Bridging the communication divide

In laying the groundwork for productive discussion on dating, it is essential to pay close attention to how we communicate with one another. Four panelists kick start a discussion on the communication divide between Muslim men and women, and how it must change on both the individual and communal level (Anas Coburn’s recent article also takes an in-depth look at this issue). This is the beginning of a complex and multi-faceted conversation that will expand throughout the Dialogues, and so we encourage readers to sustain it by sharing their own perspectives and questions.

In her Altmuslimah article on marriage, Zeba Iqbal writes, “Gender conflict is also an issue. Already due to the general lack of dialogue between the sexes, and the lack of a proper framework for decisions relating to marriage, there is a great deal of ill will and misunderstanding between the genders. Normalizing basic gender relations between Muslim men and women is critical to smoothening the path to marriage and a stronger community overall. The gap in trust and understanding between the genders is further complicated by issues of identity, insecurity, judgment/criticism and social pressure.”

How can we begin to work through these feelings of mistrust and misunderstanding and normalize gender relations between Muslim men and women?

Imam Sohaib Sultan: Need for a New Normal in Gender Relations

Zeba Iqbal’s analysis is on the mark: We have a gender relations problem in our community that is in part due to mistrust between the sexes and compounded by several other factors. But, in our call for “normalizing” gender relations, we have to be very careful in how we define and what we expect normal to actually look like in our community. If by normal we are superimposing upon ourselves the standards put forth by the larger culture we live in, then there’s one major problem, in my opinion: That framework has not worked either in producing healthy gender relationships in society or in marriage.

So, perhaps what we need first is to define for ourselves what normalizing gender relations means and looks like with the aid of Islamic-based principles. I’ll throw out the first principle to get the conversation started: Respect. This principle is based on the prophetic saying: “None of you is a believer until he likes for his sibling [in humanity] what he likes for himself.” Yes, I know respect is an overused and abused word, but it is still essential for imagining our new normal. For me, respect means engaging one another—intellectually, socially, and spiritually—with as much integrity and consideration as we would like ourselves to be afforded. It means creating a culture in which exploitation and sexism are unacceptable; and in which cultivation of kindness and honoring of others become the new normal. In this respect, fostering healthy gender relations is as much a spiritual affair as it is a social project.

Zeba Iqbal: Walk in Each Other’s Shoes

Gaps cause conflict, and the gender gap in our community is no exception. To better understand the depth of the conflict, discuss these articles with a trusted group of men and women, or simply skim the comment sections:

In both cases, the reactions are polarized. Perhaps it is the hot-button nature of the topics, or the perspective of the articles. Regardless, one can see that a (wo)man reader understands and defends a (wo)man’s position much more easily than (s)he understands and defends the opposite gender’s position. This is an understandable, but narrow view on gender.

Expanding intra-gender comfort zones and areas of overlap and trust will require our sincere and conscious efforts to understand the other gender better. This process will be slow, but necessary. Without it, men and women will be sitting on opposite sides of the gender debate for a long time. Bridging this divide will require communicating and sharing our experiences – painful and pleasant – with the opposite gender. Each side needs to feel that their position on an issue has value and that the discussions are inclusive, multi-faceted, and respectful.

To gain any traction on this issue, the first step will be building a deep level mutual trust and respect. How? Well, the best way to understand and value someone is to walk in their shoes, so why not start there? Are men and women willing to switch sides and defend the other side even if (in the beginning) only for the sake of debate?

Little steps like this, together with accepted rules of engagement and large doses of honesty, will help us build bridges across the gender gap.

Michael Vicente Perez: Understanding the “Gender” in Gender Relations

I think that any attempt to address this question requires a thorough examination of how Muslims understand the meaning of gender.

Gender relations are often based on assumptions about the meaning of sex. What Muslims believe a man is plays a fundamental role in determining what his relationship to women will be. If we believe that men are hyper-sexual creatures programmed to seek sex at all costs, then it isn’t hard to see the logic of segregation and, if segregation creates inequalities between men and women, then it also isn’t hard to see why there’s gender conflict. Thus resolving the question of sex and gender –or at least engaging it in an intellectually informed way—becomes essential for establishing more productive gender relations.

