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Islamic feminism – what’s it all about? Here’s seven reasons why Muslim women are demanding faith-based change

Islamic feminism is a term that for some may seem like an oxymoron. Isn’t feminism a secular movement? Aren’t feminists often fighting religious orthodoxy? Well the truth is that feminism is about women’s choice, women’s empowerment and women’s equality – for women of all faiths and none. 

For women like myself who identity with a specific faith tradition, we don’t see God as patriarchal, we don’t believe that our divine Creator is a misogynist and we don’t see our faith at odds with gender equality. Of course not! I certainly for one wouldn’t be a Muslim if I ever thought that was true.

However, what is true, is that just as in secular spaces – women of faith are often ignored in mainstream narratives and face a range of discrimination simply because of their gender. As a Muslim woman, hand on heart I can say that Islam has been interpreted into patriarchal spaces and according to the socio-cultural norms of certain societies, to the point that women are not always given an equal space, voice or allowed to progress and enjoin in their full spiritual, social, economic, political, cultural, sexual and emotional rights. 

Abhorrent practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage represent a host of gender-based violence and discrimination, stemming from social and cultural attitudes and norms which are often used in the name of Islam. When it comes to gender equality practices like these are often denounced within religious circles but the story sadly doesn’t end there in acknowledging what is and isn’t ‘Islamic’. These practices represent the worst forms of gender-based abuse that some Muslim (and non-Muslim) women and girls face. On that scale of misogyny, there are still a host of others problems in more faith-based spaces which affect the daily lives of Muslim women. These relate primarily to a lack of inclusion and diversity and the inability of the community to allow women to enjoin in their rights as enshrined in Islam itself. 

These issues of course all stem from the same culture of misogyny, sexism and misogynist interpretations of Islam (whether interpreted as ‘culture’ or ‘faith’). 

However, as feminists, egalitarians and seekers of justice, this is where Islamic feminists come in. Islamic feminists such as Amina Wadud and Sherin Khankan are re-interpreting and refreshing Islamic theology, Qur’anic readings and Muslim narratives to be more egalitarian. This is of course not to change Islam into something new but to follow its true original egalitarian form relevant in today’s modern context and to re-establish the role of Muslim women in Muslim spaces.  It involves working to eliminate socio-cultural practices within Muslim communities which harm women and girls (and society as a whole) to ensure that our rights are fulfilled through the provision of critical services. 

Beyond the violent, often-denounced cultural (non-Islamic) practices such as FGM and child marriage, I’m going to explain the more subtle issues which stem from the same core but are so often ignored. Let’s see why we’re fierce and proud Islamic feminists, and what the issues on the ground are. Read on to find out! 

1. We often have no visible prayer space

The sad truth is that for Muslim woman, both here in the UK and abroad, adequate prayer space is often lacking. Some mosques literally have no space for women at all, whilst other spaces remain much smaller and often ‘out of sight’. (Of course it is acknowledged that men are obliged to pray at the mosque on Friday unlike women.)

As journalist Remona Aly reports, research has found that here in the UK for example, out of a total of 1,975 mosques, a staggering 28% of do not offer space for women. What’s more, 50% of all South- Asian run mosques (South-Asian being the largest ethno-cultural grouping of Muslims in the UK) do not allow women in their space. 

According to Aly: “When mosques do offer it [a space], the access is restricted, and often does not even include a prayer space, but rather a teaching space, such as a girls’ madrasa (religious school).” 

This is a shocking problem and what’s more, when it does come to prayer space, I personally object to being separated by a screen or hidden away in a smaller room on the floor above or an area hidden away behind the men’s space. I would prefer to be in the same physical wider space but with designated areas for men and women. However, even for the most conservative of Muslims, the current facilities on the whole are not adequate. 

This is where Open My Mosque was born. Striving to open up mosques to women, to enable mosques to be less male-dominated and to let the message be known. This initiative is spreading the message that we want to pray in mosques and that we want to also have a greater role in these spaces too! It’s our right and we need not only decent physically existent spaces but inclusive, adequate, welcoming spaces. Find out more about the crucial campaign here.

2. Female faith leaders are few and far between

When I was studying Islamic Feminism for my Master’s degree, I came across the incredible Amina Wadud – a Muslim scholar and imamah (female imam). She has led prayer in mixed spaces and sadly come under fire by many Muslims for it. However, she is leading the way in a very small field. 

Whilst women back in Prophet Muhammad’s era were far from being relegated to the private sphere, excluded from spiritual spaces, sadly the same cannot be said for the Muslim world today as a whole. In addition to often having limited/no prayer space, women are almost entirely excluded from leadership roles, from grassroots level on mosque committees to further up the ladder in wider-scale national committees. 

However, there is hope. In addition to Amina Wadud and her inspiring work, other leading figures such as Sherin Khankan are creating crucial change. Sherin is a Danish-Syrian imamah,offering new narratives on Islam. She critically launched the Miriam Mosque to offer female-led Friday prayers, an inclusive community space and critical access to services for women. Sherin is vocal in declaring that ‘Women are the future of Islam in her latest book, and has growing support.

Meanwhile in Morocco, whilst not recognised under the title of imamah, the government commissioned morchidat (female spiritual leaders) to help empower women across the country and re-establish a more tolerant, open and egalitarian form of Islam. You can find out more about these incredible women in the film ‘Casablanca Calling’, which I definitely recommend seeing.

3. We are critically lacking in female scholarship

Again, whilst we’re lacking in female imams, we’re also lacking in female scholarship. As women, this means that when we wish to seek spiritual advice and practical guidance on everything from periods or fasting and prayer to marital advice, we are forced to seek male counsel. 

Now there’s obviously nothing wrong with male scholars but within such a narrow range of scholarship, we are lacking a nuanced, diverse range of teachings and opinions. At the same time also failing to offer adequate understanding and safe spaces to sometimes incredibly vulnerable women affected by sensitive, often gender-specific or incredibly complex issues across genders. We are simply pushing women out of the main sphere. The result is a narrow range of scholarship and a lack of nuanced understanding of a gender and culturally diverse faith community. 

This is completely at odds with Islamic tradition. Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha was a renowned scholar and for every Muslim, regardless of gender, it is our duty to learn and to access the means to learn and educate ourselves throughout our lives. Male-dominated scholarship fails to address the needs of the community and leads to a gendered-hierarchy of power. This is where scholars such as Amina Wadud – a fully identifying Islamic feminist – are reclaiming this space. However, we need more! For an insight into her work I would definitely recommend her book ‘Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam’. This book gives a great overview of the real message of tawheed (oneness of God – monotheism) and where Muslim women stand theologically in comparison to the socio-cultural reality today. 

4. Violent interpretations aren’t being challenged

Whilst we’ve come a long way in denouncing certain practices as un-Islamic, there are still some issues being swept under the carpet. The issue of domestic violence and verse 4:34 of the Qur’an is one clear issue that is not being adequately addressed. Now, whilst no level-headed Muslim following the teachings of Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) would ever hit a woman, we’re still not really getting to grips with this verse.

It’s all a matter of interpretation and logic. For example, the violent interpretation of Surah 4:34 declares:

“The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them.” (Translation: Talal Itani)

Now, in an attempt to supposedly correlate the clear non-violent example of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) regarding his wives in reference to this translation, varying interpretations continue to permeate discussions around the topic. Of course, no level-headed scholar condones beating one’s wife. However, some scholars claim via interpretations of this surah and related hadith, that hitting which is ‘not harsh’ or does ‘not cause injury’ or carried out using a ‘light’ object such as a miswak (traditional toothbrush/stick) to offer a ‘warning’ or form of ‘metaphorical hitting’ are acceptable. This is clearly morally (and theologically) wrong and normalises unhealthy dynamics between husband and wife. Yet I’ve heard it in conversations at lunch tables.

The fact remains; if we are to take God’s message seriously and if we believe in mutual respect between husband and wife (and men and women as a whole), then we must address these issues. In relation to the topic, in the book ‘Leaving Faith Behind’, co-author Aliyah Saleem (now an ex-Muslim), describes how even a ‘metaphorical’ form of hitting as a response to the meaning of Surah 4:34 to her, constitutes emotional abuse. Threats of power, domination and violence in any form are wrong and do not exemplify a relationship of respect, love, understanding and tolerance. As a Muslim I can wholeheartedly understand why she found this unacceptable and am angered that such apologetic interpretations are presenting such an abhorrent view of Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims. God is simply greater than this.  

Within the Muslim community however, Islamic feminists, rather than trying to explain such translations, have however offered their own more appropriate translation to help address such inconsistencies. In her translation The Sublime Quran ‘(2007), Iranian-American Muslim author, translator and psychologist Laleh Bakhtiar translates the Arabic word ‘daraba’ (the term in question often translated to mean ‘beat/hit/strike’) as ‘go away’. This crucially and logically refers to a last commandment of eventual separation during conflict with your spouse after everything else has failed. This naturally fits into the verse and its increasingly separatist stages: first advising, next not sharing the martial bed and then ‘daraba – walking away. 

