Wednesday, 22 of October of 2014

Archives from month » February, 2007

Are women silent members of society?

I popped over to BanglaTV again last night to appear on their weekly women’s show “Voices”. This week we were discussing the archetype of the silent submissive (Bengali) Muslim woman. I put Bengali in brackets because I couldn’t comment on this from direct genetic experience, but just social contact. The show has been running for a few months now and clearly has started to gather a following. It’s a phone in show, broadcast live, available on sky.

This week, there was the question of where does the silent stereotype originate from? Is it really the case? I was more interested in how both men, but also women perpetuate such ideals and enforce them to retain the status quo.

Also intriguing for me was the idea put forward by some of the other studio guests that being an ‘active’ member of society is a religious obligation. Being active can of course mean many things, but I got the impression they meant going out and about doing community activities, leading or engaging in activities, politicking, spreading the word and engaging in ‘dawah’ and other such things.

These are clearly all worthy and as a society people need to contribute towards community service. However, I think we were missing the clear sense that actually as a woman it’s ok to stay at home (which we touched on) but broadly women should have the choice to participate or not, that there is a range of what women can and want to be, and being Muslim is not a barrier to this. The culture stops us.

But is being ‘active’ really a duty? In my view, no. Being a good person, and dealing with your personal obligations is important, that is the basis for me. I don’t believe you need to force people to go out and about in an almost-enforced belief that they have to do it. If they choose to, that is great, if not, then that’s ok too. Sometimes I think we load up too many religious obligations onto people, more than is necessary. And frankly that puts normal human beings off. The Prophet Muhammed described what a human being needs to do in a very simple way “Make sure you undertake all your obligations, stay away from everything that is wrong”.


Prelude to The Retreat

The BBC will be running a 3 part series starting tomorrow Monday called The Retreat, which follows in the footsteps of two previous shows, The Monastery and The Convent. The idea is to take a few people out on a spiritual quest in the context of a Muslim spiritual centre, and see how things unfold. The setting appears to be a most beautiful place in Spain, with glorious light and an authentic back to nature feeling.

I’m curious to see how the programme develops. Our era is one which leaves precious little time or energy for reflection (you’ll have read my posts bemoaning our constant need to be busy, and how we fear quiet and solitude). So all attempts to take people out of their routines and look for that mysterious yet precious quality of spirituality can only be a good thing. And audiences are clearly fascinated by the search for this quality and the very human experiences that lie beneath it, and which are unveiled by the devoted seeker. That is why shows such as The Monastery and The Convent were so popular.

The human experience of reflection, self-discovery and reassessment and change are the elements that will make or break this programme. And the relevance of these is much more significant than the fact that this is an ‘Islamic’ setting. The Muslim characters simply give the words different names, but the fundamental humanity will be the same. In this we will all share.

There are two points about the structure of such a programme however that make me scratch my head. Islam has no equivalent of a monastery or convent. There is no concept of locking yourself away from the world for long periods of time. The search from spirituality can only be through solitude and personal reflection when set in the context of being part of society. For example, fasting and Ramadhan are about re-connecting the self to the Creator, but the whole month is one of communal activity, set in a community atmosphere. The longest that I’ve really heard about as ‘going away from the world’ is something like I’tikaaf, which is usually a period spent residing in the mosque, lasting between one and ten nights. Without a pre-existing community, I don’t know whether this will just be ’staged’ and if it can have the same impact? On top of this, the participants are a mixture of Muslims and non-Muslims, which is different to the two preceding shows where all the participants hailed from similar doctrines but were not practising Christians.

More curiosity on my part still is whether the producers will play the usual Reality TV tricks and create characters and stories about the participants.

Finally, given the mix of Muslim beliefs and practices that will be seen, I wonder how the Muslim community themselves will react? Will we embrace our multi-flavoured heritage, or will there be criticisms about the ‘wrong’ way of doing things? The Retreat is founded on sufi practices…. will the more orthodox be able to accept some of their practices? Will those of more sufi persuasion be able to accept the more conservative amongst the community? And can spirituality be found hidden in all these different approaches? This is, of course, one of the great debates withing Islam today.