Despite some notable exceptions, Muslims haven’t done enough to clarify what we understand about the relationship between sex and gender. Consider that many Muslim men still hold stereotypical and sexist ideas about males that sustain discriminatory practices towards women. It isn’t hard to find an imam or sheikh who will claim that women must be kept away from men or else sexual fitna will occur. Ideas like these inform contemporary Muslim female-male interaction in the United States and have led to a rising tension among young, educated Muslims who haven’t come to a comfortable and more intelligent understanding about what the relationship between gender and sex is and what difference it should make for Muslim gender relations.

If we want to build healthier relations between the “genders,” we should start talking about who and what the genders are.

Munira Lekovic Ezzeldine: Create Opportunities to Practice Communication

I find it remarkable that our young men and women can comfortably interact with the opposite gender in their classrooms and workplace, but when interacting in their local mosques or Islamic organizations they feel stilted in uncomfortable conversations. Segregation between young men and women for so many years makes communication easy with Muslims of the same gender, but awkward with Muslims of the opposite gender. Additionally, families place expectations on youth to preserve their honor and chastity in order to get married, so then mixed interactions are often seen as suspicious rather than as grounds for practicing communication skills.

One way to improve gender relations is to have more opportunities for men and women to work together on projects and initiatives in their mosques and organizations. Through these situations they will learn different styles of communication and how to better share ideas and understand each others’ paradigms. Another way is to have equal representation of men and women on mosque executive boards so that both voices are heard. Women are often placed in charge of the women’s committees or youth groups, or made the token “woman” on boards, but do not have equal footing on the executive boards. When men and women work together on the administrative level in promoting a united vision for the mosque, they will model equity in gender relations and respect for both genders. The notion that men and women can communicate and compromise when making decisions will influence the rest of the community, thereby promoting a change in mindset within our communities and social interactions.


Imam Sohaib N. Sultan is the full-time Muslim Chaplain at Princeton University. He is the author of two books on Islam: The Koran for Dummies (Wiley 2004) and The Qur’an and Sayings of Prophet Muhammad (Skylight Paths 2007).

Zeba Iqbal is the Executive Dircector of CAMP (Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals). She is also the author of Dating Dialogues, published by altmuslimah in June 2009.

Michael Vicente Perez is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Michigan State University. Michael is the former senior editor for Islamica Magazine and is currently teaching at Lansing Community College in Michigan.

Munira Lekovic Ezzeldine is the author of Before the Wedding: 150 Questions for Muslims to Ask Before Getting Married. She received her Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Counseling at California State University, Fullerton and co-hosts an internet radio show, Family Connection, on One Legacy Radio.


  • tucompay1976 says:

    Zeba Iqbal: “Expanding intra-gender comfort zones and areas of overlap and trust will require our sincere and conscious efforts to understand the other gender better.”

    Agreed.  However, I wonder if we’re not too easily relying on some of the gender norms and roles that are part of the very problem we’d like to address.  I agree that understanding is necessary.  But what are we to understand?  Gender itself needs to be understood, not assumed. 

    Gender, in most cases, does not refer to biological beings; it refers to social practices.  Men are not a gender, masculinity is.  Women are not a gender, femininity is. 

    So what we want to understand, in my view, is how masculinity is being constructed in relation to femininity.  What does Muslim masculinity look like and how is it contributing to the problems between men and women?  What can we understand about femininity such that we can broaden our approach to female/male relationships?  These are some of the underlying questions at heart here.  Otherwise, I’m not too sure we’ll solve the conflicts.

  • asmauddin says:


    Great suggestion. But how do we get leaders to start addressing these issues? Do you have specific recommendations? Can we involve those who reinforce traditional conceptions of gender in the dating dialogues project somehow?

  • tucompay1976 says:

    Asma, a very good question.  Analysis is only the beginning; it’s action that makes the difference.  I have a few proposals.

    1) Get some credible and popular scholars to offer a public dialogue through published articles, debates, and speeches on the meaning of gender in Islam.  Whatever the medium, it has to be a sustained effort to speak publicly about what the traditional schools say about the meaning of gender and its implications for relationships at various levels.

