I used to be a raging feminist back in my old days. Mostly in high school and early college.
If this surprises you now because you only know me as this stay-at-home homeschooling mom of four who writes on Facebook about tarbiya and home education, prepare to be even more surprised.
I never wanted to get married or have children. Yep, I used to be that girl.
The idea of marriage made me feel like I was weak, like I was too feeble to live life on my own and pathetically needed a man to show me how to exist. No, thank you.
The idea of having children made me cringe. Thinking of whiny little kids clinging to me like a dead weight around my neck, or of babies who screamed and needed their diapers changed or woke up in the middle of the night crying, or of toddlers whose specialty was throwing tantrums and being little brats — all of it made me shudder with revulsion. And it wouldn’t end, either. These brats would be my responsibility for LIFE. It felt like a life sentence, or a death sentence. I’d be shackled for the rest of my days. There goes my freedom, my identity, my very existence.
No thank you.
So no marriage, no kids. I’m fine like this on my own.
That used to be my mentality in my late teens as I approached my twenties. I didn’t understand anything. But I thought I understood everything.
A lot of sisters reach out to me now, telling me that this is, too, where they are mentally. They are women who have always seen marriage as slavery and children as shackles.
This is what we women absorb as though by osmosis when we grow up in today’s self-centered secularized selfish world. We go through the usual institutions of liberal indoctrination: public school, college, Hollywood programming, media brainwashing, music and magazines and books and academia. Modernity, individualism, hedonism, capitalism, consumerism, feminism all teach us to despise anything and anyone that takes away “our freedom,” and a husband and children are prime suspects.
So forget having a husband. Who needs men, anyway? And forget having kids. Who needs that headache?
Move on with your life on your chosen educational and career path. Focus on your own goals and fulfill your potential. Get that master’s and that PhD. Do that research in the lab. Move up that corporate ladder. Get that pay raise and the corner office. Life is good as an independent woman.
But the problem creeps up on us silently, stealthily. We’re fine roaming along in life with these thoughts floating around in our heads until we hit our mid-to-late-twenties or our thirties, and the first maternal pangs hit us out of nowhere.
Out of the blue, we’ll get a random feeling of extreme yearning to hold a baby in our empty arms. All of a sudden, we’ll picture a warm home filled with the laughter of children and the patter of little feet running around, and we’ll smile at the thought. One woman in her mid-thirties described seeing a lady pushing a baby in a stroller and this caused a feeling of “a clenching” of her “barren womb.” The maternal instinct is powerful.
Our maternal instinct suddenly kicks in, after seemingly having been asleep for years.
So we feel excruciating pain. The pain of cognitive dissonance, which is doing one thing while wanting another. It’s painful and unsettling to be in a state of having inconsistency between what we want and believe, and what we’re actually doing.
This weird new desire for a husband, a family, and a child doesn’t jive with our long-held thoughts about how a husband and children are the enemies because they reduce our freedom. We are mentally comfortable with the old attitude of never wanting marriage or children, but we are starting to be emotionally and instinctively longing for those very things.
The conflict is enough to drive us crazy.
The painfully contradictory thoughts start to consume us in some bipolar back-and-forth:
“I feel so stupid now! How could I have thought that marriage and children were bad? That’s all I want now!”
“No, I’m being stupid now with this odd longing for kids! I better snap out of this. Am I crazy, thinking about being a mom and a wife?? What on earth would I even DO all day with little kids, anyway??”
“If I get married now after my education, I’ll be a waste of a university seat! What a shame to waste so many years of my life, and all my accomplishments. I can’t throw all that away now!”
“But what about my hopes and dreams, my very identity as a person?? All of that will disappear when I become Mom and Wife! Is that all there is to life, get married, and have kids? That’s it? How depressing.”
“I’ve done a lot, I’ve seen a lot, I’ve traveled and had adventures. “Settling down” to have a family and be around annoying little kids will seem so boring by comparison, so underwhelming. My psyche has changed so much that I don’t see how I can tolerate being home with kids. How will I stand the massive lifestyle shift?”
“Is it even Islamically mandatory to get married or to have kids? No, right? Can’t my career be my path to worship Allah?”
“I have an obsession with my research. Thinking of something else taking it away is torturous. I won’t be able to bear it. I’ll probably resent my kids.”
“And even my married friends are struggling and hate their life! Seems like the stay-at-home moms feel unappreciated and repressed, and the working moms feel intense pressure between work and home. Nobody likes being a mom! How will I do it??”
“I’m so tired of this stupid PhD, I don’t even wanna finish it. What’s the point? I want a baby! Now!”
“What if I make the jump from my professional life into a more “domesticated” home life, and then regret my choice? What if I give up working to stay home with kids and instantly hate it? Are there do-overs or take-backs?”
With these crazy-making thoughts and internal wrestling matches raging within us, we feel hopeless, lost, depressed. Life seems bleak and confusing. Our thoughts are a tangled, mangled mess. We can’t sort through the chaos anymore.
Our mind is telling us one thing, and our heart is saying something else, and we don’t know which one is right.
This is what modernity has done to us women. The toxic poison of feminism has seeped into our thoughts like dye seeps into the fabric, staining it and tainting it. Our fitra as women clashes with the social dictates of the world today. The internal and external cues are at war.
To solve any problem, we first have to identify it. You can’t solve a problem if you aren’t even aware that it exists.
So our job is to, first, recognize the reality of the modern feminist world and how it has affected our psyche. Then, it is our job to seek the truth with an open mind and an open heart, pursuing harmony, peace of mind, and true and lasting serenity and fulfillment so that the war inside can finally come to an end inshaAllah.
There is hope insha’Allah!
RELATED: Feminism Is Female Narcissism
Women, Culture, and Islam
I. Women in Egyptian Culture:
I am one of five children: 4 daughters and 1 son. Egyptians in Egypt, I discovered, loved the idea of having sons and needed to at least have one son. Daughters, meh.
Also, Egyptians have some sayings that I’d hear on Egyptian soap operas or in movies sometimes that seemed to denigrate women or suggest that certain things were “women’s work” or “women’s talk.” Only “men’s talk” (كلام رجالة) was serious talk that you actually meant. I started to notice and bristle at this type of thing within Egyptian society near the beginning of high school.
