Women in Islam

by Laura A. Brueckner

Early in the play, The Who & The What, the Jatt family’s younger sister, Mahwish, asks her older sister, Zarina, what Zarina is writing her book about. At first, Zarina answers, “Gender politics.” When pressed, however, she discloses that her book is about “women and Islam.” This puts Mahwish instantly on guard; she asks her sister if the book will contain “bad stuff,” and says that she hopes not, “’Cause everyone’s always making a big deal about women in Islam. We’re just fine.”

This assertion, made by a character who is at once a woman raised in the Muslim faith and a young, American-born student from a wealthy family, points to some of the problems caused by any generalizations about “women in Islam”—roughly half of a religion held by over 1.8 billion people. And this population is spread across hundreds of countries whose local cultural practices inflect how they practice their faith. Undeniably, there are Muslim women of deep faith who have loving families and opportunities to develop professional careers and other pursuits if they choose. Just as undeniably—as in Christianity—there are other women, in other families, who endure abuse that their abusers claim originates in the religion. And there are, of course, Muslim women whose lived experience falls outside of all of these descriptions, whose voices have been silenced because foregrounding them advances no media or political agenda.

The diversity of Muslim women’s experience extends back to the earliest days of Islam. From its beginnings, Islam includes women regarded as leaders and authorities on religious teachings, such as Khadījah bint Khuwaylid, the first wife of Muhammad, a wealthy businesswoman who was Islam’s first believer and who financed the spread of the faith; ‘Ā’ishah bint Abī Bakr, a young woman who married Muhammad but also contributed to the faith’s store of scholarship, was knowledgeable about poetry and medicine, and led troops into battle; and Umm al-Darda’ as-Sughra al Dimashqiyyah who, even as a young child would sit and pray with men in her masjid. She matured into a scholar, teacher, and jurist in Damascus, who issued a fatwa (an Islamic legal pronouncement, issued by an expert in religious law) proclaiming women to be entitled to pray in the same seated position as men. Umm al-Darda’ was also fond of religious debate, saying:  “I’ve tried to worship Allah in every way, but I’ve never found a better one than sitting, debating other scholars.” By writing her book, Zarina, the oldest daughter of The Who & The What, is participating in Islam’s tradition of women studying and interpreting holy texts; what’s new—and upsetting to her family—is her application of literary analysis to a text that believers hold as a vehicle for truth and law.

Mahwish’s assertion also points to the frustration and strain some Muslim women feel due to the constant requirement to engage with non-Muslims’ curiosities, preconceptions, and misconceptions about their lived experience. For women, this can include intrusive questions from strangers or casual acquaintances about their choice to wear the veil (or not), their bodies, and their marriages and other intimate relationships. The Who & The What playwright Ayad Akhtar has addressed this topic in other plays as well: the way that American culture attempts to force Muslims in America into a secondary discursive position where they can only respond to images of them created by others, rather than creating their own images, telling their own stories. This is addressed most flammably, perhaps, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Disgraced. In that play, Amir, a Pakistani-American lawyer, is drawn into a dinner-party debate about Islam, although he no longer follows the faith. When his guest, a non-Muslim, attempts to assert his own views about the religion over Amir’s, Amir’s responses range from textual analysis to outright fury. What Amir cannot do, we see, is change the terms of the debate; no matter what, it is designed to force him to respond to the outsider’s perspective.

It’s no accident that Akhtar himself is consumed with crafting stories that reflect the experiences of his Muslim characters—and that, like the faith itself, these characters are not archetypes but diverse people, carrying flaws, enthusiasms, and deep questions. He also hopes that other writers, filmmakers, and playwrights from Muslim backgrounds will join him in depicting their communities from their own point of view, to add their perspectives to the growing store of images.

It’s also no accident that, in The Who & The What, Zarina is working on a novel that causes a rift between her and her family, and upsets the larger Muslim community around her. Akhtar has had similar experiences; in interviews, he has guessed that his father has never read his son’s New York Times-lauded debut novel, American Dervish, and noted that the only response his mother offered to the book was a single sentence, framed by her heartfelt requests that they never speak of it again. There also has been pushback from Islamic communities concerned with Akhtar’s theatrical depictions of Muslim characters who struggle with their faith and sometimes fall short of virtue in their actions. The reasons are understandable—the U.S. is far less safe for Muslim Americans than it was even in 2010 when Akhtar wrote Disgraced, and any depictions deemed unflattering risk adding fuel to the fires of Islamophobia. For his part, Akhtar remains focused on his characters as people: “I’m interested in the human. In tradition, faith, doubt, love, greed, murder, rapture, sorrow.” And about The Who & The What specifically, he says, “whatever the play is doing, it’s doing it with a profound sense of love and respect for the tradition. And I think the tradition is strong enough to withstand questions.”