Laila Brence addresses the controversial issue of modernity and Muslim women

The place of modernity in Islam is a controversial issue, often dividing Muslims into those, who condemn anything modern as incompatible with the ethos of Islam, and those, who claim that Muslims must embrace modernity in order to survive and grow.

Being a Muslim woman, I am faced with the same question of modernity. However, for me as a convert Muslim, this question takes on new dimensions, because I stepped into Islam right out of the western modernity.

In order to address the dilemma of modernity for Muslim women, it is first necessary to define what modernity is. For society in general, modernity means progress, advancement of technology, rise of secularism, and emphasis on reason and free will. For women in particular, modernity holds liberation and equality.

For western women, liberation and equality essentially means exercising the same social, legal, and personal rights as men are enjoying. The history of the first modern western woman dates back to the 1920s in the US, when American women got their right to vote, asserted their presence in society by stepping out of their homes, and gradually began breaking the taboos their mothers hardly dared to talk about. During these years, the American women (who were more advanced than their European counterparts) discovered their sexuality and began insisting on the same freedoms as men in choosing personal habits, including smoking, drinking, dancing, and dressing provocatively.

What can modernity offer to a Muslim woman?  Basically the same- liberation and equality. How so? Modernity doesn’t necessarily have to be defined from a single western perspective. The truth is women’s liberation movements didn’t begin at the end of the nineteenth century as western historians claim. Its roots can be traced back to the seventh century – the time of the Prophet Muhammad (sa). Many Muslim women don’t realize that Islam upgraded their status equal to that of men’s about 1400 years ago – the Quran clearly states that men and women are equal in whatever deeds they do. (An-Nahl 16:97, Al-Ahzab 33:35) It is important, however, to understand the distinctions that Islam makes between genders.

“The rights and responsibilities of a woman are equal to those of a man but they are not necessarily identical with them. Equality and sameness are two quite different things. This difference is understandable because man and woman are not identical but they are created equals. Equality is desirable, just, fair; but sameness is not. With this distinction in mind, there is no room to imagine that woman is inferior to man. There is no ground to assume that she is less important than he, just because her rights are not identically the same as his. Had her status been identical with his, she would have been simply a duplicate of him, which she is not. The fact that Islam gives her equal rights – but not identical – shows that it takes her into due consideration, acknowledges her, and recognizes her independent personality.” (Abdul-Ati)

I personally feel that the true liberation for Muslim women lies in recognizing the temporary nature of this world – we will meet Allah (swt) and face the actual reality of life only after our worldly death. This intellectual freedom raises Muslim women above the mundane ‘freedoms’ western women so persistently struggle for – we submit to nothing and none but Allah (swt) and His teachings. Thus, with a complete peace of mind we can enjoy the equality with men granted to us by Allah (swt), not worrying about being the same with them.

Have I betrayed the female sex by converting to Islam or have I become any less modern than other western women? My answer is a definite ‘no.’