بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
This is a brief – but brilliant – talk by Yasmin Mogahed on Manhood and Womanhood in Islam.
Yasmin begins the talk with a story we are all too familiar with: The Ugly Duckling. In case you don’t know it, here it is.
The story begins with a mother duck looking proudly at all the ducklings that had just hatched. While she did, she noticed that there was one that was different: it was large, and not at all like the others. Soon that duck came to be known as ‘The Ugly Duckling’.
It was different and didn’t quite fit in.
When God created humanity, there were men and then there were some that were not at all like the rest; they were women. They couldn’t run as fast, and they cried way too much. Those women spent their whole lives wondering: were they just bad copies of men; am I as a woman, that ugly duckling? Am I just a bad copy of the standard?
No, Allah says that women are swans. Women are different than men, but it’s meant to be that way.
The moral of the story? It teaches that being beautiful and having worth, does not mean women have to be just like everyone else. It teaches that, women’s standard, worth and honour does not come from sameness to men, but distinctiveness to men.
The worth of a woman, or man – what is a woman/what is a man – has been defined in many ways throughout history and across societies. One of the ways that, unfortunately, society has defined what is means to be a woman, or to be a successful woman, has to do with how she looks. We live in a society where women are pretty much defined by the way they look, and how successful they are is determined by how attractive and beautiful they can be for men.
Allah tells us that women do not need to fall to that standard, women don’t need to be an object. Allah tells us that a women’s worth is defined by her relationship with Him, and not by her relationship to any of His creation. So, women are told, by Allah, as Muslim women they should cover themselves. And by covering, what is irrelevant is covered – that is, the body (the external beauty).
Because what really matters in a woman’s self-worth, is the character of a woman and her relationship with Allah.
This objectification of women in today’s hyper-sexual societies, has been criticized by Western feminists. In trying to break out of this, what has happened is that Western feminism came into it and tried to liberate women from the bondage of being a sexual object. But the problem with this so-called ‘liberation’ is that God has been taken out of the equation. This has resulted in: the way to liberate a woman is by making her like a man.
What is meant by that, is that there needs to be a standard of some sort; something to measure one’s self worth against. And if God is taken out of the equation, that thing to measure one’s worth against, becomes that which is in power. So, what happened over time, is that in trying to liberate women, ironically, women began to think that they should mimic men; they should be more like a man. Therefore, they will be more honored and dignified.
Some examples of that are, things that are usually considered uniquely feminine, or more to do with feminine traits are considered a degradation. For example, to say that someone is emotional or sensitive has become an insult. Even though, the Prophet (PBUH) defined these things differently.
For example, society has defined that to cry is a measure of weakness, and to not show emotion, means that you are strong. Yet, the Prophet (PBUH) defines it differently.
The Prophet (PBUH), when he cried after the death of his son, people looked at him, especially the men, they thought it was strange. And they were taken aback by this display of tears and questioned him, ‘What are you doing?’ The Prophet (PBUH), explained that the emotion that he had just showed was connected to ‘Rahma‘, to mercy.
Rahma is one of the greatest attributes of God, it is a Godly attribute. So, the Prophet (PBUH) actually connected that display of emotion, to a very honorable quality: mercy. Yet, societies came and redefined it as weakness.
Ironically, the traits that societies consider as strengths, are what the Prophet (PBUH) defined as weaknesses.
For example, usually in societies boys are brought up and taught not to show emotion, but there is one emotion that boys are allowed to show and it is considered manly and acceptable. It is the emotion of anger. So, boys are taught that everything they feel has to be suppressed, but the only externalization of emotion that you are allowed to show, and still be manly, is anger. Yet, the Prophet (PBUH) explained that this is actually a sign of weakness.
When the Prophet (PBUH) asked his companions, ‘Who is the really strong person?’ His companions thought in a very similar way that we do, they said, ‘It is the one who can wrestle the best’. They thought about it in physical strength. The Prophet (PBUH) said, ‘No, it is the one who can control them self in the fit of anger’.
Here the Prophet (PBUH) is defining that lack of control of anger, is actually a sign of weakness. And, on the other hand, he defines the showing of emotion, such as crying, as a sign of mercy.
The script of definitions has been truly flipped in today’s societies.
Another example of something that is looked down upon, especially if it is seen in men as it is considered not masculine, is the expression of emotion in terms of affection.
The Prophet (PBUH), was showing affection to one of his children and another one of the Arab came, and in his attempt to boast about his own masculinity, said that he has all these children and he never kisses or hugs, or showed any emotion to them. The Prophet (PBUH) responded very beautifully, and said: ‘What can I do if mercy has been taken out of your heart?’
