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Crimson Chiffon and the Joyous Muslim Woman
by Mohja Kahf
Crimson chiffon, silver lamé, or green silk, what scarf to wear today? My veil collection is sixty-four scarves long and growing. The scarves hang four or five to a row on a rack in my closet. Elation fills me when I open the door to this beautiful array.
It bugs me that I even have to say this: Being a Muslim woman is a joyful thing.
My first neighbor in Arkansas borrowed my Quran, and returned it saying, “I’m glad I’m not a Muslim woman.” A woman with St. Paul in her religious heritage has no place feeling better endowed than a Muslim woman, as far as woman-affirming principles are concerned. Maybe no worse, if I listen to Christian feminists, but certainly no better. I’m fed up with hearing this gloating assumption—that Muslims are somehow exceptionally sexist—in the dominant discourse; it even creeps into Muslim discourse when we accept this sense of our own inherent degradedness.
The freshness of ablution is mine, as a Muslim woman, and the daily meditation zone of five calisthenic prayers. Prayer scarves are a chapter in themselves, cool and comforting as bedsheets. They lie folded in the velveteen prayer rug when not in use: two lightweight muslin pieces, the long drapey headcover and the roomy gathered skirt. I fling open the top piece and it billows like summer laundry, a lace-edged meadow . I slip into the bottom piece to cover my legs for prayertime, because I am wearing shorts around the house today.
The prayerclothes create a tent of tranquility. The serene spirit sent from God is called by a feminine name, “sakinah,” in the Quran, and I get why some Muslim women like to wear prayer-like clothing for more than prayer, to take that sakinah into the world with them.
I take pleasure in preparing a clean folded set for a houseguest, the way home décor mavens lay elegant plump towels around a bathroom to give it a relaxing feel.
Tassled turquoise cotton and flowered peach crèpe flutter as I pull out a black-and-ivory striped headscarf for the day. My best friend told me when we were twenty-two and shopping and I balked at a thirty-dollar paisley, “I never scrimp on scarves,” and I embraced that principle too, even when I was a scratch-poor graduate student. “If people are going to make a big deal of it,” she reasoned, “it may as well look good.”
It’s not all about scarves. Masses of Muslim women who don’t veil would resent the implication that this is the central thing about being a Muslim woman. Blessings abound.
The central blessing of Islam to women is that it affirms the spiritual equality of men and women, a principle stated over and over in the Quran. This is how most believing Muslim women experience God: as the Friend Who Is beyond gender, not as the Father, not as the Son, not inhabiting a male form, or any form.
I sort my scarves, always looking to replace the frayed ones and to find missing colors, my collection shrinking and expanding, dynamic, bright: the blue and yellow daisy print is good with jeans, the incandescent purple voile for a night on the town, the gray houndstooth solidly professional, the white chambray anytime. There is more joy:
Marriage is a contract in Islam, not a sacrament. The pre-nup is not some new invention; it’s the standard Muslim format. I can put whatever I want in it. Muslims never get credit for that. Or for having mahr, the bridegift that goes from the man to the woman, not to her family, but to her, for her own private use. A mahr ought to have significant value, an assurance, a year’s living, or more. The naïve may call this materialistic (because nothing Islam offers can be good for women, so if it can’t be critiqued as misogynistic, quick, flip the script); most divorced women would call it pragmatic.
If patriarchal customs have overridden Islam and whittled away this blessing in many Muslim locales, it’s still there, available, in the Law—and that is still important, because it means it is still achievable for women who want it.
It’s easy to forget that Muslims are not inherently more sexist than folks in other religions—Jews and Christians, say. Today, Muslim societies may lag behind on some issues that women in certain economically advanced non-Muslim societies have resolved after much effort, but on other issues Muslim women’s options run about the same as women all over the world, and in some areas of life, Muslim women are better equipped by their faith tradition for autonomy and dignity.