II. Women in American Culture:
I didn’t watch American TV or movies, but I did go to an American public school. Growing up, I was convinced that being a girl was not good enough. Boys just seemed better in every way. Boys were physically bigger and stronger, emotionally more stable, intellectually more rigorous. American society kept telling me, via magazine covers, song lyrics heard on the school bus, and general popular culture, that girls were just for being sexy, pleasing men, and being always stupidly dependent. I cringed from that depiction plastered all over the non-Muslim world.
III. Women and Islamic Rulings:
I also, separately, held the mistaken but widely-held view that Islam doesn’t like women much.
I didn’t necessarily struggle to wear the hijab as a teenager, but I did struggle to understand its purpose fully. Some part of me was convinced that the hijab is meant to make me ugly. Or at the very least, to take away my femininity, whatever that meant. Or maybe it was a marker of my femininity since only women wear the hijab and not men. I had no idea what femininity even meant, and if it was a good or a bad thing.
I didn’t understand why in Islam there were different rulings for men as opposed to for women. I saw that difference as not simply neutral, but as imbued with a value differential. Men had specific rules because they were better, women because they were worse.
I assumed that certain positions in Islam regarding women, like women wearing the hijab, women praying behind men, women and men not mixing freely, as Islam assigning women an inferior position. This struck me as just a Muslim manifestation of the same message I heard loud and clear from both Egyptian and American cultures: women bad, men good.
Teenagers have a narrow understanding of justice, and this gender-based difference didn’t conform to my idea of justice learned in American high school. Justice meant equality, didn’t it? Men and women were not the same or equal in Islam. Is that an injustice? I couldn’t figure it out.
My father, that poor patient man, endured a lot of indignant rants from me in high school, with all the self-righteous indignation that a 15-year-old can muster (which is quite a lot!). He was kind and patient as I peppered him with rapid-fire questions: “Why do women have to wear the hijab but not men? I don’t mind wearing it, but I’d just like to see men have to wear it too! And go to American schools looking like freaks! Why do women only get half as much in inheritance? Does that mean that a son is better than a daughter? Why does a woman’s testimony count for only half of a man’s? Is it because she’s stupider than him? Why did Allah make different rulings for men than for women? How does this make sense?”
My father would gently try to talk to me, to untangle my messy thoughts, to unwind the knots I’d tied up tight in my mind with my black-and-white either-or type of thinking. But I remember myself (much to my chagrin now) mostly just shrugging off his words and sticking doggedly to my initial stance. I’d ask the same questions again the next day or the next week. He never once lost his patience with me. He’d just answer my questions all over again.
My understanding of Islam was lacking, and the problem was further exacerbated by two different cultures further muddying the water.
The perfect storm. Just the right combination for a teen girl or young woman to jump on the feminist bandwagon, to fight for “justice” and “equality.”
A lot of people get two things confused: “education” and “knowledge.” These aren’t the same thing.
The system of mass schooling in America is not neutral in the least. Far from it.
It’s a deliberately engineered system that was created to churn out good little factory workers and obedient, biddable citizens to the state. American public schools are glorified indoctrination camps that get children from the age of 3 or 4 years ago to the age of 18, after which the aptly-named liberal-arts colleges get them and continue the brainwashing and molding process.
You emerge on the other side a liberal feminist, إلا ما رحم ربي.
If you don’t believe me, read the book The Underground History of American Education, by John Gatto. The founder of the modern American school system, Horace Mann, modeled it directly after the Prussian school model. Mann traveled to Prussia and was impressed with how the schools there were run like clockwork, like a tight ship, bent on teaching total conformity and obedience, loyalty to the state.
Prussia created such a system of schools after they were defeated and humiliated in the Napoleonic Wars, to ensure that “no German soldier would ever disobey an order ever again.”
So I was a Muslim girl who attended American public schools from the age of 9 to 18, after which I went to the hallowed halls of Harvard, among the most liberal of the liberal arts universities. Is it any wonder I absorbed the sly, subtle ideas of feminism along the way? It would’ve been shocking if I hadn’t!
In fourth grade, my first year in an American public school, I learned about Santa. I remember in fifth grade, we learned about the American Revolutionary War and who the heroes were: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of the gang. In sixth grade, we were taught about the happy meeting of the English explorers and the Native Americans, and the birth of Thanksgiving and kumbaya. In seventh grade, I wrote a report on a female I admired from the historical figures we’d been studying, and I picked Susan B. Anthony. I was taught that she was a brave, noblewoman who “fought for women’s rights” and tried to “help women not be oppressed.”
It was only a decade or two later that I realized all the blatant lies I’d been fed. Public school has whitewashed literally everything. The “founding fathers” were a bunch of liberal criminals who were highly racist. The British explorers who landed in America massacred the natives and nearly annihilated them, and the Trail of Tears was a further insult to injury. Susan B. Anthony and her female friends were no sheroes; these were privileged white women who hated blacks, hated men generally, and especially hated God. These were the first feminists, defiant atheists, and hate-filled bigots who were entitled and self-serving.
This is the difference between “education” and “knowledge.” Public schools have their own agenda; they claim to give kids “education” while just functioning as indoctrination camps for liberalism, materialism, atheism, scientism, and feminism. Kids are put into the machine of public school and are spit out the other end with all “the right thoughts” in their head and in total conformity mode.
To gain knowledge, one doesn’t have to be put through this grueling system of “education.” You can learn math, science, reading, writing, art, and history — but it doesn’t have to be tainted with a liberal or feminist twist.
The analogy I use is that of paint being poured into a bucket. Western public schools purport to teach children strictly “academic” subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic, which we can imagine as a big tub of paint that will be poured into the little bucket of the child’s mind. But the paint isn’t clean: impurities have contaminated it, mixed into the liquid, and are impossible to pick out. Impurities like atheism, liberalism, scientism, feminism. That stuff has gotten mixed into the “academic” subjects, such that everything is intertwined and tainted.
Learning (التَّعلُّم), gaining knowledge (عِلم) , maturity (نُضج), wisdom (حكمة), understanding (فهم، فقه), virtue, and self-awareness (معرفة النفس): these are all extremely important aspects of growth and development that are not found in this Prussian-style American education system.
“Education” is not the same as تربية, tarbiya, or علم, `ilm.
