One of the most commonly used proverbs, which can also be derived from the Hadith of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is “charity begins at home”. Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Messenger (PBUH) said, “The best alms is that which you give when you are rich, and you should support your dependants first.” (Sahih Bukhari)
While many non-profit organisations rightly focus on development projects abroad, it is also vitally important to work within our local communities here in the UK. There are so many issues, particularly around women’s issues and mental health, which are left ignored even within developed countries. In light of this, Global One hosted the Empowering Women series, a series of events in London focusing on women empowerment and therapeutic healing from the Quran and Sunnah. At these events, women learned about the importance of looking after their own health needs, both physical and mental so that they are empowered to play an active and positive role in their family and community.
The underlying principle is that faith is an important part of the lives of many, and can be used as a positive force to bring about behavioural and societal change. The “faith-based” or “faith-inspired” approach is becoming increasingly popular among Muslim NGOs in their programs. Yet we often shy away from using it for women’s empowerment because of the narrative that has been portrayed about Islam and the treatment of women.
While working with Global One on an Islam and Public Health toolkit that focuses on self empowerment for the benefit of women’s and children’s health, I realised that we don’t need to look any further than the Quran to find inspiration for female empowerment.
For instance, in the story of Hajra we learn about spirituality and strong emotional resistance. She is faced with adversity, and meets it with action and perseverance. Hajra runs seven times to and from the same place to get water for her baby. She is not passive, and rises above being a mere victim. She is rewarded for her determination and is given Zamzam water, which flows to this day.
Then there is the story of prophet Musa’s mother, where she shows reliance in God and extreme strength as she puts her son in a wooden basket and casts him into the River Nile. Maryam, the mother of Isa is another inspirational woman in the Quran, who has the strength to face society after her immaculate conception. Specific passages from the Quran describe how she literally takes her nutrition into her own hands by shaking the trunk of a date palm to get fruit even through her labour pains.
We often don’t think of these women and their stories in any discussion around “empowerment”. While working on the toolkit, I found myself interpreting these anecdotes in a completely unique light. Most of the Islamic knowledge I have come across about women has been from the perspective of men or as subjects within a broader narrative. But these heroines are the protagonists of their own stories, each of them showing initiative and courage around managing their own needs and ensuring the well-being of their children.
I came to realise how the Quran shares women’s stories that focus on building resilience, hope and love for one’s children in the most beautiful way. I also came to realise that women in Muslim communities do not speak about their own empowerment enough through an Islamic framing. Due to the dominance of liberal western feminist narratives, they find themselves limited in the language they can use to demand their rights, with buzzwords such as ‘liberation’ and ‘emancipation’. I feel that I would have fewer reservations with my faith if I was able to see it as compatible with women’s empowerment.
I personally do not see Islam and feminism as mutually exclusive and hope that a shift in narrative and framing can make more people realise this.
Initiatives such as the Empowering Women series help shift the narrative around perceptions of how the Quran speaks about women but also how it speaks to them. These ideas also add value to the often narrow (neo-liberal) understanding of “empowerment” which disregards the spiritual element around agency and how it can spur one to action. Through the stories of these great women, we learn that, by building a strong relationship with God, true empowerment begins with empowering one’s self.
Aleena Khan works on maternal and child healthcare projects in developing countries. You an follow her on Twitter @aleenakhan1