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Articles, Feminism, Gender Roles, Islam

What’s in a Name? The Feminist Paranoia Against Islamic By-names

It is common for liberal feminists to rage against Abrahamic religions because they claim that the idea of deferring to a God  (who they perceive to be male) or a male Prophet for one’s values and way of life is a violation of a woman’s ‘autonomy’ and ‘agency’. As such, they raise arguments to try to demonstrate that religions such as Islam are patriarchal (i.e. male dominated to the detriment of women) and that such religions strive to keep women subordinate and restricted in life.

One of the more farcical claims feminists have recently made in support of this, is their criticism against the common tradition amongst Muslims of addressing mothers as ‘Mother of so and so’ by reference to their children’s names (such as ‘Umm Zaynab’ or, in English, ‘Mother of Zaynab’). According to such feminists, this is evidence that Islamic society is patriarchal, misogynistic, and denies women any capacity beyond that of service to their family. How dare a woman’s ‘identity’ be confined to her children, feminists cry.

But how exactly is it misogynistic or patriarchal to refer to a woman by reference to her children? Is it lowly or a sign of weakness to have children? Are feminists suggesting that a woman exercises more ‘autonomy’ by using the birth name given to her by her parents instead (one of whom is a man)? And how exactly is a woman defined by her name alone? A person’s personality, role, or virtue are far greater than simply the name they are addressed with.

What such feminists ignore (deliberately or otherwise) is that it is actually common tradition amongst Muslims to even address men by reference to their children (such as ‘Abu Zahra’, or in English, ‘Father of Zahra’). Such terms of address are known as kunyas (nicknames) and are honorific titles, or terms of respect, that are used for both men and women. Islam does not even require a woman to change her name upon marriage – rather, she retains her name. It’s funny, because if these kunyas were used only for men and not for women, feminists would instead be complaining that Islamic culture is patriarchal in that it reserves its terms of respect for men and not women. So it seems that no Abrahamic religion could ever escape being tarred as ‘patriarchal’ – no matter what they do!

What kunyas actually reveal about Islamic culture is that Muslims, both men and women, are centred around their families, rather than around themselves. When feminists point to the female kunya and claim it is a sign of patriarchy and misogyny, they reveal, yet again, their doctrine of individualism, and their ideological driven paranoia which warps their perception of human realities. Feminists define themselves first and foremost as female individuals rather than human beings who are part of a species, or social beings who are part of a community upon which women, as well as men, rely on to survive, or as, fundamentally, creations of a transcendent creator.


4 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? The Feminist Paranoia Against Islamic By-names

  1. With all due respect, I strongly disagree.

    The issue is multifaceted and is being oversimplified in this article.

    1) There is nothing wrong with kunyas in and of themselves (for men or for women).

    2) There IS something wrong with the cultural mentality amongst many Muslims that using a Muslim woman’s actual name is ‘ayb or even haram (and yes, there ARE *many* Muslims, even what we could refer to as ‘religious’ Muslims rather than ‘cultural’ Muslims, who believe this and think this way).

    3) There IS a cultural mentality that exists amongst Muslims where women *are* limited to being identified via their children. Not having children (especially sons) is considered a shameful thing. Women who do not have (or may not want) children are looked down upon and treated in a negative manner.

    4) There is nothing wrong with individualism in and of itself if the behaviour does not contradict the Shari’ah.

    5) In *many* Muslim cultures, women ARE told that their self-worth lies in them being married, in them having children (esp sons), and so on. Denying this, and denying the very real effects it has on women, is denying a brutal reality that exists amongst Muslims and is in fact counter-productive in dealing with the issues of gender-based injustice in our communities.

    6) It is a fallacy to claim that the ‘Islamic identity’ revolves around family whereas a secular, feminist identity revolves around individualism. On the Day of Judgment, it doesn’t matter whose children we are, whose spouse we are, or how many children we have. What WILL matters is *our* own deeds. The Qur’an itself states that neither our parents nor our children will be of assistance to us on that Day.
    So in that sense, we ARE taught to think about ourselves (and our futures) from a very ‘individualistic’ perspective.