This is, incidentally, another confusion that some Muslim sisters influenced by feminism often display. But Islam encourages education! The first word revealed in the Quran was “iqra”! That’s why it’s `ibada for me to get my PhD in finance!
As Muslims, we have always understood the importance of not only what is taught but who is teaching. The teacher is a role model. The student learns not only the material in the book, but also from the teacher’s tone, facial expressions, behavior, speech, and general way of comportment. We take our deen only from qualified sources. This is why isnad is so critical.
It isn’t just what you’re being taught, but who is teaching it to you.
(This is why, incidentally, I homeschool my children myself, even though I don’t have any daughters. But if I had a daughter, she would most definitely be homeschooled to save her from the toxicity of feminism.)
American public schools are teaching all kinds of things, academic subjects blended with ideological commitments and metaphysical values, including feminism and individualism, and agnosticism.
This is simply the academic side of the mass schooling system as it pertains to the implicit teaching of feminism. In the next post inshaAllah, we will explore the social side of the school system and its impact on girls turning to feminism.
Femininity and the Social Side of Public School
I. Muslima in a Non-Muslim High School:
In high school, kids are mainly concerned with one thing: looks.
Clothes. Shoes. Accessories. Appearance.
This is true generally for both males and females in high school, but for females it’s compounded with the added layers of hair, makeup, fashion, and the need to conform with peers, etc.
I didn’t know how to be both feminine and modest (the Islamic ideal). Or feminine and “free”/ “strong” (the secular ideal). The two adjectives just didn’t seem to go together in either case.
In high school, all the pretty and popular girls seemed clingy, overly needy and dependent on boys.
Their entire lives seemed to revolve around their boyfriend, and when the inevitable breakup occurred, I’d see these girls break down and sob and cry to their friends. It seemed like a cringeworthy display of emotion and a lack of self-control or self-respect.
One day, when James, the star of the high school wrestling team, broke up with Roxanne, the head of cheerleading, she was absolutely devastated. I was getting books for my next class from my locker but at the next locker over, Roxanne was crying loudly and telling her friend that her life was over now because James broke her heart. I couldn’t help my internal reaction: “Note to self: never ever act this desperate or insane. It looks like getting involved in a relationship with a guy makes girls act crazy! InshaAllah I’ll never be that girl.” I wanted to turn around and just tell her: Get it together, Roxanne! Where is your decorum? You’re embarrassing yourself here. You don’t need James. Just go to class and stop thinking about boys so much, you idiot. Your life is not over. Sheesh.
II. What Is Femininity?
If the Roxanne behavior was what being a “girly girl” was, I didn’t want to be a girly girl. Better to be a “boyish” girl with self-respect and dignity than to be one of these girly girls who seemed to lack both.
Plus, the girly girls were always elaborately made up and had their hair and nails done and were dressed scantily. They would sometimes wear the most nonsensical, illogical things, like super high heels that they tottered around in that looked extremely dangerous to walk in, or short skirts even in the New Jersey snowy winters, or false eyelashes that looked ridiculous and clearly fake. These girls focused all their energy on putting their assets on public display and then artificially amplifying.
It all seemed silly to me, to do these nonsensical types of things. To be perfectly frank, these types of girls seemed pretty but downright dumb.
I started to make the (faulty) assumption that this is what femininity was, that looking and acting in this “pretty” way was feminine. Which (to my addled teenage mind) meant that feminine = weak, illogical, irrational.
I didn’t want to be any of those things.
As a Muslim girl in high school, I found that I couldn’t follow that example of femininity. Better to not even attempt to be girly, since girly / feminine seemed to equal silly, promiscuous, and scantily clad. Better to dress in cargo pants and loose shirts and my hijab, which is a “tomboy” kind of look. This was a modest but almost masculine look. It seemed like modesty and femininity didn’t go together.
I knew that in Egypt, many Muslim women dressed in hijab, khimar, and long, loose abayas. But I didn’t know how to transport that look from Egypt to an average suburban non-Muslim American high school, where dressing different meant that you were a complete freak.
So there was a vacuum created. All I knew was what I didn’t want to be: a weak, feminine girl. But I didn’t know what I should aspire to be.
I didn’t know what femininity was in substance. All I was engrossed in was the superficial level of appearance. I didn’t have anything solid around which to center my budding identity as a young Muslim female who embodied modesty outwardly and inwardly.
The Breaking Point
I don’t quite remember now the first time I heard the word “feminism” or learned what a feminist woman is like, because it’s just everywhere you go. It’s in the water. American society just contains elements of feminism threaded throughout it. Because feminism is spawned from liberalism/ secularism, and is related to fierce individualism and “independence.”
I remember when I was in early high school, the Destiny’s Child hit song, Independent Women, was playing all over the radio. I must have heard that song every day for a whole year straight on the radio, at the cafe where I worked part-time in high school:
“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 fun, oh, and I pay my own bills
Always fifty fifty in relationships
The shoes on my feet, I’ve bought it
The clothes I’m wearing, I’ve bought it
The rock I’m rockin’, I’ve bought it
‘Cause I depend on me if I want it…I depend on me
If you’re gonna brag make sure it’s your money you flaunt
Depend on no one else to give you what you want…”
Twisted, toxic ideas like this, straight out of the feminist textbook, poisoned my mind. Mantras of unfettered independence as a female: “Pay for my own stuff,” “depend on one else to get what I want,” and “let no man control you, because that is what men are about.” In a word: be a strong, independent woman. Just as good, as capable, as aloof as a man.
Pretty much a man.
I absorbed these societal ideas that equate femininity with weakness and masculinity with strength, so I hid/downplayed my femininity and tried to increase my “strength.”
I exercised and worked out at home. I played sports at school. I tried boxing briefly my freshman year in college (and hated it).
I carefully hid any traces of weakness (read: femininity) behind an outer layer of “strength and independence.”
The friends I made that first year in college all knew me as this tomboyish tough girl, who thought “men ain’t $@%&,” who worked out, and never wore pink clothes or sparkly hijabs. I called myself a feminist, along with the other girls. They thought that this was who I was.
