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.

Imaan, deen, adaab and the niqaab

I have been thinking about the difference between deen and imaan. Broadly speaking, imaan in Arabic means faith or belief while deen means practice of faith or religion. The two words are used interchangeably but recently I have wondered if they are really interchangeable. In my opinion now, they are two distinct words with two distinct meanings. Deen is the structure around and in which imaan is practiced. While imaan is spirituality, deen is its organization. The more emphasis on deen the more a religion is organized.

I was also thinking how there are many of us in the same deen with exactly the same imaan but different interpretations of what the deen requires. Hence the practice is different for each one of us. For example, all Muslims believe that there is one God and that this one God appointed Muhammad as His Messenger and Prophet. That is the basic Muslim imaan or belief. We differ in how we practice that imaan. Some believe we can’t be Muslim unless we submit completely to the will of God as interpreted by a fiqh (scholarly sect of Islam). In three out of four schools of fiqh of Sunni Islam, for instance, dogs are declared haraam but in the Maliki sect Muslims are allowed to keep dogs as pets inside their homes. None of the schools of fiqh is completely wrong or completely right – theoretically. Similarly many Muslims believe that women have to dress in a certain way in Islam. This dress code may include a headcovering or a face veil depending on the understanding and interpretations of the individual Muslim or school of thought.

To be honest it has taken me years to reach this level of tolerance for fellow Muslims! I was deadly against the niqaab and I still find it very hard to accept it … but I have learned that acceptance is a little different from tolerance. I can’t expect people to be tolerant of my views if I’m not tolerant of theirs.

I never thought that there would come a day when I would write something in defense of niqaabis. Certainly I am still not defending the niqaab but I think it is really unfair that we think that all women in niqaab are faceless fools. About six years ago when I was almost at the rabid stage of my feelings against niqaab and polygamy equally I met a woman online who was both a fan of niqaab and into a polygamous marriage. I attacked her instantly and incessantly. It took me only a few weeks to understand just how wonderful she is as a woman, mother, artist and wife. I am certain there are many, many Muslim women like her – women who are smart, intelligent and choose to veil their faces. I don’t agree with their understanding of the deen but I can tolerate their choices because we share an imaan.

Here is the connection – while imaan and deen are distinct imaan affects deen. These women who choose to veil their faces, some of them believe that niqaab is a religious requirement. I would like to ask, in the absence of a pope in Islam, who decides that I, who thinks niqaab is not a religious requirement, am right and all others are wrong?

Why do we believe that a woman who calls niqaab “unappealing, hot, isolationist fabric” used as “testaments of theology” is right and a woman who says that niqaab “frees” her is wrong? This is what I have been thinking about recently. Is it impossible for both women to be correct? After all it is a matter of interpretation of deen.

So why am I writing all this? I am writing this because although I don’t cover my head I know that it doesn’t make me smarter than this online friend of mine who covers everything but her eyes. I am also writing this because anyone who really wants equality and respect for women should know that  we can write against the niqaab without resorting to insults by calling women in niqaab faceless “domesticated pups.”

I am also writing this to inform those who don’t know that the Khaleeji burga (see a photo here) is a traditional article of clothing which is deeply respected and honoured. First, it is not made of metal. It is fabric that is dyed indigo and polished by rolling glass over it (hence the shine and metal appearance). Second, it is only worn by older women who are matriarchs of their families. If these women are seen with their “male chaperones going about the business of taking care of the women’s business” it is not necessarily because such women live in a “patriarchal world of their own myopic delusions” but mostly because these women are too proud, important and powerful to go about their own business.

As I type this I recall the story of my student’s 80 year old grandmother who walks outside her house everyday for an hour in the night and carries a pistol in her jalibiya’s pocket. She says she fired her first pistol when she was a young woman and enjoyed it so much that she always kept one with her for a day when a rival tribe should attack! She owns three taxis that form her personal income and a large house where all her children and grandchildren live with her. I have never seen Umm abdulRehman without her burga. But she is neither faceless nor a muzzled pup!

Linked to deen is the concept of adaab (good manners). Adaab are very important in Muslim-Muslim relationship. I like to extend them to non-Muslims and even those who may dislike me personally. Adaab require that we don’t use abusive words to address other people.

