Surprise: I’m Muslim and in a Feminist Marriage


Because you forgot to apply your intersectional feminism to me

muslim bride and husband against greenery

If Donald Trump’s version of Muslims were true, I’m probably the most un-Muslim Muslim who’s walking—sans burqa—on the streets of LA. Yes, I pray five times a day on the regular (okay fine, four, only because it’s really really hard to wake up in the mornings), I recite a different verse from the Quran every night before I go to bed—but I also believe you should be allowed to love whomever you want to, wear whatever you think looks good, and not rely on your husband to bring the turkey bacon home.

It’s a strange time to be a muslim

It’s a strange time to be Muslim. You have radical extremists, who’ve got the teachings of the Quran in a funk. But you also have people like Pierre Bergé, co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent Couture, taking issue with designers creating Islamic fashion, saying that, “When brands invest in this Islamic garment market, they are shirking their responsibilities and are promoting women’s bodies being locked up.” And I hate to break it to you Monsieur Bergé, but saying “I live in Morocco most of the time, I am really not Islamophobic,” is as good as saying “I am not racist, my neighbors are Black.” I get it, there are assholes who kill the innocent and claim to be Muslims, but my people are also contributing to the global economy on a scale that’s barely talked about.

I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, where it’s diverse, and I haven’t been attacked on the streets for believing in Allah. But would I offer information about my religious beliefs to Uber drivers who ask me inappropriate questions? Absolutely not. Am I terrified for women who wear hijabs living in the US? Yes. But I’m also incredibly proud of them at the same time.

Despite the rampant Islamophobia that’s happening throughout the US, I’m living here out of own free will. But watching political rallies on TV, I see a growing number of places where I would simply not be safe. And while some of our growing Islamophobia is based on flat-out backward ignorance, some of it (Hey, Pierre Bergé) is based on a righteous liberalism. It comes from an idea that the West knows Muslim women better than we know ourselves, and that the West’s version of feminism proves that Islam is a backward patriarchal worldview. But that is another kind of ignorance—the willful kind.

Feminist Islam, Explained

I’ve never known Islam and feminism to be separate entities. I was born and raised as a Muslim in Singapore, and while my parents have probably never realized it, the way they brought us up made my brother and I feminists. They’ve have never made me feel like I was lesser in stature because of my gender; they taught me everything they teach my brother—from reading the Quran, to learning how to fix a broken toilet, to equal opportunities in our education.

As a result, my marriage is about as egalitarian as it gets. We equally share the burden of putting gluten-free bread on the table; my husband vacuums the floors as often as I act as technical support for all our gadgets and devices. We exist—perhaps in a bubble—where women are not weak, and a man with weaknesses is not any less of a man.

And yet, when it comes to marriage in Islam, there is a widespread preconceived notion that women have little to no rights. But getting married in Islam requires a contract between equal partners, but the bride has exclusive rights to stipulate her own conditions, including divorce terms.

Islam is… radically forward thinking?

There’s a text in the Quran that addresses polygamy—it stipulates that men are allowed to have up to four wives:

“… marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.”

It isn’t worth nothing that this text was revealed to Prophet Muhammad after the Battle of Uhud, which saw scores of Muslim men dead, leaving their wives as widows, and single women unmarried. In a time where it was unheard of for women to go out to work, or fend for themselves, the Verse came down for the purpose of protecting the women, orphans who are of marrying age, and to increase the number of the Muslims by allowing the men to marry multiple wives. It was never intended for a man’s sexual pleasure, privilege, or in support of his ego.

In a time in history where men could literally jump from one wife to another, forsaking the last, Islam brought about responsibility—if you can’t treat your one wife justly, don’t marry a second. It’s a step more feminist than society at that time. Does it have its flaws when applied to society today? Definitely—but so do a lot of religious texts when applied to modern society.

