they do not excel at, negating the natural types of strength that women already do have. A woman *can* go out there and get a fast-paced, demanding career and pay all her own bills and do her own yard work and fix her own plumbing. Yes, it is possible that she’d be physically capable of doing all that. But just because she’s physically able to do it doesn’t mean that it’s easy for her, or sustainable. Or that it brings her any joy.
Women have a certain kind of strength, as we stated: feminine strength. But also, women have a certain type of vulnerability, which Wendy Shalit, in her book A Return to Modesty, calls “a special vulnerability.” Women are extremely different from men in their emotional perception of the world, in their handling of stressors, in their dealings with difficult people, in their navigation of relationships. Training women to act and respond to life from a masculine frame to prove that they are “just as strong as men” is not being good to women. Not allowing women to be weak at times, to be vulnerable, to not have to be “strong” at all times is ruthless, merciless. Denying women their natural, inbuilt traits of femininity in the name of “equality” is the height of misogyny.
The reality is: strength does not need to be announced. The only people who feel the need to constantly advertise their strength to the world are the weak. This is insecurity, not strength.
What does “independence” mean?
The girl band Destiny’s Child has a song from back in the day called “Independent Woman,” which topped the charts when it came out in 1999. This song has been called “a fabulous feminist anthem.”
Let’s study some of the lyrics:
Question, tell me what you think about me
I buy my own diamonds and I buy my own rings
Only ring your celly when I’m feelin’ lonely
When it’s all over, please get up and leave
Question, tell me how you feel about this
Try to control me, boy, you get dismissed
Pay my own car note and I pay my own bills
Always fifty-fifty in relationships
The shoes on my feet, I bought ’em
The clothes I’m wearing, I bought ’em
The rock I’m rocking, I bought it
‘Cause I depend on me if I want it
The watch I’m wearing, I bought it
The house I live in, I bought it
The car I’m driving, I bought it
I depend on me (I depend on me)
All the women who independent
Throw your hands up at me
All the honeys who making money
Throw your hands up at me
All the mamas who profit dollars
Throw your hands up at me
All the ladies who truly feel me
Throw your hands up at me
Tell me how you feel about this
Do what I want, live how I wanna live
I worked hard and sacrificed to get what I get
Ladies, it ain’t easy being independent
Question, how’d you like this knowledge that I brought?
Braggin’ on that cash that he gave you is a front
If you’re gonna brag, make sure it’s your money you flaunt
Depend on no one else to give you what you want
In this iconic song that has become a feminist rallying cry to all women, the woman is basically turned into a man: she has become her own provider, her own protector, her own husband. She buys her own diamond ring, which traditionally for Americans is what a man does to propose to a woman he wants to marry. The only thing she admits to needing a man for is sex (“Only ring your cell when I’m feeling lonely.”) But even then she has become a man: promiscuous, uncaring, detached. Engaging in casual, meaningless sex after which he is supposed to “get up and leave.” No man will ever “try to control” her because then he will “get dismissed.” She is her own man.
In usage, the word “independence” is always followed by the word “from,” whether explicitly or implicitly. So for example, America became independent from England through the American Revolutionary War. There is no independence in a vacuum. Independence is always *from* something or someone.
When we say a woman is “independent,” who or what is she independent from?
Men. The patriarchy. The system.
That is the answer implied in the phrase “strong independent woman.” She doesn’t rely on a man or on the patriarchy or the system. But is that actually true?
Modern feminist women like to brag that they don’t need men for anything, but this is patently false. Their false sense of security and false bravado is premised on the fact that the smoothly operating society that women think they dominate is entirely built by men.
Male physical labor is what has built the highway system, roads, sewage, and sceptic system, waste management process, electrical grids, water towers, lights along the lonely dark roads in the middle of nowhere. Men are construction workers, miners, engineers, workers in oil refineries and pest control. Men are electricians, plumbers, carpenters, air conditioner repairmen, cross-country drivers of 18-wheelers. Men have designed and constructed buildings, houses, skyscrapers, bridges–all structurally sound so that they do not collapse on the people inside them. Society as we know it is and has always been historical, built, and maintained by male labor.
So yes, women most certainly need men for much more than sex. They need them for sheer survival in the most physical sense.
Now, a person might be tempted to argue: “But look, I don’t mean societal infrastructure! I concede that women need men for that. But now I’m just talking about women having financial independence. A woman not needing her husband to provide for her, because that might open the door to “financial abuse.” Women can be financially independent.”
My answer: No. Women cannot be truly financially independent from men. Why?
Because in the case of a woman bypassing her husband’s role as provider and making her “own” money at some job, she is still at the mercy of whoever she works for. If she were to be fired or laid off from her job, where is her much-touted financial independence then? She has basically traded in one man for another: her husband giving her money for her boss at work giving her money. Her financial dependence has shifted from her husband who cares about her to a random man with no relation to her at a corporation or a company or to society at large.