I don’t think that niqaab has a place in non-traditional or Western societies in the 21st century. But that is because I don’t believe that niqaab is a religious requirement. Yes, I think it is prescribed in the Quran but I see it as a social requirement dependent on the time and context of revelation (and in that context women who veiled were free and privileged and proud of the fact that they were too good to be seen by non-related men!).  I think it is still valid in societies that are tribal, traditional and patriarchal just like 7th Century Arabia was and still is to this day. However, some women believe that niqaab is a religious requirement and frankly I don’t think these women owe me an explanation. I can try to make them see my point of view but I certainly cannot ridicule them for their choices. I will, nevertheless, definitely oppose anyone who forces such women to cover their faces.

And I oppose advertising and romanticizing the niqaab even though sometimes it isn’t bad at all.

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?

A post just for you because “you are”

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.

You are!

The thing about women

Note: This post is more in an essay-style; the style with which I’m most comfortable.

I met a woman yesterday I had never met before. She had come to collect her child and we chatted  for less than an hour over a cup of tea. She is Arab and very sweet. Initially we talked about children and their school but once I brought her tea, the conversation became more about her life. She seemed constantly tired and even complained that her legs hurt all the time. She talked non-stop about how she is pressurized by family and society to have more children when she can’t even raise the two she has already. She complained about her mother-in-law more than once, even mimicked her. Throughout that conversation I had very little to add except for an occasional nod and “oh, really? That’s bad.” And then she said something that caught my attention. She mentioned briefly that her mother never encouraged her to enjoy every moment of her childhood and allowed her to act grown-up prematurely. That time was lost. She was married off at fifteen and so although our children are of the same age and she looks older than me, she is actually quite a few years younger than me.  There was a faint sadness in her voice when she said that. That sadness could only be detected by another woman.

That is the thing about women – we may love our men, but when it comes to understanding the pain of a woman, our men almost always fail us. From period cramps or a hurt ego to a divorce or miscarriage, it is a woman who understands the pain of another woman even if she has never had period cramps herself or never went through the agony of miscarriage. Yet a man who obviously can’t go through either kind of pain still fails to show the kind of sympathy required in those delicate moments. Is it as simple as women having higher emotional intelligence? Is this why in I am Sam, Sam’s lawyer is a woman and all the people who testify on his side are women?

So I kept thinking about it after she left and realised that while her and I shared nothing in common and if we are to meet again there would be more awkward silences and nods, it is not shopping together or talking or even sharing recipes that bring women together; women bond immediately through sharing pain. It is that moment when one woman detects misery from the subtle drop in the tone of voice or the sinking of the eyes of another woman, that a link is created and women who fail to either detect or ignore the anger or hurt of another woman lack a very common gift. They are thus often called ‘cold’ and even ‘cruel.’

This is why I think Islamic feminism is necessary and was inevitable. I had asked once why you all want to belong to a group when most of you live in liberal countries that give women many rights, often even equal rights to men, and you all commented that even if you don’t have to go through the pain yourself you wish to stand up for the rights of women who are less fortunate than you. Women are empathic creatures; I think that is why feminists stand up for the rights of gays and those women and men who are oppressed. Yet this is a gift that is rarely mentioned in many patriarchal scriptures. We hear about men’s strength and courage and intelligence and bravery and their ability to maintain the classic stiff upper-lip, but what about women’s superior emotional intelligence? Perhaps that is why many people don’t like feminists …  because while women have higher EQ, we also know how and when to filter it and channel it. Feminists while bonding strongly with other women, can chastise men firmly – something the latter are still not used to. And while most men don’t want to be told how to treat their women, they also don’t want outside sympathy/empathy for their women from other women because women gain strength from unity.  

I wanted to share these thoughts with you – women and men who read this blog; wanted to thank you for caring whenever you have cared for others; and wanted to let you know that I appreciate you for appreciating others – women and men, straight and gay, Muslim and non-Muslim.

If you have any comments/thoughts/opinions, please share. I would particularly like to know why you think Islamic Feminism as a movement and an organization of Muslim women is important for the unity and well-being of Muslim women in the 21st Century.