Of course, for the sceptics out there (including native-Arabic speakers), it’s also worth pointing out that Laleh’s translation of the Qur’an is used in various mosques and universities and was even adopted by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan. Yet why are we not talking about this instead of ‘lightly touching’ with tissues and miswaks or emotionally abusive power dynamics? Indeed, we’ve still got so far to go.

5. We’re tired of the hijab-hype

Image credit: https://www.freepik.com/index.php?goto=74&idfoto=3033344

Hijab, niqab, headscarves, veils – yes, the issue of covering is perhaps one of the most talked about with respect to Muslim women, in Muslims and non-Muslim spaces. Now, whilst this an issue of Islamic theology, the issue of how much a Muslim woman should cover, from which age and how she should or should not cover her body (and in particular head) is one that is over-dominating discussions on Islam. 

Firstly, despite the mainstream dominant narrative that women are obliged to cover their heads and bodies (with other interpretations mandating or encouraging the use of the face veil) there are various interpretations on head coverings. Secondly – and it should go without saying – this is a private matter between a Muslimah and Allah Almighty. The choice to cover or not cover should remain the woman’s sole decision devoid of outside influence or pressure. However, we continue to be inundated with talks of hijab and covering, with males often dominating the conversation. 

Not only is such behaviour a frank example of mansplaining on behalf of laymen in the context of non-scholarship, it’s also a clear example of (un-theological) double standards. Whilst men are also commanded to act and dress modestly and ‘lower their gaze’, we often hear a lot less of this in comparison! In fact, in her book ‘Inside the Gender Jihad’, Amina Wadud describes this reality perfectly. She outlines how the concept of hijab (head and body covering) has become a form of unofficial ,over-dominating ‘sixth pillar’. 

As both a hijabi and non-hijabi (I am now an ‘ex-hijabi’), it has honestly pained me (and continues to!) to see a lack of respect in some circles around the issue of women covering, not covering or no longer covering. We only need to think of the abuse that Muslim fashion blogger Dina Tokio received after removing her hijab to understand this. 

The sexist attitudes monopolising an area of personal observance and religious interpretation can again be fully observed in comparisons such as these of ‘good pure covered Muslimah’ versus ‘unveiled impure Muslim’ which make my blood boil.

I have myself seen such examples across social media, which are not only shared and pushed by men but also women. With male leadership, male scholarship and a male-dominated public sphere, both men and women are subject to such bias. Yet we’re also seeing clear examples of mansplaining amongst this policing of women’s bodies in relation to covering and hijab. 

Regardless of the perpetrator, this exemplifies a clear unhealthy policing of women’s bodies which we know is not only present in faith-based contexts. As Muslim women, we must reclaim our agency, our privacy and our right to choose to cover or not cover with full respect and independence (from men and women alike). 

6. Our sexuality is closeted, sensualised and shamed

Just as our bodies are policed in the name of modesty regarding hijab and body/face coverings, with modesty related to how we behave with the opposite sex (although a spiritual commitment), Muslim women are also subjected to ‘shame culture’ in relation to their sexuality and sexual behaviour. 

Think about how often we’re taught about a women’s right to sexual pleasure? Ask any scholar and they’ll make it clear that it’s our right. They do indeed encourage healthy sexual relationships for both spouses but it’s just not acknowledged enough in Muslim spaces. What however is talked about with another mansplaining double-standard is women’s virginity. 

Yes, again; what should remain between Allah and his follower (and is relevant to both men and women), has become the ‘ticking time bomb’ of shame, honour-related loss and ‘decency’ and causing fathers to want to marry their daughters off as soon as possible in some cases.

Just take a look at this tweet by a Muslim male: 

Yes, a tweet, that has (as of 9th March 2019), over 3,000 likes and 1,619 re-tweets written by a Muslim brother who seeks to shame women into submission through yet another reminder of how we should wait for marriage. Yet, as a Muslim woman I resent being compared to a juice carton. As a Muslim woman, I ask why are you talking about this? As a Muslim woman, I ask again: why the constant emphasis on a woman’s virginity on behalf of Muslim males? Why the double standards? Why the singular narrative? Why the publicising of women’s virginity yet the closeting and shaming of women’s sexuality (in halal settings)? 

It’s simply not good enough! It’s not good enough to believe in equal standards for women in regards to chastity and the right to sexual pleasure, it’s actually now time to talk equally, to share equally and to have a healthier narrative around these issues. Women, as human beings and Muslims have sexual needs and rights, and as Muslims, we (regardless of gender) submit to Allah alone in heart, body, mind and soul. 

7. Divorce is our God-given right

Divorce is another God-given right that must be obtainable and freely accessible in both theological and legal settings (yet not undertaken lightly). However, getting a divorce for Muslim women isn’t as easy and accessible as it should be. Cultural attitudes, ‘shaming’ those who wish to leave their husbands and those who have indeed divorced, mean that actually accessing divorce is incredibly difficult for some Muslim women.

At the Miriam Mosque, Sherin Khankan works to ensure that all Muslim women have access to divorce if they need it. Yet with male prompted divorce or divorce notification via text message or WhatsApp in Saudi Arabia or India for example, things are far from equitable, rational and fair for many Muslim women. 

Even here in the UK, many Muslim women also have difficulty obtaining a divorce. With a society that prizes virginity, one twice-divorced Muslimah journalist Saima Mir explains that despite the Islamic permissibility (with Prophet Muhammad’s first wife Khadijah being a divorcee herself), this wasn’t enough to “stop the gossip as her ‘value’ had ‘fallen’”. When the early women of Islam had no stigma or shame attached with being a divorcee or requesting a divorce, where are we as a faith-community when women nowadays continue to suffer in abusive, loveless marriages or are deemed ‘used goods’ unworthy of re-marriage? 

Logic and God’s words state that divorce is our right and we must ensure that not only is this rightful service available to all women but that men cannot and do not continue to abuse their right to divorce at the detriment of women. 

Now of course there are many, many more issues which could have been covered here, but the underlying narrative of women being the ‘bearers’ of honour and the public sphere being a place for male dominance is what continues to perpetuate these practices, problems and trends which on a higher more severe end of the scale lead to some of the abuse highlighted earlier such as FGM and child marriage. As Muslims, both men and women, we must reclaim the rights of women within faith spaces and our wider lives and for this reason, the work of Islamic feminists is critical.  

God is neither male or female – of course God is not human – but we must stop interpreting and living out Islam through this male-dominated, misogynistic lens. Women are being excluded, women are suffering and last of all, we have narrowed, boxed in and misrepresented the beautiful message of Our Creator – The Most Merciful, The Most Compassionate, The Loving and The Wise, into something that is lacking His beauty, justice and mercy. 

Actions speak louder than words. We must reclaim the narrative, preach and live a more inclusive, egalitarian form of Islam – the original Islam of times ago, nuanced and perfectly adapted into the modern era, which clearly puts women firmly at the centre, not on the sidelines. 

By Elizabeth Arif -Fear

Elizabeth Arif-Fear is one of our regular contributors and author of ‘What if it were you?’ which is available to buy on Amazon.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website. The images used in this piece have been sourced and chosen by the author.


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Your individual middle path: 10 must-read pieces of advice for female converts to Islam

I’ve been a convert Muslimah for over six years now and whilst some people were more surprised than others when I told them I was converting, I can tell you it’s been (and still is!) a big journey – a rollacoaster of ups and downs, highs and lows, smiles, tears and things I’d never experienced before. But subhanAllah, it’s been a great one!

Now, whilst each journey and each person is unique in themselves, there are however some key pieces of advice, experiences and insights which I feel are truly like gold dust for converts to Islam – many which apply to any faith background. As I’m a woman and there are also some quite gender-specific issues at hand, I’d like to present my ten must-read pieces of advice for female converts to Islam. To help tackle some real issues affecting both converts, non-converts and even non-Muslims. Take a look!

1. Follow your individual spiritual journey

I really cannot stress enough that your conversion and the way you live Islam is about you and Allah and no one else. Obviously, it will impact upon others and you must deal with other people respectfully but what I want to address here is the big fan-fare and pressure about “setting a date”, going to the mosque with a big crowd, doing everything all at once or according to X, Y and Z says.

STOP! Slow it down, put on the brakes. You are in control. You’re doing this for you and no one else. You don’t need to scare yourself into some big ceremony if that’s not what you want. Islam is so easy. When you’re ready – and only when – you can take your shahadah at home alone (just you and Allah) or you can do a more formal procedure. But do NOT feel pressured into doing something you’re not comfortable with.

2. Don’t rely on Sheikh Google

It’s been said countless times before and it’s more relevant than ever today. The internet is a lonely, dangerous place of extremism, mis-information and intolerance vis-à-vis other Muslims (Shia, Sunni, Ahmadi, Sufis etc.) and non-Muslims).

Please, get offline (no – not all of it is bad) but speak to people on the ground familiar with your cultural context, seek out good sound scholars and confine in trusted friends and neighbours. Also remember that your non-Muslim friends and family are wiser than you think. Plus (most importantly) – a little common-sense goes a long way!

3. Accept that it’ll take a few years to figure out “you”

As a convert, you enter Islam with one thing in mind and then as you travel along your path you realise just how complex the Muslim community and how diverse the faith is. Now, you’re still the same person inside but things will change and of course, we can’t do everything at once and no one will expect you to.

