Growing up, I heard about Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) excellent character. Teachers from my weekend Islamic classes extolled the virtues of Sayyidina Abu Bakar (may Allah be pleased with him) and Sayyidina Umar (may Allah be pleased with him). I marvelled at the rank and stature of Sayyidina Uthman and Sayyidina Ali (may Allah be pleased with them both). Sayyidina Umar’s sense of justice and fierce personality captivated me, seeing a tiny bit of my personality in him.
As a teenage girl and young woman though, I was constantly told that I was “too loud” and had to be “less fierce” or “less assertive” in order to be “more modest” as a woman. I would counter by saying that my role model after the Prophet (peace be upon him) was Sayyidina Umar but would swiftly be rebuked and told, “But he’s a man, and you’re a woman!”.
It took me many more years before I finally learnt that the Prophet’s wife, Sayyidatina Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her) was feisty. And that Nusayba bint Ka’b physically defended the Prophet (peace be upon him) in battle! In a course called Companions of the Prophet by Rabata (an educational outfit led by Shaykha Dr Tamara Gray based in the United States) that I took last year, we learnt about both male and female Companions and while there were some male Companions I hadn’t heard of before, most of the female Companions were completely new to me.
After years of learning the religion, I finally began to see the Companions, both male and female, as rounded, complex, multi-dimensional human beings, instead of the one-dimensional characters that I had been introduced to. This was especially important to me as a woman because I felt like I was always asked to make myself smaller, quieter, more invisible to fit the ‘ideal Muslim woman’ role. I would look at my brother or my male cousins and they could be ‘good enough Muslim boys and men’ without needing to sacrifice their personalities, and yet for myself and my peers, there seemed to be only one way for us to be – quiet, modest, compliant. This isn’t to say that there aren’t shared good values for both genders to emulate. Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was sent for everyone, and his noble character and traits of mercy, empathy, courage and more were for all of us to aspire to.
DEFINING A GOOD MUSLIM WOMAN AND THE ROLES WE PLAY
The recently-departed Toni Morrison said, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” In our case, it is not society that gets to decide who or what constitutes a good Muslim woman. It is God Himself. In the Quran, Allah says in Surah al-Hujurat, Verse 13: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.” What is righteous for one person can be in their role as a wife, for another, their role as a mother, and yet another, as a community leader, daughter, entrepreneur, sincere hardworking civil servant or any manner of roles that Allah has predestined for this person.
And yet, righteousness in our society has different connotations, especially for women. Those who do not get married or become mothers are somehow seen as less righteous, or incomplete.
In a Facebook post by Ustadha Maryam Amir, she said:
Virgin Mary miraculously bore Jesus, one of the most incredible men to walk the planet, but she was never married.
Aishah had an incredible marriage, but she was never a mother. She was also a widow.
Asiyah was an adoptive mother to Moses, but was married to a tyrannical husband.
The blessed Prophetic father of Hajar’s son Ismail was alive but physically separated from them and so she essentially raised her son as a single mother.
Eve had one child who was committed to morality, and she had another who must have torn her heart out when he murdered his own brother.
Zaynab bint Jahsh was divorced, but then remarried the best man on earth.
Fatima was repeatedly described as the most devoted daughter in addition to her roles as wife and mother.
Khadija had the most amazing husband with the most amazing children and the most compassionate, passionate marriage.
The Queen of Sheba is described in the Quran in connection with her position, but not explicitly in connection to marriage or motherhood.
God gave us examples in history of some of the most spiritually elevated women in different types of single/married or motherhood/less situations.
Its is unjust for our community to portray a woman’s piety being connected solely to her marriage or motherhood status when even some of the most important figures of our history did not fulfill some of our community’s contemporary expectations. Yes, marriage and motherhood are so important. But not every woman will experience them, nor find happiness in them. That is not a commentary on her worth or the level of her connection to Allah.
During the Prophet’s time, the ‘good Muslim women’ around him and in his society were not a monolith. They were outgoing, reserved, mothers, childless, married, divorced and so on. The Prophet’s community’s narrative highlighted everyone’s narrative. Islam didn’t come to mute women’s personalities. It came to help all of us use the specific qualities God has honoured us with, to help us hone them to what is pleasing to Him, in order to help positively revolutionise society.
The male and female Companions of the Prophet worked together to create that Prophetic community and if we want to continue their legacy today, we need to also value each and every person in our community and what they can offer, instead of valuing them only through narrowly-defined roles.
On that note, when we raise our children, it is important that both boys and girls are taught about more male and female Companions. This will help them to see that there are many ways to be and many ways to serve. Modesty is not about being loud or not. It is about knowing how to respectfully act and carry yourself in different situations.
It is very popular today to talk about the importance of representation in the media. For Muslim children, teaching them about the full lives and contributions of various Companions and their different personalities will help them better appreciate their own gifts. Whether a child is naturally loud or quiet, assertive or shy, they will be celebrated regardless because God has made them that way. I pray the day will come when young Muslim girls will not have to feel like Islam has a different yardstick on which to judge them for their righteousness just because they are too loud, too fierce or too assertive. ⬛
Ameera Begum is the Regional Manager [APAC] of Launch Good, a global Muslim crowdfunding platform. Prior to joining LaunchGood, she was the Digital Director at SimplyIslam.sg for over eight years, helping to organise events, classes and programmes in English for the Singapore Muslim community and running the online Muslim magazine, MuzlimBuzz.sg. She graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and a Minor in Public Administration.