She Speaks We Hear

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Wise Women in The 99 Names of God

I co-founded Chickpea Press, a multi-faith children’s publisher, after working in mainstream publishing for over a decade. One of our core aims is to cultivate an awareness of the equality of women and men in faith. After a lifetime of struggling to find a voice within a faith setting, thinking that my religion didn’t allow it, it was a shock, as an adult, to discover Muslim women throughout history who not only had voices, but profound wisdom to share about God, life and religion.

The 99 Names of God is an illustrated guide to the Divine attributes of God within Islam, written and illustrated by Daniel Thomas Dyer. Designed for young and old, the book shows how compassion and peace are at the heart of Islam, and how the faith celebrates social diversity, recognizes the validity of other religions, promotes social equality and justice, abhors violence, values self-expression and the arts, and encourages responsible custodianship of the natural world.

One of the key features is a quote for each Name from a prophet or holy person of faith. It was very important that we try to have an equal balance of female and male voices in the book. This was a challenge from the start. Whilst we are aware of many women of faith, finding actual records of their words is a lot harder. There may be lots of reasons for this: historically women seemed more busy in the actual process of communing with God than writing down their experiences; women who had learned men-folk in their life (husbands, fathers) might be mentioned in their writings but without direct quotes; for women who did keep a record of their life and work, the sources may not have survived – or may have been destroyed over time in a patriarchal system.

One of the most important books to collect their voices, however, is Women of Sufism by Camille Adams Helminski. This treasury of female Muslim saints was a guiding light in our work for the book, unveiling women from across cultures and social classes, and providing more sources that we could explore. For many women, we were only able to source one referenced saying.

This being an illustrated guide, Daniel spent a lot of time working on appropriate and sensitive visual representations of all the key figures quoted. One of my favourite images is of Khadijah with Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon them both, illustrating the attribute of al-Mumin, the Inspirer of Faith. The image illustrates the time when Muhammad, on first receiving his prophethood, rushed to Khadijah who comforted and reassured him that he was not mad and had truly been chosen as a messenger of the Almighty. Khadijah’s strength and faith are beautifully encapsulated in this Name and the accompanying words she is believed to have said:

khadijah

Another favourite is Rabiah of Basra, the great mystic who was renowned for sincerely loving God for God’s sake alone. Daniel’s illustration is based on her famous saying, used for al-Khafid, the Abaser, and ar-Rafi, the Exalter:

rabiah

The book also contains sayings from Hagar, Mary, Aishah, and Fatimah, as well as introducing lesser known figures such as Shawana, renowned for weeping out of love and awe of God; Lady Nafisah of Cairo, known as ‘the Jewel of Knowledge’; Fatimah al-Bardaiyyah of Iran, who was renowned for speaking words of ecstasy; and Unayzah, a witty and spirited mystic from Baghdad.

This book is offered as a guide to help us witness the Divine Majesty and Beauty. For children it is a rich treasury of wonder that will reveal greater depths as they grow and mature, whilst for parents and teachers it will offer much to inspire, inform, and remind. Each name is accompanied by engaging reflections and activities, with signs to highlight the Name both within our hearts and outside in nature.

I wonder how I would have been affected if I had been given access to an education that offered me a deeper understanding and awareness of my mothers and sisters of Islam at a younger age. It is my fervent hope that we can create quality resources that give a new generation what so many of us missed out on.

We are launching The 99 Names of God in London on February 6th at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. Daniel will speak more about his personal journey with the Names, and we will be joined by Azim Rehmatdin who penned the original calligraphy for the book, and Julia Katarina from Music With Refugees who will be singing Qawwali and Nasheeds on the Divine Names.

You can book your ticket for the launch, see more about the book and get your copy here: chickpeapress.co.uk

By Saimma Dyer

Saimma Dyer is the Managing Director of Chickpea Press and Co-founder of Rumi’s Circle. When not busy publishing or organising interfaith events, she can be found exploring the Divine Feminine and how to be a Sufi Feminist. Follow her @SaimmaDyer

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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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

su-shi-arjen-anne

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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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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Bravo France

Last night I forced myself to look at this image. Over and over again. It was uncomfortable, sickening and terrifying. But as I sat up in bed, in the dark, with Imaan asleep next to me, I forced myself to stare at it.

I had scrolled past the image earlier in the day. I was afraid to read what accomponied the picture. I wanted to be in denial. Wanted to shroud myself in ignorance. Because if you don’t know, you don’t feel.

But this is reality. Reality for Muslim women across the globe. Women who bear the brunt and consequences of war, terrorism, Islamaphobia.