However, you’ll find that whilst people will reassure you of this that we ourselves put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Yet, Islam is a life-long journey of learning. We’re always developing socially, spiritually, emotionally and intellectually as people and our life circumstances and life-experiences change over time. Add on top of this one crucial thing: there are many different “Islams”. No two Muslims are the same. There are different schools, sects and practices and even if – like me – you avoid all of that, you’ll still come to realise (even if you knew this anyway) that there is no one Islam.

Over time, you’ll find out more about you, how you relate to Allah and what your faith means to you. This doesn’t happen overnight or stay the same throughout your journey but don’t panic – it’s normal! You’re observing, growing, learning and discovering! Don’t change yourself to fit one person’s interpretation of Islam and don’t forget who you are and what first attracted you to Islam!

4. Cover (if at all) when you’re ready

Whilst the majority of scholars believe it is obligatory to follow the rules of hijab in relation to covering our hair and bodies, there are two important things to point out here:

 

  1. There are other interpretations relating to covering and modesty in terms of cultural relativism and metaphors surrounding the non-physicality of “covering”
  2. If like me you believe in hijab in terms of covering your hair and body with loose transparent clothing then do it when you’re ready

Either way, whether you wear a headscarf is not a marker (or the be all and end all) of whether you are or aren’t Muslim! I’m not here to mock hijab but simply highlight that it is one part of many people’s way of living as a Muslim but it’s not the only or singular way to do so.

Islamic feminist Dr Amina Wadud in her book Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam cites how the hijab has almost been (wrongly) taken as a sixth pillar of Islam and this is definitely true. Wearing a headscarf is a visible public sign that you are a Muslim but should be taken as an individual personal step and act of spiritual devotion. If – and only if you do decide it’s for you – do it when you’re ready to take this next step, knowing the changes that will happen, the responsibility you’ll take on in becoming a public face (willing or not willing and for better or for worse!) with full pride, confidence and sincerity in what you’re doing.

5. Don’t be afraid to be you

Again, I must emphasise that your journey to becoming a Muslimah is about you and Allah. It’s a spiritual journey of faith. With that in mind – and whilst I recognise that it takes a while to build in self-confidence in our new identity (longer for some than others) – be happy with who you are. Don’t forget where you’re from. Don’t feel you have to “follow the crowd” or your friends’ school of thought and above all else – don’t put yourself down.

The “Well, they know more than me, I’m just a convert” line is a dangerous thought process. Each person is an individual and just become someone grew up a Muslim it does not mean that they have a deeper or even clearer/more nuanced understanding knowledge of the faith (and the social, spiritual and lived experiences that come with it) than you. In many cases, their experiences are often relative to being in a Muslim –majority family/community and related to their cultural context. Trust yourself!

6. Don’t rush into marriage

Marriage is a big step for anyone regardless of their faith. Now add someone who’s still learning, still discovering “who they are” and at the same time also still navigating the socio-cultural complexities of the Muslim community, then things become a lot more complicated!

Not only do ritualistic traditions, terminology and practices vary in language and format from one cultural community to another surrounding marriage itself but there are also some real issues here to consider and deconstruct: cross-cultural barriers (or if you’re marrying a convert there are other issues to think of), theological differences/approaches and sadly misogyny and sexism within the religious and cultural practises of some members of the Muslim community.

So before you investigate all of this: take time to know who you are, be confident in you and then approach slowly and with your eyes wide open. On top of that, remember that things are not always as they seem. When you finally do decide you’re ready – or think you’ve met the precept match – ask questions (lots of questions about approaches to faith, housekeeping, raising children, education, work, theology etc.) and find out more about your potential spouse from friends, family, neighbours and community members.

Changing your faith/belief system and getting marred are two of the biggest decisions you can ever make in your life.  You need to know yourself first and foremost and what you want from life and therefore what you want from a husband. Likewise, he too also needs to know what he can expect from you and who he’s potentially marrying – so take your time as much as possible. Do not rush but when the time feels right take the appropriate steps.

7. Don’t feel forced to accept other cultures

Whether you’re marrying into a new culture or mixing in new diverse socio-cultural circles, remember that your faith is Islam and your culture your own – not Arabism, not Desi culture, no anything else etc. (unless in fact you were Hindu or an Arab Christian etc.!). Now, don’t misunderstand me. The cultural diversity of the Muslim community is amazing and do make the effort to reach out, meet new people and above all be tolerant and open to new experiences and cultures. However, don’t be forced to accept a cultural interpretation or practice of Islam that is either inappropriate (“haram”) or “not your thing”.

Your culture is important too.  Many Muslims from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds perhaps tend to believe that (mono traditional) English culture is “haram” as we have to give up drinking for example or as they may underestimate its diversity, tend to believe that we must give up the culture or that there is nothing left for Muslims. This is false. Every culture is an expression of its people. Islam is a faith and is lived through a culture.

So don’t feel you have to adopt Pakistani clothes to be a good Muslimah rather than simply please your new British-Pakistani husband. Enjoy new clothing if it makes you happy but you can also wear a denim skirt and blouse if that’s what you’re into. Feel free to mix it up. In mixed marriage in particular, there’s much fun in sharing cultures but also compromise and respect to be made – three needs to be give and take of both cultures and room for both. Respect, tolerance and understanding are essential.

8. Listen to your inner conscience

Islam is about moderation – the middle path – and the sad thing is that this is often simpler than many people realise and create for themselves. Off the middle-path, people can find themselves with over-zealous rigid forms of practice promoting intolerance and even violence. Let me say this honestly and openly: extremism is real, intolerance is real and it’s not as rare as people may think.

Please, don’t lose yourself on this fantastic journey. It’s easier to do than you may think. Allah Almighty is with you and he wants the best for you. Treasure your friends and family, hold on to the people that got you this far. If they’re not adjusting well to your new faith – be patient. Remember Islam is not black and white – neither is life. There are so many little things to navigate and your non-Muslim friends and family will be learning too about the new Muslim in their life. There are many scenarios small and large that may arise with new questions and thoughts, such as:

Do I buy my Muslim daughter a Christmas presents?

Do I go to my parent’s house at Christmas?

My Muslim friends are shocked that I stroke my aunt’s dog…

Remember, it’s not you (Muslim) versus them (everyone else). You have different history, different family, different challenges and different experiences to many (non-convert) Muslims. Educate yourself on the principles, the lived example of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and lead on your middle path by adopting those principles in your context. Listen to your conscience (the God-given fitra inside), be kind, gentle, patient, don’t get over-zealous and lead with positive examples. Remember: Islam is a holistic approach to life and spirituality – not dogma. Don’t get lost in this and distance yourself from others and your former self in the process.

9. Come with no social expectations

Being part of a community is important but it’s not always that easy and building any bonds and friendships take time. For some – depending on their community and individual circumstances – their experiences may be lonelier, less positive and less social than others. For one, after all the excitement has died down at your shahadaah ceremony (if you have one), you may find yourself alone (again). You may need to prepare for potentially lonely Eids, racism and cliqueness. But remember this – everything will be ok. It’s great to have people to connect with on a faith-related level but friendship is also about more than faith. Keep an open mind and see how things go.

Try and connect with like-minded individuals – especially other converts as they will share similar experiences and many non-converts may not understand your needs and experiences. However, above all listen to your needs and wants and remember that just because someone is a Muslim, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be your next best friend. Put yourself out there (when you’re ready) and let’s hope that things get easier but don’t rush into marriage if you feel lonely. Above all, don’t distance yourself from good, honest non-Muslim friends and family. Faith is personal – that’s what has got you this far and that’s ok – in time the right people will come insha’Allah.

10. Don’t become a victim

Despite what some people may think, “The West” (whatever that is today!) and the government does not hate Muslims. Please don’t get caught up in political Islam. As a human rights activist myself, I of course support worthy causes and stand up for injustice but please don’t bring religion into it. Be an ally for every worthy cause, supporting people of all faiths and none!

As a convert with a different history, leave the over-zealous Islamist rhetoric, post-colonial and race-related baggage out of the picture! Do not fall into the “us” vs. “them” narrative and in fact, given your unique history and experiences, strive to become a bridge builder of positivity and unity!

So with these top ten tips of advice, I hope that your journey as a Muslimah (old or new!) is one of peace, love and tranquility! Salam!

By Liz Arif-Fear

Liz Arif-Fear is a writer and human rights activist. As founder of “Voice of Salam“(Voice of Peace), Liz writes on a range of social, political, human rights, intercultural and interfaith issues, aiming to spread a message of peace, tolerance and unity. Liz is particularly passionate about addressing key issues affecting women, children, refugees, migrants and ethnic minorities and addressing both extremist and Islamophobic rhetoric.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


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Muslim Women: Enslaved or Empowered?

Women in Islam, often synonymous to the Asian concept of ‘purdah’, have been unveiled, ironically, by nearly every media house and spokesperson. Even laymen, with little to zero knowledge of Islam, claim with confidence that only a specialist would have, that Islam oppresses its women. In the vexations that surround topics such as these, Muslims often forget why they need to be discussed, in first place.

