Saturday, 8 of March of 2014
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed
We are nearing the end of the year, and it is the traditional time to look back and see how we fared over the last twelve months. In particular, it’s been a year since I won Best Blog and Best Female Blog at the Brass Crescent Awards. Much to my excitement I’ve been nominated again. It’s not the only recognition the blog has received. I won Best Non-Fiction Writer at the glamorous Muslim Writers Awards, and was named an ‘influential blog’ by the BBC.
Shari’ah was big news this year. The Archbishop of Canterbury made some comments about Shari’ah courts which created a national controversy, and which reverberated round the world. I tried to get underneath the dense text with a detailed analysis of his speech. I mentioned a few other words too to highlight that we need to have a conversation about real meaning, not just tabloid screaming. (I used words like Shariah, fatwa, hijab, apostasy, niqab, cousin-marriage, Imam, Muslim women. I think some readers had anxiety attacks after that.) Separately, the Lord Chief Justice re-ignited the debate started by the Archbishop, and I commented that we had a significant problem with the S-Word.
I spent a lot of time writing about Muslim women, and declared that it was Time for a Womelution. It is time for things to change, and I kept up the pace demanding “Let Muslim Women Speak” both here at Spirit21 and at the Guardian. It seems that everyone out there is happy to tell Muslim women what they should think and say, but won’t let them say it for themselves. It wasn’t the only thing that made me cross. I was riled by the book Jewel of Medina, written by an American author about Ai’shah the wife of the Prophet. It wasn’t about blasphemy or censorship that the author annoyed me, but rather at her delivery of a sex-obsessed Mills and Boon frippery, about a woman and a period of history that was crying out for a high calibre text. What a wasted opportunity. I read the book and wrote a review for the BBC. It was painful. Watch paint dry, I advised readers, it is more fascinating than the book.
I was still fascinated by hijab, niqab and modesty and wrote several articles trying to understand the different perceptions of modesty and hijab. Modesty is not a black and white issue got some interesting feedback – some people told me in person that it was the best piece I’ve ever written, others said they didn’t get it at all. I also asked, whose body is it anyway, and wondered why it is considered inflammatory by some for a women to cover her hair or face. I made reference in the former article to the rise of the muhajababe, the fabulously stylish and sometimes skimpily clad be-headscarfed Muslim woman, and posted a cartoon asking, what is the meaning of hijab, and wrote a piece considering, can you dress provocatively and be religious? It should all be based around a woman choosing her clothing for herself, but is it really a free choice, and what exactly is she choosing?
The amazing Muslim women who often are considered oppressed and forgotten inspired me to create The Magic Muslims, ordinary Muslims with Extraordinary superpowers, foremost amongst them being SuperJabi. They also included MagicMullah, HipHopHalalMan and WonderBibi. Watch out for them, there will be more in the coming year!
I was also published in the book Conversations on Religion, alongside other high profile dignitaries in the field of faith (or absence of) such as Richard Dawkins, the Chief Rabbi, AC Grayling and the Archbishop.
On the subject of conversations, I had some amazing dialogues with people in Indonesia and Turkey, where I spent a good amount of time this year. Indonesia prompted me to think of sun, smiles and spirituality, whilst in Turkey I found myself asking, what does a Muslim country look like? Hopefully I made some fans whilst out there too…
My comments about Valentine’s Day being banned generated some interest as i was asking if it was the day or love that was being prohibited; just as exciting was an interview with the charming and sparky Riazat Butt for the Guardian about hajj. They also enjoyed posting a piece exploring our modern ideas about what kind of hero, messiah or mehdi, we are looking for these days. Do we really need one?
Most controversial were two pieces related to what was happening on the political scene. I had people respond to them with enormous prickliness (or excitement, depending) even months later in person, so they’ve hit a chord! I tried to separate out the political agendas that have confused the need for social cohesion with preventing violent extremism, and seems to see Muslims only through the prism of (potential) terrorism. Later in the year the political insinuations that Muslims were not wanted in politics appeared to grow stronger, and I wrote with much passion that it seems that we Muslims were being told that “The only ‘proper’ Muslim is a non-political one.” The article proliferated wildly and despite a certain level of anonymity as a writer, i had people ‘in person’ searching me out to comment on it.
