The Kaaba is a simple, black cube of only 13 meters in height. It is not architecturally impressive, nor is it visually impressive. Yet it brings together millions of people to one place, at one time, united in the devotion to a cause greater than themselves. It serves as a beacon of hope for 1.8 billion people in the world.
Living in Saudi Arabia, I have had the privilege of visiting the Kaaba within Makkah and performing Umrah, the lesser muslim pilgrimage that can be performed during any time of the year. I have had the privilege of witnessing so many people together in their dedication to God, and in that unification I noticed a seemingly ordinary detail that stood out to me.
As my family and I were completing our Umrah, it came time to approach the Kaaba and begin Tawaf, which is one of the Islamic rituals of pilgrimage. Circling the Kaaba, performing this ritual, were more people than it was possible to count. I had to clutch my mother’s hand tightly as we walked, staying as close to her and my brother as possible. I was overwhelmed. What struck me, though, was not how crowded it was. What struck me was that among the men performing Tawaf were an equal amount of women. These women did not walk behind the men. There was no segregated section women were obligated to remain in. We were simply people, walking around the Kaaba together as one.
In the Quran, women and men are explicitly described as equal. A husband and wife are partners in a relationship, and a man and a woman are equal members of society. Women can own property just like men, can build a career just like men, can have the right to an inheritance just like men. Education is mandatory upon women, just like men.
“...And their Lord responded to them, ‘Never will I allow to be lost the work of [any] worker among you, whether male or female; you are of one another.” [Quran 3:195]
“Whatever men earn, they have a share of that and whatever women earn, they have a share in that.” [Quran 4:32]
“The seeking of knowledge is obligatory for every muslim.” -Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)
When walking away from the Kaaba and towards downtown Makkah, though, that is not the impression of Islam you will receive. You will see crowded roads holding bumper-to-bumper traffic, where each and every one of those cars will be driven by a male. In restaurants there will be a separate entrance and seating area for women. The segregation of sexes in Saudi Arabia is apparent, but is it necessarily Islamic if the scene at the Kaaba, which is Islam’s holiest shrine, is contradictory?
The reason Islam has been deemed an oppressive religion in regards to women is because of the confusion between culture and the religion itself. Seclusion of women was actually practiced by the Byzantine and Persian Empires prior to the advent of Islam, which some muslim societies adopted to their religion. Female circumcision, thought to be an Islamic practice, was really present in North Africa thousands of years ago. The same can be said for honor killings, which were also performed before the existence of Islam. A male-dominated society in the Arabian peninsula was the norm before the advent of the religion, where women held no status societally whatsoever. In fact, female infanticide was custom, and Islam actually ended the tradition of burying alive unwanted female newborns, condemning parents disappointed with the birth of a girl. But, unfortunately, it is very easy to rewrite a religion in favor of cultural norms that are deeply ingrained within a society. Islamic law, like any other religious text, can be interpreted repressively, which lends to the “Muslim women are oppressed” narrative we hear so often.
Fundamentalist patriarchal interpretations of Quranic verses, which are sometimes taken literally or out of context, lie in the heart of this narrative. I am female, I am a feminist, and I am muslim. I believe in Islam because it permeates gender equality at its core, despite the skewed versions of the religion that are presented to the general public because of the sexist practices of Islamic countries and radical institutions like ISIS and the Taliban.
Muslim feminists recognize the rights given to them by the Quran and seek to recapture its original vision. This does not mean replicating or encouraging the cultural practices of conventional civilizations, but to understand the Quran objectively without the influence of any culture. It means to use the Quran as a guide for our constantly evolving society, striving for greater equality in the age in which we live.
To do so, we cannot be passive observers. We must recognize the confusion between culture and religion, remembering what the heart of Islam is. We must question the convoluted sexist version of Islam presented to the general public.
The Kaaba brings together millions of people to one place, at one time, united in the devotion to a cause greater than themselves. It serves as a beacon of hope for 1.8 billion people in the world - both male and female.