    2) Local imams and Muslim organizations have to help these public efforts trickle down into the masaajid.  Hamza Yusuf’s speech will be meaningless if imams don’t bring what he and other scholars say about gender into their Friday sermons and local meetings. 

    3) Young, educated (in the broadest sense of the word) Muslims have to begin drawing on what the scholars are saying about gender, which will probably be several different things, and debate it themselves.  This is the critical point.  It will fall on “us,” the young educated Muslims living the day-to-day of Islam at a less scholarly level, who will have to implement what we understand about gender in our communities and lives. 

    If there is no good reason for men and women to partition during Ramadhan during iftar, then we shouldn’t.  If our understanding of gender does not support the partitioning of space, then we shouldn’t allow the partition.  If our understanding of gender doesn’t restrict a woman’s role to the “homemaker,” then she and her husband should be able to decide for themselves how this role will be performed and by whom (husband, wife, or both). 

    These are my suggestions, for now anyways.

  • Adam Sitte says:


    Thank you for your suggestions – you seem to suggest that action on this issue is something best started at the intellectual or scholastic top. What happens with weak links? If local Imams and organizations don’t help the public effort, where do young Muslims fit in?

    You also mentioned exploring what the traditional schools say about the meaning of gender. Are those frameworks sufficient for the questions young muslims are grappling with?

  • rdar says:

    The traditional madhahib definitely have to be engaged on an earnest and respectful basis – they are the heirs to *our* tradition, and it’s hard to imagine any actualized change occurring without their traditional community’s consultation. If they aren’t a part of the DDs, they need to be.

    If they wanna talk the traditional talk (with traditional defenses and arguments), we need to make them walk the walk as well.

  • tucompay1976 says:

    Adam: “What happens with weak links? If local Imams and organizations don???t help the public effort, where do young Muslims fit in?”

    Unfortunately, we’re already dealing with this reality.  However, there are various engaged scholars who are trying to make scholarship and the traditions they derive from a more accessible and meaningful part of young Muslims’ lives.  If local imams don’t cooperate—to be sure, many won’t—that’s when younger Muslims have to come in and work with the scholars available to make these discussions and debates happen.  Perhaps this sounds too categorical: “older Muslims,” “younger Muslims,” “scholars,” etc.  The truth is that Muslims have to establish the links.  In particular, Muslim couples (since this has to do with couples) need to get involved. 

    Adam: “Are those frameworks sufficient for the questions young muslims are grappling with?”

    I think the mathaahib are the basis.  Without them, we will engage in fruitless debates over the meaning of this hadith and that verse in the Quran.  We have to connect to the tradition to see how these issues were addressed and then we can build on them according to contemporary circumstances.  But like any scholarly debate—and this will be a scholarly debate—we need the starting point. Too many hacks have run with a hadith or two and built mountains of rubbish about men and women.  I, for one, am tired of that approach and want to compel the scholars to engage with Muslims on the ground.

  • Anas says:

    tucompany: “What we want to understand is how masculinity is being constructed…”

    That present tense…‘how masculinity is being constructed’ is the place to start, in my view. Gender gets constructed by social interactions. Paying attention to how we are constructing it and reinforcing it in all our interactions…with those of our own sex and those of the opposite sex I believe is a valuable exercise without which it is hard to engage the our traditional scholars in a meaningful fashion.

    At the ISNA convention Tariq Ramadan mentioned words to the effect that the depth of the teachings of the scholars of the community is related to the depth of the questions to which the community is demanding answers. If we do our job in becoming aware of how we perform gender, it will inform our engagement with the scholars.

    Adam: “If local Imams and organizations don???t help the public effort, where do young Muslims fit in?” I think this is a good question. Life passes quickly, and often we can’t really wait for the scholars to settle an issue before we act. I think there’s a sense in which each of has to engage in ‘ijtihad,’ has to struggle to come up with our own best understanding of the issue at hand and how we are going to deal with it in our lives. I think we work to engage the Imams, but we can’t wait for them. Fortunately we have Imam Sohaib Sultan engaged in this dialogue, so we are not without scholarly guidance.

    tucompany: “Too many hacks have run with a hadith or two and built mountains of rubbish about men and women.” Indeed. Those of us who are not scholars but are concerned about the issue can contribute by the authenticity of our engagement in the dialogue. But when it comes ‘to compel the scholars to engage’ … all I can say is good luck. I heard a Muslim academic once say that trying to organize scholars to do anything was like trying to herd cats. The take-home lesson for me was that rather than trying to get someone else (scholars) to do something for me, I had to dig in and make sure I was doing everything I could do for myself.