The War Over Muslim Women

Within the first few moments of any criticism of Muslims and Islam will be reference to the “way Islam treats women.” The usual response would then be an article by a Muslim author written about the rights of women in Islam which would run something like this:

Part One: description of the stereotypes of Muslims women. Make sure to include references to commonly used words by those who are generally not Muslims about Muslim women such as oppressed, uneducated, backward, locked indoors at home and so on.

Part two: the refutation. Illustrate how Islam brought rights to women 1400 hundred years ago, such as the right to own property, to choose her marriage partner, to worship freely, to be considered as equal human beings having souls and spirits of equal value to men. Remember to mention that these rights were far in advance of the West and European women only gained comparable rights in the twentieth century.

Part three: eulogise how amazing Islam is with regards to women’s rights and how Muslims are proud of this heritage, and that these ideas about Muslim women – of oppression, barbarism and subjugation – are simply at best misunderstanding or misconception about Islam born out of ignorance, and at worst a malicious demonisation and prejudice against Islam.

Part four: sit back and admire. Forget to analyse the fact that the social reality of Muslim women’s right is quite different from the theory. Fail to mention that even though the blueprint of gender rights and relations in Islam is something that offers much resource to the gender debate and the realignment of the status of women and their participation in society, there is still much work to be done to reach this goal.

This rhetoric of ‘poor oppressed Muslim woman’ and its counter rhetoric of ‘Islam came to give women their rights’ is precisely at the heart of the problem facing Muslims and obviously Muslim women in particular.

The ‘outside’ view draws a picture of a poor, backward, illiterate and subjugated Muslim woman. Such a woman comes to epitomise what is wrong with Islam, and the image of the veil and even the hijab is the symbol of that oppression, and of all things that are wrong. You’ll notice that TV programmes and newspapers tend to use imagery of Muslim women in headscarves and veils to illustrate stories about Muslims, even when Muslim women are not involved. Watch out for it in the news next time.

These Muslim women become the visual and ideological front line for Islam and Muslims and everything that is ‘wrong’ with them.

On the other hand, the Muslim establishment has always fiercely claimed that Muslim women have many rights, that they are liberated. Islamic teachings brought an unprecedented change with regards to the status and worth of all human beings regardless of colour, ethnicity, religion and also of gender. We have to contextualise this and see that this creed of all human beings being of equal worth was shocking and revolutionary at a time when tribal Arabs considered themselves superior, when black men were considered as the lowest value, when women were inherited from father to son.

There is no denying that the rights and status which both the spirit and the law of Islam tried to instil were a paradigm shift and something that Muslims can and should rightly be proud of.

But Muslims need to do a reality check between this utopia of Islam that exists in our heads and the reality of what it is truly like to be a Muslim woman. And I say this with compassion rather than scathing critique. If we truly wish to create the spirit of Islam we need to at least acknowledge where we are today rather than kid ourselves that we are living in the perfect Islamic scenario. The destiny of the Muslim community is founded on the balanced contribution of both men and women. If women are not participating, contributing and living their lives to the full, then ipso facto, neither are men. This principle applies to both Muslim and wider society.

Much of the time when you hear Muslim women, or indeed any women, talking about their rights, and their abuses, it is women talking to other women, complaining about the situation of women. This is simply preaching to the converted. Men – whether in the Muslim community, or in wider society – need to be involved in these conversations about women’s experiences. We may live in the same families, work in the same environments, know the same people, visit the same shops, schools and places of worship, but how we are treated, what we experience may be completely different.

Given this mismatch of reality and Islamic ideal, Muslim society seems to place the burden of upholding the ideal onto Muslim women. Muslim society is also putting Muslim women into the front line of Islam. Muslim women then become the symbols of a mythical Islam, for both sides. They become the territory over which Muslims and non-Muslims fight. Both sides have an image of what Muslim women are, or should be, and use it to fight their battles, to legitimise their views to attack the other side, to defend their own position.