It’s easy to brush off something you don’t understand, or something that you haven’t practiced as barbaric. It’s also easy to offer “help” where none is needed. I think religion is faith based on your own interpretation. My religion is one that upholds women to the highest degree. My religion believes that men and women are equals… and I think it’s time everybody knew that.

Faz Abdul Gaffa-Marsh

Faz Abdul Gaffa-Marsh is a freelance writer from Singapore who’s recently crossed multiple oceans and relocated to Los Angeles to end her long distance relationship with her now-husband. In between her quest to try all the hot sauces in the world and making time to write up a storm to pay the bills, Faz can usually be found looking for new hiking trails, trying to beat her last burpee count, or figuring out what new Mexican-Asian fusion dishes she can whip up in her kitchen.

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  • PW

    GREAT post. Intersectional feminism rocks my world, and the intersections above are some which either don’t get written about a ton, don’t get much attention, or which my privileged eyes don’t seek out keenly enough. MORE PLEASE.

    • Eenie

      “which my privileged eyes don’t seek out keenly enough” – *raises hand*

  • Juanita

    Really appreciating seeing how religion and feminism connect lately on APW, with this piece and the previous one about Christianity. I appreciate the remark about how a lot of religious tests don’t totally work in modern times. Speaking out of a Christian context, it can be troubling when people look at Christianity as antiquated nd opressive. The Bible was written in a specific time. Just as just as the Quran was. Curious to see other prespectives in the future. Thanks APW.

  • Thank you so much for this. I was raised Muslim and have many family members who are still observant. I’ve had many conversations with people explaining the same things you’ve shared here.

  • I love everything about this. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and your words.

  • Kalë

    Thank you, Faz, for sharing your perspective, and APW for featuring this piece! I am often so humbled by the brilliant words of APW contributors, and today is no exception.

  • Kara E

    Thanks for the thoughtful and intelligent post.

  • Kayjayoh

    Great post. Thank you for sharing this.

    Also, on that Twitter link:

    Richard Dawkins, SHUT UP!! Seriously. Just stop. Go back to biology and stop making ignorant comments on…anything else. (Especially about women. Never speak about women again.)

  • Lisa

    What a great and interesting article! Thank you, Faz, for sharing your story with us.

  • Christina McPants

    Thank you for sharing this!

  • Kate
  • Another Meg

    Thank you for this!

    I’m not religious, but singling out Islam as somehow less feminist than Christianity has never seemed correct to me.

    And there is absolutely a pervasive strain of liberalism that is anti-religious and condescending toward women of religion in particular. I’d say we aren’t all condescending asshats but #notallliberalatheists seems, well, asshattish. I digress. It’s there and should be called out. Often.

    Side note, I live within a few blocks of two mosques, and both communities seem to be pretty awesome. I looked up their websites when I first moved in and both speak to the feminism in Islam that is mentioned above.

    • AP

      “singling out Islam as somehow less feminist than Christianity has never seemed correct to me”

      I feel the same, and I am a Christian. It’s the whole “pointing out the splinter in someone else’s eye while ignoring the plank in my own” thing.

    • Danielle

      Yes. Part of me feels sad that she even felt the need to write this. There are parts of the Jewish/Christian bible that talk about stoning men for sleeping together, but you don’t see Jewish or Christian feminists feeling the need to defend their faith. At least, I don’t.

      In a sense, choosing to be religious (of one of the three major world religions at least, which are so old and from such a different time) means picking and choosing which parts of your faith matter to you, and which you can disregard. This is true for religious groups as a whole, and especially for women and feminists ?

      • JC

        This is so interesting, because as a Christian feminist, I feel the need to defend my faith all the time. Part of the reason is that the “picking and choosing” that you mention doesn’t sit well with a lot of non-religious folk. They feel that I’m picking the parts that easily fit and ignoring the Pat Robertsons of the world who declare all women to be second-class citizens and first-class sinners, and I’ve found (to overgeneralize here) that they see that as a cop out.

