“MEN ARE JUST babies.” “Women are so emotional.” “Your husband is your first child.” “Don’t try to understand women.”
In lectures and articles, from popular Muslim speakers and well-meaning aunties, these phrases are passed on as part and parcel of marriage advice or counsel on how to deal with the opposite gender. The tone is usually light-hearted, with a knowing wink and nod. Should someone object to these comments, we’re reminded that “It’s just a joke!” – a humorous way of conveying what is considered truth based on real-life experience.
Beware of the Subconscious
What we don’t realize is that ‘jokes’ subconsciously communicate some of our deeply-held beliefs. ‘Jokes’ which denigrate men and women, which infantilize and patronize them, and which reduce them to narrow-minded stereotypes are in fact contrary to the spirit of the Sunnah of RasûlAllâh ﷺ and the words of the Quran itself.
Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on Earth.” [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:30]
The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those – Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise. [Sûrat Al-Tawbah, 9:71]
Women are the twin halves of men. (Tirmidhi; Ahmad; classified as Ṣaḥîḥ by Al-Albani)
Complement, Not Compete
The Quran and Sunnah describe men and women as equal partners towards a universal goal: to be caretakers of this earth, believers in tawḥîd, and upholders of justice. Each gender has been gifted with varying skills and instincts, and they have been created to complement each other – not to compete or view each other as enemies.
Whereas the Quran emphasizes the commonality of the genders in what’s most important, sexist jokes turn men and women into stereotypes that view each other as inescapably alien.
Instead of recognizing ourselves as vibrant, unique human beings who can work together for the Sake of Allah towards a common goal, these jokes pit the genders against each other – in complete contradiction to the concept of being awliyâ’.
Resist the Assumption of Otherness
The problem with this is that by defining the sexes as inexorably “othered,” the underlying assumption is that there is no point in trying to understand or empathize with them. In the context of marital advice, this is clearly worrisome; if the overall goal is to create healthier, happier marriages, how is it helpful to tell each gender not to even try to understand the other?
It is unfortunate that even before marriage, we set up double standards and unhealthy paradigms for men and women. Women are told to expect their husbands to behave like children; men are told that women are emotional and unable to be reasoned with. There is neither a sense of iḥsân nor ḥusn al-ẓann, only negative assumptions and unspoken accusations.
We rarely stop to think about the implications of those statements. If women are expected to respect their husbands as qawwâmûn–as leaders and heads of households–how can they do so if they’re also made to believe that men are incompetent fools? If a man is considered incapable of making himself a meal or changing his child’s diaper, how is he supposed to be trusted to take care of an entire household’s most essential needs? When a man is described as ‘babysitting’ his own children (a word which implies that he does not have permanent responsibility towards them), how can he be seen as a responsible father? How is a man to be respected if he’s thought to be simplistic, stupid, or easily manipulated?
On the other hand, if women are so ‘unreasonable’ and ‘emotional,’ then how can a man feel secure that he has married a responsible woman? How can he feel reassured that his wife is someone whom he can turn for advice and support, as RasûlAllâh ﷺ did with Khadîjah, Sauda, Umm Salama, and the rest of his wives? How can he trust that she will raise their children to be strong, intelligent individuals, if he doesn’t believe in his own wife’s intellect?
Resist the Idolization of the Other
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is also the idea that women are somehow innately loving, caring nurturers and that men are strong and silent, who never exhibit weakness of any sort. Thus, when a woman expresses feeling difficulty as a mother, she is censured as somehow less than feminine; when a man weeps or shows signs of vulnerability, he is perceived as weak and less than masculine.
However, we have clear examples from the Sunnah of RasûlAllâh ﷺ being described as having certain characteristics or behaviors that many would not typically consider ‘masculine.’
