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How Interpretations Are Used To Disempower Women

A series of articles written by Muslim feminist Shaista Gohir, of the Big Sister organisation.

Part 1 introduces the myths behind Islamic interpretations that disempower women and encourage a severely patriarchal view of the Muslim lifestyle, to the detriment of women's liberty.

*Disclaimer, the comic images were designed by myself. The entire series are the words and views of Shaista Gohir.

Divine Will of God or Men’s Opinions?

© Muslim women and masjids. www.zaufishan.co.uk

Many scholars give opinions on issues concerning women that are negative or disempowering. Yet as Muslims we know that the Quran was revolutionary for its time, giving women rights which we boast about and use as an example of the superiority of our religion above others. Yet at the same time on a daily basis women are: constantly instructed on all the things they can’t do; their minds, bodies and lives are controlled; and are told they are inferior, trouble makers etc.. Yet we all turn a blind eye and don’t challenge what we are hearing nor investigating the sources of these judgements i.e. whether these statements are the ‘divine will of God’ or just men’s opinions about how women should behave. This distinction is very important.

Islam is the submission of mankind, to will of Allah, not the submission of women to the will of men.

For this reason, I went on a journey trying to discover the truth. I may not be a bearded man but want to share my findings with you in the hope it will be a catalyst for you to do your own research and find the truth for yourselves and not just take my word for it. I have realised there is more than one interpretation to many verses, but we often tend to be held hostage to those interpretations that are discriminatory and patriarchal as the true Islamic position. Patriarchal interpretations are accepted as they either conform to our misconception or match our assumptions about the Islamic position on gender relations.

The Quran warns against those who deny the true meaning of the Quran and instead attribute their own opinions and inventions to God. Although the verses below were a warning to the people of the Book who were engaged in forgeries at the time, it also serves as a warning against confusing Divine Discourse with its interpretations. "And there are among them illiterates who know not the Book but (see therin their own) desires and they do nothing but conjecture." (Quran, 2:78)

'Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands, and then say: "This is from Allah".' (Quran, 2:79)

Selective Interpretations by scholars
Do not accept anything that you yourself cannot verify; Surely your hearing, your eyesight, and your mind will be questioned. (Qur'an, 17:36)

I have found that many Muslim scholars are not giving us the full truth so we can make our own fully informed opinions instead we are given the impression that what we are hearing is Allah’s divine will. Islam does not permit intermediaries between us and Allah – therefore no scholar, sect or group has the right to monopolise interpretations of the Quran and hadith. To simply accept their authority when they misinterpret and discriminate against women without challenging makes us all complicit in the continued abuse of Islam.

I have discovered some scholars including (some of the most reputable ones) are doing one or all of the following:

• Carrying out selective investigations into the hadiths and other historical texts to reinforce their opinions or preconceived ideas.
• Giving us selective disclosure on their Islamic knowledge including anything they discover in their investigations that go against their opinions and interpretations.

I feel that if these scholars are acting as special agents helping us understand Allah’s divine will, then they are failing in their duties. Instead of making the full truth available to us they are just guiding us towards their personal opinions. To be blunt, I would describe the behaviour of some who claim to represent Allah’s law when it comes to women as dishonest! You will understand my criticism when you see the examples below: We must reject the notion of blind obedience and carry out our own analysis as well.

Islamic Feminism or rational investigations?
Many would call such analysis and discourse, Islamic feminism, but I would simply call it rational investigation of religious sources or itjihad. Some Issues regarding women e.g. veiling of women don’t appear to be open for discussion because traditionally scholars have reached consensus.

Those who listen to the word and follow the best (meaning) in it: Those are the ones Whom Allah has guided, and those are the ones endued with Understanding. (Quran 39:18)

But we are never told these are opinions of men – no matter how pious and religious, they are not God nor Prophets but men that are human and not infallible, therefore not above criticism. I have noticed that how these men successfully manage to maintain their power over our minds is by describing any challenges to their opinions as corruption of true Islam or that us ‘lay’ people cannot possibly have the capacity to tackle the complexities of Arabic texts. Why should they have a monopoly on Islam? We have scholars both male and female, that have discovered that many scholars have been misleading us with their patriarchal interpretations– but unfortunately such scholars that speak out are often marginalised.
There is no point in our scholars telling non-Muslims how Islam liberated women and honours them while they contradict Allah’s divine will with their opinions and interpretations that have a profound negative impact on women, subjugate them to the will of men, and give the impression that they can be treated like animals, humiliated and degraded.