    7) Rejecting or accepting people based on their acceptance or rejection of a cultural matter like the kunya, is a very shallow measuring stick. In fact, the entire discussion and the way it’s being used to “prove” that feminists are XYZ and Muslims are ABC, is in fact detracting from the many deeper, underlying and *serious* matters that our communities face with regards to gender-based injustice and oppression.

    Posted by Zainab Bint Younus | April 10, 2014, 9:03 am
  2. Another point is that the kunya also isn’t restricted to male children, but usually the first. Hence, many kunyas use a daughter’s name. Doesn’t sound like the subjugation of women to me!

    Posted by Nabeel | April 10, 2014, 2:15 pm
  3. Zainab Bint Younas also posted the above comment on Facebook where this was discussed. Click here to read the original discussion on Facebook, or simply read the pasted version below.

      I replied:

    Thanks for your message, Zainab, and for re-iterating some of the common arguments raised by feminists in relation to this.

    1) I am glad you say that kunyas are harmless. However, many feminists would argue the kunya are in of themselves offensive – which is why this post was written to begin with.

    2) Even if some men do think it is ‘ayb or haram to address a woman by her first name, how do you conclude that this is due to hatred of women (misogyny)? How exactly is this hatred connected to her name? If they really hated women, do you really think they would want their children to be attributed to them? Why not come up with a degrading name instead? It seems an arbitrary diagnosis to make, and highlights the ideological paranoia I referred to above, where the feminist tendency is to take everything personally ‘as a woman’. If some men consider it ‘ayb or haram to use a woman’s first name, they consider it ‘ayb or haram upon themSELVES as, in simple terms, it is considered disrespectful to the woman to refer to her so directly.

    3) Men who say they do not want children are also looked upon in very much the same way. Islam celebrates and strongly encourages having children, although it does not straitjacket women into these roles; A’isha (ra) did not have children and is still one of the most celebrated women in Islamic history. Where cultures deviate from Islam and are oppressive toward any member of society for any reason, then we should seek to implement Islam as the solution, rather than advocate a gender-biased solution (such as feminism) for what is erroneously perceived as ‘gender-based’ injustice.

    4) Individualism means putting your own preference ahead of others’. The Shari’ah means putting God’s preference (in how members of society interact with each other) ahead of everyone’s preference, including your own. Ergo, individualism ‘in of itself’ contradicts the shariah.

    5) Again, this is a cultural problem, sister, for which Islam is the solution – not the cause (I acknolwedge that you have not blamed Islam in your post).

    6) It is erroneous to imagine that Islam teaches us to think from an individualistic perspective: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself” [Bukhari & Muslim].

    It is a fallacy to imagine that we will be judged as ‘individuals’ on the Day of Judgment; the Qur’an states that we will be judged as groups and societies: ‘And you will see every nation kneeling [from fear]. Every nation will be called to its record [and told], “Today you will be recompensed for what you used to do’’’ [Qur’an 45:28].

    As for what we will be asked, we will be asked about how we treated other human beings and whether we fulfilled our responsibilities to our families and our ummah; whether we were gentle and merciful or harsh and unforgiving to other people. Our families etc can no longer assist us on *that* day, but we seek good deeds through them on *this* day, while we are still here, for this is what we are going to be accounted for.

    On *that* day, our deeds will also be revealed to others – it’s not just a private experience between oneself and God: ‘And those who disbelieve say, “We will never believe in this Qur’an nor in that before it.” But if you could see when the wrongdoers are made to stand before their Lord, refuting each other’s words… Those who were oppressed will say to those who were arrogant, “If not for you, we would have been believers.”’ [Qur’an 34:31]

    We will also be questioned about how we influenced others and whether we influenced them toward good or bad: ‘And verily, they shall bear their own loads, *and other loads besides their own*, and verily, they shall be questioned on the Day of Resurrection about that which they used to fabricate’ [Qur’an 29:13]

    In reality, Zainab, your ‘own deeds’ are intrinsically linked to other people, so to imagine that we are accountable as ‘individuals’ exclusively to others is the real fallacy.