With the realization of feminism as an idea (realization because it actually always existed) things have gotten a little out of hand, a little misunderstood, as we know them. Every person who supports equality is a feminist, every man who is a feminist is scoffed at, and every other man thinks feminism is just a nice way of saying, “Men suck”.

This is where most ‘liberal’ minded people, without even understanding what the term actually means, declare that religion is anti-feminist. Simply because it dictates how women should behave and live their lives. What they don’t understand is that firstly, being a liberal automatically implies that you are at the very least, tolerant towards religion, and that religion by itself, usually dictates how BOTH men and women live their lives.

And because our existence solely depends on whether or not Islam is oppressive to women, it would be best to just move on to that part.

HIJAB

To be fair, behind every stereotype, there is a story. And behind this one, is the fact that millions of Muslim women choose to dress differently. Or, are forced to. Majority of the Islamic preachers and haters claim, that covering the head is mandatory in Islam. And yet, a large percentage of Muslim women, walk around with none. Why is the claim so strong? Why indeed do some women cover their hair ? A simple reason would be because there is mention of it in the Quran.

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There are various interpretations of this verse, several being that this is proof enough for the requirement of a head covering. A more interesting interpretation of this verse , is that in 600 AD Arabia, there was a requirement to cover the head for either sexes, not because of religion, but climatic conditions. Sandstorms are a common feature within a desert, and what do we know about the geography of Saudi Arabia ? Nevertheless, some schools of thought are that the verses were revealed in relevance to the people of the time and the headscarf was a common accessory not just for Arab women but for women everywhere. The major emphasis though, lies with modesty.

Wearing a hijab does not guarantee you a space in Jannah and not wearing one, does not guarantee a space in Hell. It would be irresponsible on our part as Muslims, to say that. Another interesting fact is that the requirement of “hijab” is mentioned within the Quran for BOTH men and women, and for men BEFORE the women.

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TALAQ/DIVORCE

An additional form of oppression, people claim Islam preaches, comes in the form of  the more commonly known “Triple Talaq”. Though this is something most muslims outside of the Indian subcontinent do not recognize, it remains a problem, because 10% of the world’s muslims come from here (172 million). In a nutshell, your husband, for some reason calls you up, texts you, or verbally says “Talaq. Talaq. Talaq !” and it is to be assumed that you and him are no longer together, therefore freeing him of any restrictions he could have had on your account. This leaves the woman stranded and detained from the man’s wealth, in a poorly state. This form of divorce amongst Muslims is popular ONLY in India now, being termed “Talaq e Biddat” in the rest of the world – (Biddah meaning innovation), and thus proving to be unislamic at the core, in that it just does not exist within Islamic Law.

The topic of Divorce in the Quran, has been spoken about in four different chapters, with the most basic statement being –

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It would help to know that Islam came as a reformation for Pre-Islamic times, when women did not have the right to divorce, and were granted it by Islam. The concept of Khula is still much debated upon, and remains almost unknown to a large percentage of the world. Islam allows women to file for divorce, in lieu of some compensation (monetary), on several grounds, that are further classified into valid and unvalid. Impotence, cruelty, non provision and even sexual non satisfaction are some of the major valid grounds for seeking Khula.

SEX AND MARITAL RAPE

Speaking of sexual satisfaction, A Muslim woman is entitled to sex and completion by her husband, so much so, that if he is unable to satisfy her, she may file for divorce. Islam addresses sexual desires of women, just the same as those of men – stating that men should first ensure their women reach completion, before attaining climax themselves. Contrary to the depiction of sex as primarily a means of reproduction in the pre Islamic era, Islam acknowledges the body’s desire for sexual pleasure – for BOTH man and woman. Prophet Mohammad often emphasized on the importance of foreplay, and it is regarded an important Sunnah by several scholars.

This also negates the debate about marital rape, being that it is not counted as a sin in Islam. Despite what most of the Islamic preachers from the Asian continent claim, marital rape counts as a sin and act of violence towards the wife. A common verse used by these preachers and people wishing to discredit Islam is 2:223.

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With regards to marital rape; emotional, physical and psychological abuse to your wife is forbidden. As per the marriage contract, neither husband nor wife can deny sex to the other, without reason. This being said, they are both to consider reasons for why the other denies sex. Since women are generically the more adaptive of the two genders, a majority of the guidelines issued in the Quran and Hadith, were addressed to men. One such being that if your wife refuses sex, ask her what her reasons are, and be kind to her, so that she may develop affection for you. A woman can demand her rights be granted to her at an Islamic court of Law, and even compensation with regards to marital rape.

PROPERTY INHERITANCE

This is by far, one of the most confusing rulings I have seen in the Quran. I stress this because I am a Muslim, and if I can get confused, I understand how a non muslim could.

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This verse was significant in differentiating between women of faith and the disbelievers of Islam. Before Islam, Arab women did not receive any of the wealth their fathers left behind and so this caused a monumental change in the laws of inheritance – another reason for the men of Makkah to oppose Islam.

To further demean Islam, another verse from the same chapter of the Quran is used to cite how it downgrades women –

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So the son’s share is equal to that of two daughters, which means that a woman only gets HALF of what a man does. Sounds unfair.

Let’s begin by observing how a man has to pay bride money to his wife to be. A previously agreed upon sum of money is paid to the bride (not her father) before signing the marriage contract. This money/land (any form of wealth) is to be used by the bride, however she wishes, and without considering any other person. She can use it as personal savings, or spend it all in one go. She can donate it to charity or invest it in a business, however she wants to.

A wife who inherits wealth from her father, is not liable to share it with her husband. And if said wife has an income independent of her husband, he has no right over her acquired wealth. A muslim woman is not responsible to provide for her husband, her parents and even her children. With rights such as refusing to breast feed her children, she also retains the right to receiving childcare from an ex husband (post divorce).

These provisions of division of property seem to favor a man, because they are meant to ease his burden, of being financially responsible for his wife, mother, daughter and sister.  Which is why the verse ;

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The degree of advantage that is being referred to here is that of responsibility. In that men have more responsibilities as compared to women. A woman is allowed to be independent in Islam, and even THEN her father, husband or son are to provide for her. Not providing for her, despite all her wealth is a grave sin. Which is why a man receives double the share of a woman, to make it easy for him to deal justly with all of his affairs. It also helps to understand that a translation can only do so much to convey the actual message, a lot of the meaning gets lost in translation.

TESTIMONY IN THE COURT OF LAW

In 600 AD, Arab women were taught to believe that their existence was solely to obey men and submit to them. They were taught to serve men by means of food, clothing and care, along with sex, of course. Islam brought along rights for women, the likes of which had never been seen before. Some of them included the right to education, right to employment and business, right to own property and wealth, right to divorce and the right to appear in court.

The last one mentioned, became reason for widespread protest because up until then, women had never appeared in court. And to let them do so now, would mean a complete slippage of power from the hands of men. It was for these reasons that Islam took a gradual course to change things around.

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This verse, if you haven’t heard of before, has been used on multiple occasions as yet another example proving islam as an anti feminist religion. After all, a man’s testimony is termed equal to that of two women’s.

The verse speaks with regards to Loans. Taking, lending and repayment of loans. At the time of this verse, women were not as financially evolved as the men, and so it is an interpretation that this ruling came to encourage more women to take part in financial affairs. And since they were new to handling money matters, two women were better than one, so there would be less of a chance to make mistakes.

Another interpretation of this verse is, that it is easier to manipulate a woman, by means of threatening her, which could also be a reason for encouraging two women, instead of just one.

A third interpretation is that women are generally more emotional than men, and so they possess the ability to sway a judge, by means of emotional coercion. Therefore, if one woman does so, the other would help rectify her error. This in no way means that the status of a woman is less than that of a man.

If we were to look at the Quran in entirety, we would surely observe how Islam has uplifted the status of women, equal to that of men (in pre islamic times) and in some cases even higher.

Paradise rests under her feet when she is a mother. And she becomes the key to Heaven for her father, when she is a daughter.

SOURCES

Islam HelplineIslam Online ArchivesHadith of theDay, DawnNewsabuaminaelias.comIslam.orgislamweb.comIslam.orgMuslim VillageTaha TestimonyMisconceptions about Islam. 

Author’s disclaimer – This post is my production after days of research. I do not claim to be 100% correct and humbly accept any faults in my interpretations of the above verses. Only Allah knows best. 

By Sharmeen Kidwai

Sharmeen is a 25 year old medical graduate, which makes her a doctor. She graduated in 2016 and has since moved to India, with her husband (2017). She is a Canadian by nationality, but was raised in the middle east for most of her life. She has always loved to write. Only recently though she has realised she can make a difference by choosing her words just right. She says she is “trying to do my bit for the world and those in it, little by little!” 

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.
If you would like to submit a blog post, sharing your experiences or perspectives, then please email us on shespeakswehear@gmail.com. You can submit poems, short stories or any other type of post! You can also submit anonymously too.


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Ten questions with Zohra Khaku from the BBC’s Muslims Like Us

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What is it really like be a modern-day British Muslim? The BBC’s Muslims Like Us, broadcast at the end of 2016, sought to find an answer to this question, by making ten Muslims of different backgrounds share a house with each other. There was conflict, there was controversy, but there was also connection.

