We tell stories, and stories are powerful – none more so than stories about our sacred past. Told repeatedly, tales become truth. We forget that they were once told differently, or not told at all. Stories told and retold lead us to expect certain outcomes. Stories that break patterns may be rejected, or misheard, or ignored. But sometimes, told often enough, new versions of old stories take root. Stories help make sense of who we are and how we are to live in the world. Among other things, we tell stories about love, about marriage, about sex. Our stories reflect our deeply held values and deeply rooted and unexamined assumptions.
Stories about sacred figures are not the only tool we have in the quest to end persistent gender inequalities in families, communities, and societies. Historical knowledge helps. Muslim advocates for women’s rights have pointed out, correctly, that Muslims have a wide array of expectations for men and women across space and time. There is no universal, trans-historical ‘Islamic’ role for women – indeed, no uniform set of laws governing Muslims across the globe now, or in the past. Take the example of children. The current fashion among many Muslims for describing homemaking and childcare as tasks for which females are biologically suited diverges from earlier ways of thinking. Classical thought about marriage foregrounded a wife’s sexual duties. Caring for children was simply part of life – delegated to servants when possible – not a dedicated calling requiring a special temperament. In other words, Muslims today already diverge from earlier norms in striking and unrecognised ways. The neo-traditional vision of homemaker wife-and-mother and breadwinner husband-head-of-household pretends seamless continuity with an ideal Islamic past. In reality, it rewrites that past.
Muslim feminist scholarship criticises and historicises this neo-patriarchal vision. But as cultural critic and theorist bell hooks reminds us, it is insufficient to criticise the status quo; we must offer a compelling alternative.