The young college student was interested in Islam and seriously considering converting. Some say he already had. But upon further questioning, he revealed that while he really liked many things about Islam, what was hindering him was how women were treated in the religion. I don’t know if anyone ever tried to answer his questions and concerns, but I do know that after about a year, members of the Muslim Students’ Association at my school never saw him again.
Regardless of whether this young man ultimately accepted Islam or not, the issue he raised over twenty years ago is one that remains a problem for Muslims today. “Muslims oppress women” is still the mantra Islamophobes routinely tout to justify all kinds of intolerance and anti-Muslim agendas, whether that is on college campuses, online forums, television programs, or in private political meetings.
And the sad reality is that there is still a grain of truth to that accusation. Muslims, inside and outside of the Muslim world, often fail to live up to Islam’s ideals when it comes to half of the Ummah.
Islamophobic agendas aside, this is not about good public relations for the community. It is about right and wrong, based on Allah’s commands and the example of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. Muslim men are commanded to treat women with dignity and respect regardless of their faith, how they are dressed, where they are from, or the color of their skin. Muslim men and women’s ideal relationship in the context of the community is one of brother- and sisterhood in faith. These are ideals that must be instilled from the start. Here are some ways to begin.
1. Instill accountability before Allah, regardless of others’ actions
This is the number one lesson all Muslims, regardless of gender, must be continuously reminded of. If we get this down pat, then both young Muslim men and women (and the rest of us older folks) will remain focused on doing what is right and not justifying our sins because of other people’s behavior.
In terms of respecting women, this will mean, for instance, that fewer Muslim men can argue that they were disrespectful toward a woman because of the way she was dressed. It will mean that Muslim boys will make more of an effort to lower their gaze instead of succumbing to tempting looks at a passing billboard or an attractive classmate.
2. Model, model, model
No, not the latest starlet, but your behavior. Model how you expect women to be treated. For fathers, this means lower the gaze (Quran 24:30), and for both parents it translates into avoiding movies, websites, television programs, comic books, video games, etc. that sexualize and objectify women. It also means speaking to and about women in a dignified way, avoiding not just flirtatious talk in the case of the opposite gender, but insulting and hurtful put-downs of women because they are women (e.g. “what a stupid woman!”; “dumb blonde”; “pfft. Women drivers”, etc.). As well, unnecessary discussion of a woman’s attractiveness or lack of it leads both boys and girls to believe that a female’s worth is tied to how beautiful she is. Avoid it.
3. Teach respect for females in authority
Many years ago, I was ashamed to read in my local newspaper about a teacher who complained that one of her Muslim students refused to listen to her because she was female and he was male. This was something he was taught at home, not to listen to any woman because men are always in charge.
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon, regularly sought and followed advice women gave him, whether they were wives or other women in his community. He was open and willing to listen and follow, just as he was capable of leading and guiding.
Whether it is a female teacher, a police officer, or anyone else, make sure that she is treated with respect and dignity, even if you disagree with her decision about an issue. If this is the case, bring it up in private. But in front of your kids, avoid putting her down and remind them to treat their elders, male or female, with respect.
4. Watch out for porn
Pornography not only objectifies and degrades women, according to many studies. It also ruins lives. Do everything you can to avoid this scourge by taking all the measures necessary to keep it out of your home and away from your children through constant vigilance and smart tactics.
5. Regularly read about and give examples of great Muslim women
Make sure your boys don’t just read about Maryam, Aisha, and Khadija, may Allah be pleased with them all, but also about Nusayba bint Ka’ab, Rumaysa bint Milhan, Rabia al Basri, Aminah Assilmi and Shareefa Alkhateeb. They are amazing women who made incredible contributions to Islam at different periods in our history, and they can and must be acknowledged and recognized, as well as held up as examples of good Muslims.
Also, don’t hesitate to mention great Muslim women during those “teachable moments” when kids are open to learning a life lesson. For example, if you’re watching a cartoon featuring a male Muslim character valiantly defending Islam in battle, mention how Nusayba bint Ka’ab defended the Prophet’s life during the Battle of Uhud; if you’re in the car driving to school and you see a homeless person, talk about how Aminah Assilmi was so generous with whatever she had even though she, too, suffered from homelessness at one point in her life. Then make sure to offer something to the homeless person, even if it’s just a smile.
6. Teach healthy gender relations
While we may talk about Muslim brotherhood and sisterhood, we often lack examples of how that actually takes place. In many communities, men and women are segregated at Islamic events and programs to a degree not practiced during the time of the Prophet, with the argument used that sexual temptation is too great to allow for any interaction.
On the other hand, we have situations where both genders talk, joke, and hang out at Muslim activities or centers and Masjids with little to no knowledge of Islamically appropriate behavior in front of each other. Neither of these are ideal scenarios.
Muslim parents, study circles, full-time and weekend schools all need to teach their children basic Islamic gender relations. This includes why and how to lower the gaze, what is and is not appropriate to talk about with the opposite sex, Islamic dress for both men and women, avoiding flirtation, etc.
When young Muslim boys and girls are taught these basics, it will open the doors to a healthier model of community interaction and greater respect for each other overall.