Month March

  • Created from a single soul

    This week, The Guardian’s Comment is Free has been asking “Is religion good for women?” My response has just been published.

    The Question: Is religion good for women?
    Created from a single soul: If there is unequal treatment it is because those with power have forgotten the underlying principles of religion

    I am irked by this question, the sense it carries with it that women are some kind of second best, an after-thought for religion, that require special attention. Women aren’t a remnant, or an aberration whose existence is there simply to sweep up the leftover genetic code off the floor and perpetuate the species. Women are fundamental to successful human flourishing – both physical and spiritual. It comes as no surprise to me that with the constant oppression that women face – whether in the name of religion or the cultural codes that seem to exist across all societies – the result is human society as a whole lurching from one failure to another. How can the human environment we all live in blossom if half of its inhabitants suffer in so many ways because of their gender?

    As a Muslim woman, I was annoyed by the opening blurb introducing the question “Is religion good for women?” that set the background to the question saying that the Abrahamic faiths “believe in a father God, ruling the world through a network of men”. Islam emphatically does not believe in a father God. The divine is gender-neutral. The more I have discussed religion, the more I have found myself veering away from the word “God” for the very reason that it seems to carry historical baggage with it that in vulgar terms is very male, with a long beard and throne somewhere on high, which immediately engenders (yes, pun intended) a sense of exclusion in all of us who are non-male, or at the very least non-bearded, or non-throned.

    Instead, I have found myself using other terms from within the Islamic paradigm like “the divine”, or “the creator” or even borrowing from other mystical traditions with a word like “enlightenment”, in order to get rid of the accepted male status quo within religion.

    The fundamental way of knowing “the divine” as a Muslim are the 99 names which describe the qualities of the deity. Islamic scholars have grouped these broadly into two halves, male and female, and any comprehensive understanding and connection to the divine must understand and embrace both the male and the female attributes. By extension, human beings also aspire to manifest all of these qualities, which therefore underlines the critical importance of the female within any sort of understanding and practice of religion.

    Men and women in Islamic theology were “created from a single soul”, as quoted in the Qur’an, and are “made in pairs”. The origins and relationship of men and women are therefore equal and equitable, neither one being able to exist or fully function without the other. The assumption behind the phrase “a network of men” is therefore also false. Every story related in scripture almost invariably has a man and a woman who carry the message together. Jesus and Mary, Moses and Miriam, Muhammed and Khadija. These stories are told in Islamic scripture with feisty, spiritual women who change the course of history.

    Take the story of Mary as related in the Qur’an. Her father promised that his unborn child would be dedicated to God and would serve in the temple. He was surprised to find it was a girl – Mary – as only boys were traditionally dedicated for this purpose. He is instructed by the divine to continue with his dedication, and Mary went to live in the temple, shocking those around him with the idea that a woman could be worthy enough to serve the divine, a privilege previously accorded only to men. Mary’s very presence in the temple was designed to crush oppressive and misogynistic ideas, but many of these are still perpetuated vigorously today. As an aside, I should mention that Islamic tale of Mary’s birth of Jesus is told without reference to any male father figure. There is no Joseph, instead Mary is the epitome of the strong single mother whose neighbours gossip about her, but who raises a great child.

    With such a powerful parable to draw on, and with the fundamental blueprint of gender relations in Islam being framed in the paradigm of “a single soul” I often ask myself why women are still treated as second best. I find it incomprehensible that women are excluded from some mosques, when by decree Mary was placed at the place of worship. I find it equally baffling that men treat women as lesser beings when the clear instruction is that both are created from the same spiritual fabric. All other actions must be carried out in the context of this basic human blueprint.

    The problem is, those who have power will justify keeping it in any way they can, sometimes by conveniently forgetting the underlying principles of religion. The challenge is to reject black-and-white polarising questions like “Is religion good for women” and start from the basic fundamentals of equality. “Created from a single soul” seems a pretty good place to start to overturn the misogynists.

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  • Googling Muslim Women

    [This article was published in the March issue of EMEL Magazine]

    I’d like you to try an experiment that I have conducted regularly for the last year: Google the search term “Muslim women”, click on “images” and then have a look at the pictures that are returned to you by the search. The first time I did this, I was shocked, very shocked, but not surprised.

    You’ll find the first several pages are populated almost entirely by imagery of women in black niqabs, black burqas or black trailing cloaks. The others are unnerving pseudo-pornographic images with translucent veils that are best left un-described in a family magazine. The sad fact is that this result has changed very little over the time that I have been observing the phenomenon.