        Instead, what I see tends not to be Christian feminists choosing to ignore parts of the tradition that don’t fit their world view, but are actually feminists stating that these parts are *wrong.* Their statements call others *to* consider these parts of the tradition, and how hurtful and unfaithful they are, rather than let those passages fall by the wayside.

        Another way to put this is that in my experience, the intersection of Christianity and feminism is to focus even more on the traditions that are oppressive, rather than less.

  • Megan

    Just wanted to say thanks for such an awesome and thoughtful post! I studied Religion in college with a focus area of women and Islam and its nice to see conversation around feminist Islamic interpretation.

  • KK

    Thank you, Faz, for sharing and thank you, APW, for posting this. And, side note – BEAUTIFUL photo/dress/flowers/everything!

    For those looking for more opportunities to hear from Muslim American women, I’ve really enjoyed listening to the Good Muslim Bad Muslim podcast – the two women who host it are funny and entertaining, and they also have different backgrounds, so their perspectives or traditions often differ. I’ve learned and laughed a lot listening to it – highly recommend!

    • Seconded! I’m actually friends with the hosts and can vouch for their work and them as human beings. 100% recommended ??

  • savannnah

    For those looking for more on this, I read Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject by Saba Mahmood probably 10 years ago and I still go back to it to help center my intersectional feminism when I’m feeling blind on a recent event.

  • 确实不错,这个要实话实说!

  • Ex_Muslimah

    “I recite a different verse from the Quran every night before I go to bed—but I also believe you should be allowed to love whomever you want to, wear whatever you think looks good, and not rely on your husband to bring the turkey bacon home.”

    So you are just basically making up your own version of Islam even though it goes against the tenets of real Islam. How lovely.

    ——

    “I’ve never known Islam and feminism to be separate entities. I was born and raised as a Muslim in Singapore, and while my parents have probably never realized it, the way they brought us up made my brother and I feminists. They’ve have never made me feel like I was lesser in stature because of my gender; they taught me everything they teach my brother—from reading the Quran, to learning how to fix a broken toilet, to equal opportunities in our education.”

    The fact that you were raised in an “egalitarian” household – and in Singapore even, a predominantly non-Muslim and Westernized country – has nothing to do with the real teachings of Islam on women. The Quran gives Muslim men permission to beat their wives for disobedience, but nowhere does it command love in marriage (although it does say that “love” exists).

    The verses plainly say that husbands are “a degree above” their wives. The Hadith says that women are intellectually inferior, and that they comprise the majority of Hell’s occupants. Under Islamic law, a man may divorce his wife at his choosing. If he does this twice, then wishes to remarry her, she must first have sex with another man.

    Men are exempt from such degradations. Muslim women are not free to marry whom they please as Muslim men are. Their husband may also bring other wives (and slaves) into the marriage bed. And she must be sexually available to him at any time (as a field ready to be “tilled,” according to the holy book of Islam). Muslim women do not inherit property in equal portion to males. This is somewhat ironic given that Islam owes its existence to the wealth of Muhammad’s first wife, which would not otherwise have been inherited by her given that she had two brothers and her first husband had three sons.

    A woman’s testimony in court is considered to be worth only half that of a man’s, according to the Quran. Unlike a man, she must also cover her head – and often her face.

    If a woman wants to prove that she was raped, then there must be four male witnesses to corroborate her account (according to strict Sharia). Otherwise she can be jailed or stoned to death for confessing to “adultery.”

    Given all of this, it is quite a stretch to say that men and women have “equality under Islam” based on obscure theological analogies or comparisons. This is an entirely new ploy that is designed for modern tastes and disagrees sharply with the reality of Islamic law and history.

    “… marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.”

    “then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess” – A married Muslim man is allowed to sexually enslave and rape a captive infidel women whenever he feels like it. This is exactly what ISIS and other similar Islamic terrorist groups do to their captive women. Muhammad did just that and gave permission to other Muslim men to practice the same.