This was only a part of me, though. But the part of me that I’d kept carefully hidden from view, like something you were embarrassed about and had to keep under wraps, was naturally feminine and didn’t want to be so “independent” and so strong-seeming and so unemotional all the time. The weak (feminine) part of my nature wanted very much to have a family of my own, a husband who loved me, and children to raise. But in the late-night conversation with my Muslim friends in someone’s dorm room, as the girls would joke about marriage, I’d insist adamantly that I never wanted to get married.
One of my college Muslim friends, in particular, was a bigger tomboy than even me, and one day we laughingly made a “pact” that we would both never get married. Who needs guys??
So I tried hard for years to be as strong as possible, i.e., as masculine as possible.
But it made me confused, mixed up. I was going against my nature. Suppressing my inclinations.
Fighting my fitra.
I remember one time during the fall semester of my freshman year, on the MSA email list, one girl sent out an email to the group letting everyone know that the trendy H&M store near Harvard Square was having a big sale on scarves, and that these scarves worked great as hijabs for the sisters. They even have beautiful colors and some sparkly ones and some with tassles, she added enthusiastically in her email. I read this email as a personal insult (!!) and replied back, in uncharacteristic haste which I regret deeply looking back, saying something along the lines of “Well, what if a girl doesn’t want to wear frilly scarves with sparkles or tassles??” Something like that, totally out of line and unnecessarily mean. Very unlike me.
But it had gotten to me, her email. It totally unnerved me, hit upon a sensitivity that I didn’t even know that I’d had. I would have liked to go look at the scarf collection, maybe pick out a nice one I liked in a pretty color — but I felt like I shouldn’t, couldn’t. I needed to keep that kind of whimsical, feminine thing hidden. Can’t show weakness. Need to appear strong and not silly or girly.
And then here is this other girl, brazenly and openly and publicly talking about this very thing!! Didn’t she know that being so girly was…bad? What was she doing? We are not allowed to be girly! No matter how much we privately may wish to be! We have to suppress the feminine side of ourselves.
I couldn’t even tell at that point WHAT was preventing me from being feminine. Society? Islam? Both? I think in my mind back then, it was a bit of both. Egyptian societal norms. American societal norms. Islam itself. No femininity allowed. Any display of femininity is forbidden. So I forbade it for myself.
Another incident my freshman year: I was at an MSA halaqa which ended a bit on the late side, maybe 8 or 9 pm. It was dark, after isha. As the group left the musalla, people started to veer off in different directions to go back to their dorm rooms. One of the brothers started to walk away, noticed that a few sisters were starting the long walk back to their distant dorm building, and turned back around and asked us a question from a respectful distance: “Do you sisters need someone to walk you back?” He was kindly offering to walk us back so we don’t walk alone at night through the huge campus filled with drunk students or the odd homeless man, un-escorted, unprotected. It was a generous and chivalrous offer.
I was livid, personally insulted.
How dare he imply that I am not strong, empowered, independent? How dare he insinuate that I am in need of protection? And from a man, no less! He’s pretty much saying that I am weak and he is strong and I need him to help me! I don’t need a man to help me! If I say yes to this offer, I’m pretty much forfeiting the fight! I’m conceding defeat! I’ll be admitting my own fragility, weakness, dependence on another. I’ll be a needy, dependent, clingy girl, useless and silly like the girls I saw every day in my high school. No thanks.
I coldly rebuffed his offer, and walked home, indignant and affronted.
I also felt confused. Out of sorts. Why did I just act like a jerk? Why did I just reject a helpful offer made in a sincere and kind manner? I’m usually a very nice person who doesn’t get offended so easily. Why did I get so instantly offended? Wouldn’t it have been helpful to have a person walking in the same direction in the dark of night through this big campus? It would have been safer, wouldn’t it? Women get molested or assaulted on college campuses all the time! Why was I acting like such an idiot? Why was my pride so much more important to me than my own safety?? Was my own safety second to making sure that I never got protection by a man?
Why was it so important for me never to show vulnerability?
I didn’t understand myself. I was a mess of contradictions.
I felt very confused, bewildered, lost. I was disoriented but I couldn’t orient myself, had nothing to ground myself in. I didn’t know why men and women were so different and why being a woman was a bad thing, or why I felt ashamed of my femininity to the point of hiding it. Was a woman just a bad version of a man? Was a man the real thing and a woman the cheap knockoff, the counterfeit? Were women a poor imitation of men?
Were women sub-par men?
If so, why did Allah create them to be this way? Why couldn’t we all have been the genuine article, the real thing — good, strong, competent men?
One night, as these jumbled thoughts tumbled chaotically around in my mind, I reached reflexively for the Quran, seeking respite from my mental anguish with its soothing familiarity. And alhamdullilah, Allah guided me to the beginning of the answer.
An ayah in the Quran.
I was so tired at this point.
So tired of seeing life as one giant competition between males and females. So tired of needing to compare myself with men and to outdo them to prove a point to myself or others. So tired of trying to win an unwinnable fight. I was fighting a losing battle and it was wearing me down and I didn’t know how to get out of it at this point.
College was the first point in my life when I was far away from home. I was trying to find my footing, to ground myself in the big scheme of things without my parents and family, and I automatically reached for something familiar whenever I started to feel unsure or lost. The Quran had been a big part of my growing-up years alhamdulillah, and the familiarity of reading it gave me comfort.
Only this time, when I picked it up to read in my dorm room, I had the old problem on my mind of male-female competition. I randomly opened to a page in the mus-haf.
It happened to be Surat Al-Ma’idah, and my eye fell on the forty-eighth verse:
وَأَنزَلْنَآ إِلَيْكَ ٱلْكِتَـٰبَ بِٱلْحَقِّ مُصَدِّقًا لِّمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ مِنَ ٱلْكِتَـٰبِ وَمُهَيْمِنًا عَلَيْهِ ۖ فَٱحْكُم بَيْنَهُم بِمَآ أَنزَلَ ٱللَّهُ ۖ وَلَا تَتَّبِعْ أَهْوَآءَهُمْ عَمَّا جَآءَكَ مِنَ ٱلْحَقِّ ۚ لِكُلٍّ جَعَلْنَا مِنكُمْ شِرْعَةً وَمِنْهَاجًا ۚ وَلَوْ شَآءَ ٱللَّهُ لَجَعَلَكُمْ أُمَّةً وَٰحِدَةً وَلَـٰكِن لِّيَبْلُوَكُمْ فِى مَآ ءَاتَىٰكُمْ ۖ فَٱسْتَبِقُوا۟ ٱلْخَيْرَٰتِ ۚ إِلَى ٱللَّهِ مَرْجِعُكُمْ جَمِيعًا فَيُنَبِّئُكُم بِمَا كُنتُمْ فِيهِ تَخْتَلِفُونَ
“And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth. To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.”