We went with Allah’s Messenger ﷺ to the blacksmith Abû Saif, and he was the husband of the wet-nurse of Ibrâhîm (the son of the Prophet). Allah’s Messenger ﷺ took Ibrâhîm and kissed him and smelled him and later we entered Abû Saif’s house and at that time Ibrâhîm was taking his last breaths, and the eyes of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ started shedding tears. ʿAbd Al-Raḥmân ibn ʿAuf said: “O Allah’s Apostle, even you are weeping!” He said: “O Ibn ʿAuf, this is mercy.” Then he wept more and said: “The eyes are shedding tears and the heart is grieved, and we will not say except what pleases our Lord, O Ibrâhîm ! Indeed we are grieved by your separation.” (Bukhâri)
The Prophet ﷺ was more shy (from ḥayâ’: pious shyness from committing religious indiscretions) than a veiled virgin girl. (Bukhâri)
RasûlAllâh ﷺ kissed the forehead of ʿUthmân ibn Maẓʿûn after his death. At that time tears were flowing from his eyes. (Tirmithi, Shamâ’il)
This is a far cry from the way many Muslims speak about the ‘nature’ of men and women. Gender-blaming and restricting language is so embedded in our culture that we don’t even realize how deeply it has affected us. By indulging in them, we are pulling away from the concept of iḥsân, of excellence, which Islam expects both men and women to live up to. Instead, we end up pushing and encouraging arbitrary ideas of what each gender is ‘supposed to be like’ and allowing those strange standards to affect what is simply a matter of good and bad choices and decisions.
Be Men and Women Secondarily
What we forget is that Allah created human beings first and foremost as individual human beings. The vast majority of Qur’anic verses do not impart messages based on gender, but speak about categories of people according to their spiritual status and their actions.
Alif, Lâm, Mîm. This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah – Who believe in the unseen, establish prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them… [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:1-3]
Indeed, they who disbelieved among the People of the Scripture and the polytheists will be in the fire of Hell, abiding eternally therein. Those are the worst of creatures. Indeed, they who have believed and done righteous deeds – those are the best of creatures. [Sûrat Al-Bayyinah, 98:6-7]
Certainly will the believers have succeeded: They who are during their prayer humbly submissive, and they who turn away from ill speech, and they who are observant of zakah… [Sûrat Al-Mu’minûn, 23:1-4]
Elsewhere Allah addresses all humankind collectively:
O mankind, worship your Lord, who created you and those before you, that you may become righteous. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:21]
O mankind, fear your Lord, Who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. And fear Allah, through whom you ask of one another, and the wombs [who bore you]. Indeed Allah is ever, over you, an Observer. [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:1]
O mankind, there has come to you a conclusive proof from your Lord, and We have sent down to you a clear light. [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:174]
Be Men and Women in Community
It is important to note that when men and women are discussed separately, it is almost always in relation to aḥkâm (rulings), such as the verses of inheritance. More tellingly, there is an amazing verse – the only one – which describes men and women in conjunction:
Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward. [Sûrat Al-Aḥzâb 33:35]
In the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ other than a few notable exceptions (for which there were specific wisdom and reasons), he almost never described either gender as having specific homogeneous traits.
Sexist Hangups and Gender Diversities
Why, then, do we feel so compelled to regurgitate cliche phrases and ideas about the genders?
It should be noted that there are also obvious physiological and yes, even emotional differences between the genders. These differences are not bad, and one gender is not superior to the other because of qualities that they may tend to have while the other does not. Rather, we should acknowledge and recognize these tendencies as a blessing from Allah, for He created men and women to complement each other and strengthen each other in a sincere partnership.
Nonetheless, we must also be wary of exaggerating those differences to an unhealthy level. Internalizing such erroneous beliefs – when, the vast majority of the time, the characteristics mentioned are due to culturally enforced and ingrained notions – often lead to a sense of resentment. Having a negative attitude about the ‘nature’ of either gender misdirects our efforts at focusing on seeking iḥsân. Instead, excuses are made to avoid taking responsibility for one’s own actions – “Men can’t do this,” “Women can’t control themselves.”
Be Accountable as Persons
On the Day of Judgment, we will not be let off the hook for shortcomings in our responsibilities, or bad choices that we made, or unwise decisions, by pleading “But I’m a man/woman and it’s in my nature (not) to do XYZ!”
We need to stop using gender as a weapon to wield against the other, or as a crutch to avoid the consequences of our actions. On the Day of Judgment, we will be held accountable as adult human beings who have both intellect and free will – and judged based on what we did with them.
The Day every soul will find what it has done of good present [before it] and what it has done of evil, it will wish that between itself and that [evil] was a great distance. And Allah warns you of Himself, and Allah is Kind to [His] servants. [Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:30]
Align Our Mindsets with Islam, Not with Pop Culture
Are we really willing to jeopardize the integrity of our actions for the sake of unhealthy cliches and hollow excuses? Or will we finally acknowledge that we are capable of more than we allow ourselves to believe?