    7) Rejecting or accepting people based on their acceptance or rejection of a cultural matter like the kunya is indeed a shallow measuring stick – please tell this to the feminists who raise the ‘kunya’ argument in the first place :)

      Zainab Bint Younas responded:

    Thanks for responding :)

    1) It is an issue that I feel both sides spend too much time on, taking away from the serious underlying issues that *do* have dang effects on women.
    What bothered me about your post was that it cane off as a blanket statement against anyone who disagrees with usage of kunyas, assuming that they’re *all* ‘feminists’ (who btw aren’t a monolithic group; those you’re referring to tend to be a particular sub-group).

    2) Have you ever interacted with such men? I’m asking simply because without exposure to such people, it’s easy for one to write the phenomenon off as individual incidents or not a big deal. However, I can assure you that such attitudes are neither isolated nor limited to those men directly; many of them truly believe (and will express bluntly) that women are not independent entities nor have their own self-worth but rather are expected to be as servants to men. The attribution of children to these women is seen directly as a form of ‘ownership.’ Again, this is not an exaggeration nor an isolated incident, but a widespread phenomenon in many Muslim societies.

    3) We both agree that it’s an issue of culture; however, the way it was discussed in your article comes as tho anyone who disagrees with usage of kunya (or has issues with it) is somehow rejecting an aspect of Islam.
    Also, not sure what you mean by “erroneously perceived as gender based injustice” – because gender-based injustice is a vey real and serious matter, both in the Muslim community and outside of it.
    Further, I guarantee you that men are not stigmatised by lack of children the way women are.

    4) Your post wasn’t talking about individualism as selfishness, but as the desire to be considered an individual human being to be considered individualism.
    There’s a difference between someone denying that they have any responsibilities or relationships with others, and live in a self-centered bubble; and those who ask to be considered as individual human beings in their own right, based on their own personalities and actions.

    5) In no way am I denying the fact that as humans, we are inter-dependent and our deeds are in many ways related to others. But again, your OP indicated that we are family or socially oriented to the extent that asking to be considered as individuals is a bad thing.

    The answer, of course, lies in balance and moderation – knowing that our actions and behaviour affect others, but also that ultimately, we will not be rewarded or punished based upon our relationship *to* others (vs our relationships *with* others).

      I replied:

    First you conceded that there is nothing inherently wrong with the use of a kunya, but then you claimed that the kunya is indeed used as a way to assert ownership over a woman. Ergo, you do think the kunya is a sign of patriarchy. This claim is exactly what my post addresses.

    As for individualism, I get the feeling you are not sure on your position here. I consistently criticise feminism for advocating individualism (putting one’s own interest and desire ahead of everybody else’s) and why this contradicts Islam. First you claimed that we are encouraged to be individualistic because on the Day of Judgment we will be accounted solo. When I showed this was not the case, you changed your position to being about general recognition as a human being. Perhaps you could clarify your position here.

    The purpose of my post (indeed any of my work) is not to refute that oppression is a reality (see any of my lectures) but to refute disastrous “solutions” (like feminism) which, due to their biased nature, lead to more harm than good. When Islam gives recourse for those on the lower deck of the boat to demand their rights from those on the upper deck of the boat, why turn away from Islamic justice and drill holes in the bottom of the boat, taking everyone down? And this is not to say that women exclusively occupy the ‘lower deck’ and men the ‘upper deck’. Anyone in a position of responsibility in Islam is in the ‘upper deck’. This includes rulers and those in positions of authority; in this case, both men and women are in the lower deck, and in the Muslim world today thoroughly denied their rights. When feminists are only able to see the injustice against women (and call this ‘gender based injustice’) and not the fact that there is a greater problem giving rise to injustice against pretty much all people, this is what I call a gender-biased solution that Muslims should steer clear of.

      Zainab replied:

    No, you have misunderstood and are conflating my statements.

