Faith In Feminism

Interview with Mo Ansar

Vicky Beeching August 16, 2013 17 Comments

tempx_wf_islam_koran_g

The Muslim faith, as does the Christian faith, has a reputation among feminists for being oppressive toward women. Is this reputation justified? I interview Mohammed Ansar to see what he thinks of this. Mo is a Muslim commentator, lecturer and writer, frequently seen on TV and heard on radio.

[To the reader: A quick reiteration -  the aim of the Faith In Feminism project is simply to represent the many diverse expressions of feminism that exist. For every interview representing one perspective, a counter perspective will follow in a future interview. The views we publish are those of our contributors and in publishing them we are in no way affirming nor rejecting their viewpoint, simply showcasing them.]

————————-

VB: Mo, do you believe that a person can hold the Muslim faith and a passion for women’s equality easily in harmony, or are they a difficult combination? 

MA: There is a silent revolution taking place. It is one where religion is returning to the fore but more than that – it is that its return is being pioneered by women around the world. This revival of an enlightened spiritual narrative which combines orthodoxy with real cutting edge work on social justice and the welfare of others, could perhaps, only be pioneered by women and in our time.

VB: Do you feel it’s unfair when people describe the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism as ‘patriarchal’? Many would accuse the Muslim faith of seeming anti-women’s equality?

Mo Ansar

Mo Ansar

MA: The shocking truth is that to judge Islam by the worst conditions for Muslim women around the developing world is to create an ugly caricature, one which denies the geo-political machinations behind events and the balkanisation of women’s rights in these lands. The truer picture is that which we see when the rivers or confidence, empowerment, education, peace and prosperity flow together. We can only ask that the world looks towards Yemeni feminist Nobel prize winners like Tawakul Karman, as the real face and voice of a modern, politically engaged and socially astute Islam, rather than those with a Talibanised view of education and equality; it is a hard and closed thinking which wanders around in the shadows beyond the light of Islam. In truth, we may even find that a modern, enlightened Islam has much to offer a West which today, still struggles to find the right settlement for those balancing influences of sexuality, equality and feminism.

VB: Some might ask whether any key women were part of shaping Islam’s doctrines and practices, as the Prophet was male. How would you answer that?

MA: Any discussion on feminism and Islam might start with some thought about a quite remarkable woman – Aisha. Despite the best and most accurate current historical thinking reflecting she may have been as old as 18 or 20 years of age at the time, Aisha has been greatly maligned throughout history as the child bride of the Prophet. As is often the case for strong women throughout the ages, confluences of patriarchy, religious leadership and outright hostility have culminated in her most unjust treatment – an audacious attempt to bring in to question the achievements of a quite remarkable woman.

VB: So Aisha’s role was very key?

MA: Absolutely – no other religion has a woman at the heart of it, as Aisha is to Islam. Further than this, no other religion owes as much to one woman in sheer scale of contribution and development. Not only was she the greatest jurist of her era,  with the Prophet and his companions consulting her regularly due to her superior knowledge, intellectual acumen and understanding of the faith; her work lead directly to the development and methodology of jurisprudence and scholarly interpretation. She was a medical physician, a judge and a convert; the wife of the Prophet and compiler of the strongest chains of narrations relating to his life and works. To be clear, the religion of some 2bn people of the world would not exist as it does today, without the pivotal and central role of this woman – the mother of the believers.

VB: Are you frustrated by the misogynistic reputation many of our religions have gained?

MA: Yes. It’s quite astounding that the religion which has at its centre a woman such as Aisha, an entire chapter of the Quran called the women and another dedicated to the mother of Christ; should now stand in the dock accused of the worst manifestations of misogyny and abuse towards women. It is a charge which needs to be refuted and with some vigour.

VB: How has Islam defended the rights of women throughout history?

MA: Islam created what was effectively, the first written bill of rights for women. In an era when female infanticide was common place, Judaeo-Christian traditions had provided no limit on the number of wives a man might have and they were inheritable as chattel. In addition to banning the practice of female infanticide, Islam created a legal basis where women were entitled in their own right for the first time, to own businesses, marry by choice, vote, inherit, and divorce. Islam conferred additional rights onto women such as rights over their husbands and fathers. A married woman in Islam is entitled not to work if she so chooses, to be provided for, and her husband’s income –quite literally – is hers, since the shariah forbids him from compelling his spouse to pay towards the bills and upkeep. Muslim men everywhere will no doubt be breathing a collective sigh of relief as, due to the generosity of women-folk, this is not enforced too stringently.

VB: So in your opinion, is shariah law a good thing for women’s equality?