This is another definition, from the Prophet (PBUH) about what makes a man; what masculinity means. The Prophet (PBUH) defines a lack of mercy as not showing any emotion. Whereas to show emotion, in terms of crying, he connects that to mercy.
This is interesting because social definitions are the complete opposite. How does that relate to how men and women interact together?
The interesting thing, is that women start to internalize these definitions too. So, women start to think that unless they are aggressive and stoic, they will be taken advantage of. So women try to fall into these definitions of what it means to be a strong person as well. In doing that, women end up shooting themselves in the foot.
Here is why.
According to experts, when men and women interact, the primary need for men is the need to feel respected. Whereas, the primary need for women is the need to feel cared for, or loved.
What experts have found, is that the conflict that happens between men and women can be broken down into this formula which is called the ‘Crazy Cycle‘. What the ‘Crazy Cycle’ is – and this can be within any interaction between the genders on any level; work, marriage, etc – that one of them, for example, the man might do something that is interpreted by the woman as being uncaring or feels insensitive, the woman’s response, or knee-jerk reaction, is to react with attitude, with aggression or disrespect, almost. The root of that is that the woman feels uncared for, or unloved, or that someone has done something insensitive to her; so she reacts with harshness.
What that does, is that when the women reacts with disrespect, the man is deprived of his primary need: to feel respected. How does he react? He reacts by being even more unloving, even more uncaring, and even more harsh. So now, they are in the ‘Crazy Cycle’, because when the woman feels that, she reacts with even more disrespect.
How can this cycle be broken?
They say that there is something called ‘unconditional respect’ and ‘unconditional love/care/consideration’ – depending on the context.
But what does that mean in terms of relationships between the genders in an Islamic context?
It means that, regardless or not, if a woman feels that a person – especially when dealing with men – is being insensitive, if a woman responds with unconditional respect; meaning that she remains respectful, that will actually trigger a man to be more caring and more loving.
The advice that Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) gives, exactly follows this formula. The Prophet (PBUH) gives us the most helpful advice in order to have successful relationships – in fact, most of the advice that Allah and the Prophet (PBUH) give to women is not to love their husbands. This is because, for women love comes naturally: women give love naturally, they are very familiar with the concept of unconditional love. However, there is something that women are not that familiar with, and that is respect.
Women do not understand the concept of unconditional respect, women feel that respect is earned and deserved. If someone is treating a woman badly, she will not respect them. It is that attitude that invites harsh treatment in return.
The Prophet (PBUH), comes to women and recommends them to respect their husbands, obey their husbands. The emphasis is on respect.
When Allah and the Prophet advised men on how to treat women, the emphasis was on love and kindness. So the Prophet (PBUH) advises men to be kind with their wives, to be caring, and not to be harsh with them.
In one hadith, the Prophet (PBUH) says that a woman was created from a bent rib. If someone tries to straighten it, it will break. But if left as it, it will be enjoyed the way it is.
What that means is that women are a certain way; they are created that way. Women were created with a certain nature from God, if someone tries to change that nature, it will break. If a man tries to break that nature, he will not be successful with that woman. But if a man accepts the woman as she is, and her nature as it is, you will be successful.
The idea here, is that if a man treats a woman with kindness and love – that unconditional love commandment that was especially advised to men – there will be success in the relationship between genders. Men were advised with the unconditional love commandment because men on the other hand, usually, have the idea that they will not show love or kindness unless the woman is respectful to the man. So long as the woman shows disrespect, the man will not show love. This is also, the formula for failure because the more a man shows harshness to a woman, the more disrespectful she tends to be.
A beautiful example of this, is a story about Omar (RA). Omar was considered as one of the most manliest men, and what happens is that when Omar was khalifa, a man went to him to complain about his wife. As he approached Omar’s house, the man heard Omar’s wife raising her voice to him. The man, upon hearing this, turned around and started to walk away from Omar’s house. Omar came out and saw the man. So he asked him if he wanted anything and the man said, that he had come to complain about the same problem that Omar seemed to be having.
Omar, who was a very wise man, said to the man: ‘My wife cooks for me, cleans for me, takes care of me and my home, can I not be tolerant, and overlook it, when she raises her voice, or speaks in a disrespectful way, to me?’
The lesson here is that Omar (RA) understood that to be a man does not mean that you must be harsh. He understood that the actual strength that the Prophet (PBUH) talked about was in controlling anger, not letting anger control you.
And that is where we should be getting our sense of self-worth from, and what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a man – from the teachings of the Prophet (PBUH).
And until we use that as our standard, rather than society, pop culture – we will never be successful.