When the companion of the Prophet, pbuh, entered a town to bring them the message of Islam, he put it very beautifully. He said, “I have come to free you from the servitude of the slave and bring you to the servitude of the Lord of the slave.”
Within this statement lies a powerful treasure. Locked within these words, is the key to empowerment and the only real path to liberation.
You see, the moment you or I allow anything, other than our Creator, to define our success, our failure, our happiness, or our worth, we have entered into a silent, but destructive form of slavery. That thing which defines my self worth, my success and my failure is what controls me. And it becomes my Master.
The master which has defined a woman’s worth, has taken many forms throughout time. One of the most prevalent standards made for woman, has been the standard of men. But what we so often forget is that God has honored the woman by giving her value in relation to Himself—not in relation to men. Yet, as some ideologies erased God from the scene, there was no standard left—but men. As a result the woman was forced to find her value in relation to a man. And in so doing she had accepted a faulty assumption. She had accepted that man is the standard, and thus a woman can never be a full human being until she becomes just like a man: the standard.
When a man cut his hair short, she wanted to cut her hair short. When a man joined the army, she wanted to join the army. When a man smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol, she wanted to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. Often she wanted these things for no other reason than because the “standard” had them.
What she didn’t recognize was that God dignifies both men and women in their distinctiveness–not in their sameness. When we accept men as the standard, suddenly anything uniquely feminine becomes by definition inferior. Being sensitive is an insult, becoming a full-time mother—a degradation. In the battle between stoic rationality (considered masculine) and selfless compassion (considered feminine), rationality reigned supreme.
As soon as we accepted that everything a man has and does is better, all that followed was just a knee jerk reaction: if men have it—we want it too. If men pray in the front rows, we assume this is better, so we want to pray in the front rows too. If men lead prayer, we assume the imam is closer to God, so we want to lead prayer too. Somewhere along the line we’d accepted the notion that having a position of worldly leadership is some indication of one’s position with God.
But a Muslim woman does not need to degrade herself in this way. She has God as the standard. She has God to give her value; she doesn’t need a man to do this.
Given our privilege as women, we only degrade ourselves by trying to be something we’re not–and in all honesty–don’t want to be: a man. As women, we will never reach true liberation until we stop trying to mimic men, and value the beauty in our own God-given distinctiveness.
And yet, in society, there is another prevalent “master” which has defined for women their worth. And that is the so-called standard of beauty. Since the time we were little, we as women, have been taught a very clear message by society. And that message is: “Be thin. Be sexy. Be attractive. Or…be nothing.”
So we were told to put on their make-up and wear their short skirts. Instructed to give our lives, our bodies, our dignity for the cause of being pretty. We came to believe that no matter what we did, we were worthy only to the degree that we could please and be beautiful for men. So we spent our lives on the cover of Cosmo and we gave our bodies for advertisers to sell.
We were slaves, but they taught us we were free. We were their object, but they swore it was success. Because they taught you that the purpose of your life was to be on display, to attract and be beautiful for men. They had you believe that your body was created to market their cars.
But they lied.
Your body, your soul was created for something higher. Something so much higher.
God says in the Quran: ‘Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is the one who is most righteous’ (Quran 49:13).
So you are honored. But it is not by your relationship to men—either being them, or pleasing them. Your value as a woman is not measured by the size of your waist or the number of men who like you. Your worth as a human being is measured on a higher scale: a scale of righteousness and piety. And your purpose in life–despite what the fashion magazines say–is something more sublime than just looking good for men.
Our completion comes from God and our relationship with Him. And yet, from the time we were little, we, as women, have been taught, that we will never reach completion until a man comes to complete us. Like Cinderella we were taught that we are helpless unless a prince comes to save us. Like Sleeping Beauty, we were told that our life doesn’t fully begin, until Prince Charming kisses us. But here’s the thing: no prince can complete you. And no knight can save you. Only God can.
Your prince is only a human being. God may send him to be your companion—but not your savior. The coolness of your eyes—not the air in your lungs. Your air is in God. Your salvation and completion are in His nearness—not the nearness to any created thing. Not the nearness to a prince, not the nearness to fashion or beauty or style.
And so I ask you to unlearn. I ask you to stand up and tell the world that you are a slave to nothing—not to fashion, not to beauty, not to men. You are a slave to God and God alone. I ask you to tell the world that you’re not here to please men with your body; You’re here to please God. So to those who mean well and wish to ‘liberate’ you, just smile and say: “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Tell them you’re not here to be on display. And your body is not for public consumption. Make sure the world knows that you will never be reduced to an object, or a pair of legs to sell shoes. You are a soul, a mind, a servant of God. And your worth is defined by the beauty of that soul, that heart, that moral character. So, you don’t worship their beauty standards; you don’t submit to their fashion sense. Your submission is to something higher.
Therefore, in answering the question of where and how a woman can find empowerment, I find myself led back to the statement of our Prophet’s companion. I find myself led back to the realization that true liberation and empowerment lies only in freeing oneself from all other masters, all other definitions. All other standards.
As Muslim women, we have been liberated from this silent bondage. We don’t need society’s standard of beauty or fashion, to define our worth. We don’t need to become just like men to be honored, and we don’t need to wait for a prince to save or complete us. Our worth, our honor, our salvation, and our completion lies not in the slave.
But, in the Lord of the slave.