MA: Yes – the historical context is fascinating. For centuries, non Muslim women living free and in accordance with their faith and traditions in the Ottoman Empire, often turned to the shariah to enforce their rights which were protected to a greater extent than was available under the secular common law known as Qanun. A religion where gold and silk is the exclusive preserve of women and which confers upon them rights over their men – sexual, emotional and spiritual – has now also become the focus for a new great debate on feminism in the modern world: the rise of the female convert to Islam.

VB: Has the practice of women converting to Islam later in life created a shake-up, or is this something that has frequently happened over the decades?

MA: Let me tell you about one example of a feminist converting to Islam. Born in 1875, Valentine de Sainte Point was a leader of the French feminism movement. Her uncle was the French philosopher, Lamartine, someone she placed in high regards. Having thrown herself into a hedonistic lifestyle, ‘liberated’ and flagrant and gratuitous, Valentine became a French avant-garde intellectual. She was a dancer, poet and artist, and at the beginning of the French suffragette movement, she became recognised as one of France’s foremost feminist thinkers and a key figure in the futurist movement.

VB: Has she written anything we could read today?

MA: Yes, her first key work “The Manifesto of Futurist Women” is still highly considered today. In 1913, she penned her most infamous piece “The Futurist Manifesto of Lust” – a reflection of her sexual liberation, the female feminine essence and a celebration of human sexuality and lust.

VB: So she converted to the Muslim faith?

MA: Yes, in her search for authenticity, a real and sincere role for women, she converted to Islam becoming known as Rawhiya Nour al Din. From the global capital of eroticism and feminism, to orthodox Islam; it is a path which those who believe Islam to be a thing contradicting femininity and sexuality, equality and liberation for women, will struggle to understand. For Valentine, Islam was the pinnacle of precisely those values.

VB: Is this trend of women converting to Islam on the rise?

MA: It has been estimated that there are some 5,000 converts (known as reverts) to Islam in the UK each year. Some three quarters of these are women, the overwhelming majority of whom are white, European born and educated. Arguments can be posited about the failure of the sexual revolution where women were sold the myth that they could be everything to everyone, or that modern reductionism and equality has driven a horse and cart through traditional models of male-female interplay. All of these things albeit components, undermine and ultimately disenfranchise women and disconnect them from their spiritual journeys; individual stories and personal searches for peace and completeness, a thing we all so desperately need today.

——————

You can read more from Mo Ansar on his blog and by following him on Twitter.

Like this Article? Share it!

About The Author

Vicky Beeching is a theologian, writer and broadcaster who focuses on the areas of religion, feminism and technology. She is a regular on TV and radio discussing her areas of interest. Vicky is currently doing PhD research on the ethics of the Internet, exploring how online technology is shaping society. She lives in central London.

17 Comments

  1. Mark August 16, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Mr Ansar’s raison d’etre is to defend Islam at all costs, usually even if that cost is honest and balanced debate.

    The whole tit-for-tat criticism of Aisha being 6 or 9 years old is worthless as far as I’m concerned as it simply dissolves into circular non-provable arguments. But it’s no surprise here that Mr Ansar has her at 18 or 20. His use of figures and percentages is something I have come to mistrust.

    His assertion that “no other religion has a woman at the heart of it,” (however described) is patently not true, and pretty much deserves a challenge right there and then. So Aisha is all he could come up with. That in itself, says an awful lot.

    And he had to slip in “2 billion people.” I’m surprised he didn’t use his usual 2.4 billion. Even Medhi Hasan (as do most commentators) has it at 1.6 billion. Again, Mr Ansar is exaggerating the figures in order to raise Islam to something that it is currently not.

    As for the misogyny charge, he is obviously welcome to refute it, and perhaps with some vigour, but not at the cost of honest and open debate, which usually has him completely denying things that are either written in the Quran/Hadith, or things that are happening right now.

    On Shariah. You ask about how women have been protected by Shariah ‘throughout history’. Mr Ansar of course gives views going back hundreds of years, but obviously doesn’t tackle the here and now. There is a very popular question regarding women in Shariah and that is one of inheritance. It should have been asked (amongst others). This all reminded me of Mr Ansar’s assertion that slavery was all sweetness and light under historical Islam. With silly historical assertions like that, why should I believe him on anything else? He also asserts that it is mandatory for women to cover themselves and points to some incredibly vague verses and sayings in the Quran to back this up. Many modern commentators say that there is no compunction in the writings to cover up. Maybe that should have been tackled.

