The sexualisation of piety

A friend shared this video couple of days ago and I’ve been contemplating since then if I should share it here. I’m sharing because being already out there and the words spoken and recorded, this requires counter-narrative.

I had read all of this before in hadith and seerah and tafsir. I’m aware that this narrative exists in texts, but when I was reading it, at a subconscious level, I thought that nobody really believed it like I didn’t believe it. Hearing it, and listening to it being taught had a completely different impact on me.

It is quite clear that the ‘imam’ fully believes what he’s teaching. The link he creates between different ahadith and tafseer excerpts as well as the Quranic verses is well thought out – men shall outnumber women in heaven (from the hadith that women will outnumber men in hell) because women display their awra (from the hadith banning perfume and Quran banning display of ‘adornments). He goes on to explain the physical attributes of the hoors (from Tirmizi, volume 2, pg 35-40; Bukhari vol.4, book 55, number 544; Quran: 55:72-74; 78:33; 56:37-40; Al-Bukhari volume 4, book 52, number 53; Al-Bukhari vol.4, book 54, number 476). Men’s sexual capacity in heaven is also expounded (from Ibn Majah, volume 5, number 4337) and how they will be busy “breaking hymens” (from Ibn Katheer, 3/564). Again and again the imam tells his congregation that there’s no sin in talking about sex and about the breasts and hymens of these heavenly females because it is right here in Quran and hadith; it is all for Muslim men. While human females must hide themselves, there is no sin in fantasizing about the hoor. There is great emphasis on female virginity – so much that the imam tells the men that each time they have sex with the hoor and return from another one, the first would be a virgin again! At the same time, there is no requirement from men to be virgins as if the concept of male virginity does not even exist (or at least occur to the imam).

This seriously affects how women are treated in the physical world. It is linked to misogyny and is a great reason we need Muslim feminism so that this type of thought and narrative can be challenged. This is being taught to young men in mosques, inside places of worship we hold scared, where actually women are delegated the back spaces. Young men are taught that while they are flawless, human females are tainted, sinful and literally hellbound. In case some women do make it into heaven, there is no description of what they should await. The focus of heaven’s bounty – the food and wine, and sexual pleasure, is the Muslim heterosexual man. Obviously then, the flawless men should teach and control the sinful women.

A friend suggested that one way we can counter this narrative is to encourage our husbands, brothers and sons to report if something like this is taught in mosques. While this can be done in Western mosques, I wonder if someone can actually do much if this is taught in a Muslim-majority country where dissent is met with death. Please, please offer suggestions on how this kind of teaching can be stopped. We all know this isn’t a single instance; we’ll seen and read this before.

Support versus Independence

Scenario 1: March 2003

A young Muslim man, Ahmad, goes on a business trip to Africa, returns home to the US with hemorrhagic fever and dies from complications within a week. He had an MBA in marketing. His wife, Ayesha, hadn’t even finished high school. Her father had died when she was eight years old. Ayesha was looked after by an uncle when her uneducated mother was married off again by her brothers. The uncle had five children of his own so he married Ayesha to Ahmed when she was only 18 years old as Ahmed didn’t demand dowry. They had two children. He was a caring husband and a doting father. But after his death, his parents kept his children under their care and sent Ayesha back to India. She was a burden. Last I heard she was married off by her tired uncle to a man in his late sixties.

Scenario 2: June 2014

A Pakistani couple, Faheem and Fatima, had been married for 13 years. They lived in Dubai with their five children. Faheem had found a reasonably good job in Dubai after job hunting for 15 years. They were taking their newborn home from hospital when Faheem turned to look at his wife, collapsed at the steering wheel and died. He is remembered as the ‘most involved father, and an extremely caring husband.’ Fatima is shattered and finds herself absolutely helpless. She has a high school diploma but has never worked – she didn’t have to; she was Faheem’s queen. She had never gone outside the house without Faheem. Her male family members and Faheem’s arrive in Dubai quickly and take over the ‘important affairs.’ She is told that they will ensure her children get the best possible education back home. She would have to move in with some family member, but they will invest her husband’s savings in a way that she gets some cash every month. Fatima’s mother cries every day that her youngest grandson would never know his father. Faheem’s mother mourns the loss of a great son and that his daughters would get married without their father. Fatima’s worries are different. She’s worried about how she would now survive. She doesn’t even know Faheem’s bank account number.

These are two cases I know; you may know some too. These are not isolated cases. Millions of women, Muslim and non-Muslim, are never raised to become independent. The situation of Muslim women concerns me more because we are always highlighting the “status of women in Islam” and how women are “empowered” while we ignore how women are cripplingly dependent on men in Muslim cultures who assume the role of sole maintainers and providers.