    By the way, have you all seen Jehanzeb Dar’s piece, “Challenging the Performance of Masculinity” here on altmuslimah? It was a reader’s blog that I thought provided good background on the way in which gender is a performance.

  • OmarG says:

    >>hard to imagine any actualized change occurring without their traditional community???s consultation.

    I agree, but only because of the force of “Tradition” among us. For me, the madhahibs are a *very human* layer on top of our deen. NOT illegitimate, but also certainly not destined nor mandatory or even the only way.

  • Anas says:

    rdar and OmarG
    The scholars and traditional madhaib are certainly important. But we’ve got to take responsibility for framing the issue in a way they can relate and respond to. I have heard scholars for whom I have a great deal of respect become reactive to use of the word ‘patriarchy,’ for example. The narrative that includes terms like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘feminist’ and ‘entitlement,’ and phrases like ‘performance of gender’ is not a narrative with which many of us are thoroughly conversant. The terms become buzz-words, and can be trivialized (“femi-nazis,” anyone)and it makes communication that much harder. We need to find ways to express these realities authentically and from our hearts in a way our scholars can understand.

    I’m really grateful to be having this conversation with you all, and for all the conversations going on here at altmuslimah. May Allah reward well all those speaking with honesty and courage of the condition of their own hearts.

  • rdar says:

    Omar – I agree and totally see what you’re saying, but the “force” of tradition should not be seen as some artificial and stifling yoke that must be overthrown or subverted. I think the force of tradition is largely positive and not some sort of sort of dispensable framework that we should necessary view ourselves as having to think outside of. O

    Our reason for engaging the tradition to make change should not simply be “because we have to” or because the tradition is the force that determines the reality on the ground. I know you’re not saying any of this, but I just wanted to make that point.

    Anas – I love that point, and someone should really develop it further so we can really and truly talk within our own community.

    With that said, AltMuslimah should really recruit an ijaza-carrying scholar for the DDs. It would help immensely and would increase the series’ appeal to other Muslims who may be writing it off as astughfirullah-worthy.

  • asmauddin says:


    Altmuslimah has tried and continues to try to recruit such scholars to participate. Our interview series with Dr Umar Abd-Allah is just the beginning of involving scholars in our conversations.

  • Anas says:

    tucompany: I agree with your call for contemporary Muslim scholars to engage the epistemologies of the West. I believe there is a complementary need for those of us who are more comfortable and grounded in these epistemologies to exert ourselves to gain more ‘traditional’ knowledge. It is easy for those of us with ‘western’ education to place the onus for change on traditional scholars, easy for us to feel the traditional knowledge we’ve been exposed to doesn’t really meet our needs.

    I think we sometimes fail to realize just how different the consciousness of a traditional scholar is from our own, even if we are highly educated. The Prophet, may Allah bless him and give him peace, said (reported by Imam Nawawi, and I’m taking this from the Reliance of the Traveler) “The superiority of the learned Muslim over the devotee (worshipper) is as my superiority over the least of you.” (!)He’s not talking about a Law Degree from some Ivy League college here. I think this hadith points to the transformational power of the process of acquiring Sacred (traditional) Knowledge. It may be that it is not so much the case that the Islam of the traditional scholars is irrelevant to our modern needs, as it is the case that our ignorance of our own tradition leaves us incapable of even appreciating the ways in which the Islam of the traditional scholars speaks to our needs.

    Of course, a hadith like the one above can be interpreted by somebody who read a couple of fiqh books with a scholar a false sense that they are better than others. I think it is hard for a traditionally trained scholar to enter into a discursive space like altmuslimah because it is such a free-for-all.