Muslim women become a battleground in which the legitimacy of their voices is taken away. They cannot have their own opinion, they cannot beg to differ, either because their voices cannot be heard – the European view does not hear the Muslim woman’s voice because (and this is the irony of it) they do not believe that she can have an opinion of her own from a genuinely Muslim because she is so oppressed, or it gets ignored – so they end up treating her poorly. The traditional ‘utopian’ Muslim view sees any voice as dissent, as disloyalty to Islam. The only female voices given airspace are the shrill cries of those who denounce Islam, who cry that everything is wrong with it and that we must move wholly and uncritically to a western model which they ironically brand as a utopia and panacea for Muslim troubles. A compassionate female Muslim voice will go unheard.

This is the War over Muslim Women, where Muslim women become a territory and battleground. Nobody genuinely wants to or can hear the voices of these Muslim women. Muslim women are making huge changes, and those from the wider community need to stop holding up Muslim women as examples of oppression and then cutting them out of any discussion. I believe that if British Islam and Islam in general are to truly succeed from the point of view of Muslims and the wider community then the voice of Muslim women and their contribution will be critical.

The warring parties need to stop fighting their battles over Muslim women. Muslim women need to keep going with the struggle to have their voices heard. One of the reasons I started my blog was to create a space for my own voice, to escape from the black and white. If you’ve been reading my blog which is now one year old, you will see that the opening text talks about how as a Muslim woman I feel caricatured, forced to occupy a box defined by other people. I am trying to create a voice for myself that defines me as I choose myself to be, not how other people want me to be.

The war over Muslim women doesn’t need to be a war. Like women in general, Muslim women are not monoliths, nor are they nonentities or pawns or footballs. We already have plenty of wars, we don’t need another one.


World Thinking Day February 22

Tomorrow is World Thinking Day as designated by the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. I was disappointed to find out that this was not a dedication to becoming a more reflective or introspective society. But it still sounds quite charming and a good hearted addition to anyone’s calendar. It turns out it’s a day when the girl guides are supposed to think about each other, an opportunity to learn more about each other. This date was first celebrated in 1927 and marks the joint birthday of World Chief Guide Olave Baden-Powell and her husband, the founder of the Guides, Robert Baden-Powell. It’s nice and fluffy, everyone feels quite cuddly. In a world where diversity and difference are things we need to learn about, understand and experience, thinking is good.

However, I think what we really need to complement this is to encourage everyone to take some time out and think, really THINK. Thinking about what each of us is doing and a bit about where we are going.


Anti road pricing petition at 1.7m signatures

Just popped over to the PM’s website to see the sentiments about the road pricing schemes that are being discussed. 1.7m people have signed up so far. 1,776,104 to be exact.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if such petitions would inform policy making, Ms Kelly said: “I think it’s a good test of public opinion on a particular issue, but what they don’t judge is the overall terms of the debate, the choices that politicians have to make in a representative democracy.” [italics mine]

That’s a lotta lotta unhappy people. I wonder if their voices count for anything? How many people does it take to make the government change their minds?

Apparently, The Daily Mail reported on Tuesday that as the Downing Street website crashed after so many people wanted to add their names to the petition, one minister said: “Whoever came up with this idea must be a prat”.


Dispatches and Tesco

It seems like Tesco is out of favour this week with the folks over at Dispatches on Channel 4. I have my own concerns about a corporation the size and might of Tesco and how that impacts on competition and smaller traders. However, it seems like Dispatches was out this week just to have a general swipe at the retailer.

Again, what we have is not news. The programme claims: “The programme examines the ways in which Tesco avoids paying tens of millions of pounds in tax by exploiting legal loopholes…”. The key word here is “legal”. Basically the programme claims that Tesco buys properties from off shore sites to avoid paying stamp duty. It is not a well-liked process but it is entirely legal. In fact, if any of us were in the same situation I’m sure we’d do the same i.e. save ourselves a load of dosh whilst respecting the law of the land. If Dispatches has a problem with the legalities, then they should take it up with the government and make it legal. Equally, they seem to have an issue with the fact that Gordon Brown has appointed Tesco’s chief exec as one of his twelve business disciples. Whatever the subtext of that might be, surely it’s common sense to take advice on building business from someone who has built up one of the country and world’s most successful retailers?

