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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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Impact of hate crimes on mental health

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In the UK the rates of depression and suicide are on the rise, with the last known statistic suggesting 1 in 4 adults experience a diagnosed mental health issue. The statistics suggest that 1 in 10 children and young people have a mental health problem including depression, anxiety and conduct disorder, with 70% of children and young people not having had an appropriate intervention at a sufficiently early age. This is worrying. What is more worrying is the constraints and challenges faced when attempting to access mental health services.

Having spent a decade working in the mental health field with children, young people and adults I have heard one too many narratives of how our community struggles to overcome the barriers and challenges which prevent people from accessing statutory mental health services. And for those who access services, the challenges they face are numerous.

Following the brutal austerity measures and financial crises here in the UK, as well as an increase in racist and Islamophobic hate crimes in a post Brexit society I question if we are experiencing further mental health distress. How does race intersect with the crisis people of colour experience at being disproportionately affected and diagnosed with the label of a mental health problem?

In July, several colleagues and I went to the streets of London and took part in a Black Lives Matter protest. Many of us were and still are outraged at the racial injustices towards our brothers and sisters. During the protest I felt at home with many of my black brothers and sisters and it reminded me of some of my driving forces. One of which is knowing that our mental health system has many flaws. More often than not, members of our community fall through the cracks or do not receive appropriate support. One way we have tried to tackle this issue is with the rise of grassroots community organisations.

With an awareness that our National Health Service continues to experience cuts, and staff are continually stretched I remain optimistic, although some might call me disillusioned. When we compare our mental health system with America for example, I consider the benefits of receiving therapy on the NHS. Many of my clients have often come from a lower socio-economic background which has meant that they would not be able to access therapeutic services if it was not for the NHS.

That said, people of colour face many challenges in accessing appropriate mental health support. We need a mental health system that acknowledges different knowledge systems and ontologies in order to better meet the needs of these communities. I believe that this can be achieved by inciting structural change within the systems which at times perpetuate the disparity of mental health care our cultural groups receive.

I have been fortunate to meet several psychologists and psychotherapists employed within the NHS tackling some of these concerns and encouraging a shift in white Western paradigms that are not always functional for people of colour. As well as working in the NHS, I also engage in independent work and through this avenue I am passionate for us to build safe spaces where we can have open and honest discussions about the difficulties and distress we experience as people of colour in Luton and Birmingham. If you are interested in self-care and taking care of your mental health please get in touch (author contact details below).

 

About the author

Dr Amirah Iqbal is a womanist, an advocate for equality, a counselling psychologist, a writer and an activist. She has worked with many disenfranchised groups in Birmingham, and more recently Bedfordshire, notably Black (African, Caribbean and Asian) communities. In her spare time she enjoys reading, travelling, painting (the key word being abstract), exploring, writing, meditation and prayer. She can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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:  Jon Grainger


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Muslim Women’s Voices: A Muslim Woman Researcher’s Perspective

Personally whilst growing up (and still today) I could very rarely identify with the Muslim women that were always being spoken about in the media and by politicians. Perhaps, this is reflective of my somewhat privileged position, but the Muslim women that I knew were motivated and strong both in their careers and in the home, and were supported by those in their lives. In short the Muslim women I knew were educated and intelligent and very much able to speak their own mind, albeit their voices are not always heard.

This disconnect between my own experiences and popular discourses about Muslim women also significantly influenced me in my studies. Whilst I was at school, in 2004, the French authorities passed the ban on ‘ostentatious faith symbols’ in state schools, or as I soon realised the French authorities had banned young Muslim women from wearing the headscarf at school. This ban was somewhat paradoxical and nonsensical since it was estimated that only around 600 young Muslim women wore the headscarf at the time of the ban¹, so why was there such hysteria over what some women in France wear?

“Time and time again each of these so-called affaires consistently neglects the plethora of Muslim women’s voices and adds to growing Islamophobia directed towards Muslim women.”

The French obsession with Muslim women’s dress has ‘Orientalist’ roots (see the image above). The specific fixation on Muslim women’s appearance in educational establishments dates back to 1989. However, prior to the implementation of the ban on the headscarf in schools in 2004, a commission was founded to investigate the potential prohibition. Personally, as a young student I found it problematic that the appointed representative of diversity and Muslim women’s voices was Fadela Amara. The former head of the French feminist organisation Ni Putes, Ni Soumises² was known for her typically French republican feminist stance, one that subscribes to current French secular positions that seek to remove the public visibility of faith, especially that of Islam. In her book also entitled Ni Putes, Ni Soumises, Amara describes the headscarf as a mark of oppression, submission, gender inequality, anti-feminist and anti-French. In short, Amara’s position negates the rich complexity of French Muslim women’s identities and multiple positions that they occupy and instead reduces visibly identifiable Muslim women as women who allegedly need ‘saving’.

The 2004 ban is only one of many legislative and normative measures in France that limit Muslim women’s dress; the 2010 anti-niqab law, controversies surrounding Muslim women’s headscarves in universities, long skirts in schools, what mothers wear when picking up their children from school, or the ‘burkini’ hysteria that has swept across France in recent weeks represent the ever-growing French obsession with Muslim women’s bodies.