    “I think religion is faith based on your own interpretation. My religion is one that upholds women to the highest degree. My religion believes that men and women are equals… and I think it’s time everybody knew that.”

    Muslims are taught in school that the Qur’an has descended, word for word, from the creator Allah, through Muhammad. This is accepted throughout the entirety of the Islamic word. If we take this speculation as accurate information of Islam, then every Muslim is supposed to follow Allah’s verses exactly in order to be a good Muslim and to be considered a representative of the real ideology and religion of Islam. Secondly, if we take the assertion that the Qur’an is made up of Allah’s words as being true, then Qur’anic verses should be followed for eternity, as long as human beings exist in this universe. No changes are allowed to Allah’s rules and words because Allah, as Muslims say, is perfect and his knowledge is absolute. As a result, his words cannot be relative and every word he utters or reveals should apply in any time of human history. In fact, even Muhammad himself repeatedly said that two things a Muslim should follow are the Qur’an (words of Allah) and the Hadith (Muhammad’s teachings). Considering this information and based on these standards, a true Muslim, who represent the real Islam, should be the one who follows and obeys Allah’s words (from the Qur’an) completely. As a result, anyone who ignores some of the rules is not, and cannot be, considered a reflection of Islam, a good Muslim, or even a Muslim. Accordingly, Allah’s words and rules are not a basket of vegetable to choose from, meaning that one cannot obey some orders and disregard others.

    Therefore, you are not a good Muslim.

    • Gail

      The comment above is for sure going to be taken down as soon as the APW staff are awake on the west coast but I think it makes a reasonable point. The OP may well be a feminist in a feminist marriage and she may well consider herself a muslim but let’s not pretend Islam is inherently feminist. It’s not. At all. There are several other religions in a similar boat albeit perhaps less extreme. For me, I was raised Catholic. I no longer practice. I disagree with aspects of Catholicism so strongly regarding the position of women that I cannot take part. And you’re not allowed to pick and choose the bits you like because it doesn’t work like that. So yeah, I could say I’m Catholic and a feminist but that wouldn’t really be a true representation of Catholicism. I hope these comments are left here because I think this is an important discussion.

      • mary

        I agree that this is an important discussion (although the original post is clearly not very nuanced). I think it is helpful to consider the distinction that exists between the structures and institutions of organised religion, and the personal piety of individual members of a faith. The former, I would argue, tend to be patriarchal. In the latter case, of course individuals can practice feminist Islam, feminist Christianity, etc.

        I think it is important to both listen to the experiences of women like Faz, and not question or challenge them (‘you are not a good Muslim’ is an unacceptable statement), and also to hold in mind that the structures of organised religion are often rooted in misogyny, and that it is important to keep challenging that. The two can of course go hand-in-hand: Faz’s views indicate that.

        • mary

          Sorry – to clarify – in my final sentence I meant individuals can work within a church to change its institutions and structures and make them more feminist (as Faz is doing with her post). Not that misogyny and Faz’s views go hand-in-hand!

        • Ex_Muslimah

          How is “you are not a good Muslim” an unacceptable statement? The Quran is pretty clear on what constitutes a good Muslim versus a bad Muslim. It is the standard used by all Islamic sects, in addition to the Hadith (reports describing the words, actions, or habits of the Islamic prophet, Mohammed) and Sharia law – to define what a real and good Muslim should be. Muslims also consider Mohammed as the perfect role model. Without such standard, how else can you define a real Muslim? Faz may be a good woman and good human being with good intentions, but based on the Islamic standard, she is a bad Muslim.

          • Pretty sure the Koran I was raised with told me my relationship with god is a personal one-on-one relationship and I can do whatever I want. Thanks.

            Also, deleting this because your form of extremist thinking is out of the line of our guidelines here.

        • I agree that this discussion is awesome, but since I’m deleting the original, hateful, comment, the whole thread is going. Thanks for all the thoughtful responses, APW!