    There is nothing wrong with using the kunya in and of itself, but it CAN be and IS used by some for assert ownership over women. *In those cases* it is being used to the detriment of women, but is not necessarily EXCLUSIVELY used for that purpose.
    Thus, there are people who choose to NOT use the kunya (or use it only within specific contexts)… and that doesn’t make them ‘feminists’ or mean that they are rejecting Islam, or any such thing.

    Regarding individualism, then I suppose we are both misunderstanding each others’ positions.

    You state:
    “Feminists define themselves first and foremost as female individuals rather than human beings who are part of a species, or social beings who are part of a community upon which women, as well as men, rely on to survive, or as, fundamentally, creations of a transcendent creator.”

    But what about those who acknowledge both and would like *both* to be acknowledged? That yes, first and foremost I *AM* an individual human being (who is primarily the slave of the Creator), and *then* I am a daughter, sister, mother, wife, etc. I am all of those things, and love being all of those things, but when I work, when I interact with others, I expect to be dealt with on my own merit rather than based on whose daughter I am etc.

    Both sides appear to be setting up an either/or paradigm without considering that both are possible.

    And finally, it is a myth that feminists ‘only’ think about injustice against women; most feminists (including/especially secular feminists) consider themselves to be part of a larger framework that advocates for human rights in general (there is an increased focus on how men are equally harmed by the social constructs and attitudes that exist regarding women, and how to combat that for a greater, overall healthier society).

    I myself firmly believe that Islam is the only solution to any and every human problem. But again, as someone who is involved in grassroots da’wah, I (like many others) have chosen to focus on working to combat gender-based injustice because SO many women in our communities do NOT have support they need when it comes to upholding their Shari’i-based rights.

    As an imam, my father has spent the vast majority of his 23+ years in the field dealing with the overwhelming flood of Muslim women who have come to him seeking help, many of whom were turned away by their families, their local communities, and even their own local masaajid and Islamic centers.
    Yes, oppression and injustice takes place against men too – no one is denying this – but when it comes to those who are willing to *combat* oppression, they have far more resources and assistance (and almost zero risk of stigma or being ostracized) to deal with their problems than Muslim women do.

    THAT is why *I* choose to focus on the injustice and oppression that Muslim face within their communities, because they have been abandoned by their own Ummah, because their brothers and sisters in Islam choose to spend more resources discussing “the feminists” rather than on how to help the hundreds of thousands of Muslim women who face abuse, injustice, and oppression on every level.

    (Please note that the above is not specifically targeted to you, but to the general discourse that I have been observing for the last while.)

    Also, while in principle we absolutely support all work against fighting all injustice, and are dedicated to implementing Islamic principles in fighting such oppression and injustice; from a practical perspective, people choose to focus on different, specific forms of injustice that they can work on countering.

    Some people choose to fight poverty by working with a zakaah organization; some people choose to fight for access to health care around the world (e.g. doctors without borders; Ummah clinic); some people choose to mentor youth, and so on.

    Feminists, in general, have chosen to address the staggering issues that women face around the globe, which have been – and continue to be – largely neglected and under-supported and under-financed in every way.
    It doesn’t mean that they’re ignoring what happens to others. It means that they, in their own way, are trying to counter the many, many things out there that are legitimately harming women in some (many) ways.

    We may not always agree with them (I certainly don’t in many ways), but that doesn’t mean that anyone who *does* agree with them in certain issues is to be written off or is rejecting aspects of Islam, and so on.
    I find it sorrowful that rather than recognizing the issues in our communities, and supporting each other in countering harmful and negative attitudes, mentalities, and behaviours, we choose to turn a blind eye instead or ague that “everyone has it bad.”

    May Allah guide us to that which is most beloved to Him, and that which will make this world a better place, amen.

      I replied:

    Where have I claimed that rejection of the kunya = feminism or rejection of Islam? I very simply state that it is common amongst liberal feminists to argue this ridiculous point about kunyas as if it were evidence of a patriarchy in Islam, when the same term is used for men. It is an example of the feminist tendency to view all of life’s situations with a suspicious, conspiratorial eye. Where there is genuine oppression, this is readily acknowledged, but citing things like the kunya as evidence of injustice makes a mockery of the more serious problems occurring in society.

