When Muslim Canadians observed Al-Mawled Al-Nabawi (the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Mohammad) on Feb. 12 of this year, there was something strikingly different going on at the celebration in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. Breaking with the practice of sitting in the audience, sometimes behind curtains, and listening to male speakers, Muslim women took center stage. From master of ceremonies to the keynote speaker, Muslim women captivated a full house – comprising legislators, diplomats, community leaders and Canadians of all faiths – in the Government Conference Centre. The positive outpouring of response after the event was unprecedented in the 30-year history of the celebration in Ottawa.
The birth of the Prophet celebration has played a crucial part in helping the largely immigrant Muslim community integrate with broader Canadian society. This ceremony used to be held in Muslim places of worship and hardly attracted anyone of other faiths. But in 2002, thanks to the efforts of dedicated community leaders and the support of a few members of Canada’s Parliament, Muslims were able to move the celebration to the parliament building.
Explaining the significance of this shift in his welcome address, Jaffar Hashmi, president of the Ottawa Shia Islamic Association and coordinator of the event, said, “The move to Parliament Hill was not just a change in the venue, but arose from our intention to embody and share the universal values of Islam with the broader Canadian community.” The focus this year was on gender equity and how it was practiced in the Prophet’s own family.
The Prophet Mohammad’s wife and daughter were key figures in the transformative events in the history of Islam. For example, the person the Prophet immediately turned to for consultation upon receiving his first divine revelation was his wife, Khadija. His revered daughter, Fatima, was the first woman after his death to challenge the state, questioning its interpretation of inheritance law in early Islam. Her stand for justice paved the way for other Muslim women to speak up for their rights. Many Muslim social and political leaders, including the former first lady of Pakistan, drew inspiration from the Prophet’s daughter.
But cultural influences not practiced in early Islam started seeping into religious beliefs in conservative Muslim communities and led to the notion that a woman’s need for dependence as a wife could only be fulfilled by suppressing all other aspirations outside the house.
These patriarchal views are increasingly being challenged by Muslims around the world. For example, female Muslim scholars such as American Lale Bakhtiar and Canadian Nevin Reda have questioned some of the traditional interpretations of Islam’s teachings, including the role of Muslim women in religious institutions.
Muslim women’s leadership has also been vital in changing women’s attitudes. In particular, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women and the Ottawa Muslim Women’s Organization have made strides in transforming women’s views about their role in Canadian society. Ingrained assumptions are changing, albeit slowly.
Young Muslim women defy patriarchal representations of role of women in society. The traditional family model in which there is a male breadwinner and a full-time housewife no longer captures the reality of Canadian Muslim life. According to government data, mothers with preschoolers at home are joining the labor force in large numbers, matching or exceeding those in European countries, in some cases by approximately 50 percent. Indeed, some of these women are the primary breadwinners of the family.
In spite of the progress in social and cultural adaptation, the idea of women’s integration into religious events and institutions still leaves room for improvement, partly because many religious leaders were born and educated in conservative or culturally different Muslim communities and are struggling with how to respond to the contemporary needs of their Canadian congregations.
However, many more Muslims in Canada are clearly moving on with greater women’s integration. And there is no more appropriate occasion to show their commitment to gender equality and equity than the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet, who transformed a rigidly patriarchal society and respected women’s equal rights.
Daood Hamdani is author of “In the Footsteps of Canadian Muslim Women 1837-2007” and “The Al-Rashid: Canada’s First Mosque 1938.” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).