Someone recently posted on the Muslim Feminists Facebook Page that “…all women deserve a good man who will support, protect, nurture … her” and later “real muslim men nurture and support his (sic) wives when she (sic) is weak and use (sic) his strength to protect the women and empower her (sic) to be a greater queen, In Sha Allah.” Few words can be more damaging than this. Women, we are told, are “precious pearls” and “queens” that have to be “nurtured.” We are weak and so men must use their strength, wealth and wisdom to protect us.

The problem is we are not. We are not Disney princesses who have the luxury of lounging on silky cushions and sipping virgin pina colada. Majority of Muslim women are very real and very *human.* We have children, we toil in garment factories and paddy fields, we serve our families, we work protecting, supporting and nurturing, we go through hours of labour (it’s not called ‘labour’ for nothing!). True that women, like men, need support and protection, but the most long-lasting support and protection anyone can offer to a woman is independence. Parents need to understand that marrying off young and immature girls will only trap them further into life-long dependence on their much older husbands who are more like father-figures and will naturally pass on before them. Husbands should realise that by keeping their wives emotionally, socially, financially and physically dependent on them makes women vulnerable to life-long misery when the husband is gone either through divorce or death.

I’m slightly disappointed that feminists within Islam spend a great deal of time and effort ‘proving’ how the Quran made “many changes to the status of women” while little is done to understand the real reason why women are not in conditions we want them to be in Muslim cultures.  Muslim women are not suffering because a thousand years ago patriarchal men interpreted the Quran to give more power to men by giving fewer rights to women. We are suffering because all the laws that are derived from the Quran support women making them dependent “queens” rather than empowering them to become independent regular human beings.

Look at all the Sharia laws regarding women: 1) requiring two women witnesses; 2) unequal inheritance laws; 3) enforced hijab; 4) travel only with a Mahram; 5) inequality in divorce laws; 6) payment of Mahr; 7) lack of requiring consent for sex; 8) polygamy; 9) spousal discipline; 10) custody of children after divorce/death of the man – all of these laws support rather than empower a woman.  Feminists who want equality claim that these laws are there to support women, and that’s exactly what they do. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these laws if a woman wants to be treated like a precious pearl, but these laws are not going to make her independent or empowered which is the first step towards equality. I also have trouble accepting the argument that these laws were alright for the 7th Century but not now and were “meant to become obsolete” because this way we are claiming that it was alright to make women dependent and vulnerable to abuse in the 7th Century but not today. This brings me to the question – were women really downtrodden and stripped of all rights before we created Sharia law to elevate their status?

There are over a billion Muslims today who follow a religion that was initially based solely on the belief in the witness of one woman who said “I testify that you are the awaited Prophet in this nation.” She didn’t require another woman to remind her that she wasn’t erring. Muslims have a popular saying that goes something like, “Islam did not rise except through Ali’s sword and Khadijah’s wealth” fully realizing the role she played in investing her wealth to benefit her husband’s mission. She inherited great wealth from her father, and two dead husbands then proposed to a young man much younger than her who was running her business. She kept all her children from her previous marriages making her oldest son a great supporter of the Prophet Muhammad – his step-father. Her third husband, the Prophet, moved in with her as he had “no means to marry.” There was no option of polygamy in the marriage as she was an independent and strong woman who was actually the maintainer, support and nurturer in the marriage. In her honour, the Prophet said, “She believed in me when all others disbelieved; she held me truthful when others called me a liar; she sheltered me when others abandoned me; she comforted me when others shunned me; and Allah granted me children by her while depriving me of children by other women.” Now imagine if Khadeejah had been made to live under Sharia law that are imposed on many Muslim women – What course would Islam have taken without the support, testimony and belief, wealth, intellect, wisdom, and independence that she was able to offer without Sharia Law?

How do we expect Muslim women to be empowered like Khadeejah when we clip their wings through laws that are arbitrarily imposed upon them in Muslim cultures like polygamy and ban on driving in KSA, child marriages and polygamy in Yemen, enforced temporary marriage and hijab in Iran and KSA, unfair Khula laws in Egypt, hudood law in Pakistan, stripping of citizenship rights if a woman marries a foreigner in the GCC countries etc? How can we gain inspiration from the “fierce independence” of Khadeejah while we are taught that the ten laws I highlighted above are for our support and protection and that we are sinning if we object?

Women like the ones whose examples I offered in the two scenarios in the beginning will survive with support from their families. But is mere survival our goal? If men really want to offer lifelong support and protection to their women they have to accept that it is through financial, social and intellectual independence that is achieved through education and trust in the equal human capabilities of women.