    My impression is that the traditional scholarly discourse unfolds at a very measured pace, over centuries even, and that the barriers of entry to such a discourse are pretty high—in the sense that to be a meaningful participant one has to have command of a body of knowledge that is by no means trivial to acquire. Those who have acquired this knowledge see themselves as the true heirs of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and give him peace—and as protectors and defenders of Islam itself.

    So when one questions their answers or relevance, it is easy for them to feel that one is questioning Islam itself. I guess I’m saying it takes an extremely knowledgeable, and extremely psychologically secure scholar to not get reactive to the kind of in-your-face comment streams that frequently occur on websites.

    Sorry, too long, huh. shorter anas: Traditional scholars need to engage ‘western’ epistemologies; western-trained intellects need to acquire ‘traditional’ knowledge.

  • rdar says:

    And most of all, both groups need to treat eachother as brothers and sisters in faith. If one is lagging behind, we don’t leave him to flail all over the place all by himself. We try and see how we can help that person, without ever seeing ourselves as being superior to the one in need of help.

    Both groups are in need of help here.

    And finally yet another suggestion:

    You should try and get Shaykh Yasir Birjas to help out with DD. I’m personally not a close follower of him, but several of my friends have pointed out to me how he is a very traditional scholar (who’s following is, from what I understand, of the sort who probably wouldn’t ever read AltMuslimah) who is also at the same time genuinely concerned about gender and marriage issues amongst Muslim-Americans. In fact he’s started up this curious website (, and doles out relationship advice to many eager bachelors (he teaches the “Fiqh of Love” class for the AlMaghrib Institute for instance). I would imagine too that his particular way of handling the issue would raise several questions were he to try and discuss it here. The end result would be, insha’Allah, a mutual understanding of our different approaches and the motivations behind them. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

  • OmarG says:

    @tucompany: >>What I think we need is an engagement between the traditional mathaahib and the epistemologies of the West.

    Yes, most certainly. But, I think they fear such things because they have no clue what they are, nor do they value Western knowledge as even being equal to what they think they know. Being guardians of a fossilized tradition is what helps them keep their jobs. And, this is the root of the problem: this is their “job”, their livelihood which they will jealously protect and avoid doing more than what’s necessary to keep their job and get paid. Why learn sociology when people still admire them for being archaeologists, you know?

  • tucompay1976 says:

    OmarG, there is certainly a kind of crisis within the scholarship we are calling the “tradition.”  That crisis, I believe, is today rooted in a problem I see within the discussions on Altmuslimah: the scholars of the tradition have yet to take into account the variety of knowledge sources we everyday Muslims have at our disposal.  Many of us are speaking—and rightfully so—from within various knowledge traditions.  Primarily educated in the “West,” we are all learning about epistemologies grounded in what some call the Western tradition (the enlightenment, postmodernism, etc.).  I don’t think contemporary Muslim scholars have done enough to reconcile this fact with the tradition they are trying to rediscover and make available to Muslims today.  It’s as if they are archaeologists of Islamic tradition who spend so much time in the fieldsite that they are unable to connect to the people for whom they are digging.  What I think we need is an engagement between the traditional mathaahib and the epistemologies of the West.  We need to allow for ideas like “patriarchy” to cross over and help us—like the earlier Muslim philosophers did with the Greeks—polish and refine what we can.  Gender is a good place to start. 

    I don’t think you have to be a scholar of 11th Century Arabic texts to understand how gender ideologies factor into the production of knowledge.  I do think, however, that it takes a scholar of 11th Century Arabic texts to translate the ideas of those texts and then to talk with us (who know a thing or two about gender) to make better sense of those texts.

  • OmarG says:

    @rdar: I respect your points, but my hesitancy is not borne out of dogma, but rather the failure of the Tradition to address real problems Muslims have had since the fall of the Empires. Its almost as if the Tradition and its self-appointed guardians and partisans are have lost their way since the empires fell and haven’t quite come to terms with being pragmatically less relevant than they were when they were the lawyers, prosecutors and judges of empires past.

  • tucompay1976 says:

    OmarG: “nor do they value Western knowledge as even being equal to what they think they know”

    Good point.  Many, many Muslims and scholars seem to think that the “tradition” is superior to everything yet have little evidence today to show why this is so.

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