    What are his views on inclusive mosques, where women can lead prayers and gays are welcomed? He, as a civil rights campaigner who promotes inclusivity and tolerance, would surely welcome this sort of thing, wouldn’t he? You campaign for women bishops. Why can’t you approach this subject in Islam?

    He says that Valentine de Sainte Point was searching for “authenticity, a real and sincere role for women”. I suppose we had to put up with some preaching at some point.

  2. JM Jones August 16, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Maybe our Islamic friend would like to reveal his source that validates the age of the prophet’s wife Aisha. Most historians agree she was 9 when he married and 11 when he was said to have consecrated the marriage. also, he says Aisha was consulted for her intelligence, yet after the Siege of Medina or Battle of the Trench there was an accusation of adultery made against her. Luckily the Prophet conveniently had another revelation which cleared her of all charges. Could you friend also explain the following from the ‘holy texts’.

    1.) The Prophet said “Isn’t the witness of a woman equal to half of that of a man?” The women said, “Yes.” He said, “This is because of the deficiency of a woman’s mind.”
    —The Hadith, Volume 3, Book 48, Number 826

    2.) Narrated ‘Imran bin Husain: The Prophet said, “I looked at Paradise and found poor people forming the majority of its inhabitants; and I looked at Hell and saw that the majority of its inhabitants were women.”
    —The Hadith, Volume 4, Book 54, Number 464

    3.)The people asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! What is the reason for that?” He replied, “Because of their [womens] ungratefulness.” It was said. “Do they disbelieve in Allah (are they ungrateful to Allah)?” He replied, “They are not thankful to their husbands and are ungrateful for the favors done to them. Even if you do good to one of them all your life, when she seems [sic] some harshness from you, she will say, “I have never seen any good from you.'”
    —The Hadith, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 125

    4.) double standards. If two men among you commit indecency [sodomy] punish them both. If they repent and mend their ways, let them be. Allah is forgiving and merciful.
    —Qur’an 4:15

    5.) any one of your women is guilty of lewdness … confine them until death claims them.
    —Qur’an 4:16

    Should I carry on? I believe h it was highly unlikely that a celestial supernatural power was whispering in the ear of illiterate, epileptic shepherd in 7th century Arabia, I will have assume that these were the views of Mohammad himself.

  3. Maaly August 16, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    I’d like to comment on 2 points (This does not mean that I agree with the other arguments made by Mohammed Ansar.)

    1)

    Mohammed Ansar, when asked:
    Do you feel it’s unfair when people describe Islam as ‘patriarchal’? Many would accuse the Muslim faith of seeming anti-women’s equality?

    You talked about judging Islam by the worst conditions for Muslim women around the developing world .. But u totally and completelly missed to tell us clearly and specifically how Quran and Hadith and other sources of islamic law are not patriarchal and not anti-women equaltiy.

    2)
    When Asked:
    Are you frustrated by the misogynistic reputation many of our religions have gained?

    You answered:
    It’s quite astounding that the religion which has at its centre …., an entire chapter of the Quran called the women ….. ; should now stand in the dock accused of the worst manifestations of misogyny and abuse towards women.

    Mohammed Ansar, have you read ‘The Women’?

    Vicky,

    Can feminism and Islam co-exist happily? Only in a ‘Secular’ world, because Islam (or at least Quran) and Feminism are not consistent. Why? Just read ‘The Women’

    P.S.
    Balkanisation of women’s rights? This statement is confusing. What did u mean to say

  4. Feroz August 18, 2013 at 8:52 am

    To all critics:

    Re: in regards to above comments please can we stop cutting and pasting religious text without background context and commentary and ignoring other verses/scripture etc. 1. points that need to be made, others will follow.

    1. The age of Aisha(r.a). This was a common practice in most parts of the ancient world and even in Britain and America up and till recently. Please read this extract:
    http://swordsofink.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/age-of-consent-and-the-prophet-muhammadssaw-marriage-to-aishar-a/

  5. Mark August 18, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    In reply to Feroz.

    I originally said that the age of Aisha does spark this sort of tit-for-tat argument about age of consent in various cultures over the centuries, so it’s a bit worthless as an argument as it ends up going around in circles.

    However, I’m not sure what point you are making. Mr Ansar asserted that Aisha was 18 to 20, so I assume you are completely disagreeing with him and you yourself are asserting that she was much, much younger, as was possibly the case in various cultures.

    If Mr Ansar’s point was to try to disprove the allegation of possible young age sex, you have gone against him.

    Was that your intention?