A different perspective on hijab

Veil of Ignorance: Have we gotten the headscarf all wrong?” is an  interesting article on hijab by Leila Ahmed in which she talks about her experience of warming up to seeing hijab on young American Muslim women.

Ahmed thinks that Hourani’s article was “spectacularly incorrect” because “veiling among Muslim women, after steadily gaining ground across the globe in the last two decades, is incontrovertibly ascendant.”

Ahmed accepts that she used to think that education and women’s emancipation would free Muslim women from “this relic of women’s oppression” because to her “hijab’s presence meant not piety — for we knew many women who were deeply devout yet never wore hijab — but Islamism” that had its “signature dress, the hijab.” But now she sees it as “a badge of individuality and justice” after speaking to several young American Muslim women about why they choose to wear hijab.

A friend was disappointed with the article; she said she didn’t like the title and that the “conclusion focuses on Western Muslims. Overall tone of article seems to validate stereotypes about veil.” I too felt it focused on Western Muslims because what stood out for me in the article is when Ahmed quotes Albert Hourani to have written in his article that (I quote Ahmed), “It was only in the Arab world’s “most backward regions,” and specifically Saudi Arabia and Yemen, that the “old order” — and along with it such practices as veiling and polygamy — “still persists unaltered.”” I couldn’t help but notice that in the Arab world where I live, the countries that Hourani had once considered the “most backward regions” are now actually giving up veiling.

A couple of days ago I managed to conduct a small-scale study into hijab with 47 young Arab women. I carried out short and informal group interviews (of 10-15 women in a group) and asked the young women why they wear hijab or don’t wear it. All 47 women wear abaya but 35 of them don’t cover their heads with what is called a hijab here. They only put it around their necks.

Based on informal conversations with Arab women I have pointed many times that hijab in the Arab world (the Gulf region) translates to something very different than hijab in the West. The interviews I conducted proved my hypothesis correct. The young women gave different reasons for their choice on hijab which I will summarise as quotes as follows:

  • “I don’t cover my hair because I don’t like this” [pulls at the headscarf].
  • “I wear the abaya because my mother is a foreigner and if I don’t wear the abaya people will blame her for our loss of Arab tradition. I do it just for my mother’s sake but I can’t cover my head. Not showing my hair doesn’t make me look less attractive. It is useless.”
  • “Yes that is right. People love to talk. Chi, chi, chi. Gossip, gossip, gossip. That is why many of us wear the abaya because we are stuck in a gossiping society.”
  • “I cover my hair and my face in front of men. My uncle is a muttawa … you know who is a muttawa? Yes, he explain(ed) for (to) me the importance of niqab and it is fard. The words are not in Quran but Allah speaks indirectly; my uncle explain(ed) for (to) me everything in a clear way and I follow my uncle’s advice Inshallah. “
  • “I would never wear this if I was not fat. Look at me! I love to look slim and beautiful in nice clothes and once I lost (lose) weight I will stop wearing this. Till then I can stay without hijab only.”
  • “I admit that I wear shalia when I go to malls or when I’m with relatives. When I don’t wear it like now, I feel bad. Kasm bilAllah (I swear upon God) I know it is haraam what I’m doing but I hate the hijab. It makes me look ugly.”

When asked why she thinks not wearing hijab is haraam she said, “Because I know! It is in Al Islam. We all know. Everyone knows. I have not read the Quran but I know hijab is fard (compulsory).”

  • “I am 20 years old but without hijab I look 14-15 years old and then men don’t notice me. With hijab I look older and men stare at me. I want to be free and don’t like men noticing me.”
  • Abaya is my traditional (tradition). I love wearing the abaya so people know I am Arab. I am proud to be Arab. I want others to know that.”
  • “I wear hijab because my father told me that if any man sees my hair he will lock me and will marry me to my cousin. I know he won’t do that, but what if he does?!”
  • “No, my father is very nice. He said no one can judge you, only Allah (can) judge you. You cover your hair if you want and don’t if you don’t want. When my younger brother forced me to cover my hair my father tell to him (told him), “Who are you? I am here. I didn’t say to her cover! I love my father.”
  • “My mother thinks I wear hijab 24/7 but I take it off as soon as I leave home because it makes me hot and look like an egg. But my mother says what will our family say?!”
  • “I wear it because my mother, aunts, sisters all wear it. How I will look if I don’t wear it? Maybe my daughter will not wear it and we’ll see when that happens.”

What I found particularly remarkable was that no one said they wear hijab because it is their religious choice, or that it liberates them, or that hijab is what Allah wants – reasons often given by Western hijab-wearers. The ones  who believe hijab to be fard believe so because that is what they have been told by others.