When hearing any of the misconceptions below, I urge women (and men) to pause and reflect:

• Is it Allah’s divine will? Does it compliment what the Quran says about women or fundamentally go against the principles Allah has laid out for women.

• Could the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) who treated his wives so well, have really said any of the sayings attributed to him?

• Challenge scholars who preach any of the misconceptions listed here and ask them why they are being selective in their opinions.

Are men really morally that weak or is it an excuse?

A woman going to the mosque, raising her voice, driving a car, travelling unaccompanied by a male, not covering her face and hair, is apparently creating intolerable seductions and temptations for all those poor men then I the following questions arise:

• If men are so morally weak, then why should women suffer?

• If men are so morally weak then why should men be heads of family and leaders of society?

• If men are so morally weak then why are they considered more rational and less emotional than women?

Where is the justice for women?

According to Islam we have an obligation towards justice and balance:

“Thus we have made you (Muslims) a nation (that must be) justly balanced so that you may bear witness over humanity.” (Quran, 2:143 and 22:78)

“O you who believe, stand firmly for God as witnesses for justice, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice.” (Quran, 5:8)

“O you who believe, stand firmly for justice as witnesses for God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin and whether it be (against) rich or poor.” (Quran, 4:135)

These verses tell us that “serving God” means “serving justice” are one and the same! Furthermore without themselves morally balanced, Muslims can discharge their duty to bear witness on humanity. Hence it appears that, whoever is not treating women with justice and not having a balanced approach towards them, cannot be serving God.

So when you here an Islamic text interpreted, always as two questions: Is it fair? Is it just?

Does Abu Hurayrah (ra) have a lot to answer for for disempowering women?

You will notice from the examples in the myths listed on the (Big Sister) website that many traditions demeaning to women are reported by Abu Hurayrah (ra). It is therefore important to consider and research the following points when relying on hadiths attributed to him as he is considered a controversial figure by some scholars because:
He was a late convert to Islam and only became a Muslim 3 years before the Prophet's demise, yet he transmitted more traditions attributed to the Prophet than most of the companions who lived with the Prophet for as much as 20 years.
He was not particularly close to the Prophet compared with some of the other companions.
There are a large number of reports from 'Aishah, Umar and Ali (ra) criticising Abu Hurayrah for contradicting the traditions of more notable companions and the Prophet.
Early scholars refused to rely on the reports by him.

© Opinions by Shaista Gohir - founder of the Big Sister website.

Further recommended reading:
1. Sisters in Islam website: www.sistersinislam.org.my
2. Musawah website: http://www.musawah.org/


  1. Salams, I loved the whole article - it was getting really juicy... until the last little section which was a bit of a let-down. The fact that women today face massive injustices has little to do with Abu Hurraira (ra). The arguments questioning the authenticity of his hadith are pointless, as many of todays Muslims will take hadith either from a qualified scholar (who judges the authenticity) or the 6 sahih, which of course contain hadith from Abu Hurraira (ra).

    Also, Abu Hurraira (ra) seems to be some kind of sticking point for many Shiah, who routinely throw out the same arguments about him.

    I feel like if you ended with a paragraph titled "The 7 Biggest Myths About Women" and listed them from (and maybe linked to) your website, this article would be STELLAR! In fact, I'd like to share it with my group: Quran For Busy People ( www.quranforbusypeople.com & www.quranforbusypeople.wordpress.com )

    Let me know what you think my sister :o)

  2. Wa`alaykumsalam warahmatullah Mamoon.
    Masha'Allah, may Allah bless your work and make it a successful platform for Muslims. I'm a subscriber to your motivational updates.

    Yes, you may share our work by crediting the image from this site: Source {www.zaufishan.co.uk}, and crediting sister Shaista Gohir, founder of the Big Sister site, for her article as these are her opinions.

    I will take your suggestion on board, a potential article insha'Allah.
    Praise and thanks to Allah, Lord of creation.


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