On Female Disconnect

I was once in a small study circle with two women, a man, and our sheikh. There was a time I remember that he entered, gave us women a smile and a polite nod. Upon turning to the man, his smile broadened, and he strode over, shook his hand, and gave him a warm hug.

I suddenly felt very inexplicably sad and jealous that my male colleague could have such contact with our teacher. And I felt ridiculous for having that reflex. I didn’t even let myself think of it further.

Until recently.

Now I see the entourage of male devotees surrounding sheikhs, escorting them to their meals during the breaks in the seminars, being in proximity to intimate conversations they are having amongst themselves. Yes, there are occasionally females who are doing so as well. But never with the easy comfort and familiarity that men can.

This is the effect of not having sheikhas who are as commonplace as their male counterparts. The divide deepens. Just because we can attend lectures by esteemed male scholars doesn’t mean that we get to be close to them in the way men can. Just because we can be counselled by male teachers, can ask our chaplains anything, doesn’t mean that we’re getting the camaraderie and sense of kinship we so keenly need. Women are blessed with many, many gifts of love, but the special love for a spiritual guide: that has been denied to most of us.

Adab in the context of inter-gender relations is important, and it is for a reason that this adab gets cemented in the form of cultural mores. I respect and understand that. But having access and the scholar-disciple intimacy we read about in our traditions–it’s not something we can relate to.

I’m personally not in favour of a female imamate, but I’d really, really like this dynamic to turned on its head. I’d like it to be a woman whom men are leaning in and listening to; I’d like the flurry of activity around her while men hang back respectfully. I’d like the men to know what it feels like to approach an elder of the opposite gender and thirst for closeness while being so wary of keeping appropriate distances.

Male colleagues and friends abound. But as for those who can guide and instruct us in matters of faith: adab and a polite distance it shall always be.

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3 thoughts on “On Female Disconnect

  1. Assalamu alaikum sis,

    Loved this post; you took the words right out of my mouth. lol a few years back, i actually used to feel saddened to the point of crying whenever i found myself in such a situation. You really feel like connecting with the shuyukh and you love them for the sake of Allah but you have so many limitations with regards to your relationship with them. Things are changing for the better though, Alhamdulillah so I have hope for the future. In my life, I’ve been blessed to study under two shaykhas and they really hope I can be one too. They are my inspiration and my role models. Also, I have seen an increase in the amount of opportunities that many women here in the West are taking advantage of and the avenues that are available for them. Take Qalam Institute for example. They have a new Islamic Studies Program (full-time) to prepare students of knowledge to be full-time du’aat and teachers for the community and one of the most promising features of their program is an amazing Sister’s Public Speaking Workshop. I was so thrilled when I heard about it but unfortunately I can’t go right now (inshaAllah in the future though). And with programs like the Rawiya Foundation, women can also empower eachother in the realm of Islamic Scholarship.

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  2. Really interesting article and I can see how there would be parallels to feminist discourses around the lack of female mentors in academia and in the business world – the lack of closeness with the male leaders, and being treated differently by those leaders, causing a disconnect between what the men receive and the women receive from those in leadership / mentoring positions.

    That being said, and knowing little I admit on the concept / theology, it seems like there should be a space or respect for this fact, doesn’t it? On the needs / wants of people in general around faith and theological instruction and the fact of Adab. (Thinking out loud.) Somehow that women could get more of the discussions and time with Sheiks rather than just sitting back and listening, at least in group settings? Or an effort by a Sheik to be a bit more distant from the men in respect for the distance that the women observe?

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  3. DSD

    I think similar tensions are echoed in the Jewish world and I think Islam has a lot to learn about Judaism in terms of its history of adaptation into modernity particularly in regard to women’s –there was/is no resolution but rather multiple collective/denominational and contested responses in regard to women’s participation/ordination/feminism.

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