We caught up with Zohra Khaku, one of the housemates to find out more about the programme and her experience of sharing a house with ten complete strangers.

1. What made you want to appear on a programme like Muslims Like Us?

When talking to the producers of the show, I had been emphasising how strongly I feel about standing up and taking responsibility for our narrative as Muslims in the UK. When she asked if I’d come on the show, I couldn’t really say no!

2. What was it like staying in a house with ten random people?

At times it was brilliant – meeting new people, getting to know them better and experiencing the beginning of new relationships. We had some really fun moments including playing charades and staying up late talking through the night. Some bits were difficult – sharing a room with someone I didn’t know was hard, and the mess in the kitchen really bothered me!

3. Was there anyone you particularly got along with?

Mehreen! We got on really well, and are still in touch almost every day.

4. Was there anyone in particular you clashed with?

I found Abdul Haq’s views really hard to deal with. As you saw on episode two, it was particularly difficult for me when talking about coming from a Shia background. His views on it being okay to harm people who he deems to be ‘outside the fold of Islam’ really disturbed me, and I decided to challenge him. For the rest of my time in the house, every time Abdul talked about prejudice, I pointed out his cognitive dissonance and just couldn’t bear to listen to him any more.

5. Did you find there were a lot of differing views?

So many differing views! People came from such different backgrounds and life experiences, so as expected there were lots of opinions. Eventually we found a way to be functional, although many discussions were difficult and make for difficult viewing.

6. What would you say were the main points of discussion that you all agreed upon?

Nabil’s ‘Feed the Homeless’ activity was such a uniting time for the housemates. We all loved the values that the afternoon represented, and worked together as a team without any issues at all.

7. What were your main concerns going into the house, and how did the reality of the experience match with your initial expectations?

I decided to go in with a really open mind, so I didn’t really have many concerns. I told myself I’d be myself and go with the flow, and that’s what I did. The experience was intense, with some fantastic and some horrible moments.

8. What were your main takeaways from this experience, or what did you learn?

I learned a few things about myself. It seems that I cry when I’m angry and upset! And I learned that there are circumstances under which I would call the anti-terrorism police.

9. Do you feel the programme will help to change the image of British Muslims (either in a positive or negative way)?

I hope so! From some of the posts I’ve seen online and messages I’ve received already, a lots of people seem to have learned some things about Muslims, even if it’s just realising that Muslims are not a monolithic community.
Within the Muslim community I hope it causes some debate, but most of all, I hope that the idea that we need to stop judging each other spreads a bit more widely. I’ve seen comments already calling the group horrible names. At the end of the day, we’re taught to have good akhlaq (manners) and I think some of the comments online could do with a bit of that.

10. Did the experience change your perceptions of what it means to be a British Muslim?

I think I learned some things from the other housemates. Hearing their experiences around issues they deal with in their daily lives was as fascinating as ever. Peoples lives are interesting, and the housemates were no different. My own perception of what it’s like to be a British Muslim hasn’t changed.


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A tribute to my uncles who were gunned down in the Nazimabad attacks

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You never think it’s going to happen to you… until it does.

Just over a week ago, I was in a queue with my four-year-old son. We were waiting for a train ride around the park near my parents’ house, when I received a phone call from my mum. It was the phone call that nobody ever wants to receive; the phone call that informs you of tragedy at home.

Five of my maternal uncles had been shot in Nazimabad, Pakistan. We weren’t sure who was alive at that point, but as we took to Twitter, the true reality of the horror was emerging. A ladies majlis, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (the grandson of the Holy Prophet (SAW)) was taking place in a private residence; gunmen on motorbikes had opened fire, and three of my uncles, Naiyer Mehdi Zaidi, Nasir Abbas, and Baqar Abbas Zaidi had been gunned down in targeted killings.

My remaining two uncles, Tahir Abbas and Nadir Abbas, and my 15-year cousin, Murtaza Ali Zaidi were in critical condition in the hospital. By the mercy of Allah, they have now recovered well.

Let’s be clear here; the attacks were sectarian, specifically targeting the Shia community. Later, the militant organisation, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi took responsibility for the attacks. A spokesman for the group said: “There is no room for the enemies of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in Pakistan”, a reference to Pakistan’s Shia minority.

It is important to note that whoever is behind these attacks, they are following a deviant interpretation of religion aligned to ISIS and al-Qaeda. This intolerant ideology comes from Saudi’s Salafi-Takfiris; they are a violent offshoot of mainstream Islam, and this tiny minority group is giving Muslims around the world a bad name.

In Pakistan, Shias are a persecuted minority who are still not free to practice their religion without fear of being killed for their beliefs. These attacks used to take place in public places, such as mosques, schools and hospitals. Now the attacks are taking place in private residences, which means people are not even free to practice religion in their own homes.

You think that these kinds of attacks happen to other people, but there are so many Shias being targeted, the chances are that you will know someone in Pakistan affected by these acts of violence. At the beginning of October, these same hardline groups killed my friend’s cousin, Mansoor Sadiq Zaidi, in a targeted attack, as he stood with his son outside his house. 

This is genocide, and it is specifically targeting the Shia community.

But this blog post is not an account of what happened that fateful day. You can read that yourself in the newspapers that have covered the event, including The Independent, The Guardian and The Seattle Times. The news made the front page of The Evening Standard last Friday.

This blog post is intended to tell you what you might not know about my mum’s brothers. I want you to know about their magnanimous personalities, about their humanity, and their values.

My mum’s brothers were very open-minded, tolerant, loving people who touched the lives of every single person they met. As I write this post, I know that there are not enough words to express the depth of the grief I am feeling, nor are words enough to explain how incredible my uncles were.

The Nazimabad firing took place during the Holy month of Muharram, when Shias commemorate Imam Hussain’s martyrdom. Ultimately, Hussain’s struggle was about freedom from oppression; about sacrifice to protect universal human values. My uncles lived with the love of the family of the Prophet (SAW) in their hearts, and they implemented these values in their everyday lives.

During the attacks, the gunmen attempted to gain access to the ladies majlis in the house. When they could not enter, they fired gunshots on the people who were sitting outside. As the gunmen came forward, Baqar Abbas Zaidi, my mum’s youngest brother, opened up his arms to protect  the door and to stop the killers from going inside the house. He was killed instantly as the gunmen opened fire on his chest.

I think about how many lives Baqar Mamu has saved through this fearless act of self-sacrifice. By standing between the door and the gunmen, he prevented them from entering the house, thus stopping further bloodshed and carnage.

My Mum’s eldest brother was Naiyer Zaidi, a British citizen who had resided in London for more than 30 years. He loved this country as he had spent most of his adult life here.

Every year, Naiyer Mamu would go to Pakistan to commemorate the events of the tragedy of Karbala with his family. He loved to read poetry, books and literature. After retirement, he spent more and more of his time reading about Islam, and he loved to spend his time in the company of learned Islamic scholars.

It is my view that religious conviction manifests itself in the values of humanity, and Naiyer Mamu’s personality is testament to this. He was kind, he was generous and he was incredibly humble. Moreover, he would view everything in his life as an example of God’s infinite mercy. His positive outlook on life and his ability to always see the best in people is incredibly inspiring.

The true essence of religion is about akhlaaq; it’s about how you treat your fellow human beings. When my paternal grandfather, Qaiser Hussain Zaidi passed away, Naiyer Mamu truly was a rock for our family, giving us so much support and kindness in a period of great difficulty.

Another uncle who was killed on that horrible day was Nasir Abbas, a US citizen. Nasir Mamu brought joy, happiness and laughter to every single person he met. In 2008, my sister and I visited him in the US. In only a few days, Nasir Mamu had such an incredible effect on me. He had what can only be described as a magnetic personality. He was so full of life; not only was he absolutely hilarious, but we would spend hours conversing with him about many topics, including philosophy, poetry, politics. He was incredibly open-minded; he didn’t care about who you were or where you came from. He treated everyone with the same love, respect and dignity.

I have been reflecting on the personalities of my mamus and thinking about what I can learn from them. They were all so positive in their outlook, always seeing the best in every situation.

I know that they would have seen even the way they left this world as an example of God’s blessings. They lived their life through the love of the values of the Prophet (SAW) and his Holy household, and they left this world in the same way. As I watch their funeral, I know the cries of “Labaik Ya Hussain!” would have comforted their souls. They have become shaheed.

I feel so honoured and privileged to have known them, and I feel so sad that they are no longer with us. But to have left this world in the way they did is no doubt a great blessing. They have given me a lifetime of beautiful memories, and to know that so many people around the world are remembering them so fondly, is a source of great comfort.

Please pray for the departed souls of Naiyer Mehdi Zaidi, Nasir Abbas and Baqar Abbas Zaidi.

Please pray for Muhammad Zaki Khan and Nadeem Lodhi, who were also martyred in this brutal attack and for the families of the injured and the deceased.

Please also pray for the soul of Mansoor Sadiq Zaidi.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.
All images are copyright of Aliya Zaidi. All rights reserved. Please do not use without permission.


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Religious Concepts Reexamined: Why Do We Continue Using Religious Teachings To Justify Domestic Violence?