      • Danielle

        I would say that people can, and do, choose the parts of religion or spirituality that work for them. I am progressive, feminist and Jewish and that’s how it works for me and most of my friends, family and community.

        • Gail

          I think I would suggest there that they are not really following that particular religion though. My point was that Islam is not inherently feminist regardless of how Faz describes how she feels and how she lives her life. From my own perspective, I understand what you are saying about choosing the parts that work for you but I was raised to hear priests say time and again that you cannot choose the parts of Catholicism that work for you. This was not a message I discerned from something more vague. These are the exact words which were spoken often.

          • Danielle

            Well, it sounds like you had some pretty orthodox priests. Or Perhaps that belief is common to Catholicism – I simply don’t know.

            A lot of the Jewish tradition is about questioning and interpreting for yourself. The orthodox folks take the bible pretty literally, but I was raised in a reform and liberal household in which we followed some customs and not others. That’s pretty common in America.

            Some of my Jewish friends take issue with the “pick and choose” part and tend to distance themselves from the religion. Others, like me, find value in some of the traditions and want to continue them even as we question the patriarchal and problematic roots of our faith. It’s complicated for sure, and up to each individual to decide how it works in their life (or not). It’s not fair for us to tell Faz or anyone what she can and can’t do.

          • Lauren

            I don’t think anyone is telling Faz what she can or cannot do, just questioning whether her experience is representative. And, obviously, she’s only one person and one person is never representative when you’re talking about a group of over a billion human beings. Ultimately this is a personal essay and not a referendum on women’s rights in Muslim communities or an extensive discussion of feminism and Islam, and I think it’s important to keep it in that perspective.

          • Danielle

            In Gail’s first comment above, she says “And you’re not allowed to pick and choose the bits you like because it doesn’t work like that.”

            To me that is setting standards for what is acceptable religious (or not) practice, and it’s not our job to do that.

          • Gail

            Hi Danielle, just to clarify, I was talking about Catholicism with my comment “And you’re not allowed to pick and choose the bits you like because it doesn’t work like that” which I then went on to explain to you when I mentioned the priests telling us exactly that. You explained that Judaism, as you know it, is different which is great and another perspective. For me, I was discussing Catholicism. A very quick google will show you many references to Catholic teachings that it should be all or nothing. As I’ve said, it’s great that Faz considers herself feminist in a feminist marriage but I would suggest it’s a step too far to claim Islam is inherently feminist and as Lauren says we can question whether Faz’s experience is representative without questioning Faz’s experience.

    • Lauren

      I think this comment is making an important point — there are certainly many interpretations of Islam and while the author has found feminism and her religion to be compatible in her experience, there are many women in other parts of the world for whom it looks very different. Muslims living in America get to live in a very different and much more permissive framework than Muslims living in Saudi Arabia. I consider myself to be a Catholic and a feminist and I’m aware that if I were a generation older or lived in a more conservative area, my feminist opinions would be enough to get me ostracized from many congregations. I can live with this contradiction in myself, but I would never make the Church out to be something that it’s not just because I’m one member of it (although I hope that the Church will one day change, but ya know, speed of molasses and all).

    • Mooza

      Thank you. I live in what is tralgically becoming an increasingly religious and murderous country and CANNOT by this brand of extremely privileged “liberalism” that embraces oppressive religions and the people who uphold them as amazing beacons of progressiveness for the mere reason that they are not white and therefore intersectional (or something). Liberty and equality do not equal privilege nor are they colonial concepts. They are values that we should be fighting for for women everywhere, and of all religions.

  • Mooza

    How does Islam believe men and women are equal if it supports one sided (male) polygamy? It’s very valid to say that Islam was progressive compared to the societies of the time and place in which it developed, it’s a whole other thing to project from that onto the present day. I was with you until your last paragraph.