Most people in the modern world fail to understand the precarious reality of their situation as cogs in the capitalist system. You have a job today that you feel secure in, but tomorrow you may be arbitrarily fired and if you don’t have enough saved up you will be on the street. Even men are in this precarious position as “corporate slaves” if they do not own their own company or start their own business. And most people are not entrepreneurs, because this involves large amounts of risk, and startups often fail.
Before the modern age and the capitalist system, people emphasized land ownership. As an example, in Egypt, my grandfather and all his brothers were farmers for generations and they owned their own land, but slowly with modernization and colonialism, people left their lands or sold them to pursue a university education and new kinds of work at corporations in the cities. But the richest and most successful men in my extended family in Egypt are the ones who never left their land, as the price of land and its bounty continues to skyrocket as unemployment of the highly educated rises. But even that can fail. Nothing guarantees true financial independence, for men but particularly for women. But feminists are okay with a woman depending financially on an institution, as long she doesn’t depend on her husband! That’s financial abuse!
In the most fundamental sense, the human being is completely dependent on Allah. No woman or man is, or will ever be, actually independent in any way whatsoever. It’s incumbent upon us as Muslims to readily admit to our utter dependence on Allah and accept our role as needy slaves. No false bravado or bombastic claim to independence will mask the reality of our dependence.
What does “empowerment” mean?
Ah, empowerment. This is one of those classic modern feminist terms that have essentially no meaning. But we love parroting it anyway.
Empowerment has connotations of a woman taking her power back. She’s liberated from the stupid shackles of the sexist past, now able to have autonomy, choice, authority, self-determination. She is the mistress of her own destiny. It’s her body, her choice.
At this point, do I have to spell it out or do you see why this is not in line with our Islamic paradigm?
We Muslims do not have free unfettered “freedom” to make whatever “choice” we feel like. This is true for both men and women. We are all slaves of Allah. We do what He commands, stay away from what He has forbidden, and we thank Him for His guidance and mercy on us.
All power comes from Allah, none from ourselves. This is what we mean when we say the famous dhikr:
لا حول ولا قوة إلا بالله.
There is no might or power except with Allah.
Calm down with the empowerment delusions.
What does “woman” mean?
Lastly, we come to the final word: woman. In the modern world, corrupted as it has gotten with the lies of feminism, we have lost the meaning of the word “woman.” We women no longer know what it means to be a woman.
We have lost our uniqueness, our nature, our fitra as women. In our quest for unrelenting, childish “equality” (read sameness) with men, we have lost our femininity. As we have mentioned in our discussion of strength, women and men are very, very different. And that is not a bad thing. It’s nothing to shy away from, nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to try to frantically hide like a crime.
This is natural and beautiful. The natural synergy between men and women is beautiful. Men and women are alike in some ways, but where they are different, it only serves to enhance the attraction and chemistry between them. Hard and soft. Unyielding and yielding. Protective and protected.
Allah has created everything in pairs. And those pairs are often opposites. One is not better or worse than the other. But they are different.
At the beginning of Surat Al-Layl, Allah says:
وَٱلَّيْلِ إِذَا يَغْشَىٰ. وَٱلنَّهَارِ إِذَا تَجَلَّىٰ. وَمَا خَلَقَ ٱلذَّكَرَ وَٱلْأُنثَىٰٓ. إِنَّ سَعْيَكُمْ لَشَتَّىٰ.
“By the night as it covers. And by the day as it shines. And by His creation of the male and the female. Certainly, the ways you take differ greatly.”
And at the beginning of Surat Al-Fajr, Allah takes another interesting oath:
وَٱلْفَجْرِ . وَلَيَالٍ عَشْرٍ. وَٱلشَّفْعِ وَٱلْوَتْرِ…
“By the Dawn. And by ten nights. And by the even and the odd…”
Mufassirun explain that one of the meanings of “the even and the odd” is: Allah has created everything in pairs. Sky and earth. Night and day. Sun and moon. Land and sea. Male and female. These pairs are all even numbers (2). The only odd number is Allah Himself, the Singular. The Creator versus the creation. Creation comes in even-numbered pairs of opposite but complementary things.
We humans need to reflect on this. Does the sky feel inferior to the earth or vice versa? Does the sea try to imitate land or vice versa? Does the sun try to erase the differences between itself and the moon?
Why should we undertake the futile endeavor of doing that with males and females?
It seems silly now, doesn’t it?
So that woman who is capable of getting a job, financially supporting herself, and generally fending for herself in the world with no husband to help her: Can she do it? Sure can. Will this lifestyle day in and day out bring her the most happiness and fulfillment? No.
Women *want* to be taken care of and protected by a strong, dependable, loving man. Women *don’t like* to feel alone and on their own, their backs against the wall facing a cold world with no help. This type of “strength” and “independence” makes women miserable. It is NOT what makes women happy, but it makes men happy. This is what comes of erasing the differences between men and women. What works for men does not work for women, but feminists are too stubborn to admit it.
So, to settle this question of the “strong, independent, empowered woman,” we Muslim women say No thanks. We’re good.