“You just have to be patient – things will improve over time.”

“Some men are a little hot-headed.  Don’t provoke him, and just do whatever you can to be a good wife and please him.”

“Let’s all sit down together and work out the problems in your marriage – we’ll find a solution that will make you both happy.  You know, Islam encourages mediation in times of disagreement.  It’s just a question of compromise.”

“Surely you’re not thinking of leaving him?  Don’t you know that divorce is hated by Allah?  What about the children – they need their father.”

These are a few of the platitudes often directed at Muslim women who are experiencing domestic violence (DV). While well-intentioned and borne of a genuine desire to help a DV survivor, such approaches can, at best, be impractical and unhelpful and, at worst, pose a threat to the safety of the woman and her children. More fundamentally, the use of religious concepts to justify abuse, or to coerce women into accepting it, is a gross misapplication of Islamic teachings.

Advising a woman to be “patient” in the face of abuse minimizes her experience, and may prevent her from seeking further assistance. In reality, the concept of patience in Islam refers not to a state of stagnation, but rather towards progression, albeit under difficult circumstances. Rather than shutting down a survivor’s attempt at seeking help, a more useful approach would be to hear her story, support her in her choices, and be a resource (rather than a roadblock) for her. Furthermore, the reassurance that her situation will improve over time is factually incorrect. Research suggests that the severity of DV escalates over time, and that what may start as emotional abuse may well develop into sexual or verbal abuse, or serious physical assault. Therefore, those who encourage a woman to “put up with it” may unwittingly place her in a situation of increasing danger.

Another common response is to excuse the behavior of the abuser, often based on the idea that the husband is the head of the household and can behave as he wishes without being called to account. In addition, women are often told that, after Allah, their obedience is due to their husband. These claims have little basis in Islamic theology or the teachings of the Holy Prophet Muhammed (pbuh). There are numerous hadith which elevate the status of women and emphasise the importance of kindness towards one’s wife and family. There are no recorded narratives of the prophet using violence or misconduct towards his female family members, so why do we think that it’s acceptable for the men in our communities to do so? While Islam promotes co-operation with and loyalty towards one’s husband, it does not sanction relationships in which one partner exerts coercive control over the other. Indeed, Islam states that partners are equals and that loyalty and kindness should be mutually expressed, and that both parties are accountable for their actions.

In many communities, DV survivors are encouraged to participate in family mediation, in the hope that the matter can be resolved. Whilst the Quran does provide a detailed process for mediation between family members in times of dispute, such a model is designed to serve those in non-abusive situations. In cases of DV, suggesting any type of therapy, mediation or counseling where both spouses are present, can be very unhelpful for survivors, and can serve to traumatise them further. This type of scenario provides ample opportunity for the abuser to manipulate facts in his own favour, to discredit his wife, and to use charisma to appear likeable – a far cry from the traditional image of an abuser. In turn, the wife will, almost certainly, fear revealing the truth about the extent of the DV in the presence of her husband. In effect, the partner who has experienced the abuse is likely to benefit least from the mediation process. A more helpful approach would be for well-meaning community members to stand up for the oppressed party against the transgressor – a concept upheld numerous times within the Quran.

In cases where a survivor of DV may be considering terminating her marriage (a decision which, by no means, would she have arrived at lightly), she is likely to be met with disapproval from her community, together with the rather tired adage that divorce is the most frowned-upon permissible act in Islam. Whilst the sanctity of family life cannot be debated per se, it is important to realise that Islam promotes healthy families which are modeled upon Quranic values. Where there is an imbalance of power between the parties, attempts by one spouse to control the other (both classic features of a DV situation), and the presence of abuse in any of its ugly forms, such a relationship cannot be considered within the range of normal or healthy. It is for situations of this type that divorce is permitted in Islam.

As for the impact on children, research indicates that merely witnessing violence against their mother by their father can have a lasting and harmful effect on them. So whilst children may need their father, what they do not need is to see him abusing their mother, at whose feet lies paradise. Thus, to bully a survivor into staying within a harmful marriage, and questioning her piety at the same time, will do absolutely nothing to help her – on the contrary, such advice may further alienate her (once again, playing into the hands of the abuser – isolating a survivor from family, friends and community members is a well-used strategy amongst perpetrators of DV) from what may already be a limited resource bank. Studies show that a DV survivor is at her most vulnerable when attempting to escape her situation, and communities should be aware that at such times, women need support, understanding and, in certain cases, protection.

This year, DV Awareness Month coincides with the beginning of the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. For hundreds of years, Muslims and non-Muslims alike have commemorated the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (as), grandson of the Hoy Prophet Muhammed (pbuh). In a beautiful irony, the tears shed by the lovers of Hussain in memory of his struggle against tyranny, are paralleled by those of DV survivors as they navigate their lives within the confines of an oppressive marriage. Let’s be clear – domestic violence is not a normal part of marriage (no matter how comfortable that narrative may appear to be). In reality, DV is evidence of an abusive man who is transgressing the bounds of respect, compassion and the autonomy of his spouse. It is an abhorrent form of oppression, and one that communities should work to eliminate at all levels. In the words of Imam Hussain, “Those who are silent when others are oppressed are guilty of oppression themselves.”

By Neelam Khaki

Neelam Khaki is the Peaceful Families Taskforce Coordinator at API Chaya, an organization serving South Asian, Middle Eastern, and API women, who are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.  Her work within the PFT involves working with local Muslim communities to create peaceful families, by using the Qur’anic model of family, through training, education, and community engagement.

Neelam is a graduate in LLB Laws from the London School of Economics.  Prior to moving to the U.S, she was employed at a London City law firm.  Her interest in social justice began in a voluntary capacity, whilst working for The Samaritans, a UK based organization supporting suicidal clients.  She subsequently worked with Lifewire as a helpline volunteer, supporting survivors in domestic violence situations, and later as a Court Appointed Special Advocate.  Neelam also has a strong interest in community work.  She is involved in the PTA at both elementary and middle school level, and also volunteers as the administrator for a local Sunday School.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

Image credit:  Refuge


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‘Su-Shi’ and interfaith dialogue with Anne Dijk and Arjen Buitelaar

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Deviating slightly from our usual posts, we wanted to share with our readers an interview between Anne Dijk, a female Sunni scholar based in the Netherlands and Arjen Buitelaar, a male Shia scholar also from the Netherlands. They were interviewed by Arek Miernik who is from Poland, and the interview has been translated to English. You can read more about their backgrounds at the end of this post.

  1. What is the idea behind Su-Shi and how did it come about as your project?

Arjen Since the outbreak of the ‘Arab Spring’ we notice heightened and more open tensions between the different Islamic creeds, mainly Sunnites and Shiites, and the voices of the extremes on both sides become louder. Of course this is a development that has been going on for several decades by now, and the extremes on both sides kind of hijack the voice of the common and good willing majority of Muslims. We see both sides recruit people to war zones in countries they have never been to, and tensions, incomprehension and impotency grow. This kind of reached a peak when Mosul was conquered by ISIL forces. It was that moment that Anne Dijk participated in a radio talk on the differences and similarities between Sunnites and Shiites, and she emphasized that the differences weren’t that big (more on jurisprudential level), but in practice it often seemed impossible to get the groups together even for something simple like an iftar. I then decided to approach her, because it was the bitter truth and despite the talks (and efforts) from authoritative scholars that we share so many commonalities, that we are brothers and sisters or even each other’s souls, and that we should work together, we see that communities simply don’t do that and we wanted to change that.

Anne The idea behind su-shi is that we want to bring together Sunni, Shia and all possible creeds within Islam, together, on an equal basis, to meet on a personal level. We don’t want to ‘create’ one single creed, or try to undermine the differences, which exist. We want to strengthen the ummah by informing about the differences and also speak out against stereotypes and prejudices that cause harm to both groups.

Often, the stereotypes of arguments against the opposite groups are based on prejudices, which often only hold for the extremes, and not for the mass-mainstream. Getting to really know each other, in a safe place, where genuine interest and curiosity for the other, is hardly happening. Talks on internet fora very often result in harsh language and conversations that get hijacked by extremes. That’s why we focus on small get-togethers, to really give a platform for personal meetings, based on proper (academic) information.

  1. How do you create a “safe” and neutral space during your meetings and events? Considering the deep level of division and animosity that these differences can cause, exacerbated by current political events in the Middle East, how do you make sure that these divisive attitudes don’t make their way into your meetings?

Anne During the 1,5 year of preparation, before we went online, formal and open, we discussed this issue elaborately. How can we create a safe and neutral space? Of course we can never guarantee anything, but we made clear ‘houserules’. A few elements therein are, are that dialogue is the goal, not debate. Trying to convince the other of your own truth is not allowed either, sincere and open questions are. Tafkir is not allowed; anyone who considers him/herself Muslim deserves within sushi that we treat him/her as such. Per activity we try to make a ‘risk management’ – for example: we held a iftar last ramadan – what to do with the adhan? (su of shi time?) and what to do with the prayer? We try to prevent any kind if discussion of such issues: how? We talk about them openly and elaborate on potential differences. For example, we elaborated en public on the different times of braking the fast, and that the dates were presented for everyone who wanted to brake the fast at that moment (Sunnis) and that we would do one adhan at the shi time. Later, the prayer was open for everyone – everyone must feel free to be able to pray together, but if someone wanted to pray later, that was also fine.