    Google’s mission statement is ‘to organise the world’ using algorithms that return the results to us that we were looking for. In any search we usually get a result that matches well what we were looking for, which is why Google has become an institution in our lives. When we are searching for information about Muslim women, the intelligent technology throws back these sombre anonymous uni-dimensional images assuming they are what we were referring to by ‘Muslim women’. Worse still, perhaps that is all the imagery and information that it can find. If it is the former we can blame lazy stereotyping. If it is the latter, then it is we who are to blame by not providing alternative, compelling and more widely spread diversity on who and what Muslim women are.

    Conduct a similar experiment on Amazon or in your local high street bookshop. The same images abound of books with subtitles like: “A heart-rending story of love and oppression”, “sold” “burned alive” “honour killing”. Even those books that tell of courage, struggle and freedom use this lazy visual shorthand of anonymous women’s faces to adorn their books, despite the fact that the writers and protagonists themselves have gone to great lengths to make their names, ideas and voices heard.

    The stories that are told in our public discourse about Muslim women are depressingly predictable. Most common is the Oppressed, as we’ve seen above. Some of these women truly have horrific stories, and it is absolutely right that they are at the forefront of our consciousness, and that we are working constantly to eradicate the attitudes and actions that give rise to these terrible experiences. However, these same images are used ignorantly as shorthand for the ‘barbaric’ and ‘mediaeval’ views that Islam is said to hold about women.

    Then we have stories from the Liberated, who escaped from the Oppression, and have ‘freed’ themselves, and at one extreme of the scale have ‘enlightened’ themselves and even rejected Islam utterly, and yet peculiarly still continue to define themselves in relation to it.

    And somewhere in between are the soft sensual tales from the ‘hidden world’ of Muslim women, the Exotic, which Eastern doe-eyed beauties inhabit and where secrets of desire, womanliness and oriental allure reside. This is a world of voyeuristic otherness.

    In order to register in the public consciousness, Muslim women must fit themselves into one of these categories. But they don’t. And they don’t want to.

    The challenge is that Muslims too have ideas about how and what Muslim women should be. They offer Muslim women a choice between hijab-religious or non-hijab-irreligious, making sweeping assumptions about a woman’s moral and religious character based on what she wears. But this is a false dichotomy that is saturated with an irony that most Muslims are not even aware of: that the recommendations on modest dress in Islam are specifically in order to avoid defining people by what they wear, and yet we use religious clothing as a way to pigeon-hole women.

    Whether Muslim or otherwise, the paradigms within which we understand Muslim women have been limited to these caricatured notions. In doing this, we ourselves have removed the freedom from Muslim women to express their own voices in a way which allows them to represent themselves as they wish to be represented.

    We need to create a change in the perceptions about Muslim women, their rights and the way that they are treated. In order to do so we need first of all to create in our public discourse the possibility of different ways of being.

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  • Islam says let love blossom

    [I am posting this article belatedly. It was published in The National a few weeks ago to co-incide with the day which in Arabic is charmingly called Yawm-al-hubb, the Day of Love.]

    Before reading this article I should warn you that it might be considered subversive. It may lead you into the paths of disbelief. Beware dear reader, for we are about to discuss Valentine’s Day.Even though I am a Muslim, or perhaps because I am one, I will quite readily wish you “Happy Valentine’s Day” today. Even this simple act might land me in trouble with a handful of Islamic scholars such as the Egyptian cleric Hazem Shuman. He warned young Muslims this week that Valentine’s Day was “more dangerous than Aids, Ebola and cholera”. Wow, I had no idea that a red rose could be so lethal.
    We enjoy such perplexing tales courtesy of the right-wing press, keen to promote the view that Muslims see Valentine’s Day – and by extension love itself – as evil. Fox News last year covered a Kuwaiti MP who chaired a committee to prevent “such alien events from impacting on Kuwaiti society and spreading corruption”. Britain’s Daily Star tabloid newspaper elevated the former head of Al-Muhajiroun, Anjem Choudhary, to cleric status and quoted him saying that those celebrating Valentine’s Day “would rot in hell”.

    Boy, if there is anything that Muslims are good at it, it is melodrama. But are Muslims such as these just as guilty as the right-wing press of confusing the celebration of love with love itself?

    The origins of Valentine’s Day lie not in the romance with which we associate it today, but in events any person of faith would uphold. The celebration is usually traced to a number of early Christian martyrs called Valentine who were persecuted by pagan rulers.

