Saturday, 25 of October of 2014

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We can learn lessons on how to protest from the hajj pilgrims

This is my weekly newspaper column published today in The National (UAE).

Today the Haj pilgrims shelter in the vast tent city of Mina, having passed through the plains of Arafat, and yesterday celebrated Eid Al Adha.

courtesy abcnews

They are in Mina to throw pebbles at the Three Satans representing the purging of their inner demons. It’s an exorcism of the ghosts of the past that haunt all of us and from which we must be free to move forward and change our lives.

But the throwing of stones also has an external dimension. It is an act of protest, an annihilation of external devils, freeing the pilgrims to move forward and closing the door on the past.

Despite the heterogeneity of the world’s global Muslim population, these Haj rituals bind them together, shared in both action and spirit, with esoteric as well as worldly meanings. What then, if anything, should pilgrims and Muslims around the world learn from today’s events in Mina?

Most obvious is the spiritual meaning of the rituals, the destruction of inner bad habits.

The long journey to Haj and its difficulties teach patience while keeping an eye on the long term goal. The slaughter of an animal for Eid represents the sacrifice of something dear to us. The completion of the Haj heralds renewal and rebirth. In this are lessons for Muslims and others alike.

But being the Earth’s most diverse Muslim gathering, this is also a moment to think about the protest, attack and communal movements that have electrified the Muslim world this year.

Protest across the Muslim world has been fiery, and unhappily it has been long lasting and violent.

It’s certainly been a year of drama. Drone attacks in Pakistan, the provocative film Innocence of Muslims and subsequent protests that spilt over into violence, the uprising in Syria, the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, the continuing assault on Muslim women; the list goes on. The political and social temperature in Muslim countries is often hot.

The three columns at Mina offer advice: that rage should be properly focused, not a blur of uncontrolled emotion.

People do get carried away at Mina, and start hurling their pebbles and other objects into the crowd. One woman next to me got a pebble in her eye, others were trampled as pilgrims crowd-surfed to get closer to the columns. And this reminds me of the protests against the film Innocence of Muslims which turned violent in some places. Successful protest, we learn at Mina, should be targeted and focused.

Sadly, the pebbles in Mina also remind me of the stones that children throw in Gaza. How else can they protest at those who persecute them? Paradoxically, their pebbles remind me of David’s only – and winning – weapon against Goliath.

But Mina has its moments of humour too. I remember impassioned pilgrims throwing anything to hand – mostly leather sandals.

But most memorable about Mina and the Haj itself is the sense of egalitarianism. Pilgrims wear the same white clothes, carry out the same rituals, experience the same journey; equality of intention, spirit, action and treatment.

For a Muslim world in turmoil, whether contending with external forces, internal disputes or addressing minority protection, this equality of justice and treatment is the most powerful lesson. After all, getting rid of the demons is only successful if the outcome is one of equality and justice.


International Day of the Girl Child: A letter to my daughter

This is my weekly column published yesterday in The National.

Thursday was, by United Nations resolution, the first-ever International Day of the Girl Child.

Tragically, there is a penalty for being born female. Girls are three times more likely than boys to be malnourished. Of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth, 70 per cent are girls. Each year roughly two million girls between the ages of five and seven are trafficked in human slavery, sold or coaxed into the sex trade. Girls are the victims of early and forced marriage, prostitution and female genital mutilation.

This awful list continues, but I cannot bear to detail it further, as each word makes me dread what the future holds for my own little girl.

She will turn two in the new year. At her age when every moment is a discovery, every smile demonstrates pure joy. Her eyes are clear and innocent, her skin unblemished. She is perfect, untouched by the vagaries of life.

Whenever I look at her, I am immersed in the vision of a utopia where feisty, joyful women – no matter their background, wealth or geography – enjoy full respect, dignity and agency and share equally in global resources.

My daughter is abundantly blessed: she has her parents, an extended family living nearby, a home, toys, books. She has health care readily available, and a full education awaits her.

Like any parent I have both aspirations and worries for my daughter. But my fears are increased by the fact that she is a girl in a world where the odds of safety, affluence, well-being and equal treatment are stacked against her gender.

I would be foolish and cold- hearted to imagine that my baby’s first-world problems compare in any way to the life-threatening poverty, disease and war that affect other girls so disproportionately.

A mother could never do that. When you hold a daughter in your arms, you hope she will never suffer, but you also hope that all the innocent and vulnerable girls around the world will be nurtured, too. The issues women face manifest themselves differently in different places, but are all connected. That is why this week’s news that a courageous Pakistani girl has been shot by the Taliban for daring to want an education resonated around the world.

While I worry about my daughter’s well-being and safety, I worry just as much about how she will connect to all those other women. I despair about what those girls will suffer, and their lack of opportunities. Despite my fierce urge to protect my girl, I can’t keep her locked at home. That would deny her the freedom I will encourage her to embrace.

But I can race to make the world a more just, equal environment for all girls of her generation.

In the meantime I must work hard to build her skills and character by opening for her as much opportunity as I can. She will need an unbreakable moral compass and an indefatigable sense of self-worth, so that she will be absolutely certain that as a female she has a right to be a valued and equal human being, and to never accept any treatment that suggests otherwise.

Apparently my generation will not be the one that resolves the plight of girls – despite all our best efforts – and so my daughter must be my legacy. I have to fill her with conscience, skills and sense of justice. This investment will have a clear goal: to make her an active participant in the struggle, so that hers will be the last generation where girls face these challenges.