This verse is not about gender differences; it is about people of different religions. Yet, when I read it that night as I struggled to make sense of my own issues with gender differences and the need I felt to basically act as close to a man as I could, suddenly something clicked in my head. I had the biggest ah-ha moment of my 18 years of life thus far.
I loved every single sentence in this ayah. Each part of this ayah carried deep meaning for me, a significance I had never glimpsed before despite having read it in the past. The lessons and solutions suddenly hit me, with stark clarity and a feeling of relief I’d never known before:
1. How to judge anything:
There are two ways we can judge something: either based on something real such as Allah’s revealed Book, or based on something fleeting such as one’s own inclinations and whims. The first part of the ayah contrasts two things directly: الحق, “haqq” i.e. Truth, and أهواء , “ahwaa” i.e. whims/ ego. Allah tells us unambiguously which one to pick: Truth, as He revealed it.
2. Mindful thinking versus mindless following:
In the first couple sentences of the ayah, there are two commands from Allah, one positive and the other negative. The first is “judge” and the second is “do not follow”. I took this to mean that there are two ways to think about any issue and to subsequently act regarding it: one can either be mindful and use one’s reason in order to form a sound judgment, or one can mindlessly follow others both in thought and in action.
It occurred to me that I was doing the latter: I was mindlessly following the whims of societal dictates about how a woman should think, dress, act, and be. The “bad women, good men” mentality that I had tortured myself with for years was not my own original thought—it was in my head because of what I allowed myself to imbibe of the dominant poisonous cultural ideas on this. This is what feminism wants me to think. I was a follower. I needed to stop following these delusions and judge for myself the meaning of things based on Allah’s book.
3. Deliberate differences:
Next, Allah says, “To each of you We prescribed a Law and a method.” I had always thought that women were just a weaker, worse version of men. We were the bad copy. Men were the standard, the default—and women fell short of that in various ways. Men were the perfectly-manufactured product, but women were on recall. But when I read this verse, it hit me that all of this was false. Allah is the best Creator. Women and men are different— just different. There is no good or bad copy. There are two different copies.
Men and women are two different creations of Allah, both perfectly and wonderfully built by Al-Khallaq (the Creator). This was always the plan, the intention. There were two different products, both perfectly manufactured—with two different instruction manuals.
4. Why, though? Why have any difference?
The next part of the ayah continues, “Had Allah willed, He could have made you all one community/ nation.” If Allah had wanted to, He could have made us all one type. He could have made us all men. Or all women. Or all some other, non-gendered being. But He didn’t. Why didn’t He?
5. The Reason:
The next part in the ayah answers, “So He may test you in that which He gave you.”
This is probably my favorite phrase in this verse, the one that brought me the most immediate level of comfort and the most intense rush of understanding. This whole thing is a test. Each human being is tested; that is this lower life in a nutshell. No one can escape testing, trials, hardships. Everything we get and everything we don’t get is a test.
At least for me personally, when I realize that I am being tested I can deal much better with the situation. As soon as this idea dawned on me, I immediately felt a sense of peace, of calm. This is a test.
6. How to Pass the Test:
My next question, after being informed that I am to take a test, would be to ask how to pass it. This is the answer: “So race in good deeds.”
Do good deeds. So simple it took my breath away. So clear and straightforward, almost deceptively so. But it stands in stark contrast to the complicated nonsense I had filled my head with for years, the misguided thoughts I had that the answer lies in competing with men and beating them at their own game, to be better than them, bigger and stronger than them, tougher and more stoic than them. To do everything they can do, better. To stamp out my own femininity and to crush my own feelings lest they betray my being a woman. Not because I want to, but because I felt compelled to—to prove my worth and my station of equal standing. It was exhausting, endless, unsatisfying. It was undoable, impossible, futile.
But this, this real answer, was astounding in its simplicity: drop the focus on men, the drive to compete with them, the obsession to prove. Just drop it altogether. Focus instead on myself and my own actions, and try to make my actions good. It was freeing. A weight lifted from chest and I could breathe again, a heavy burden taken off my shoulders.
7. The End:
“To Allah is the ultimate return of all of you, and He will inform you all of that over which you used to differ.”
Again, this sentence brought such indescribable relief to my heart and my mind. Once one is tested, at the end of the test, the results are reviewed and answers given. Allah, Exalted and Majestic, will give us all the answers to our questions and the explanations for our differences when we have returned to Him.
What a sobering thought; again, the focus is on Allah and my relationship with Him, and not on any man. Men are just not in the picture as I had always forced them to be, in my head. It’s just about myself and Allah, and how many good deeds I can do before I return to Him.
Finally, the very last word in the verse, تَخْتَلِفُونَ , “to differ” is another subtle nod to my personal obsession with differences. Again, everything is as it should be, differences and all. I am just as I should be. There is nothing to be anxious or insecure or worried about regarding myself, how I measure up to others, what I have to prove to whom.
Surat Al-Ma’idah, ayah 48.
I’ll never forget this beautiful ayah or the stunning impact that it had on me.
It hit me so hard that it took my breath away. I had to re-read this verse several times, then close the mus-haf with my finger still on the page so I could concentrate and put all the pieces together in my head. Then I re-opened the book and read it again. Yes, here was the answer I’d been searching for for at least the past several years. Alhamdulillah!
There was no fight. There never had been. It was all in my head, all gotten from the worst elements of culture, social programming, and — stupid feminism. Feminism, with all its illogical contradictions and cognitive dissonance and jealous hypocrisy.
I was freed from the stupid senseless shackles I’d willingly put on myself, weighed myself down with for years. Poof. They were gone.
It took me some years still to fully rearrange my thoughts and un-warp my mentality, though. Old habits die hard.
This moment was only the beginning of my transformation.
I didn’t leave all of my feminist thoughts overnight.
