Pronouns: Progressivism’s Preposterous Plight

He/him, she/her, they/them, ze/zir — the options grow daily. One can simply wake up one day and assume the identity of a boy, the next claim that they are a girl, and the day after neither, and announce their pronouns as a part of their introduction, expecting an unquestioned adherence to affirm self-identification. This is despite the fact that there is no definition on their part of what a woman or a man actually is aside from the recursive argument, “anyone who identifies as such.” Nowadays, pronoun introductions are an assumed feature of elite educational and working spaces, with dissenters branded as bigoted or transphobic.

As pronouns form a part of daily speech and polite introductions, from the elementary classroom teaching the variety of pronouns to workplaces and applications requiring them, Muslims have also begun adopting this practice. For some, it is a part of adopting polite society decorum; for others, it may be out of sympathy with individuals who struggle with dysphoria; and for another growing group, it is an outright acceptance of modern, Western liberal gender and sexuality mores. 

However, rather than an innocuous practice, I argue that the usage of pronouns is a sign of adopting a postmodernist framework of gender that is completely antithetical to Islamic values.

The problem is not only that of “they/them” and using plural third person pronouns in place of he or she.  Arguments that contend with forcing grammatical changes is an issue for an area of linguistics termed sociolinguistics and pragmatics. While I think these types of arguments point to the institutionalization of language norms forcefully pushed by a minority, the problem is not in language “being changed” alone. Language evolves over time, both “naturally” and through the efforts of people — and sometimes the line is blurred. The bigger issue here is that one can use language to reflect an understanding of “who they are” to others, despite it having no grounding in reality. Even languages and cultures that have no gendered personal pronouns retain the basic demarcation between what is a woman and a man that is reflected in other aspects of language.

Rather than truth rooted outside the emotions of consciousness, the concept of self-identification assumes that what is internally felt is the authoritative truth. There is no measurable, conceivable way to assess the accuracy of such a claim because gender is now considered a “felt” experience alone — a label to self-identify without ever having to define what exactly is being identified as. For example, only women know what women are, but anyone who identifies as a woman is a woman, but what exactly constitutes a woman depends from woman to woman! Sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman in Liquid Modernity diagnoses identity in the modern world as follows: 

 …it is the ability to ‘shop around’ in the supermarket of identities, the degree of genuine or putative consumer freedom to select one’s identity and to hold to it as long as desired, that becomes the royal road to the fulfillment of identity fantasies. Having that ability, one is free to make and unmake identities at will. Or so it seems.[1]

Before even entering a discussion of moral truth and a tawhidic framework, these arguments are recursive and fail on the level of basic logic. Announcing one’s pronouns in such a fashion not only normalizes the sins associated with the movement, but validates the premises underlying the up-taking of this practice: that sex and gender are not objective realities, but ever-evolving conceptualizations one “identifies” with that should be accepted at face value. And because there is no way to assess the truth of a claim, as long as one claims it, this has led to absurd legal implications — for example, Scotland’s policy of allowing male inmates who simply “self-identify” as women to, without question, be put into women-only prisons, with some returning to their identity as men after release. As one woman inmate described, “[h]e wanted to be in this hall because he wanted to have sex with loads of lassies.”

This not only has implications on a fiqhi level — where gendered aspects or any demarcation between men and women will be undermined — but is an affront to our theology and understanding of Allah’s creation of humankind: as men and women (many proponents of modern gender and sexuality norms will try to use the example of intersex individuals to invalidate this point. However, this is something I have discussed in a previous piece, and will discuss below as well, because it’s often invoked in these circles).

This has already impacted policy beyond the above example, with Muslims supportive of such definitions failing to realize it will harm Muslims and Muslim women the most. Without the ability to define a woman as female, for example, encroachment into women’s only spaces will become commonplace. There is no way for the state to protect the needs and wants of women, because nothing is essential to being a woman and therefore there is no definitive feature of women that require such protections, because a woman is anyone who defines themselves as one. Yet for the Muslim woman who abides by the shar’i commands to veil from unrelated men and minimize physical contact, increasingly deconstructive attitudes to gender will pose a clash that few policymakers and members of the public have had the strength to accommodate.

Those attempting to defend women of faith or simply those concerned about encroachment are vilified, from J.K. Rowling’s public flagellation (despite her contention only being that transgender women are not the same ontologically as women, not that attempting to change sex is immoral), to a transwoman bringing discrimination lawsuits against Muslim and Sikh women at a spas who refused to wax the genital area of males. The irony here is the demand to accommodate another’s view of their gender is positioned higher than the Muslim woman’s — or any other person’s — view of themself and relationships with others.

Arguing gender fluidity, or that multiple genders exists that one can voluntarily adopt, is Islamically corrupt. The underlying premise is that there are two sexes that correspond to two genders, which one is throughout life. Both academics and laypersons often conflate the discussions of khuntha (commonly translated as intersex) and mukhanathoon (effeminate men, there is another term for masculine women) in fiqh texts and the seerah to advocate for a vision of Islam and gender that aligns with progressive gender ideology. They fail to admit that both in fact are in line with “men” and “women” as discrete categories and creations of Allah. Khuntha are a biological reality, individuals who display a spectrum of ambiguity as to their biological sex, but aside from the rare completely ambiguous case, will still align more with one sex or the other. The underlying presumption is still that such a person has a sex, but is not discernable in this world. The unique fiqhi rulings for extremely rare cases of khuntha mushkil (a completely ambiguous intersex person) are not an acknowledgement of a “third gender,” but rather that in such extreme cases where the gender cannot be discerned at all, these individuals are still a part of society and must be accommodated.