    Another Valentine performed secret marriages for Roman soldiers forced to remain single by an Emperor who believed unmarried men made better soldiers.
    Since these events happened well before the advent of Islam, it is notable that the individuals are remembered for standing up for their belief in God and upholding the sanctity of marriage, two fundamental pillars of Islam as a deen, a way of life.
    There were already Roman celebrations linked to fertility, so it is possible the church decided to celebrate the feast of St Valentine at the same time to “Christianise” the festival. In the same way, Muslims in Egypt proposed to rename February 14 as “Prophet Mohammed’s Day”. One can only imagine that this was to defuse misconceptions young people may have about love and its various expressions.

    Those who argue for moving to a more “proper” Islamic celebration are most likely the same who argue against a specific day for love in the first place, their objection being why should love be limited to Valentine’s Day? But doesn’t the same argument apply to celebrating Prophet Mohammed’s Day? Shouldn’t that be every day as well?

    The connection with romantic love began with Geoffrey Chaucer, whose 14th century poem celebrating the king’s engagement described it as the time when birds choose their mate. From then on romance and Valentine’s Day become increasingly entwined. The French set up a “court of love” on Valentine’s Day in 1400 to deal with love contracts, betrayals and violence against women, with the judges selected by the women themselves.

    With the constant discussions about sharia courts, which deal mainly with women and personal law, perhaps they too should be renamed courts of love and aim to instil love and compassion between those in dispute? They could even allow female plaintiffs to choose the judges as in the French model – they would be selecting from a panel of judges, so all would be equally qualified. It seems a courteous and civilised way of resolving the current legal imbalances in many courts which do not allow women to be fully heard.
    The modern Valentine’s Day was created by Esther Howland, who mass produced cards of paper lace in 1847. Her seemingly innocuous act changed the face of the US greeting card industry which now credits Valentine’s Day with the second largest sales after Christmas.

    Approximately one billion Valentine’s cards are sent each year, with women buying 85 per cent of them. Many are sent anonymously. It is a worrying echo of the stereotype that women ought to be shy in expressing their liking of someone, the hunted rather than the hunted.

    Conversely, men spend twice as much as women on the day, suggesting that they too are under pressure to conform to a stereotype of wooing a woman with their wealth. Advertisers and marketers have turned love into a cosmetic, superficial experience.

    On the other hand, Muslims seem to have reduced romance to a legalistic directive, determining their three words to be “it is bid’ah”, a worldly innovation contrary to Islam. Expressing love on days such as Valentine’s is “bid’ah”. What is perplexing is not just this legal opinion, but that Muslims need to ask such questions. How did we reach the point where we ask legal authorities about matters of celebrating love? Consider other questions that are asked: “Is falling in love allowed in Islam?” or “Can a husband express his love to his wife?” They reflect the increasingly legalistic approach Muslims are taking in all matters of life.

    These two polar opposites have both reduced love to a caricature of its true self, forcing us to choose between cheesy superficiality on the one hand and heartless rigidity on the other. It sounds almost like a “with us or against us” choice, and we all know the trouble that causes.

    Presented with this stark absurdity, all human beings – which, of course, includes Muslims – will be forced to look into their hearts and realise that expressing love is simply common sense. Instead of fatwas on how, what and where to celebrate, we need legal scholars to decree a return to the way of the Prophet – common sense and humanity.

    Those people of faith who oppose Valentine’s Day are missing a trick. Faith is about celebrating love – love of the Divine, love of humanity, love of your companion. There is no need to reject a celebration of love; rather those who believe in the sanctity of marriage should recapture such events for their original celebration of marriage. And each Valentine’s Day let us see love blossom and a thousand marriages bloom.
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  • From blogger to author to blogger

    The last few weeks have been exciting and enlightening to say the very least. My book “Love in a Headscarf” was published rather coquettishly on Valentine’s Day (that’s February 14th, for all those of you that oppose the essential existence of such a day). Despite being an utter and unfailing optimist, even I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of media coverage and interest it has raised.

    The Guardian, BBC World, the Asian Network, the Turkish Media, the Daily Mail (yes! the Daily Fail even loved it – they published an extract which included a verse from the Qur’an – probably the first time ever outside an article commenting about the scary rise of shariah by the lovely Ms. MP), The Asian Writer, Eastern Eye, the lovely Muslimah Media Watch, IslamOnline, CommentisFree… the list goes on.

    And you can leave your comments about the book or your own stories here:

    In all the excitement, dear Spirit21 readers, the blog has gone somewhat neglected. But I return now to my first love, the InterWeb, and all of you who were with me before printed material came between us. So, a few pieces will follow shortly catching up with what has gone on in the last few weeks and which I haven’t managed to post up yet. And more soon.

    P.S. In teeny weeny writing, having said all that, do remember to buy the book! 😀

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