So when a young man from the Harvard MSA asked me to give him my father’s contact information so we can talk about marriage, I freaked out immediately. I reverted to my old mental circuit of distressed effrontery: “Oh no! This guy wants to marry me??! WHY? Do I seem like the kind of girl who wants to be married? Do I seem weak or like I can’t function on my own without a man to help me? What kind of vibes am I giving off to people? Do I look weak or clingy? What’s he trying to say here? WHY DOES HE WANT TO MARRY ME?”
So I rejected him. Because marriage is for the weak, the helpless, the dependent. I was independent!
But eventually, after my initial rejection of this suitor felt hasty and not fully justified, I was more thoughtful years later the second time he asked me (yes, the poor man had to ask twice. I’m horrible.) I hesitantly said yes after a few chaperoned marriage talks with our families. But I felt uncertain, not sure if my uncertainty was due to him or to my own old confusions about the genders, marriage, etc.
Alhamdulillah we were married in my last year of college. I was a married senior in college, while none of my undergrad friends were. They all remarked on how funny it was that the most anti-marriage girl out of the group was the first to get married. The girl who swore she’d never get married!
Then my senior year ended and I graduated. But I didn’t have an awesome job lined up, or a prestigious graduate program I’d be enrolling in, or even a hippie volunteer thing I was going to do. Nothing. I was going to be a wife. That’s it.
My fellow classmates were starting their first years of medical school, law school, and fast-paced careers on Wall Street because they had just graduated from Harvard. I was going to start my first year as a housewife, because I had just graduated from Harvard. Yeah.
It messed with my head for a while, as my old notions of what femininity meant and what purpose looked like and what pursuits were worthwhile came rushing back. I felt like a waste of a Harvard seat. At Harvard, they tell you that after graduating from such a fine institution, you must use it to do “great things” and “pursue your passion” and “reach your full potential” and “be a contributing member of society.” You went to Harvard, after all.
So I got married and became a housewife who cooked and cleaned. Right. Was this my full potential? Was I doing great things? Was I contributing to society? I felt embarrassed meeting up with some of the other girls I’d graduated with, as they talked about work or grad school and I…didn’t.
My husband would talk to me gently and wisely about this issue for as long as I needed, to help me see things in a more realistic light and from a different perspective than the one I was stuck on — but it didn’t last. I’d feel reassured for a while, then go back to fretting that I was aimless and without purpose just being a housewife. This is NOT part of the script of what it means to be a successful woman! It’s just not. I didn’t want to be a feminist anymore…but I also didn’t want to be pathetic!
I learned how to run a small household over that first year, and got my driver’s license finally, and took advanced fus-ha Arabic and tajwid classes. But I still felt like I wasn’t doing quite “enough.”
I got a part-time job the next year as a Muslim Chaplain at a women’s college, and that made me feel better. I loved the job itself and the college girls I worked with, but it was more than that. I just felt like I was doing what was expected of me again. I was back on track. Validated. I was earning my own income, just as a modern independent woman with any self-respect should do. I was married, but I still needed my independence and my own income! I’m not going to just sit at home and be a little housewife and rely fully on my husband to provide for me! Of course not.
This stage of my development changed, yet again, when I added the role of mother to the role of wife.
For years, I’d told myself I never wanted to be a mom. I had much younger siblings, so as a teenager I’d already changed hundreds of dirty diapers, spoon-fed squirming toddlers who sometimes spit the food back at me, dressed fidgeting kids which is a task not unlike trying to dress a wiggling octopus, and perfected the art of rocking babies to sleep.
I felt like I’d done enough parenting for a lifetime and really didn’t need to do it all over again with a new batch of kids. Kids were a LOT of work.
But as I grew older and slightly more mature, and especially after I got married, I started to want children. It was a natural desire within me, and it emerged toward the surface unbidden. I wanted to be a mother.
After two years of working, I became pregnant with our first baby, and a few months before my estimated due date, I left my job. Even with whatever traces of my old “empowered woman” notions still remaining in my mind, I still knew, instinctively and immediately, that I wanted to stay home to raise my child.
I wanted no one else to do that job. I wanted to do it myself. I’d raise this child and whatever other children Allah blessed us with, because I wanted to be the absolute best mother I can be for my children. I wanted to be fully present. I didn’t want to miss any of my children’s childhood, if I didn’t have to. What job could possibly be worth missing one second of my child’s life?
When my first child was born, I held his tiny, fragile, soft body in my arms and gazed at him incredulously. Allah had created this tiny creature so magnificently, and He had entrusted him to me. His safekeeping, his feeding, his shelter, his nourishment, his teaching — all these needs this baby had were in my hands, and my husband’s.
I was both humbled and in awe at the responsibility I felt for this new human being. I deeply and fundamentally felt the weight of the relationship of الرَّحِم, the rahim. The womb. I was entrusted with the upbringing of this human being, the nurturing of his body and the molding of his mind and the shaping of his character. His tarbiya, تربية. What happens in this relationship transcends the realm of this dunya and affects his Akhira, and mine.
As I held my own child in my arms for the first time, I experienced a feeling I’d never felt before that moment. Maternal protectiveness and strong resolve. I was not going to allow any harm to touch this child if I could help it, by Allah’s will. Neither harm from others…nor harm from me.
I could not allow my own confusions, delusions, or misunderstandings to hurt my innocent child, who lay so trustingly and so vulnerably in my arms. Whatever feminist follies of “independence” or “empowerment” that still remained in my mind or psyche had to go. They wouldn’t ever touch my child.
Here was a creature who was 100% dependent on me. I did not want to be independent of him. Viewed through the clarifying lens of motherhood, while holding something as real and as precious as a baby, the entire concept of independence looks as silly as it really is.
You get attached. As a mother, you become exquisitely attuned to your infant. You are vastly aware of his breathing rate, his body temperature, his facial expression and body language. When he cries, you respond. When he has a need, you meet it. He is incapable of meeting any of his own needs. He learns trust with you. And love. And mercy.
Psychologists calls this our attachment system, which is an inbuilt neurobiological system that drives human beings to seek enduring bonds with other human beings. This means the primary caretakers, usually the mother and father. A disruption of the attachment system in the formative years of a child results in long-lasting and sometimes irreversible damage.
