In a world of ever changing ideals, economic uncertainty and technological advancement – one thing remains stubbornly consistent. Online Muslim discourse. While the world around us charges ahead, you are guaranteed to find IslamLove786 versus an obscure pop culture reference Twitter handle in a fierce debate as to whether or not Muslim women should ‘stay at home’. We see pastel shaded Instagram posts with italicised fonts reminding us to go out and be the independent boss woman we are destined to be as believers. Or eerily saccharine TikToks featuring Muslim women extolling the virtues of serving men. As ever with online movements, the terms of debate begin at such extreme starting points, entrenched in such secular constructs, that we are often forced to pick one of the two sides of a worryingly similar coin – one that defines itself either by or against men, according to traditional Western gender dynamics, and which claims unequivocal religious legitimacy.
Is it any wonder, as we outsource more and more of our lives to the internet, that its binary nature has impacted our own social codes.
Ironically, both sides of the warring parties adopt male-centric dialogue– our trads accusing the libs of dressing according to the male gaze, with the reverse accusations of being a ‘pick me’. They also use scripture as the basis for their positions. The sum effect of this eternal back and forth is, that as a community of Muslim women we appear to be stuck in the gear of using men as a yardstick for legitimacy, according to constructs of gender that aren’t native to Islamic thought, while being oblivious to true theology.
Exposing a theological and social blind spot
What often belies these cyclical and reductive debates, and the polemic values they espouse, is a lack of understanding when it comes to the material reality of Muslim women, religious scripture, or often both. Despite superficial references to economics, and illustrious figures of Islamic history to make their point, both sides often ignore the delicate balance and nuance contained in our situations as respective Muslim women with a love of our Creator, a desire to become wives and often mothers, and the material demands in an increasingly complex world. They are often oblivious to both the merciful discipline contained in Islam, as well as the compassion in it. While we are all well aware of the dangers of reducing our world to restrictive binaries, we are equally just as likely to continue to fall into its ideological and rhetorical trap.
Though the nucleus of this debate remains depressingly similar, TikTok and a digital generation bred on the instance and reactive nature of the algorithm have been kind enough to produce movements that allow us dress it up in different trends. The current iteration of this gender debate consists of the tradwife living her soft life with her man, via a short detour through bimbofication, versus the boss woman, or the slightly more cringe-worthy Muslimah boss.
Tradwife, a movement which centres on a kind of cos-play aesthetic, is gaining in momentum and popularity. With unsurprising roots, and continuous links, in far-right movements, it propagates a gender ‘traditionalism’ that sees the woman as content home-maker, mother and wife, and warns against the entrapments of a modern world in which women eschew domesticity for the shackles of the labour market. It is, paradoxically, a response to an increasingly complex external climate of falling wages, stagnation, and labour insecurity. Almost as if the confusion felt by an increasingly nebulously gendered world is to reset to zero, put on our blind folds, and feel our way back to seemingly simpler times. Consisting predominantly of young women marketing the idealism of the stay-at-home lifestyle to millions of users, it is a movement that claims universality, and which undoubtedly has a broad and captive audience. However, it speaks exclusively to the situation of women who are in economically secure settings, with no additional demands on their time, interest and capacity. A demographic that is increasingly scarce given the wider economic climate.
This movement has created a validating narrative for some Muslim women who see it as echoing the rights, duties and obligations of women, specifically in relation to the men in their life, as set out in Islam. For others – who have either been victim to or witnessed the subjugation of women in the name of Islam, or for whom this idealised role does not match their own material reality – the Tradwife movement and its claim to Islamic validity is justifiably very triggering and worrying. It is also perceived as denigrating to women for whom the brand of domestic bliss is not a possibility.
And herein lies the issue of a naive, social-media, aesthetic-powered narrative being attributed to our beautifully substantive religion: it casts a self-righteous finger back at women for whom Allah has set circumstances different to what are perceived as the ‘standard norms’. It is the opposite of our Islamic tradition when we do not account for the situation and context of women such as Mariam, Aasiyah AS and Aiesha and Khadijah RA – for whom being married, a mother and in a loving relationship were not their consistent experiences across time.
In a world where those standards are no longer the norms, this pool of women, who are equal as believers in Islam, and for whom Islam has accommodated, grows – much like the broader female population. Crucially, the negligence of Muslim men in fulfilling their own rights and obligations makes some contribution to these circumstances, and this is not given the attention and time it currently deserves. All the while, the judgemental call from traditionalist movements, both in tradwife and Red Pill, only grows louder and more alienating against women, some of whom have not been afforded their God-given rights, who require economic independence, and who are both beaten down socially due to this. For whom those apparently female duties and obligations are further posed on them as both a punishment and ‘cure’ for their apparently wayward ways.