I’m certainly worried about huge chains like Tesco dominating the marketplace in the way they do, but surely Dispatches can do a better job than presenting a load of commentators who don’t like Tesco and then ‘exposing’ all their legal activities?


UK and US come bottom of child well-being report

According to a recent report from UNICEF A League Table of Child Poverty in Rich Nations, the UK and the USA are the worst places for children out of 21 developed countries. This is shocking news for countries which are the fifth richest and the richest nation on earth respectively. What is going wrong? Have these countries identified the wrong strategies? Are their priorities focused elsewhere? It seems their gaze is not firmly fixed on social issues and the moral authority of the state, and the moral authority of society as a whole to create a palpable sense of community have withered.

David Cameron has come out to say that fatherhood needs more emphasis. He is suggesting tax breaks to encourage fathers to get more involved. How does a state force fathers to spend time with their kids? The report threw up some intriguing data. Children from really poor and deprived backgrounds do better when they go to breakfast clubs, get fed breakfast, get away from their families where the stress of the relationships and the behaviours of their parents cause detriment to them. But equally children want to spend time with their parents and crave the solidity of positive social relationships with their family and their peers.

There is clearly a re-forging of relationships that is required between the ‘adult’ generation and the ‘child’ generation, but there needs to be some work done to recreate the sense of community and solidarity amongst ‘adults’ to share the responsibilities of bringing up a generation. Today, there seems to be no shame in leaving your kids to it, whereas perhaps twenty, thirty or fifty years ago, taking your parental responsibilites was a social norm, and those parents that didn’t had social fingers pointed at that. Perhaps what we need, rather than tax breaks and ASBOs, is for social honour and a sense of moral responsibility to be instilled once again.


Last day at 3GSM and I´m outta here!

Phew! It´s finally all over, and I can fly back to good ol´Blighty tonight. I will miss this incredibly hip city though, where the buildings are better dressed than I am. It´s beautiful and picturesque. The activity only gets going after midnight and that is during the week! Late dinners, and strolls around the pretty back streets and along the port and marina are the order of the day. Aaah, if only London had the weather and the temperament and style of londoners could match this.

Looking forward to coming home though. Intrigued to check out the impact of the UNICEF report about the UK failing it´s children and coming 21st out of 21 industrialised countries on indicators such as poverty, family relationships and health. Maybe this is the shock that we need to sit up and address the issues facing us.


Happy Valentine´s Day!

It´s a day to share the love. Here´s hoping everyone who has a special someone is taking the chance to say “I love you”, and for those who don´t, I hope there is enough positive energy and love that everyone can be included.

On a related note, I´ve been sent a few mind boggling emails from various Muslim provenances telling me that it´s wrong to celebrate Valentine´s day, it´s haram, blah blah blah. It´s utter nonsense and makes me quite cross! Human beings were created to love, to love each other and to love their Creator. I agree that the excessive commercialisation of love is one of the cynical twists of our consumerist and frankly shallow culture, but that doesn´t mean we throw out expressing our real human love for people.

When the Prophet Muhammed was asked what Islam was, one of the ways he described it was “to love God, and to love his creation”. He also said that when a husband looks with love at his wife, then they are showered with blessings.

Give love a chance!

p.s. since we´ve met, hubby and I have never had a valentine´s day together as my lovely company has always sent me away to 3GSM which is ´conveniently´ organised to coincide with valentine´s day. Poor us! sympathy please…


Day Two at 3GSM

After standing on duty yet again demonstrating technology my feet are hurting and I can´t bear to smile a cheery smile for at least a week. I took a short walk around the halls this afternoon, and noticed that most likely I was the only Muslim woman wearing a headscarf at the whole event, which thousands and thousands of people attend. Go girl!

There´s no escaping – even in the gorgeous weather here- from the report over the Forest Gate scandal report. The brothers involved called it a whitewash. According to the quote I heard from Sky News, the IPPC told the police they were right to carry out the raid based on the information they had, but their intelligence was flawed and they had no contingency for “what if there is no dangerous material”. Seems to me very much like a case of “guilty until proven innocent”.