By Sheema Khan
January 24, 2019
Like many throughout the world, I admire the courage of Rahaf Mohammed in her fight against the draconian guardianship laws of Saudi Arabia. That country’s uber-patriarchy literally treats women as minors from cradle to grave – and brooks no dissent from women.
When Canada granted Ms. Mohammed asylum, I was thrilled; we made good on our promise to make women’s rights an integral part of our foreign policy.
But reports of Ms. Mohammed’s renunciation of Islam hit a nerve. I was reminded of my own personal journey when I, too, almost left the faith because of the way I was treated as a Muslim woman – by other Muslims, in the name of Islam. But contrary to Ms. Mohammed’s situation, I grew up in a loving Muslim home with a supportive family in Canada.
In my youth, I wasn’t overly committed to my faith. But during my PhD studies at Harvard, I yearned to fill a spiritual void that science could not. I had been rediscovering bits and pieces of Islam through art, calligraphy and architecture. I began attending the weekly Friday prayers and found myself looking forward to that one hour of the week when my heart would be at peace while contemplating the divine.
Along the way, I became more involved with on-campus Muslim groups in order to learn more about a faith I barely knew. The road became quite bumpy: I was told that a good Muslim woman shouldn’t study for a PhD and that men were superior. The deficient nature of women was occasionally mentioned by some male students during their delivery of the Friday sermon. At one point, I told myself that if my faith stipulates that, as a woman, I am inherently inferior, have no right to use my mind to study the world and am second-class to all men because of the nature of my creation, then I want no part of it. Deep inside, I knew God was fair; the Islam shared by students was anything but.
I resolved to find out for myself what Islam really said, without a male filter. So I turned to its primary source – the Koran – and devoured English translations (since I was not fluent in classical Arabic at the time). After all, if I could pore over equations of quantum mechanics, I could surely devote energy toward exploring deeper questions. What was my purpose here? What happens after death? Are there universal truths? Do I matter?
As I absorbed the message of the Koran, I found inherent peace, with the affirmation that my creation was a blessing with purpose and meaning. More important, no one was inferior – or superior – simply by the way she was created. I came to learn that many beliefs and practices by Muslims regarding women were completely contrary to teachings found in the Koran and the example of the life of the Prophet Mohammed.
And thus began the painful process of renouncing parts of my South Asian cultural heritage. I refused to accept interpretations of the faith that denigrate women. Instead, I found a deeply spiritual paradigm that affirmed the inherent human dignity of women and men.
Along the way, I have come to learn of a strong patriarchal strain – sometimes bordering on misogynistic – within Muslim practice. I have seen it in community institutions here where women’s voices are marginalized. I have witnessed it at a Muslim cemetery in Laval, Que., where an elderly Muslim man harangued and cursed me and my mother as we paid respect to my late father. He did it in the name of Islam.
It has been painful to know that centuries of Islamic scholarship have affirmed the inherent superiority of men over women, including the right of a husband to physically punish a “recalcitrant” wife. This is a legacy that haunts us still.
Until Muslims seriously confront this legacy, there will be more women like Ms. Mohammed who question why they should be part of a family, a community, a system that condemns them as inherently deficient at worst and second-class at best.
I encourage Ms. Mohammed to fight for women’s rights. I will do the same, from within my faith. Let’s marshal our collective resources to fight for basic human dignity.