In defence of the ‘real’ wife
Undoubtedly, the idea of the committed mother, wife and homemaker certainly isn’t worthy of the ridicule it draws, and nor is it necessarily intellectually or spiritually limiting. It is both sneering and wrong to suggest housewives and mothers, and the labour these roles entail, is any less worthy or valuable than other vocations, or that those that are content with it are lesser. In fact, part of the issue is that we are framing both the desire to achieve/work and become a homemaker in economic terms entirely. The need for economic independence in a world where the marriage market is as precarious as it is for Muslim women, is an issue which needs to be separated from the continuing denigration of home making. And creativity, expression, and independence need not always be for economic ends and public consumption.
There is no way to quantify the meaning and purpose of being the homemaker, and there is undoubtedly a virtue in the role of mother and wife, as prescribed by our sunnah. But certainly, it is not a universal experience, the only path to salvation, and it should not be the sole barometer of faith. As with everything we do as Muslims, it is centring Allah, rather than man or man-made concepts, that brings the role its virtue and substance. These are both areas that the tradwife movement, as propagated by Muslims, ignores.
Rather, ironically, Tradwife as a trend is glorified by those who have become the face of the movement, in as much as it is public-facing and profiteering. The very two things the movement claims are corrupting to women. Therein lies the paradox of a movement birthed by and from capitalism, and the supremacies that underpin it, into a world in which value and meaning is distorted by the endless quest for profit.
The Boss Woman trend, is similarly a much broader movement which has percolated through to Muslim thinking and lifestyle. A neologism which exposes our messy thinking in both our perception of ‘boss’ as inherently male and not naturally a ‘female’ attribute, and the idea of dominance as desirable and aspirational.
It puts emphasis on economic independence, professional achievement and an equally stylised individualism and autonomy. Muslim women keen to reference the social and economic position of Khadijah RA are quick to foreground this as antidote to both the shallow perceptions of tradwife, and our issues as a Muslim community more generally – with respect to the UK, where half of all Muslims live in poverty, this is particularly pertinent.
For Boss Woman and its Muslim iterations the emphasis remains on wealth and prosperity, achievement as measured by economic productivity – this is distinct from personal, social and spiritual enrichment. It typically promulgates a kind of deficit thinking which positions us as merely consumers who can never quite amass enough ‘things’. True to the individualism, and underlying capitalistic ideology, it ignores the fact that systemic issues exist due to society’s fixation on a specific kind of ‘growth’. Indeed, companies, marketers and economic systems are incentivised to keep us feeling deficient and in ‘boss’/economically achieving/”growth” mode. It is symptomatic of a neoliberal, free market world, but rather than eschewing this consumer hungry world like the tradwife claims to, it embraces the glamour of capitalist ideals.
Inherently, it is based on the idea that to be more archetypically ‘male’ is what will grant women greatness. By inverting the gender binary of men as essentially dominant/public facing and women as submissive/domestic dwelling, it only works to reinforce the hierarchy that underpins it. It shallowly embraces ideals we should unequivocally be questioning. In doing so, it endorses a whole host of problematic traits by virtue of their association with men/dominance and a very specific kind of prosperity alone. What it ignores are the many other forms of growth and enrichment, outside of a capitalist framework, that women, and indeed men, are encouraged to focus on as believers.
Why should women be forced to focus our emotional, intellectual capacity solely as economic productivity? When we know there is both a precedent and need for female Islamic scholarship for example? And why is the only response to this idea, which masquerades as ‘traditional’ , for women to be economic agents fuelling an unethical system of greed and consumption?
A false duality
Both ends of the increasingly widening and dangerously swaying pendulum fall short of doing Muslim women and our understanding of our roles as believers any real justice. While it would be disingenuous to suggest Islam doesn’t recognise a form of gender essentialism, adopting historically and materially false understandings of these gender roles, as emanated through internet trends, reduces our understanding of our illustrious faith. Rather, both movements are reactionary opposites – Muslim Boss Woman a response to a false idea of Islam as 1950’s American gender archetypes – and tradwife a doubling down on this false concept.
We have effectively created a binary impression of gender roles, rooted in a false 1950s ideal, and wrongly attribute it to Islam. This comes from a false and dangerous equivalence which we have all internalised, which places Islam in opposition with ‘modernity’. This falsehood is being projected onto ever more complex real life situations in which men don’t appear to always have the economic standing, nor the religious literacy, to allow women to reap the benefits and rights of being a Muslim woman – both inside and outside the home. This is despite the ever loudening calls for women to fulfil a distorted version of the role of women in Islam.