    We are connected to our families by more than just our names, sister – we are connected by reputation, by association, and by influence – even you have indicated that your father may be an influence in why you do the work that you do, and I notice that you use ‘Bint’ in your name, so are happy to be addressed as the daughter of your father. Rest assured, if you were not good at your work, it would not matter who your father was, you would not be in that work for long because society demands your merit.

    Whilst Islam puts your merits first, and your gender later, feminism (which you have suggested that it is ok to ally with) puts your gender first, and your merits later. Thus feminists advocate positive discrimination for women, advocating mediocrity rather than meritocracy. So if you want to be assessed for your merits, maybe feminism is not the way to go.

    You also claim that feminism is interested in men’s rights. Yes, feminists challenge male gender roles, but only because this assists feminist’s own goals. When it comes to perpetrated injustices, feminists are not nearly as interested as they are in their own affairs. Did you know that in 2012 in the UK, more married men suffered partner abuse than married women (British Crime Survey). Yet I don’t hear these feminist ‘saviours of justice’ protesting this travesty and trying to fix this. Did you know that whilst feminists complain at the lack of female judges in the UK, men are far more likely to be sentenced more harshly than a woman for the EXACT same crime? You also said that men have more resources to deal with their problems. Really? When it comes to refuges, there are 7,500 for females in England and Wales but only 60 for men. You also said that with men there is zero risk of being stigmatised. Men are just as, if not more, likely to be stay quiet about suffering domestic abuse because of fear of embarrassment or shame at having been beaten up by his wife (http://www.independent.co.uk/…/domestic-violence-as-a…). I keep hearing the feminist lip service again and again that feminists are just as interested in men’s rights; both the ideology and the reality proves otherwise.

    I am glad you agree that Islam is the only solution, alhamdulillah, but the feminists you support or are happy to be complicit with, advocate reforming and changing Islam, not reforming and changing Muslims. Just recently, a prominent Muslim woman who calls herself a feminist publicly denied a verse of the Qur’an pertaining to inheritance, describing it as ‘absurd literalism’. If feminists want to reject clear and direct legal rulings of Islam in favour of an indeterminate ideology such as feminism which leaves the lawmaking to fallible and biased human beings, this is something that Muslims should be condemning, not allying with.

    As for the piecemeal approach of working on different aspects of society’s problems (e.g. poverty or health), such work at best alleviates *symptoms*, but by no means tackles the root problem, which is the lack of Islamic rule in the Muslim world guaranteeing men and women’s rights and recourse to justice where it is denied.

    Posted by zarafaris | April 11, 2014, 2:44 pm
    • Separately, Zainab Bint Younas also stated:

    What bothers me is that in our zeal to refute issues brought forward by ‘the other side’, that we go to the extent of denying actual issues in our communities.

    As someone who has grown up in an environment where I’ve seen both my parents involved in grassroots da’wah for over 23 years (my father is an imam), and been involved in da’wah at least marginally myself, the truth is that our communities are far from perfect and that in order to strengthen ourselves according to the Quran and Sunnah, we cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand and blame everything on ‘the feminists.’ Only when we are willing to address these very real problems in our communities will we be able to solve them, bi ithnillah. Denying them, however, in an effort to prove secularists ornothers wrong, will get us nowhere and provide no benefit whatsoever.

      I replied:

    Well, if you would like to acknowledge actual problems in our communities, then you must also acknowledge oppression against men as well as women; the Muslim world today is in a state of utter dispair where *everybody’s* rights are being denied due to unIslamic rule. To focus only on women as victims and men as perpetrators is basically a form of Asabiyyah, Gender Asabiyyah, that ends up perpetrating the same injustices that feminists blame on ‘patriarchy’.

    Muslims have a duty to speak out against injustices against both men and women, and advocate Islam as the solution. Unlike feminism, Islam does not take a one-sided view, and does not take piecemeal approaches to dealing with problems in society. Rather, it advocates a holistic approach that balances the interests of all members of society.

    Click here to see the original discussion on Facebook.

    Posted by zarafaris | April 12, 2014, 12:02 am

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