Time and time again each of these so-called affaires consistently neglects the plethora of Muslim women’s voices and adds to growing Islamophobia directed towards Muslim women. In short, these debates obsess over Muslim women, yet they rarely afford these women a platform and instead they often contribute to worsening Muslim women’s everyday lives in France.

Recently I completed my PhD investigating the nature of Muslim women’s political participation in France and francophone Belgium. My research was based on 29 interviews with women who self-identify as Muslim and participate in variety of political activities. Among the women who took part in the study there were members of the European Parliament, national and regional parliamentarians, local councillors, trade union activists and those who took part in grass roots political activism.

This research presented an opportunity to showcase not only the nature of the political participation undertaken by Muslim women in France and Belgium, but also gave a platform for their voices. Upon reflection, I found that Muslim women encounter numerous obstacles to their political participation, and that these distinctly shaped by the spaces in which they seek to participate and also the evolving normative structures in their respective context. I was struck by the remarkable resilience of the women that shared their experiences with me – they always found ways and means of participating in politics and this was often driven by a desire to better the communities which they were very much part of.  Hearing Muslim women’s voices, be it through academic research or more accessible blogs like ‘She Speaks, We Hear’ is a tool to bring about social cohesion and improve understanding of Muslim women, to move away from the hysteria that surrounds them and to see that these women, in all their diversity, are very much part of Western society.

by Amina Easat-Daas

 ¹ See Hargreaves, A. G. (2007). Multi-Ethnic France: Immigration, Politics, Culture and Society. Abingdon, Routledge.
² Ni Putes, Ni Soumises translates as Neither Whores, nor Submissive (translation my own). The NGO was founded in response to the violence directed towards women in ghettoised French suburbs. Ni Putes, Ni Soumises is also the title of a book written by Fadela Amara (Amara, F. (2004). Ni Putes Ni Soumises. Paris, Editions La Découverte.)
Image Courtesy of The image above is taken from http://information.tv5monde.com/sites/info.tv5monde.com/files/styles/large_article/public/assets/images/288865_vignette_devoilement2.jpg?itok=zERgiXqm. The image was commonly used in French predominantly Muslim colonies. The text reads N’êtes-vous donc pas jolie? Dévoilez-vous which translates So are you not beautiful? Remove your veil. 

Amina Easat-Daas has recently completed her PhD at Aston University, Birmingham, UK. Her doctoral research is entitled Muslim Women’s Political Participation in Francophone Europe: A Comparative Analysis of France and Belgium, and it specifically examines the motivations, opportunities and barriers to political participation by Muslim women in the two cases. Amina’s broader research interests include the study of Muslim political participation and representation, Muslim women’s dress, ‘European Islam’ and anti-Muslim prejudice or Islamophobia in Europe, and has several forthcoming book chapters and articles related to these topics. Amina has worked alongside prominent European NGOs. She regularly participates in academic conferences throughout the UK and internationally, and has also previously presented some of her work related to anti-Muslim prejudice to the European Parliament in Brussels. http://aston.academia.edu/AminaEasatDaas

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 fight with self-harm and suicide: the ultimate taboos (Part 3)

Untitled

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Our bodies have as much right over us as we have over them and it’s up to us to take care of ourselves. This is one of the reasons why self-harm is often a taboo subject. For those of us who feel the need to harm ourselves, it’s often because we have no other way to deal with what’s going on in our heads. Sometimes if I can’t distract myself from my thoughts, I will pinch myself or cause pain to myself so that I can think about something else. This is the first time I have written these thoughts down, but hopefully by doing so I’ll be able to help those who feel that they’re the only ones going through it. It’s something that needs to be spoken about, we need to share ways of dealing with these problems with other and in more productive ways.

When it comes to suicide, a vast majority of scholars agree that committing suicide is haraam. Therefore, it is a taboo in many Muslim communities to talk about it. It has crossed my mind, it has crossed the minds of many Muslims, that’s why we need to talk about it. We need to help each other realise that suicide isn’t the option, even when it feels like the only option.

When I feel *that* down, something that helps me is writing down my blessings. Everything I have in my life from friends and family to even that extra biscuit left downstairs that I forgot about. Not only does it take my mind off things but it reminds me to talk to a friend I haven’t heard from in a while, or go for a walk to my favourite park in the sunshine, which hopefully will help me ride out the dark period.

I hope reading this has helped you, especially if you’re going through similar things. I hope it’s made you realise you’re not alone, and maybe some of the things that help me will end up helping you too, InshAllah.

Please always seek help from a professional if you feeling suicidal or are contemplating self-harm. The following organisations could help you, if you are feeling particularly distressed:

Samaritans: call free any time, from any phone on 116 123.

Emergency services: 999

NHS has a list of organisations that help with depression and suicide: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Suicide/Pages/Getting-help.aspx

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 Gary Knight.
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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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.