Phew! What a year! And inshallah, 2009 is going to be even more exciting – there are already some fabulous things in the works – watch this space!
(p.s. vote for Spirit21 Best Blog and Best Female blog at the Brass Crescent Awards to show your support!)
The MagicMuslims are here again, using their cartoon superpowers to make the world a better place. They bring levity and humour to a world that needs a smile. They are ‘Ordinary Muslims, with extraordinary powers.’ Brought to you by Spirit21, if you haven’t seen them before, you can read more here.
Muslims follow a lunar calendar, and the beginning of each month is signalled by the sighting of the new moon. This becomes a particularly frenzied and controversial affair for the highly auspicious month of fasting, Ramadan, and leaves many confused over how such a simple matter ever got so complicated…
Enjoy the cartoon.
Let the tabloids and politicians spend their time foaming at the mouth over words like Shar’iah, we should be spending our time pioneering services and solutions to meet our community needs
Shari’ah is once again big news. The Lord Chief Justice has said that, “There is no reason why Shari’ah principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution.” His comments follow a speech earlier in the year by the Archbishop of Canterbury who had been discussing the role of faith in the public sphere and had used the issue of Shari’ah courts as an example of where this could be done. The Lord Chief Justice commented about that speech: “It was not very radical to advocate embracing Shari’ah law in the context of family disputes, for example, and our system already goes a long way towards accommodating the Archbishop’s suggestion.
So today, Muslims turn to bodies like Shari’ah courts as much for their Islamic decision-making status, as increasingly for their pastoral services. However, dealing with disputes requires counselling, therapy and support before a case can reach any final definitive verdict, all of which are an extension of a legal court’s traditional role. Individuals who are trapped in a dispute – whether marital or of another personal nature – want both support and recognition for their distress, which today they find may not be available elsewhere. They wish to feel the supportive hand of guidance and authority in resolving their pain based on the same principles by which they try to govern their own lives. It is therefore exactly in this grey area between civic dispute and any mediation ruling that an arbitration service based on Islamic principles can add tremendous value to our community.
Note: Cartoon is taken from Spirit21’s own MagicMuslims superheroes, visit www.spirit21.co.uk/magicmuslims
If you want to meet the MagicMuslims, you can find out more here: http://www.spirit21.co.uk/magicmuslims/
Spirit21 is proud to reveal The Magic Muslims – Ordinary Muslims with Extraordinary Powers. Fun-loving, quirky and joyful in life, once you’ve met them, you’ll want to keep coming back for more. Any Muslim you meet could be a MagicMuslim – a quiet superhero trying to bring happiness, humour and compassion to the world.
Make sure you get to know The Magic Muslims better here
The Muslim community needs to make a quantum leap in addressing the issues of gender roles, gender worth, and gender relations, and so this week I am declaring a ‘womelution’.
The debate about Islam, women and rights seems to have reached a dead end. We are stuck, all of us together – Muslim and otherwise – in a groundhog day regurgitation of the same arguments about women and Islam. It’s all talk with few new ideas and intellectual works being produced, little social change happening, and Muslims still not facing up to the fact that we need to address the subject of gender. We must reject this status of ’stuck’. Stuck, is no longer an option. God does not change the state of a people until they change it themselves.
We must also reject the notion of ‘fixing women’. Fixing women, doesn’t fix the problem. Let’s replace the issue of ‘women’ with a debate about women and men. After all, God does say He created human beings in pairs.
What we need is for men and women to work together so that we can make substantive change and real improvements. What we need are open hearts and inquisitive minds so that we can make a positive move forward. What we need, is a womelution.
