Title : The universality of women’s experiences

Women’s stories are a specific sub-genre highlighting women’s unique perspectives, challenges, and experiences. For this book review, I shall try to explain this idea further by talking about two books I read recently, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf and the other, Islam : The Empowering of Women by Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley.

The first book is a renowned work within the Western feminist canon. It was based on two lectures Woolf gave at Cambridge University. She discusses how women have fared historically in various social, educational, and financial contexts. The text is characterised by the style she is famous for, namely, the stream-of-consciousness mode of writing.

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” is the most famous statement from the text, one of the central arguments. She suggests that women need a degree of financial independence and their own space for their creativity and talents to flourish and for them to be able to hone their craft as writers.

She elaborates on this by giving examples of women writers who struggled due to limited means and chances. It examines the experiences of the Brontës, George Eliot, and George Sand and the fictional character of Shakespeare’s sister, who has the same ability but lacks position. She compared these women who accepted a submissive role with Jane Austen, who wrote exclusively as a woman.

Through these examples, she tries to prove that women have had unique experiences, but men and society should take them more seriously. She poignantly indicates that this attitude leads society and culture to miss out on the wealth of insight and enrichment women’s contributions to literature offer.
She concludes by urging young women to take their literary pursuits seriously and to continue in the hope that the future will be more receptive and more favourable to women’s contributions (as compared to the hypothetical examples she gave previously.)
Similar themes are echoed in Islam: The Empowering of Women by Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley, with many interesting differences.

Dr Bewley, one of the most renowned female Muslim scholars still living today, begins the book by critiquing the Muslim community’s attitudes towards Muslim women, specifically in the act of reducing them to critiques of the hijab/purdah and by denying them larger participatory roles in knowledge production. She contends that this attitude contradicts the historic Islamic tradition, which is shaped and moulded by the contributions of pious Muslim women of the past. The book is divided into three sections: The Scholarly Woman (Muslim women’s contribution to Islam’s knowledge production), the Political Woman (Muslim women rulers, governors, and administrators throughout Islamic history), and finally, the Spiritual Woman (which briefly explains the importance of the concept of tasawwuf and famous Muslim women in this particular Islamic discipline).

What makes these works remarkable is that even though the authors are from totally different religious backgrounds and completely different socio-political, cultural, and geographical contexts, they show us that the need to document women’s historical experiences and the underlying reasons for them is universal.
What differentiates both works, however, is that Woolf’s understanding is shaped by her secular, atheistic worldview. Therefore, her knowledge of women’s issues is marked by the same criticism of secular metaphysics: that everything is seen from the plane of the dunya, this world alone. Feminists like Woolf mourn the fact that countless women throughout history will remain nameless and erased by society and the world because they never got the chance to develop themselves and realise their full potential.

In Dr. Bewley’s work, however, we see that Islam enabled women to achieve the highest possible ranks of intellectuals, scholars, politicians, administrators, spiritual guides, and community leaders without sacrificing their family or home lives. The system of Islam offers the antidote to the puzzle of Western feminism: Can women have it all without sacrificing their family or home lives? Islam answers yes and more.

Through the lens of Islamic metaphysics, no good deed ever goes in vain, as emphasised in the Holy Quran and Hadith.

Even if a woman misses out on her career pursuits and the chance to pursue her passions and interests, for the sake of Allah, she will be rewarded for it in the Hereafter. Thus, the countless righteous women throughout the ages might be footnotes in history’s transcript, but their record is with Allah, Most High.
Of course, notwithstanding the very real problem of Muslim women’s access to public life and full personhood and participation in many Muslim communities around the world. This cultural malaise needs to be addressed and resolved urgently for the welfare of the Ummah and humanity at large. Shaykh Akram Nadwi’s quote comes to mind, ‘God has given girls qualities and potential. If they aren’t allowed to develop them or provided with opportunities to study and learn, it’s a live burial.”


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