The issue of male-only panels is a new one. Outrage often seems manufactured: Muslim women are not “represented” in conferences, scholarly circles, panels, public events, speaking engagements, etc. This is considered a big problem, as it clearly serves as evidence of systematic misogyny, and Muslims will never progress unless it is resolved via a quota system of integrated avenues — or so goes traditional wisdom.
Ustadha Sarah Ahmed, based out of Dallas, detailed some issues with the demands made of female scholars in a previous piece about female scholarship. Female scholars, like male scholars, have familial responsibilities, but this manifests differently, both prescriptively and descriptively. Rather than financial responsibility, their responsibilities are mormatively with the tarbiya of children and maintenance of the home. Naturally, this, alongside fiqhi guidelines on traveling, makes calls for women to headline conferences difficult to answer as they require more sacrifices and undergo more difficulties than their male counterparts. Unless organizations are prepared to fund the travel and lodging of the family, it is financially difficult to carry out. There is also the fact to consider that whether it is out of the aforementioned burden or hayaa, women are less likely to participate in highly visual, public spaces. This does not mean that female scholars do not exist, it just means that the female scholar network does not operate like the male ones. Forcing it to do so runs the same risk that integrating women into the corporate does: rather than supporting femininity, it encourages the adoption of traits associated with masculinity in order to succeed.
Secondly, the clamor for female panelists and features undermines the credibility of qualified women in the first place. When it becomes commonplace for organizations to add the first woman they can find onto a flyer regardless of qualifications, simply to prevent outrage, this casts doubt on all women. A female scholar then risks being viewed as a token, rather than being taken seriously on account of her knowledge. Ironically, it is this issue that feeds into the relegation of women to topics unique to women (fiqh of hayd, for example), rather than at least foundational knowledge in all arenas, befitting a scholar. This does not negate the quantifiable difference between men and women as teachers and students or the subjects they gravitate towards — single sex spaces, beyond avoiding issues that arise from gender mixing, are beneficial to each sex in providing close mentorship that mixed spaces prevent. Women often feel more comfortable asking private questions, especially when related to the physical body, marriage, etc. to women. However, as the featured woman on the panel, her knowledge in other areas is undermined, relegated to milquetoast general topics, rather than honouring specialisation in her field.
Thirdly, this exposes a strong discomfort with patriarchal social models i.e. a perceived dominance of men in a particular realm. Consider this, why is this model inherently wrong? Does it undermine the lofty status of women to admit that scholarly knowledge-production was done mostly by pious men (recognizing the great women of our tradition as well)? None of this implicates inherent inferiority, but instead is an acknowledgement of men and women’s natural gravitation towards certain areas, and a commentary on the organization of most social structures regarding family structures. Specialization, for most of history, was a luxury — even for men.
Perhaps this phenomenon arises from the development of the non-Muslim world whose production comes at the cost of maligning and oppressing women. Theologically, there exists no such thing — that the Prophets were all men, that warriors, rulers, and visible scholars were mostly men, says nothing about the ability, the capacity, the intelligence, and status of women. We understand that the deficiencies of men are complemented by the virtues of women, and vice versa. The modern secular-liberal-feminist model inconsistently desires sex equality in all arenas but attributes societal failures to men, past and present, and frames women as perpetual victims of patriarchy and society writ large. In contrast, Muslims push for gender equity with the understanding men are prescriptively and descriptively more appropriate for public spheres of rule and leadership. In fact, it is on this very premise that we can logically say: it is the failure of men to live up to the responsibility in these spheres that first caused the destruction of traditional society — the rise of secularism, bloody political antics, the fall of the caliphate, and scattering Muslim families across strange lands. Men are dominant in specific arenas, and thus they are culpable for its failures. That is the role of qawwamun.
Additionally, a culture of visibility only measures value by what is seen and perceived by the eye. Visibility in and of itself is not a virtue, not only because of the diseases of the heart it can lead to, but it is a stage on which women are often asked to perform. Such a culture sings odes about unseen labor but never truly recognizes or appreciates it. For example, the fervor to equalize male-dominated arenas forces women to work double time: where raising children and domestic tasks were shared by a village and communal support systems, the modern woman is asked to take it on herself, have a career, and achieve a high level in the traditional Islamic sciences as a “visible Muslimah.” This is impossible to achieve and ultimately a destructive burden.
A critique like this is incomplete without this mention of this final point: visibility does not equate to accessibility. In actuality, many of the justifications for “visible” female scholars in the same space as male scholars stem from the barriers in seeking knowledge (this is aside from insincere anger to expose the supposed misogyny of Muslims or what have you). From the rootless young Muslim girl’s perspective, it seems unfair: the presence of a male scholar at almost every masjid, the ease for boys and men to directly connect with them, the material obstacles posed by hayaa and stringent gender interactions, and most “accessible” resources online also male-dominated. Female scholars are less likely to market themselves, film and post Youtube videos with their faces, or be hired by mosques whose immediate needs can only be fulfilled by men (establishment of community leadership, congregational prayers, funeral arrangements, etc.). These factors understandably, though unfairly, make support for female scholarship and female students secondary.
The solution, instead of shallow calls to representation and affirming a culture of visibility, is to focus one’s efforts on creating dynamic and wholesome avenues for women. This means assuming potential female students have the same capacity for rigor and intellectual contributions as male students, but are approached differently in communication and teaching style. This means establishing a cycle of classes for women, who can then go on to teach, that extends beyond but includes fiqh of women-related matters, such as aqīdah, mantiq, tasawwuf, etc. This means teaching women how to critique and observe the aggressively secular world around them and giving them the tools to combat it — not just simply telling them that Islam values women highly (true), and expecting the difficulties of their context to sort themselves out. The point is that opportunities are made, so that the goal to seek ‘ilm is easier in and of itself — as a noble endeavor, not to facilitate outrage.
Farhana Khan is based out of North America. She is interested in the Islamic sciences and medical ethics.