Recently there have been some discussions centered around the question: Was Aisyah a feminist?
Aisyah r.a. was the Prophet’s most trusted narrator of hadiths, one of Prophet Muhammad’s closest friends who verified that a hadith really came from the Prophet. As the Prophet’s wife, she has the legitimacy to testify on the Prophet’s actions and words towards her, whether as a woman or as a wife.
Among the multiple hadiths passed down through Aisyah, we get to know how the Prophet treated women. From Aisyah’s hadiths, we get the picture of the Prophet’s behavior and mannerism: polite, unforceful, an active listener, accommodative of all perspectives, including women’s protest against violence conducted by men towards their wives. Because of her role, Aisyah is considered as a feminist by Muslim feminists.
However, another group of women (and men), disagree with this. They argue that historically, Aisyah (and Islam) were born in the 7th century and grew to become an advance civilization, before its fall in the colonial era. Islam was the first to place women respectfully, equally, and fairly, long before feminists from the West fought for justice for women. The feminists started speaking about justice for women in the late 18th century before the ideology spread in the 20th century, while Aisyah had done so 13 centuries earlier.
Another factor is the feminist and feminism label itself. Feminist (the person), or feminism (the perspective/philosophy/ideology), or act/advocacy of feminism (as a social movement, a paradigm to act towards a better change for women), are considered as an anti-establishment movement that negatively impacted women. Feminism is also considered a liberation movement that originated from the West. The word “West” in the context of feminism often contains negative stigma. It is often seen as a freedom that has gone overboard, and perceived as with secular, anti-religion and anti-family.
The fact is feminism has been a thought as well as a social movement that contests and shake family and social norms as well as established relationships that exist within the male-centric patriarchal society.
Feminism critically views the establishment of relationships that have long perpetuated women’s subordinate position with superstitious and misogynistic teachings and beliefs: that the Eve, the first woman, comes from one of Adam’s ribs, that women are physically, mentally and intellectually weak, that menstruation makes women lose their wit, that women are honored at home already and that God rules that women must stay home, that women are the cause of slanders, that women are untrustworthy, that women cannot lead, that women are worth half of men, and so on.
Feminism also critically highlights issues that are seen to be less important regarding personal, social and political relationship between men and women – all of which have been the sources of injustice, although they have been codified into religious belief system through personal faith system (aqidah) or religious legal system (fiqih)
The third thing that makes feminism so feared is because they are perceived as anti-family. But what and how does feminism work?
Feminism of Action
In my understanding, this is how it goes: When someone or a group of people (whether women or men, though more commonly women) critically question the fact that women face constraints in exercising their rights because of their gender – and that the loss of their rights make them targets of oppression – that person, or that group, can be considered half-feminist.
They’re considered half feminists because, unlike other “isms”, feminism is a thought system (philosophy) or a perspective that are aligned with action for change to end the oppression.
Feminism is a union of action that starts from thinking or critically questioning why women experience oppression, followed by action to end that oppression. That’s how feminists work—ask, think, build, and test theories on the causes of oppression, and act to end it. When acting, inspiration can come from anywhere. Muslim feminists get theirs from Islamic teachings.
As one of the isms, feminism is a modern thought. It involves women and their position as citizens. Feminist mindset and action were born in the course of modern history. This means feminism came into being in societies in which there are governing orders on the relationship between the state and the people, that excludes legislative and justice systems. But when it comes to governing women it is less measurable, sourced from superstitious reasons interpreted by men from religious texts.
Link to colonialism
Unlike the history of feminism in the West, in countries with large Muslim population like Indonesia, Egypt, India, and some areas in North Africa, feminism was born along with the awareness of and resistance against colonialism. .
Western feminists have their own issues. Although they could be experiencing the same suffering as women in colonial regions, the roots of the problems are different. In Europe, the issues revolved around rights to wage and voting rights as were in the U.S. – in addition to racial discrimination for the latter. The core issues are contextual.
But although women in the West did not experience colonialism the same way countries with Muslim populations did, they learned from the experiences of women in the colonialized world. They gained critical awareness that colonialism was a crime against humanity.
They joined the resistance by rejecting colonialism, as what Estella (Stella) Zeehandelaar, a feminist in the Netherlands, did. She supported Kartini’s fight against the restriction of education for women. The same fight was fought by socialists in the Netherlands who defended the rights of native men to have access to education, despite their non-aristocratic and non-bureaucratic background.
Women in the colonialized world face multiple discriminations from the colonizers and their own society.
The feminists’ struggle is the struggle for women to receive their rights. These rights include the right to not regret having been born as a female, the right to not be subjected to female genital mutilation in a bid to control women’s sexual drive, the right to grow with proper nutrition within their family, the right to education and schools without restrictions, the right to get proper information, the right to have their voices and opinions heard, the right to equality at work, the right to reject a marriage, the right to be free from violence, the right to feel safe at home and in public space, the right to not be harassed for the way they dress, the right to not be treated discriminatively for their sex or gender expression.
Feminists in predominantly Muslim countries fight their own agenda: to end illiteracy, female genital mutilation, child marriage, restriction of mobility, and dress control; and to reject forced contraception on women, ban to attend school and for Quran recitation at boarding schools. In Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia, female students were only allowed to recite scriptures in 1924.
Thanks to Kartini, Indonesian women historically got a chance to pursue education. The idea of emancipation was continued by plenty other figures of movement and education such as Dewi Sartika and Rohana Koedoes. In the Muhammadiyah and NU, the door to education was opened to women. Even those who resist feminism today have been the beneficiaries of the battle fought by the early feminists demanding equal rights to education for women.
Then what about Aisyah? Because feminism is a mindset that was born in the modern era, we should instead ask: “What was Aisyah’s influence on feminism in the Islamic world?” Feminists had not existed in her time, nor did all the other isms that developed in the post-colonial Islamic world, such as Wahhabism, Salafism, Arabic Socialism, and other isms that came to being in the Islam’s political world.
The isms grew to become ideologies of the modern world that helped guide Muslims out of colonialism, poverty or economic hardship, and politics. They might have been inspired by the two periods of the Prophet in Mecca and Medina.
The Muslim feminists are also inspired by Islamic teaching, whether from tasawuf, the history of political powers or the holy texts such as the Quran, hadith, and the Islamic law (fiqih). Their sources are no different from their opponents who reject feminism in Islam. They also took inspiration from Islamic sources which shaped their world view.
These two opposing groups use Aisyah, the Prophet’s other best friends and the Prophet himself, as textual source to be interpreted to extract the values, insights and teaching that eventually inform their decision to accept or reject feminism – whether or not women’s rights are worthy of being fought for or whether they should accept their fate.
It then comes down to the methodology (manhaj) in interpreting the texts. To feminists, especially the ones that focus on hadiths and Islamic history in the early periods, Aisyah showed that women can occupy the same position as men in accepting amanah as a narrator of the hadiths.
Aisyah was an example of a woman who can lead battles to fight for what she believes is right, Aisyah was exemplary in her rejection of forced marriage. Aisyah was a positive inspiration for Muslim feminists who believe women are entitled to education.
Muslim feminists believe that Allah places both men and women equally and that Allah promises fair rewards and punishments for both men and women. Through a set of methodologies and tools developed in studies and advocacies, Muslim feminists make sure that the working system does not discriminate against anyone based on gender. Critical awareness is based on the concept of partiality.
Based on this, I believe that denying Aisyah’s role as a feminist inspiration is unhistoric. The fact is that many of those who fought for women’s rights reflected in the Islamic principles have been inspired by Aisyah.
Translated from the original version in Indonesian.