Whereas women in the West wear hijab to affirm “pride in Muslim identity in the face of prejudice”, women I spoke with wear it to affirm pride in their Arab heritage. While for an American woman, hijab was a “required dress that made visible the presence of a religious minority entitled to justice and equality”, in a Muslim majority society being an Arab requires the abaya (with or without the headcovering) as a dress that asserts their exclusivity. In the West women who wear hijab choose it because they are “free to wear whatever they want”, whereas the women who spoke to me were forced either overtly by their families or indirectly by relatives and society in the name of tradition.

Obviously this is a very small study but my aim was to get some viewpoints on hijab and I enjoyed listening to the different perspectives. It also made me realise why I couldn’t understand the Western stance on hijab.  These are women who don’t even know the definition of Islamic Feminism and yet their views on hijab are hardly traditional, whereas in the West where according to Ahmed “Islamic feminism is well and alive”, hijab is a move back to Islamic tradition.

Any thoughts?

Culture, religion and women

A wise young woman recently said to me that the thought that religion can’t be removed from its original culture brings peace to her. To her religions boil down to cultural interpretations of socio-political systems that aim to reform societies according to what is deemed as divinely sanctioned morality.

After this brief communication with her, a few other instances and the comments on the last post made me think about how much Muslim women fight, not with their religion, but with the Arabic culture. What is religion? Is it a way of life or is it an awareness and acknowledgment of the Creator of this world? I think the purely spiritual aim of any religion is to acknowledge God whereas the local culture dictates ways in which that religion is exercised.

I live in an Arab country where any progressiveness in religion is not only frowned upon but is also banned by the government. Whatever progressiveness in religion  is introduced is done tactfully by the government. For me, like for many other Muslim women living in the ME and South Asia, Islamic Feminism as well as Progressive Islam are concepts that are much harder to pursue than for Muslim women living in the liberal parts of the world. I do think that both Islamic Feminism and Progressive Islam are steps towards liberalism and I don’t use that term in a negative manner. If we were to use the terms loosely, liberalism is more tolerant as opposed to traditionalism. But many women who live in oppressive (another loosely used term) societies may not even have heard about Islamic feminism. Indeed when I talk to my students about my research they look at me as if I am talking about atomic science!

So what I have been thinking is, one, Muslim feminists shouldn’t be seen as a threat to Islam because most are only fighting against cultural injustices; two, many women living in non-Western parts of the world have no idea what their feminist sisters are trying to achieve for them; and three, we should accept that culture is a non-static entity.

Regarding the last point – my housekeeper complained to me that her niece who is also a domestic helper had “dared” to throw crushed garlic in the kitchen sink which was discovered by her employer who slapped her thrice on her back for being so callous. Several text messages later between the aunt and her niece, my housekeeper decided that she had to call the police. What she didn’t realise until she called the recruitment agency who dismissed the case as “minor misunderstanding” is that in the Arabic culture beating someone is really not a big issue until it is done publicly in which case it becomes a social punitive measure. I mentioned this cultural trait briefly in this comment.  

When Islam began to spread in Arabia, beating someone violently was something that was starting to be frowned upon because it was evidently distasteful and hurtful for the victim. Thus we have ahadith that teach that beating a wife like a slave and then sleeping with her is unpleasant or that one must not beat their slave like an animal.

Because  Muslims believe that  Quran is true and valid for all people of all times and because wife beating is culturally so abhorrent to many of us today, we can’t imagine a religious culture of another time and another system to have ever tolerated it. This gives rise to the need for reinterpretation often urging alternative meanings through the social lens of modern Western ethics. But we forget that that culture of the past tolerated many other social habits that we find distasteful today and which we explain away without resorting to denial like child marriage, ghazwat (raids), and sex with female slaves and war captives.

When I tried to explain my thoughts in the past on prevalent culture and Islam (in a less diplomatic way!), many readers were shocked. I am not saying that Quran should not be reinterpreted nor am I saying that we shouldn’t use modern ethics to lead our lives but I am trying to look for a middle path between accepting that Islam grew out of a culture which today is not the culture of all Muslims and trying to live as an observant Muslim in today’s society. I welcome your thoughts on this.

  • Do you think that my thoughts on this subject are valid?
  • Do you think it is fair to expect early Muslims to have lived by our modern standards?
  • How do you think modern Muslims, especially the women, can understand religious culture and divine commands regarding piety – for example, do you believe that hijab makes a woman a better Muslim or do you think it was a socio-cultural requirement of the early Muslim society?