    • I think a big part of this is being aware that there are liberal and conservative interpretations of ALL religions, and that many religious texts taken at their word are intensely archaic (stoning people and whatnot)… which means taking the SPIRIT (forward thinking) instead of the TEXT (stuck in the past) is how she approaches Islam.

      • Mooza

        Very true. My only issue is when the liberal interpretation is presented as the only interpretation to an audience which is not part of the religion or familiar with it. I find that it is not a very authentic representation. Unfortunately, I understand why liberal Muslims feel the need to do this more than liberal Christians or Jews – it just still doesn’t negate the fact that the religion is far from egalitarian or feminist as we would judge by today’s standard (and sometimes it takes quite a stretch of the imagination to claim that it is – as in the case of multiple wives or stoning gays). This of course, is true of other ancient religions (all religions?) just as much.

        • Ex_Muslimah

          You are correct. Islam is actually the most misogynistic religion in the world.

  • Bess

    Thank you so much for your article!

  • Leela

    I’m very interested in the intersection between religion and feminism; lately I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the fact that in order to be religious and a feminist, you must be “bad” at your religion. This was a timely and fascinating essay for me.

    That said, I am confused and disturbed by the phrase “…or a captive that your right hands possess.” I appreciate the historical context for the verse, but to me, the idea of “possessing” a woman is indeed in direct service of male ego, privilege, and sexual pleasure.

  • Amy March

    Why are posts that say “Islam is a Hate Group” not being moderated?

    • Eenie

      They created a disqus profile just to post it! Lucky us.

    • Deleted! We’ve been at a conference all day and finally saw them. So unacceptable.

      • Ex_Muslimah

        So you only post stuff that aligns with your thinking. Talk about free speech, or at least lack thereof in your part. You sound like you’re the extremist/facist here. I speak for many ex-Muslims who have been victimized by Sharia law and by deleting my posts you are basically tolerating oppression and imposing fascism. Shame on you.

  • Amazing post I respect your emotions and you are true muslim womens who knows how to give answers of such question that rise on muslims thank you god bless you

  • Mjh

    I read APW regularly but I missed this one. My husband told me he read something about feminist Muslim marriage that reminded him of us, and that he’d send me a link. When he linked me, I was happily surprised to see it was on here.

    Feminism is at the core of my marriage. I am a Muslim and a feminist in equal measure, both are a part of my who I am and there is no need for one identifier to contradict the other.

    People who meet me in day to day life (arts community, social justice community or educational community) often assume that Islam was a part of my upbringing but that I must have disavowed my religion. Muslims don’t fight against misogyny, racism, homophobia or transphobia, right? Surely I couldn’t identify as Muslim while talking about the topics I do, wearing the clothes I do, hanging with the people I do, rocking my big curly hair out. And I certainly couldn’t be Muslim while dying half of my hair blue as I did for years (and look forward to doing again once I get enough gray hairs to no longer need to bleach before dying).

    I don’t blame people who think in narrow terms about what a Muslim can be. We’re drowning in pigeonholing portrayals of what it means to be Muslim, and it can be hard to see examples to the contrary. I thank people like Faz who shine a light on the fact that religion isn’t the only ideology Muslims are able to hold- Islam doesn’t dictate the personality of Muslims any more than any other religion dictates the personalities of its adherants.

    My husband and I had our Islamic marriage ceremony and legal wedding separately (we actually also had a civil union before our legal marriage, but that’s neither here nor there). We wrote our own vows for the ceremony that accompanied our legal marriage, and we worked together to write our own marriage contract for our Islamic marriage/’aqd. The body of our marriage contract is only a couple paragraphs, and the words feminist and feminism occur 4 times, and egalitarian occurs twice. I hadn’t kept count, but after reading the contract, one of my brothers pointed it out with a proud grin. My partner and I just wrote what’s authentic to us- an Islamic commitment to a partnership built on a foundation of feminism and egalitarianism, and a commitment to thread feminism and egalitarianism into the upbringing of any children we may raise.

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