    • Feroz August 18, 2013 at 4:55 pm

      Hi Mark,

      Thank you very much for your reply. Yes, I am respectfully disagreeing with that

  6. Ralph August 24, 2013 at 11:44 pm

    I really struggle with the fact that for the first piece on this site about Islam and women’s rights, you have chosen to interview a *man*. In my view this is a serious misjudgement.

  7. Maureen October 10, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Aisha was 6 when Mohammad “married” her. She was 9 when the marriage was consummated:

    Hadith of Bukhari, volume 5, #234

    “Narrated Aisha: The prophet engaged me when I was a girl of six. We went to Medina and stayed at the home of Harith Kharzraj. Then I got ill and my hair fell down. Later on my hair grew (again) and my mother, Um Ruman, came to me while I was playing in a swing with some of my girl friends. She called me, and I went to her, not knowing what she wanted to do to me. She caught me by the hand and made me stand at the door of the house. I was breathless then, and when my breathing became all right, she took some water and rubbed my face and head with it. Then she took me into the house. There in the house I saw some Ansari women who said, “Best wishes and Allah’s blessing and a good luck.” Then she entrusted me to them and they prepared me (for the marriage). Unexpectedly Allah’s messenger came to me in the forenoon and my mother handed me over to him, and at that time I was a girl of nine years of age.”

  8. hal October 11, 2013 at 10:10 am

    There are plenty of items in the Islamic scriptures which Mr Ansar sensibly avoided and which sadly were not brought up by the interviewer. Just as an example, how about this:
    “If they abstain from [evil], they have the right to their food and clothing in accordance with the custom. Treat women well, for they are [like] domestic animals with you and do not possess anything for themselves” (from Mohammed’s last sermon (Al-Tabari Vol.9 pp.112-113)).

  9. Jon October 19, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    This article is a steaming heap of taqiyya.

  10. Mark October 31, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Test

  11. Mark October 31, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    The documentary, “When Tommy met Mo” was interesting.
    In explaining to Robinson why women have to pray in a separate room, Ansar said that he couldn’t concentrate (on prayer) if a woman was praying in front of him, obviously in the knelt, bent-over position.
    “Could you? I couldn’t,” he asked Robinson.
    Right there we have the reason women are segregated (and covered) in Islam. But to suggest to Mr Ansar that women are covered because men can’t control their sexual urges would probably elicit anger, and he’d tell you to get educated.
    In this case, on the doc, Mr Ansar has done the educating for us.

  12. Mark November 6, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    Looking further into this.
    Mr Ansar mentions the Quranic chapter entitled, The Women, as if it’s a good thing.
    Reading it, should have a feminist gnashing her teeth!
    http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/k/koran/koran-idx?type=DIV0&byte=114839

  13. Bill Cypher January 10, 2014 at 10:54 pm

    Shame you didn’t ask him about FGM or ‘honour’ killings.

  14. Mark January 14, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    Looking further into the chapter of “The Women” which Mr Ansar exhaults.
    This is from The Quran Project – a link from Yufus Chambers’ website.

    4:34
    But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them.

    I would stick my neck out and say there are no such instructions for women regarding their husbands, and that the above is really quite nasty.

    Mr Ansar, amongst others, really ought to be challenged on this sort of thing, if they insist every word is perfect, and cannot be reformed.

  15. Mark January 28, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    Well at least all this is making me look harder at the Quran. Another piece from the link from Yusuf Chambers’ website.

    Light 2 Surrah 24 an-Nur

    The unmarried woman or man found guilty of sexual intercourse, lash each one with 100 lashes.

    As explained in the notes on this site, the “found guilty” means either voluntary confession of the production of four male witnesses who can testify to having seen it take place.

    This ruling, I believe is used in Islamic socities today for rape, in that the woman will be lashed (or convicted of adultery) unless she can provide four male witnesses or the rapist confesses. This is something human rights campaigners have tried to tackle.

    Given that these are the words and the ruling in the Quran, and some socities implement them now, how does this fit with Islam being feminist-friendly, let alone female-friendly?

    I would probably be told a number of things:

    1. Don’t trust that translation.
    2. You have to read it in Arabic.
    3. You’re missing the nuance.

    Surely, if this subject is to be taken seriously, these things have to be confronted and not brushed aside or glossed over.

  16. Steven March 25, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Just a point about the last post. Current ‘Muslim’ countries who use that verse for rape victims, couldn’t be more wrong. And as far as I know it’s village justice that follows that, not the law of the land.
    It is supposed to be that if a couple are accused of having an affair, then they can only be punished if either they confess or four trustworthy individuals were eye witnesses to them commiting the sexual act. If anything it makes punishment nigh on impossible.

Leave A Response