The white noise of internet misogyny
The asymmetric rhetorical landscape which can only be described as punishing to women is fuelled by Muslim male podcast hosts reaping the lucrative benefits of the algorithm. Their click bait debates mask crude locker room talk in the name of asserting religious normativism. They reduce complex, socially driven principles of Shariah to objects of male desire – be it polygamy, or the fiqh around marriage and divorce, they approach the table with the kind of arrogance that is both antithetical to the demeanour of our beloved Prophet SAW and which naturally reviles Muslim women who they claim to be also speaking in the interests of.
They are further supported by Muslim men who are oblivious to the hurt caused on both an individual, micro level, and on a macro level, and who are, at best, heavy-handed in their approach to promoting Islamic edicts, or at worse, actively exploiting it to justify spiritual and physical abuse. While a frank conversation needs to be had about the ideas concerning femininity, legitimacy, rights and duties of the women in Islam, given the twin-side of this debate featuring masculinity is becoming increasingly disingenuous, we are nowhere near this. Until we redress this sociological imbalance which frames Allah’s Mercy entirely for men, and His punishment and wrath exclusively for women it is futile to encourage further discourse.
These encircling and extreme internet debates focus solely on the actions of women, while continuing to prioritise the rights and needs of the man –crucially while leaving out Allah and Islam all together. The debate is not whether we are good believers, but whether we are good wives or economic agents. While undoubtedly our role as believers will encompass some of the former, it is part of a symbiotic relationship for which men have the perfect role model in the form of our Prophet – who showed mercy, kindness, and love to his wives. Who partook in domestic activities.
Ultimately, as our lives become more complicated, and gender roles need to be given further thought, market forces and internet aesthetics should not be the basis on which we perceive or adopt our sociological roles as either men or women in Islam. They should not be the basis an individual or family creates a template for their set up, as a unit designed entirely to please Allah. The only comforting thing about both movements and the ongoing debate is that the posturing of these esoteric labels are conceitedly self-referential and navel gazing, and so while their impact on real life may be debatable, it is highly likely they remain an object of entertainment for most of those outside the internet bubble, and a short-term distraction for those engaging in it.
A deficit in thinking and language
The gender essentialism Islam does endorse is not one we currently have the language or cultural symbolism in the west to do justice due to how heavily fixed we are in the false binary paradigm and the continuing subjugation of Muslim women, ironically, in the name of Islam.
The way we think and talk about Islam is inherently deficient. When we look at the term ‘modesty’ to take one example, as English speaking Muslims immersed in secular thinking and values, it exists within a nexus of cultural values that originally denoted a Miss Trunchball-esque, puritanical inflexibility that was inherently repugnant. Given the birth of modest fashion, and the cultural shift it creates, it now inhabits a different linguistic space in our collective thinking. Although this new theoretical space, overwhelmingly carved out by corporate marketing, is not ideal, it gives us some idea as to how our basic notions of our faith, the building blocks of how we perceive and communicate them, are subject to wider cultural thinking and values. Work needs to be done to interrogate how we view other terms such as gender essentialism and how that impacts our impressions of them and our ability to engage in meaningful debate concerning them.
A possible solution?
For now, maybe we should stop treating marriage entirely like it is an economic exchange. Perhaps we would do better to desist from this habit of quoting hadith and Quran, purely to own the opposite gender and promote our own perspective. Perhaps we should be approaching our scripture with humility and in seeking for ways to become better believers, independently and through our relationships such as marital ones, for the sake of Allah alone. Not for likes, clout or other forms of kudos, nor the social waves and sensibilities they create.
Perhaps the very network through which we seek public validation – social media – should not be where we form our basic ideas of relationships which require the quiet, inward ponderance required for the ihsan and sincerity that makes them successful. If authenticity in our intentions and faith is the secret ingredient for a healthy relationship, both with ourselves and our spouses, then should we not be turning inward rather than doing an outward body dive into the cesspit of social approval and recognition? Perhaps we should all be turning unanimously away from spurious internet trends dressed up as Islamic dawah if we really seek the peace and contentment we claim to. Very often, internet debates are obfuscating and directionless, we run the risk of allowing them to take us further away from our stated aim of closeness to Allah, as women, when our relationships are mediated with the screen. Perhaps it’s time to finally switch them off.
Mariya is a 33-year-old mother of two young girls with a background in Policy and Research and Development in the voluntary sector. She has written and illustrated a children’s book titled The Best Dua which is available internationally and in the UK. IG: @muswellbooks