Muslim women who are thought to be so oppressed that they cannot exercise their own freedom of choice. Even if a woman is screaming THIS IS MY CHOICE, the world responds ‘you are so oppressed you think this is what you want…let us liberate you’

Let us liberate you with our guns on a crowded beach. Let us enforce this rule upon you. Make you strip in front of the world. In front of your crying, terrified children. All because you choose to cover up.
We do not understand why you do it, nor do we approve.

So remove your clothing.

Stripped of humanity
Stripped of compassion
Stripped of dignity
Isolated. Degraded. Humiliated.

Bravo France. The very women you want to integrate into your society are the ones you are now criminalising and marginalising.

Bravo. Bravo

by Sabbiyah Pervez

Sabbiyah Pervez, is a journalist and an advocate for social change, you can read more about her work at http://sabbiyah.co.uk and follow her on Twitter @sabbiyah 

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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Jamilla’s story of dealing with Depression and Anxiety (Part 1)

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If you’ve met me, just like everyone else does, you wouldn’t expect me to be dealing with a mental illness, especially of this severity. I’m in my final year of university, expected to graduate with a 2:1 (Inshallah), VP of a society and always up for hanging out with my friends or getting involved in extracurricular activities. When people discover that I have depression, and that I’m on strong medication to help me with it, they act shocked, almost as though they think it’s not as bad as I’m making it out to be.

It is a daily struggle, from waking up each morning to completing my university tasks as well as my basic duties as a Muslim, all the while dealing with sporadic suicidal thoughts. And that’s the reason I want this series of posts to be able to reach out to those who are going through the same or similar things. For those who have been told their mental health is caused of lack of imaan (faith), or that it is taboo to talk about it.

Depression, anxiety and all other mental health issues are real illnesses, ones that need to be dealt with appropriately, and ones that require support which we, in Muslim communities, have not really acknowledged. Sometimes, people don’t understand why we’re finding it hard to pray, or fast, or read Qu’ran. I want this blog to help myself and you, not only to deal with your mental health, and for you to know that you’re not alone, but to increase our faith in Allah slowly, so that step by step we can build ourselves back up. Inshallah.

Whilst depression symptoms can vary from person to person (I, for example have depression and anxiety, so I won’t have the exact symptoms as someone with only depression or only anxiety), there is lots of misunderstanding surrounding depression. I hope to clear that up from my own experience.

1. There is often no direct cause. Whilst someone can have many triggers, for example, with anxiety it can often be triggered by loud noises or being around too many people, there isn’t one thing that causes it all. It’s often not one thing that can be the reason for depression, but a series of things that build up over time. For me, symptoms of depression and anxiety have been building up over a few years, and it was only 6 months ago (when I went through a week of not being able to eat or sleep) that I chose to get help.
2. Depression and Sadness are not the same thing. “That’s so depressing”, “That’s made me so depressed”. We’re all guilty of using these expressions wrongly – I know I am, but depression is so much more than one thing making you sad. Depression is not a mood that you can simply “snap out of”, it comprises of good days and bad days, some days you might feel totally fine, other days you might not want to leave the house, but these last over long periods of time.

3. Depression can be easy to hide, so just because someone looks fine, doesn’t mean their depression isn’t bad. When I tell people I have depression they are often surprised. This is because I am usually walking around with a big smile on my face, not looking like anything is wrong. Just because someone is smiling doesn’t make their depression any less valid; you’d be surprised at how well people can hide these things.

4. Depression isn’t a weakness of imaan. Depression can stop someone from fulfilling basic Islamic duties, but this isn’t because a person doesn’t have faith or because there is something wrong with their imaan, it’s because maybe they are finding it hard enough to wake up in the morning, or just keep themselves alive. Maybe they don’t want to pray because they feel so guilty that they’ve let their illness get the better of them, even though it is not their own fault. Depression is an illness like any other, and it needs to be seen as such from the Muslim community.

The best description of depression I have seen comes from a Reddit post which said: “Depression, when it is present, is more like the force of gravity. It is there, pulling down on you under all circumstances. Though I’m depressed I am often very happy – but still there is the unfeeling wet blanket of muddled confusion and writhing frustration seething under it all. Waiting.
A creeping numbness that insidiously degrades and diminishes every aspect of conscious life. A storm of screaming and hatred in dreams. A dull apathy in waking. A sinking stomach in the face of joy and a faithless lassitude in the face of hope.
Depression isn’t an emotion. Depression is a contradiction to every worthy aspect of life.”

I hope this post helps give people a better understanding of what depression is and what it isn’t.

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