I was watching Oprah last night and Tom Shadyac was on the show talking about his new documentary “I am” (anyone watched it yet?) – more on it here. Shadyac is the director of hit comedy films like Liar, Liar and the Nutty Professor. He lived in a mansion and had an army of servants. In 2007 Shadyac had a mountain bike accident and suffered from post-concussion syndrome. While recovering from his accident, he realised that something was “wrong with this world.” Reflecting on his life, he decided that to be happy he’d have to learn to give up excess. He gave away most (but not all) of his money to charity and left his mansion to move into a trailer park. A form of asceticism brought him absolute happiness.
Shadyac focuses on three themes in “I am”: 1) the entire human race is connected; 2) we are biologically hard-wired to cooperate; 3) and if you don’t follow your heart, it can destroy you.
While watching Oprah, I kept thinking how humans have always got it wrong. Oprah also asked Shadyac that and he replied quickly by saying that we are a “young species” and haven’t figured out the Universe yet unlike the older species with whom we share the planet. Since the beginning of times, through monarchies and religions, we have highlighted our differences rather than focus on how we are connected. We have tried to destroy the enemy rather than notice that we are hard-wired to cooperate. And we have followed our heads. By “we” I am referring to men.
I also thought how satisfaction through asceticism has always been a male prerogative. Holy men, saints and prophets, all men, giving up the worldly comforts and migrated, contemplated in caves and forests, and searched for God on mountains and in valleys while women stayed home and *manned* the domestic vessel. Women have also been ascetics – there are nuns and women-saints (Mother Teresa and Rabia Al Adawi come to mind) but men have been husbands (too polygamous) and fathers *and* prophets/saints, whereas women have had to give up men and children to reach out to God. Why does that happen?
When I finished my first Masters I had everyone tell me that I must get married soon. I did. Had a child before I began studying again for a teaching qualification and then another Masters. When I applied for the second Masters many well-meaning souls were disturbed by my choice to go back to school – I had a home, a child (another on the way), a caring husband, why did I need to study further? I was threatening the peace of my family! I survived that with the support of my husband and father. And now when I’m studying for my third degree I have even more people shake their heads. I am constantly told that I will not be taken seriously by Muslims because I am a woman (and sans hijab!) who is studying Islam which is not my “domain.” My choice of research topic is also seen as problematic – why Muslim feminists? What have they ever done for Islam? Feminists are not even proper Muslims – you can be either Muslim or feminist!
If Shadyac is right that if we don’t follow our hearts, it can destroy us then imagine how many women are destroyed every day. I’m not saying that men have it easy. Most men don’t have the luxury to follow their hearts either, but I think women are in a worse situation. We grow up being told that only the vilest of women don’t want to have babies. We are trained in cooking and taught how to sew. We sit with our legs crossed and mouths shut. Women don’t question. Women are not to be heard. Women must guard their bodies at all times. Women shouldn’t be seen running or making noise. Women can’t refuse sex so they must always be on *duty* hence can’t meditate or contemplate. We have all our possible roles already outlined for us.
And what positive role models do we have? All the possible role models offered to a young Muslim woman are role models because they are attached to some man we revere. Our role models are women who were married to sahabas or the Prophet and hence are important. Other than Rabia Al Adawi, who I think is unknown to many Muslims outside the Sufi circle, I can’t recall the name of any female role model who was not attached to a man as a wife or mother that we look up to. Is there anyone I am missing?
I chose to study Muslim feminists because I see a positive future for Islam in you. I wanted to give recognition to Muslim feminists operating on a daily basis in the Muslim society. I wanted to celebrate the voice of Muslim women who call themselves feminist. I honestly see Muslim feminists trying to change the status quo. I see you trying to follow your hearts and bringing spiritual happiness and content in your lives. I see Muslim feminists trying to connect with all Muslim women even if they disagree with them. I see you cooperating. You are fulfilling all the three points that Shadyac raises in his documentary. And so last night I thought about each one of you.