Arjen I agree with Anne’s answer; these are good examples in practice. Within the core group we have a dozen different ethnic and sectarian backgrounds, so you can imagine we have lively talks on possible difficulties when organizing an event. I’d also like to emphasize that one of our core rules is to support respectful dialogue and denounce debate, which, in effect, could be focused on individual monologues only while dialogue forces to open up and listen to the other. It are these house rules that ensure the safe space individuals find themselves in. Added to that, it is important to note that we work with what we call an ‘oil spill formula’, by which we mean that every visitor is personally invited by someone he/she already knows within the ‘Su-Shi Community’. This way we ensure that people feel more secure to open up and say what is on their hearts. Another way we make sure people find themselves in a safe environment is that we do not use traditional set ups with podia for the speakers and people sitting on chairs for a few hours. Depending on the size of the group we either meet up at someone’s home and start with chit chat and dinner. Or like our last Iftar we met up in a ‘youth club’/lounge setting, having some armchairs, couches and tables to sit on, providing a more relaxed atmosphere and automatically ‘compelling’ people to mix up.

  1. The idea of meeting ‘the other sect’ in this environment presupposes that participants already have a certain degree of openness to it. Did you have any reactions so far from those sectors among both communities which prefer to maintain division and hostility?

Arjen Yes we did, though this was outnumbered by massive support messages. A certain degree of openness is definitely needed, simply because within the extremes of religions and ideologies people and or communities build virtual walls around them that make it impossible to reach out to. When people consider the other to be the devil, or inspired by the devil, or a hypocrite of some sort, and subsequently consider his words to be deceiving, how could one ever be willing to listen to it?

And this is kind of the scope of the hostile messages we received. Some extreme Salafists and Quranists who did not and will not acknowledge the existence of other creeds to be Islamic, and who attempted to defame some of our members on a personal level simply because there’s not much to argument about the content of our stance.

Because it is our policy to engage in dialogue and approach everything positively, instead of bogging down in endless debates, we do not react on that. Instead, these two negative approaches have given us plenty of points to further elaborate and communicate through the positive platform we’ve created.

  1. In your experience what are the main or most common reasons that the extreme sectors of each sect give as justification for their enmity towards the other sect? How much of it is theological, how much historical/political and how often is it perhaps rooted, or strengthened, by people’s personal experiences?

Arjen This is a fairly difficult question that needs some elaboration. It is most interesting that the extreme sectors from all creeds base themselves on core sources, just as much as mainstream creeds do. Sometimes even the exact same texts, yet interpreted differently. The narrower the boundaries of a sect become, the more stress they will put on their absolute authority to explain the meaning of texts and not to stray from the ‘right path’ by looking at explanations by authorities from outside their group’s ‘enclave’. The ‘other’ is literally demonized, and by defining ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’, and ‘divine’ and ‘satanic’ the justification easily becomes ‘theological’. It remains the question, however, whether the origins of the justification were theological by nature, or rather inspired by political motives. The same goes for stances on ‘historical truths’. These are based on the same kind of source texts that have alternatives that are consciously neglected, and have shortcomings. Subsequently these become indisputable dogma’s due to their absolute character, and are proposed as ‘real Islam’, yet are nothing more than fallacies. Used to manipulate and monopolize the conversation and hijack individual thought.

The main tradition that is used to justify sectarianism is that the prophet Muhammad ص would have said that Islam will be divided in 73 sects of which just one will enter paradise. This (weak tradition) is used to intensify the fear of individuals and groups to be amongst the dwellers of hell, causing people to know more about the ‘wrongs’ of the other than the ‘goods’ of themselves. With regards to other religions, Islam actually has the same opinion about truth as it has about herself. Christianity will be divided in 72 sects and Judaism in 71, both also have one rightly guided group. For Muslims it doesn’t seem to be their business to define which groups from other religions is the rightly guided one, as long as they do not interfere in Muslim matters. But as one reaction by a self-proclaimed institute wonderfully articulated their view on Islamic sectarianism: “the battle for influence over the Muslims continues…”

  1. Yours is clearly grassroots, bottom-up project. Do you think that the established Muslim leadership like traditional ulama etc. are falling short in building intra-religious bridges among Muslims at the top-down level?

Arjen The answer to this question has multiple layers; it would be too easy to say that they do or do not. In my opinion there are many efforts being made by the established Muslim leadership to build bridges, but their (and this is not reserved to Muslims or religious communities) focus is mainly on people from the top segments, not on community level. In the past decade alone we have seen the Amman Message, which is a great document that Su-Shi uses as well in our argumentation, and the Marrakesh Declaration, which apparently has been improved over a longer period since the 1990s and in its recent update specifically gained attention for its focus on minority groups such as the Yazidis and Christians who suffer much in the Middle East as we speak. Other attempts are being made as well, such as the annual Ghadeer Khumm Festival in Najaf, which I personally attended in 2013, and where leaders from different religious communities spoke. Including more subordinated sects such as the Druze community. All these attempts are very valuable and should be cherished.

At the same time, we see that these innumerably valuable official declarations are not lived after in practice. In real life they remain theoretical documents, that are sometimes not even lived after by important leader figures who endorsed them at first. Or that important religious leaders make statements that, unintended, lead to deeper sectarian rifts.

In parts of the Middle East region tensions are so high since the beginning of this millennium, that it is, of course, very hard to maintain these statements. Leaders can communicate with each other and make agreements at top level, but when blood is shed at ground level people will rather follow a leader that speaks their mind.

The main reason why these declarations hardly have an effect on ground level, however, is that most Islamic – and in fact Abrahamic – faiths are exclusivistic is in nature. When ground level believers hear from their leaders that they should respect and embrace believers from other faiths and sects, and at the same time read in their jurisprudences that those people from other faiths and sects are intrinsically ‘impure’ (najis) because of their ‘infidelity’ or being born to ‘infidel’ parents, than that is at least confusing. In practice, among migrant communities in the West, this means we see, for example, how certain Shiite groups try to find escapes from the statement by the highest authorities that ‘Sunnis are not our brothers and sisters, but our souls’, and try to explain how this still means Sunnis are not on the guided path. And vice versa we see the tremendous influence of Wahhabism which too, albeit being an extreme side faction, affects mainstream Sunnism as well by planting its poisonous seeds of hatred towards others. There is no other way to break this way of thinking, that is imported along with or even strengthened through immigration, down but by starting to work on this from a grassroots, bottom-up project. A project in which the participants themselves can add to the thinking process, and can themselves speak out for peace and cooperation instead of having to depend for that on top level leadership.

Anne It’s indeed a bottom up approach that we have, and that’s for many reasons. 1. We want to grow slowly in order to build real trust based on personal connection in stead of theoretical words only. And 2. To put into practise what those ‘top down’ approaches have tried to formulate but failed to implement.

  1. On a practical note, how do you fund your activities? The reason I’m asking is that as we know, with funding from established Muslim organisations often come agendas and expectations that might potentially jeopardise independence of a project or try to influence a project in a particular direction.

Anne We are up till now completely independent; meaning we don’t get any subsidies from any organisation from any denomination. We are very happy with our team; we all have a broad network so up till now we found free locations; the speakers were all unpaid and the food was covered by our volunteers alhamdulillah. But since we are a Foundation since this year, we are open for donations from individuals. Being independent and self-sustained makes you stronger. Maybe you grow slower, but inshaAllah the project can run longer. Being truly honest to your own values is the most important thing.

Arjen Before Su-Shi had become an organization and was still an idea, I have once organized an event in the Su-Shi spirit that we did receive donations for. From that I can confirm what you mentioned: there are donators that demand their agendas and expectations and try to influence what you do. This is very simple for me though; I reject such donators. Whenever the autonomy of a project or of our organization as a whole is in jeopardy, it isn’t worth what you gain. So when we think out a project, donators can support that of course, but not lay any conditions on us.

  1. Arjen, you are Shia and Anne, you are Sunni. What are the rough percentages in terms of sects among all people involved your project and those attending your events?

Arjen It’s difficult to speak in percentages. Few of our participants have a very homogenous background themselves, however some do. And the same then goes for who they invite through our ‘oil spill’ method. Overall, however, I think that people from a Sunni and Shiite background make up the majority -both close to the half- of participants of our events.

Anne We must also admit that we try to work towards a fair share as well. Meaning: we very consciously have 50% of the board Sunni, 50% of the board shi’i and one ‘neutral’ board member. In this way we direct towards an almost equal percentage of participants as well. Over all, most of our participants would consider themselves Sunni of Shia, we had a few Quranist participants and people with an Allevi background that are enthusiastic as well.

  1. What would be your personal message to people absolutely refusing to engage with the “other sect”, based in their conviction of the other sect’s “heresy” and their conviction that there is no “right” Islam outside their own school of thought?

Anne Allahu Alem. I would ask them so sincerely contemplate on this statement of “Allahu ‘Alem” and with this, try to focus on tazkiyya an-nafs, the cleansing of the soul. How can you, as an individual, be so sure? For me, in essence, ‘Allahu ‘Alem’ means absolute humbleness towards The Truth. Only God knows, that means, that we as human beings, per definition don’t.