Motherhood has disabused me of the remnants of the feminist lies that had still lingered in the corners of my mind like cobwebs. Being a mother — with everything the role entails, from pregnancy, to childbirth, to breastfeeding, to raising a human being — has been the most empowering thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. The hardest thing, and so also the most rewarding.
I had four children in the span of five and a half years, mashaAllah.
Every mischievous toothless grin, every soft touch of chubby hands patting my face, every infectious bubbly laugh…Motherhood makes you fall in love. When a small body launches itself into your arms and tiny, chubby arms go around your neck, your heart seizes up with overwhelming love. Love that is unlike any other kind of love in life.
Motherhood makes you notice the tiniest things that you’d stopped noticing decades ago: a tiny ladybug on the ground, a leaf falling from a tree branch, a squirrel. Your child will notice it and excitedly point it out to you, and you will notice it too, and get equally excited. The childlike wonder of life is back. You will see ordinary things as extraordinary, seeing them as though for the first time through your child’s eyes.
Of course, not everything about childrearing is sunshine and roses. Some things are plain difficult. I don’t want to sugarcoat the hardships, because they exist. Motherhood is hard, and often feels lonely. Physically it’s exhausting, because you are usually sleep deprived and sometimes dehydrated and forget to eat some meals.
But motherhood forces you to grow in the best of ways. It pushes you to purge yourself of your worst traits and face your fears, insecurities, and inconsistencies. It makes you want to be a better person, if not for your own sake, then for the sake of your children who look to you.
If you put in the work of ridding yourself of your issues, weaknesses, and flaws, you emerge a more refined, finessed version of yourself, forged through the kiln of motherhood bi idhnillah.
What does it mean for a human being, man or woman, to reach his or her “full potential”?
Let’s see if we can break down this loaded phrase because WaAllahi I feel like it’s become so weaponized. And most often, this weapon is aimed at Muslim women.
The US Army’s slogan is: “Be all that you can be.”
It’s not too different from the feminist slogan to today’s woman: “Reach your full potential.”
Both the American army and western feminism are causes looking for naive recruits. And they both share the same recruitment method: attempting to manufacture an artificial desire within the target to join the cause. Joining the US army (or feminism) means expanding yourself and your capabilities and tapping into ALL the hidden parts of yourself.
Because whatever you are now, it just isn’t enough.
You can be more, so much more. Don’t stifle what’s inside you, what’s in your nature deep down.
Army says, “You are currently a citizen. But that’s not enough, not all you can be. You should be a soldier who goes off to fight in our wars!”
Feminism says, “You are currently a normal feminine woman/ wife/ mother. But that’s not enough, not all you can be. You should be an independent girl-boss, a female CEO, a kween, a she-warrior, a goddess (astaghfirullah), an atheist anarchist rebel badass!”
To which I, and all intelligent sensible women, say, “No thanks. I’m a traditional feminine woman. This is all I want to be.”
Just because you can do or be something doesn’t mean that you should.
Just because I can drive 95 on the highway doesn’t mean I should.
Wisdom is deciding which aspects of your “potential” are worth fulfilling. Not just blindly and compulsively trying to fulfill “your potential” in its entirety or being literally “all that you can be.”
These sly suggestions, whether by the US Army or by feminists, are straight manipulations.
It’s not enough for you to be a regular citizen; be a soldier we can use as cannon fodder in our wars.
It’s not enough for you to be a daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother; be an atomized, individualistic female consumer we can use in our capitalistic economy.
See the game? It’s propaganda.
Now, in this season of my life on this earth, as a Muslim female slave of Allah with four young kids that I homeschool and a loving husband, and my extended family and a few dear close friends, I feel that I have reached my full potential on my own terms. I’m actualizing my purpose. I am using all of my God-given potential and strength in order to do something real, something meaningful, something significant. I have a mission, a purpose.
And as for doing “great things” with my Harvard degree, what could be a greater thing than to carry human life within you, then bring it out into this world with the mercy of Allah, then feed it with your very body, then nurture and discipline and teach this human being? What is greater than shaping the next generation of Muslims who can carry the banner of Islam?
My life is still full of struggles and trials — but I don’t feel forced or strained anymore. I’m not hiding anything, or trying to artificially rearrange my nature or my personality. I feel at ease and comfortable and thankful, even though by feminist standards I’m a total failure: a stay-at-home mother and housewife mired in the demeaning meaningless work of childcare and domestic drudgery, with my husband as the sole provider and zero career aspirations of my own. Gasp!
But now I just don’t care.
I don’t feel confused anymore about my identity or my role, alhamdulillah. The Quran has answered my old questions and resolved my old conflicts. My thinking had matured and stabilized, alhamdulillah. I trust Allah and rely on His wisdom (tawakkul, توكل), and I have stopped infusing the rulings in Islam with external negativities and stopped having سوء الظن (bad assumptions) about my Creator.
Femininity, Not Feminism
In conclusion, here are the hard-won lessons that I’ve learned alhamdulillah through my journey into and out of feminism:
I’m no longer uncomfortable with the concept of femininity. Femininity is the natural mode that a woman is in when her fitra is sound and healthy, just as masculinity is men’s. A healthy woman operates from her feminine frame, neither fighting nor suppressing it nor trying to warp herself to become more masculine in search of “power.”
2. Modesty/ Haya, حياء:
Contrary to what secular feminists push, modesty is not weakness and brazenness is not strength. A modest woman isn’t some quaint, old-world throwback who is a pushover or a doormat. A modest woman is fully alive. Ibnul Qayyim, رحمه الله , says that haya’ ( حياء, modesty) and hayah (حياة, life) are directly related, and the degree to which a person has modesty is the degree to which that person is alive.
I’ve learned what it looks like to be a Muslimah who is both feminine and modest. I don’t have to resort to being a tomboy like in high school. I don’t have to choose between being a scantily-clad feminine girl on the one hand, and a modest but masculine girl on the other. It’s possible to be a modest feminine Muslim woman. In fact, one of the core aspects of true femininity is modesty, حياء. Not just in dress alone — but in thoughts, mannerisms, dress, gaze, speech, and actions. Moreover, حياء is the single most defining feature of Islam as a whole.