Every so often, while engaged in gender justice struggles within my faith community, I back up, compare us to other communities on a certain issue, and realize: hey, at least we don’t have that problem! There are “givens” that I take for granted as a Muslim woman that don’t exist in other religious or cultural traditions. It took European and American women centuries to catch up to Islamic law on women’s fully equal right to property ownership. And it’s not an airy abstraction; it’s a right Muslim women have practiced, even in the most conservative Muslim milieus, such as Saudi Arabia, where women own businesses, donate land for schools, and endow trusts, just as they did in fourteenth-century Egypt, ninth-century Iraq, and anywhere else Islamic law has been in effect.
A Qatari woman I know, while studying in the US, was shocked to learn that under American community property law her own car and even jewelry belong equally to her husband, and his credit card debt is her problem too, if they divorce. The husband’s property is communal, from a shariah perspective, and the wife has a claim on his wallet and can take from it without asking, especially to give away in charity behind his back, but the wife’s property is not communal, Islamically speaking.
Many Americans seem to get amnesia when they revel over how horrible Muslim societies are for women. Women in the US struggled for decades to get domestic violence recognized as a crime—and it took two hundred years of socio-economic development from a totally agrarian patriarchal America to one that recognized wife-beating as a crime, and that goal was only recently achieved, and still could bear some beefing up in the law. Compare US feminists domestic violence struggles of the 1970s and 1980s with the struggles of Ebtihal Mubarak and other Saudi women to change the treatment of domestic violence in that country, which has had only fifty years of rapid social and economic development from being a totally agrarian pre-modern society. Why expect it to be at exactly the same place? Don’t give it a pass. Don’t let cultural relativism trump human rights. But compare like to like.
You don’t get to compare the West’s bests to our worsts. You don’t get to compare the brightest, most metropolitan face forward of women’s conditions in the most economically prosperous and developed countries on earth with their conditions in underdeveloped Muslim majority countries suffering from dictatorships, civil wars, famines, and other ills, and say it’s about our religion keeping those women back.
If you want to raise the spectre of honor killings (which is a tribal custom, not a Muslim one, and is practiced by tribal Christians, too), then let’s talk about crimes of passion in Latin America—or Texas. Women in my home state of Arkansas have very low levels of literacy, health and wealth, compared to some Muslim societies with wealthy, healthy women—Bahrain, for example. But Arkansas is not the face of “the West” that usually gets compared to the Muslim world. Women in the work force in Lebanon (with its history of civil war and devastation) fare pretty well when compared to women in the work force in Nicaragua (with its comparable history of civil war and devastation). When the comparison is fair, apples to apples, we have as many bests—and as many worsts—as anyone.
Some of our “bests” are luminous. Khadija was the boss of her husband, our beloved Prophet Muhammad, hiring him during her widowhood to run caravans for her successful business, and he caught her eye and she proposed marriage to him.
Saints, queens, poets, scribes, and scholars adorn the history of Muslim womanhood.
In modern times, Muslim women have been heads of state five times in Muslim-majority countries, elected democratically by popular vote (in Bangladesh twice, and also in Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan). Shouldn’t that give a cognitive dissonant pause to those who imagine that we are all chained to a harem lattice being beaten daily? And I’m not saying that a woman president is necessarily a women’s president, or even necessarily a good president (cases vary), but how many times has a woman been president of the United States? Oh yeah: None.
All that gorgeous history pales, yet, when I open my closet door for the evening’s pick: teal georgette, pink-and-beige plaid, creamy fringed wool, or ice blue organza? God, why would anyone assume I would want to give up such beauty? I love being a Muslim woman. And I’m always looking for my next great polka-dotted scarf.
Born in Damascus, Syria, Mohja Kahf is an associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas. Her books include a novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (Perseus, 2006), a book of poetry, E-mails from Scheherazad (U Press of Florida, 2003), and a book of scholarship, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman (U Texas, 1999). She has lived in the Arab world and returns there regularly. Her study of early Muslim women, “Braiding the Stories: The Eloquence of Women in Early Islam” appears in Gisela Webb’s Windows of Faith: US Muslim Women Scholar Activists. Her poems have been published in Mizna, Banipal, Paris Review, and Atlanta Review. Kahf has finished a poetry manuscript about Hajar, Sarah, and Abraham and is working on a book of essays.
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