Arjen I would like to emphasize that no layperson nor scholar is infallible, and that no matter what you personally believe, we do not all share the same beliefs and convictions. Nonetheless, we do live together, in a space that is becoming smaller and smaller. That brings tensions, but we are not animals. As humans we can use our reason to ‘defend’ our intellectual territories, we shouldn’t be so afraid of the other, and rather listen to each other. Dialogue is not about convincing one another, it is more about becoming stronger in your own convictions, but with respect for the other’s convictions in his or her own space.

***

Anne Dijk has a background in Religious Studies and a Master in Islamic Studies, specialised in Islamic Jurisprudence (Sunni). Fascinated by the transformations of the schools of law (madhahab) and the internal discussions, she found out that there is a deep ethical essence within the jurisprudence that differences of opinions (ikhtilaf) were deeply respected in history. In the hardened debate within Muslim communities nowadays, about ‘what is really Islamic’, she missed this ethical attitude. As Director of Fahm Institute she works on diverse ways to more understanding (fahm) of Islam. She is de co-founder of Su-Shi Intrafaith Dialogue, because she believes that world peace should start within yourself.

Arjen Buitelaar has a background in History and a Master in Religious Studies. From his Master’s thesis till now, he is conducting research of the Shi’ite communities in the Netherlands, at the moment primarily focusing on the role of rituals and symbolism in the shaping of (group) identity. Due to the increasing tensions between Sunnis and Shi’is since the start of the so called Arab Spring, he found it necessary to start with the Su-Shi Intrafaith Dialogue initiative to create better understanding between different Islamic creeds.

Arek Miernik has a background in English literature, is an Al-Mahdi Institute graduate, and leading figure of the wider Muslim community in Poland. Though primarily involved with the Polish Shi’i community, he doesn’t confine himself to it and is a heard voice in opinionated media on the wider Muslim community and its status in society. He is the heart behind the Strefa Islam blog, where this interview was originally published in Polish.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website. The above interview was conducted by another organisation and not SSWH but has been reproduced with the permission.


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Qandeel Baloch: an outspoken feminist in a man’s world

“As a woman we must stand up for ourselves.. As a woman we must stand up for each other… As a women we must stand…“

— Qandeel Baloch

feminism cross-stitch

The tragic murder of the social media celebrity, Qandeel Baloch, is an eye-opener to societal attitudes towards women in Pakistan. This is a case which has divided the nation and exposed the contradictory and hypocritical attitudes towards women.

It is Baloch’s social media profile which divides people and emboldens the haters. While some commenters go far as saying her murder was justified, others act as nothing less than apologists. Many argue that “Oh yes, she should not have been murdered, of course…”, but then go on to shame her by commenting on her lifestyle and public profile.

There is no but. Qandeel Baloch was brutally murdered and yet still, all the focus is on what the victim did. The focus should be on the patriarchal structure of Pakistan’s society, where women are seen as the property of fathers, brothers and husbands.

The truth is, Qandeel Baloch wasn’t murdered for being provocative. She was murdered because she challenged Pakistan’s religious establishment, making a mockery of the mullahs and exposing their double standards.

Sections of the media have called Baloch “Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian” but she was so much more than that. It is disingenuous to compare her to Kardashian, who grew up in relatively affluent circumstances. Unlike social media celebrities in the West, Fouzia Azeem was born into poverty with few options in life.

“I want to give those girls a positive message who have been forcefully married, who continue to sacrifice.”

Raised in one of the poorest areas of Pakistan, she was forced to marry a much older man, who then beat her. It’s the same old story across Pakistan where girls are forced into marriage and then expected to live a life of hell where they are abused daily.

But Qandeel Baloch chose to take a stand and escaped. With little education and no support from her family, she took matters into her own hands and took to social media to make a name for herself. Her father called her “my son” because she alone supported the family.

In short, she learnt that in life, you have to depend on yourself.

“No matter how many times I will be pushed down under but I am a fighter I will bounce back. Qandeel Baloch is ‘One Women Army’.”

The videos are grainy and she wears the same outfits over and over again. There’s no sign of the privilege given to wealthy middle-class women like Kardashian. To compare her to similar social media darlings in the West totally ignores her back story and trivialises Baloch’s personal circumstances. It is not difficult to see why she went down the path she did.

People are free to ignore the content if they are offended. But both men and women comment on social media, calling Baloch a shameless slut, immoral, cheap, while at the same time, watching her videos and checking out her pictures for titillation.

You could question how a girl like Baloch could make a name for herself in an Islamic country. Pakistan calls itself an Islamic country, but I for one sometimes find it difficult to see Islam in Pakistan. This is a country where a qawwali singer is brutally murdered for simply singing about his passion for family of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). A country where minorities are slaughtered on a daily basis. A country where one of the world’s greatest humanitarians, Abdul Sattar Edhi, is condemned as an infidel by Pakistan’s mullahs. Where Malala is dismissed as a Western stooge, and where a Nobel prize winner cannot even rest in peace long after his death.

“At least international media can see how I am trying to change the typical orthodox mindset of people who don’t want to come out of their shells of false beliefs and old practices.”

But people tolerated Qandeel Baloch up to the point when all she did was post racy pictures of herself. It was when she started to speak out about women’s rights in Pakistan and when she sought to expose the double standards of Pakistan’s religious clergy that society decided enough was enough.

Qandeel Baloch’s murder is more than a so-called honour killing by an enraged brother. It is a direct reflection of Pakistani society, where women are still expected to silently submit. Qandeel Baloch, fearless, outspoken and brave, took life into her own hands and challenged the patriarchy. For that, she paid the ultimate price.

Image credit: Cross-stitch ninja via Flickr
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


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Jamilla’s tips on dealing with anxiety around exam time (Part 2)

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Read Part 1 here.

In addition to depression, I was diagnosed with anxiety, which tends to worsen during exams. Even though I take medication for depression and anxiety, I still experience panic attacks before, during and after exams. I wanted to share with you a few things that help me get through exams without letting my depression and anxiety overwhelm me.
1. If, like me, you don’t really get nervous until right before the exam, then consider waking up as late as you possibly can (whilst still making it in time to the exam of course). This is because waking up hours beforehand will give you more time to stress yourself out. If you’re unoccupied, it gives your mind a chance to wander, to think bad thoughts or just play up your anxieties.
2. Make dua, lots of dua. When I don’t know what to do or if I’m scared and just need my mind to stop from wandering, I recite any dua or Surah that I can think of. The idea is to try something that helps you feel calm.
3. Don’t sit still. Go for a walk, pace up and down or even just move your legs up and down. I always find that movements distract me from my anxiety.

 

About the author: Jamilla recently graduated with a degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies and is VP of the Islamic Society at the University of Exeter. Follow her on Twitter@JamillaTweets.

Image credit: Photo by PracticalCures.com.
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


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From The Mother of The Child Who Broke Your Concentration During Tarawih Tonight

Muslim women beginning prayer

Muslim women beginning prayer

Thank you! To all those people in the mosque who bore with us tonight as my son tried – and failed miserably – to learn the art of serenity in prayer; as he lost his balance multiple times and bumped into you trying to stand on one foot while you were trying so hard to focus on the recitation; as he loudly whispered ‘Shhh!’ to his friend – who until then was perfectly quiet; as he half-whispered, half-sang out loud the chorus of Harris J’s Salam Alaikum; as he pretended he was a dinosaur and roared at his friend before both of them broke out in muffled laughter, thank you!

Thank you, for understanding that your kindness and consideration for his young age will be a building block that will lay the foundation of the relationship he will have with this place that is, unfortunately, being increasingly perceived as alien and unwelcoming by young people. Thank you, for your empathy towards me as a mother who is struggling to balance between teaching her child to respect this as a place of worship and helping him form a positive bond with this space. Thank you for smiling kindly at us after you offer your Salaam at the end of every pair of Rak’ahs instead of facing us with a frown on your face. Thank you.

Because of you, my son will likely not resist the idea of joining me to the ‘long prayers that go on for-EVER!!!’ – as he tends to call the Tarawih. I will not second-guess my decision to bring him along to the mosque every step of the way as he scurries along ahead of me singing about how ‘The bare necessities of life will come to you.’ Because of you, every mistake he makes will feel less like a failure on my part as a mother, but as an opportunity for me to teach him about the etiquette of being in the mosque.

We promise we will try our best to behave better tomorrow night. We will bring along some more interesting quiet things we can do to keep us busy when the prayers get too long for us to stay put. But we will still probably make some noise. By the end of Ramadan, we would have likely stretched you to your limits and forced you to move your spot in the prayer room a couple of times. We apologise of that in advance.

And thank you, once again, so very much!

By Aisha Hussain Rasheed
www.facebook.com/i.sha.hr

Aisha Hussain Rasheed is a Maldivian Muslim woman, who believes our Islamic heritage is the key to the future, if only we know how to use it. She is a student of Islamic jurisprudence and a political and social activist.
Image credit: Muslim women in prayer by Glenn Halog
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.