Those who have congenital abnormalities or displayed qualities of the opposite sex that were beyond their control — like a male with a high-pitched voice — bear no blame. Among mukhanathoon, however, are also individuals that voluntarily adopt the dress and mannerisms of the opposite sex, which is categorically impermissible. 

Ibn Abbas reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, cursed men who imitate women and women who imitate men. In another narration, Ibn Abbas said: The Prophet cursed men who copy women and women who copy men. [Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6445]

Today, in the English-language, “she” and “her” are used to refer to women. Men adopting these pronouns are purposefully trying to be perceived by society as women, and are implicated by this hadith. Should the day come where English becomes a language that has no gendered pronouns, like Malay and other Austronesian languages, this critique will move to other avenues through which men or women attempt to convey an inaccurate representation of the self. This is why rebuttals like “it’s just language” or “other languages don’t have gendered pronouns” are irrelevant. English uses gendered pronouns, and this is another avenue through which transgender individuals attempt to portray a vision of themselves that is untrue.

When people today use the acknowledgement of khuntha as evidence that Islam affirms such a vision of gender, they completely forgo ahkam (normative rulings) in favor of ahistorical readings. If one’s sex is clear or once discerned, it is not permissible to try and physically alter oneself to better resemble the opposite sex. The underlying premise is that sex is discrete, which means that regardless of how one may struggle with their sex, it is a feature of the way Allah created humans. Therefore, one cannot adopt a label that misrepresents this reality. 

One may respond: how does all this mean there is a problem with announcing pronouns, especially if it just accurately reflects one’s biological sex (which is the case for most people)? The issue here is that this implicitly affirms a vision of sex and gender beyond Islamic mores, one that implicates the modern day movement. Announcing pronouns affirms a vision in which gender cannot be discerned from one’s sex, that the intuition one has in accurately identifying one as a man or woman the vast majority of the time must be forgone in accommodating every single individual’s self-perception. In other words, such a person is not simply announcing their pronouns, even if the pronouns are accurate to their sex. Such a person is announcing that they ascribe to a corrupt vision of gender, where rather than being decreed by Allah ﷻ, it is for every individual to mold for themselves.[2]

Even from an irreligious standpoint, the contradictions of this ideology are many, for example, in the “cancellation” of Natalie Wynn, a transwoman. In a series of tweets, Wynn criticized the public show of announcing pronouns, as it is counterproductive to what many transgender individuals seek in being assumed to be a particular gender like cis individuals. Backlash from non-binary individuals critiqued her “privilege” in “passing” as a woman, and a number of pieces were subsequently written by others expressing discomfort in centering their identity around gender (and in their view “paradoxing reinforcing gender binaries”). Other debates discuss whether the genitals of a person is “woman” or “man” depending on the identity of the person, despite the initial demarcation between sex and identity; whether a post-gender world solves these issues; whether it is actually progressive to announce pronouns when individuals may still be figuring out their gender identity; feminists who see this as an erasure of womanhood; and so on.

It is unfortunate that questioning the ephemeral goals of the movement that seeks more and more affirmation is assumed to be relegated to the political, often hateful right — principled Muslims must look to critically analyze the American progressive culture that uncritically exports these issues to the world and demands unquestioning adherence, while remaining compassionate to those sincerely looking for answers and help within the parameters of our Deen.

Works Cited

[1] Bauman, Z. Liquid Modernity, Polity Press, 2000, p 83.
[2] In the case of those naturally looking androgynous, or are often mistaken for the opposite sex, there are ways to indicate this (for example, in social media biographies), or correct one in person without engaging in this. That pronouns have monopolized normal mistakes of human interaction is part of the issue.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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Farhana Khan

Farhana Khan is based out of North America. She is interested in the Islamic sciences and medical ethics.

2 thoughts on “Pronouns: Progressivism’s Preposterous Plight

  1. Considering that my ‘windshield’ time in life is dwarfed by my ‘rearview’ mirror time of life…..I am glad to be in this stage. It appears that the world or pronouns has been elevated to the head of the class. Humanity with all its problems from crime to drugs, from war to outright torture for entertainment value (Ukraine), to religions who are at a loss as to which way to turn, to poverty and all the associated misery, to medical failure with all its boasting about progress (COVID), to educational failure at the earliest age, to a judicial system, which will now be overrun with cases (to the lawyers delight), to a God (if one believes) who looks down and is beyond disappointed with humanity and with how it’s conducting itself with an opportunity to do things right and… the right thing…….I have questioned, if not lost, faith in humanity. Unless, of course, I’m missing something, for which I’m sure there is someone out there who has all the answers.

  2. Jazakallah khair for the essay, it was an easily digestible reading that led to me re-analyzing some work practices. If I understand correctly: To announce one’s pronouns even when they match with one’s biological sex is to implicitly agree with the idea that gender is a personal construct that is then projected to the world rather than it being rooted in what may be apparent and what a person is. My question is; should a person still announce their pronouns when they are mistaken for the opposite sex often?

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