I don’t have to prove my independence or my competence. I don’t have to force myself to do and be everything. I don’t have to go out of my way to show the world that I’m free and not in need of anyone else and definitely NOT in need of a man to help me do things. I don’t need to make sure I have a good, high-paying job because that denotes my worth and showcases my unfettered freedom and also is a safety net in case my marriage goes south since most marriages end in divorce these days, amiright?
4. Reliance on the Husband:
I’m all right with letting my husband work and provide for me. That is his job. I have my own job. I don’t want to compete with him.
I have no interest in trying to outdo him, or trying to hide my “weakness” from him, or to pretend that I don’t need him. I have no problem acknowledging his authority or his role as my wali and the leader of this family — in fact, his authority and leadership are things that I look to him for and lean on whenever I am tired or unsure. I need him to be a leader, an authority, so I can rest in my own role and rely on him doing his.
I’m allowed to be tired. It feels peaceful and right to relinquish control and to show vulnerability when I feel it instead of trying to hide it like a dirty secret. I’m thankful for his solidity, his reliability, his steadiness. He is my support, my rock, my love. I don’t distrust him or anticipate the imminent doom of my marriage. He isn’t my enemy or the representation of everything I need to become — rather, he is my helpmate and I am his.
5. Gender Wars & Marriage:
Men and women, husband and wife, do not have to be locked in battle with each other. It’s not a fight or a competition. There are no “sides.” There IS no war.
A husband and a wife are a team. We are working together to create something real, something beautiful, something that requires effort and toil and teamwork: a Muslim family.
If he and I are pitted against each other, if we’re constantly competing or fighting with each other, the entire project will fail. But thankfully, there’s no need for a clash. We need each other, and we each have a specific role for which we are already equipped and hard-wired for optimal performance. The trick is to surrender and let yourself accept your role and your natural ability to do it, with the grace of Allah. Fighting it, and trying to re-write your role and rewire your own nature, will only result in tension and heartache and futility.
Feminism, like Shaytan, tries to mangle the natural harmonious relationship between men and women. It teaches women to pit themselves against the men in their lives and deny their own natures, which leads to misery for all involved.
6. Torn Between Career and Motherhood:
We need to dissolve this tension that has been artificially manufactured and implanted within the hearts of modern women. To stay home with family or to go out for a career in search of “greatness”?
Motherhood is not prison. Your home is not a jail cell. You still can pursue hobbies, nurture your talents, learn new things, explore your creativity — all as a mom. Motherhood is not stifling or suffocating, as it’s often painted.
But motherhood is also “enough.” If you are “just a mom,” you don’t lack “ambition.” You are doing quite a lot. If we had more stay-at-home dedicated, attentive Muslim mothers, society would look incredibly different. We are in desperate need of women who are “just moms!”
As a mother at home, I feel that I am right where I need to be, doing the work that I most need to do, for which I am irreplaceable and for which I am the most qualified candidate. The work of raising and nurturing and educating my children as Muslims and to run my household and to support my husband.
There is nothing else in this world that is more important to me than this. To leave these responsibilities to others less qualified than myself in order to search for different responsibilities less important would be utter folly. Silliness. Now that would be a waste of a Harvard seat.
7. Femininity & Strength:
Femininity does not mean weakness. It doesn’t mean fragility, helplessness, or stupidity. Femininity and strength are not opposites or mutually exclusive traits. Femininity includes strength.
The strength that is part of femininity does not look exactly like the strength that is part of masculinity. There is feminine strength and there is masculine strength. I’d spent most of my adolescence chasing “strength,” which was just a poorly-constructed version of masculine strength, which is what I’d assumed all strength could ever be or look like.
I had naively tried be as physically strong as I could be and tried not to talk too much about my feelings or wear anything pink or sparkly or ever express need or dependence on men in any way. There you go. “Strength.”
But now, decades later, I know that strength is a different thing entirely. Feminine strength is in nurturing love, practiced patience, enduring stamina, open communication, emotional intelligence, empathy, and yes, even physical strength. Do you have any idea how much physical and mental and emotional strength is required to undergo labor and delivery of a human baby un-medicated? That is physical strength that is inaccessible to men. Women have it naturally. Women have always had it, given by Allah.
Not that it’s a competition. It isn’t.
8. Is Islam Anti-Woman?
No. Islam isn’t anti-women, any more than it’s anti-men. This is just a baseless accusation hurled at Islam by low-IQ insecure feminists.
Allah is perfectly just, الحق. Far, far exalted is He from even a iota of injustice to any of His creation.
Men have their own type of strength. Women have theirs. These two genders are different creations of Allah. They both need one another in some way. Each side has something that the other lacks.
Needing or lacking something is not equal to being weak or defunct. It is simply how Allah, in His infinite wisdom, has created us. It’s not wrong or bad. It is simple reality. We have different natures, suited for different roles at which we respectively excel.
Railing at reality or rebelling against our own nature only makes us depressed.
9. No Fear, Only Tawakkul:
Feminism instills a sense of mistrust and fear into the hearts and minds of modern women. Fear of uncertainty, mistrust of men, suspicions about the future. So many what ifs:
What if my husband leaves me? What if he cheats on me? What if he turns out to be an abusive monster? What if he dies? What if he gets into a car accident and becomes paralyzed and can’t work anymore? Will I become homeless or starve?
The answer to all these questions is: tawakkul, التوكل على الله .
Life is full of uncertainties, a certain degree of inherent risk, no guarantees. This is the dunya by design.
But if we trust Allah and know that we will win through obedience to Him no matter what happens, He will take care of all our affairs regardless of how our life plays out.
Don’t allow the feminist fear-mongering to work on you.
10. Honor Through Islam:
We are Muslims. We aren’t feminists. We don’t need to be saved from our own backwardness or barbarity by some atheistic, secular feminists who will “enlighten” us. We have Islam, a perfect, complete, comprehensive system made by the Creator, and therein lies all our عزة, honor/ pride/ dignity. Feminism has nothing good to offer us that we don’t already have in Islam.
Now that I’ve moved away from the feminist influences I’d been under, I have internally relaxed. I don’t have to deny my nature or fight myself or others. All I have to do is let go of my irrational feminist notions and just be myself as Allah has created me. A woman, a female slave of Allah, a wife, a mother, a nurturer, an educator. These things are enough. My worth is not measured in material terms or dunyawi metrics. It’s all about Akhira.