Are Women Degraded in Abrahamic Faiths?
I could see into you clearly for the first time. You tip-toed with your words as you spoke to me. Your breathing was slightly heavy, but I noticed it. I could sense your emotions. You felt betrayed by all Abrahamic faiths.
"Is it possible," you questioned incredulously, "That God sent all these Messengers and Prophets, and not a single one of them was a woman?" Your youthful face held temporary stress lines from deep thought and confusion. You questioned every human who ever claimed to be sent by God because they all had one thing in common: the lack of a womb. If these were truly Prophets, then God has betrayed you. God did not see fit to choose a woman as a Messenger for humankind. You couldn't cope with the pain so you questioned the prophecy.
I reminded you about the high position of Mother Maryam (peace be upon her) and Asia, Pharaoh's wife (peace be upon her), and you looked away in frustration. "Why," you challenged, "Are the only women important in religious history, wives of someone powerful or mothers of someone else more important than they themselves? Is the only thing a woman is good for marrying and reproducing?"
I did not respond, but quietly allowed you to speak. The truth is, I saw so much of myself in you. I was a young leader like you. During my childhood, I was incapable of envisioning my role as an adult being reduced to marriage and motherhood simply because I was female. I wanted so much more from life. I had leadership inside of me. I used to wish that I had been a boy so that I could be strong and courageous and not limited because of my gender. I did not want to be limited by children. I did not want to be restricted from stepping out publicly into society. I see those same emotions in you.
You have a sharp mind. You have the ability to move other human beings--to pave the way towards good things. You have the capacity to stand for what you believe in. You are strong, strong enough to compete with any human, regardless of what gender, intellectually or verbally. You don't want to be reduced to a pretty face, but you want to be appreciated for all beauty, whether it be your mind or your face. You don't understand why you would not be deserving of the highest honor from God because you are a female. You don't understand why God would only select praiseworthy women from amongst those whose roles are defined in terms of the men in their lives. This bothers you--bothers you enough to leave religion.
The truth is, you and I have so much in common, but we are also very different. You, subconsciously, are angry at God's decision to exclusively choose male Messengers. But when I was your age, I, at an equally subconscious level, was upset with God for creating women with fundamentally different characteristics than men. I knew something that you don't yet know when I was your age. I knew that I was the exception to the norm. I knew that all women were not like me, but you don't yet know that all women are not like you.
I knew that many women--if not the majority of women--are perfectly happy with playing submissive roles in society. They are perfectly happy being supported by a bread-winning male. They are ideal followers; they swallow what they are given with an open heart and beautifully encompassing emotions. They don't speak up in crowds, even though they have opinions. They nurture. They fluctuate emotionally. They are grossly subjective. I hated the female personality when I was younger; I was ashamed to be a girl. I was much more attracted to the males of my age--their analytical thinking, their black-and-white inclination towards objectivity, their dominance. I didn't understand why it was so difficult to find a woman who could dominate. And when I found dominant women, I did not find an ideal role model in them for me to aspire towards.
Over a decade later, I still struggle. And until the day God takes me out of this world, I will probably struggle. You will also probably struggle for the rest of your life--not simply against gender-defined roles in society, which you currently believe to be the only man-made culprit binding you, but because God chose to create you differently than most other women. The key for you is to take a deep, hard look around yourself. Then, take a deep, hard look inside of yourself. You are not like most of the other girls your age. You can be friends; you can have fun. But before you go to sleep at night, at some point in life, you will have to wake up to the reality that your personality traits make you a unique minority of the female gender.
I want to cry because you have so many resources at your disposal that I did not have at your age, but you lack one thing that I did have: My father. He had a deep, vast, profound understanding of religion and comforting words for my every question. From what I know of you, no male presence in your life can provide this--leaving you especially vulnerable to the allusion that men and women are--or at least should be--identical in every way.
Like you, my questioning voice shook once, over fifteen years ago. I asked my father whether or not I was expected to play a recessive role in society due to my gender. My father could see into me--he could see the terror inside of my heart. I did not want to be a wife or a mother--not because I disrespected these roles in any way, but simply because I knew that inside, I would not have the capacity for those things in the same way in which other girls that I knew would. I would feel suffocated. I knew that these things would not be enough for me. I had a different pull. I had a passion inside of me so deep that I could not tame it and could not deny it. I was created to stand out--to have a voice.
My father explained to me that throughout our entire Islamic history, there were always women like me. One woman saved the life of the Prophet Mohammad, peace and blessings upon him, in battle. Another woman left everything she owned and her life as she knew it to migrate into the Muslim community, marrying over four companions before she died, God bless them both. Women, my father told me, were teachers, scholars, leaders. In fact, scholars even calculated at one point that around 6% of a healthy Muslim community should have women like me--like you--that we may flourish. The key is not to force rare gems like yourself to stifle your inner passions--but instead it is to cultivate and nurture these passions in a way that benefits society without pitching one gender against the other and without disrespecting the distinct nature of the majority of women.
The truth is, over the past ten years, despite myself, I am changing. I am finding myself looking less at men for comparison purposes and more into myself for nurturing who I really am. Sometimes, I am finding that who I truly am inside is more "feminine" than I once wanted to admit. Truth is, I am happy that God's Messengers are male, peace be upon them all. I feel a respectful sub-ordinance towards them that the world we live in today may or may not appreciate, and I think that the value of my devotion to a male leader is magnified by the fact that I am strong woman. I am happy that God chose females to have the wondrous ability to carry a child. I am content with the options my faith provides me--I do not have to sacrifice marriage and motherhood for public strength and activism. I can have both worlds. And I can have a choice. And I can gravitate towards whatever God has placed in my path for me.
I don't believe that God choosing significant women in history who are mothers disgraces or degrades females in any way. I believe it instead acknowledges and honors the female gender for having the capacity to bear such a huge responsibility, a responsibility which males are incapable of by their very creation. I believe God honors the woman--not disrespects her--by reminding humanity of the power within her body and dually for her ability to be an upright citizen of society in addition to carrying this unique capacity for motherhood.
I sat quietly that day because as you spoke, as you shared your pain, you opened my eyes to my own personal growth. I realized, while you were speaking, that one day, you may grow emotionally into loving your body for the amazing capabilities that God gave you through it. You may not resent society for gender roles, but you may instead appreciate that you can shine all the more because you are not the norm. I realized that, one day, you may love your faith more for the very same reasons that you question it now. But being strong may mean that you have to think deep into your heart and tap into the female capacity for acceptance; acceptance of the Divine decree. I don't know the answers to all of your questions, but God does. I truly pray that you will stick so firmly to Him that One Day, you will have the opportunity to seek from Him answers and comfort to those questions that perplex you now. Until that Day, I too will be trying to grow from my questions.