Inspired by women, but for both men as well as women, the womelution is positive, engaging, creative and forward-looking. This is not a bloody revolution, but looks inside all traditions and heritages, to both genders, to all ages and multifarious ethnicities and languages.
The womelution is about making real change: intellectual change but most importantly, real social change. It is characterised by compassion, humanity and humour and most of all by respect. It is not about women versus men, but about being on the same side, creating the best for everyone. It is rooted in Islam and its foundations are within the Muslim conception of the world. Its premise is that Islam has more to offer than it is currently given credit for, and it has a blueprint that can contribute to humanity in general. The womelution encourages questioning, respectful challenging and constructive criticism.
1. We need to re-ignite the tradition of intellectual debate
We need new thinking and output that moves forward Islamic scholarship on the issues of gender. The world has changed and we need to face up to that. We must ask challenging questions – but with respect and within the spirit and ethos of the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet. Every time we look at the words of the Qur’an we are advised that they will reveal something new. In the same way, when every new generation looks at Qur’anic verses and the Prophetic traditions it will be through new lenses.
In 2008, I invite every Muslim scholar, every Imam, and academic to tackle the issues around Islam and gender. It can be in the shape of a theological discourse, or a social reform, small or large, but it must offer something new and positive that leads to real change.
2. Communal spaces, particularly mosques, need to re-balance gender participation
Although a womelution is about both men and women, it is undoubted that in some areas – such as those of mosques and other public forums – getting women involved is the first priority. This will benefit both men and women. Those mosques or community centres which currently have no space for women need to create areas for women and start engaging with them. The many mosques where women are already actively involved need to make sure that there is at least one woman who is on the management or executive committee of that mosque or centre, and that she has actual authority and empowerment vested in her.
Let 2008 be the year for asking questions and offering answers about how men and women should share mosques and community spaces, and when every single mosque up and down the UK succeeds in appointing a woman into an official position.
3. Women must themselves actively pursue improvement and change – for the sake of society as a whole
Men need to open hearts, minds and doors, but women must also grasp the mettle and engage in change. It can and will be difficult and will feel uncomfortable. Both men and women need to understand that women must participate to create a successful community. Women have new perspectives and approaches, and will bring forward issues that have not yet been addressed. Women will double the resources, brains and energies at the disposal of the Muslim community.
4. Change must be based on addressing the needs of both men and women
What are the traditional gender roles that we are upholding? How do men and women currently interact, how are responsibilities distributed, and are these rooted in culture or faith? Once we’ve asked these questions we need to assess: what should be our definitions of gender roles and what should be our notions of gender worth? We don’t live in a traditional world anymore. It is worth remembering that the greatest failing of the community of the Prophet Abraham was that they did what their fathers and forefathers before them did without questioning it.
The biggest social and practical issue facing us today though, is that of gender relations – how should men and women relate to each other, and how do we implement personal law? Muslim women have become the bastions for maintaining and regulating gender relations. The concepts of hijab, niqab and segregation have been confused with the real concept of modesty in etiquette, behaviour and personal relationships. What does modesty really mean? What is its role in Muslim society, how should both men and women practice it, and how should it regulate the world of gender relations?
5. Confidence, compassion and curiosity are the values that will drive positive change
It’s time also to put paid to the frankly silly but insidious suggestions that Muslims are alien to Britain. Muslims must be confident in themselves, in their Islam and in living in Britain. We must have curiosity and confidence in asking questions to make the lives better of everyone around us – Muslim and otherwise. It also requires compassion and empathy for our neighbours which, of course, comes with the right to be treated with respect and love in return.
This year should be the beginning of a womelution, a marked change in the tempo and confidence of the Muslim community, with a particular focus on gender. We will need vision and creativity and to be positive and work together. This is the only way that we will move forward.
And if you’re still confused, it’s pronounced wi-mah-lou-shun.
P.S. We also need a little inspiration and some humour. As my own personal contribution, I dedicate four Superhero characters, which you will find on my blog www.spirit21.co.uk/magicmuslims
This article was recently published in The Muslim News