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Breastfeeding shaming needs to stop

https://flic.kr/p/5uGfo8

Last week was World Breastfeeding Week, and yet again there are reports that the UK has the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world. Breastfeeding is one of those topics that any blogger should be terrified to write about. It is so controversial, so politicised, yet it really shouldn’t have to be so complicated.

It’s controversial because mothers are routinely shamed for “not trying hard enough”. But the reality is, women are just not supported enough. There is so much pressure to breastfeed without an adequate support structure in place. Breastfeeding seems to be about NHS quotas and targets these days; but, you can’t expect more women to breastfeed without supporting them properly.

I’m writing this as a woman, who has one child who was formula-fed after two weeks and the second who went from combination feeding to eventually being exclusively breastfed. I don’t feel shame for how I fed my children because I know I tried my best both times around, and I don’t care about judgment from others because nobody knows my experience apart from me. But my experience of being a first-time mother was so different from doing it the second time around.

The guilt and shame started during pregnancy, when in an NHS ante-natal class, a group of nervous first-timers were fed the mind-numbingly stupid idea formula was akin to giving your baby McDonald’s. This is the last thing a first-time mother needs to hear; it is not helpful and most women know the benefits of breast milk versus formula.

The nightmare continues after birth: the midwife (who in some cases, has no real personal experience of her own) expecting you to feed, feed, feed all night without a break, and that’s after you’ve just spent a good few hours, maybe even days, bringing a human being into the world. It’s relentless.

Breastfeeding is hard. Let’s not pretend otherwise. When we are pregnant, we are often told that breastfeeding is a beautiful, natural experience that will come easily to us, that we were made to do this, and made to feel that it is our God-given purpose as women. We imagine ourselves as glamorous as the super-model, Gisele; feeding while glowing like a Goddess, while simultaneously being pampered by a team of hovering beauty experts. And then, our babies are born, and reality hits home. I’m not going to go into the gory details, but you all know what I’m talking about. We persist, and sometimes it works; other times, we try and try and it doesn’t. And that’s okay.

When I couldn’t breastfeed my first child, I went through a period of mourning because for a long time, I did wonder if I could have done more, even though I knew deep-down that I had made the right decision. I took time to read Suzanne Barston’s book, “Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t.” Barston is the writer behind the formula-centric blog, Fearless Formula Feeder. The book explains that for various reasons, not everyone can breastfeed, and women shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about it.

Like it or not, formula isn’t poison. Formula fed a generation, and many of us are here (healthy and happy!) because of formula. Let’s not forget that many women also had wet nurses, so clearly, not everyone was miraculously able to breastfeed a hundred years ago.

If women weren’t made to feel that feeding their baby was an exclusive choice between pure poison or nature’s golden milk, then maybe they wouldn’t put so much pressure on themselves to feed.

Breastfeeding is tied to hormones and stress. When you are anxious, you produce adrenalin, which can affect your production of prolactin, the hormone that is trying to help you to produce milk. Nursing can help to reduce stress, but there are also some studies which show that physical and mental stress can cut the flow of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for stimulation of milk ejection (milk letdown) . If oxytocin is low, this can affect your supply of milk.

In simple terms, relaxation is really important for a breastfeeding mother. So maybe, just maybe, if formula was presented as an option to fall back on, more women would be able to relax and try hard to breastfeed, without the psychological fear of not filling up their baby’s tummy.

Because many women want to breastfeed. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just that they are human. Motherhood is bloody difficult. You have to do whatever it takes to survive, to get through one day after the next, to keep going, and pick yourself up every time your child doesn’t eat, or refuses to sleep, or throws the mother of all tantrums in public. If that means giving some formula to help you survive, so be it. If women don’t want to breastfeed, or want to mix-feed, let’s not shame them for their choices.

I truly believe that if a happy mum means a happy child. Motherhood is messy and complicated, and the happiness and intelligence of your child rests on far more than just the milk you feed them in the early years of their life.

But the real crux of this post is to ask why more women don’t breastfeed, and I think part of the reason is the overtly sexualised culture in the UK. We seem to have forgotten somewhere down the line, that breasts are intended for feeding babies and that is their primary function.

Why, in the 21st century, is there so much controversy about public breastfeeding? A couple of years ago, the luxury hotel Claridge’s came under fire for insisting that a baby breastfed at afternoon tea was covered up with a napkin. Yet, this is the same country where up to 2015, newspapers would routinely publish totally uncovered breasts on Page 3. The practice was only dropped two years ago. Lingerie models are on display in every public shopping centre that sells underwear, but God forbid, that we see a tiny bit of skin for a millisecond while a baby latches on. And you could always, you know, not look.

We need to remove the stigma around public breastfeeding, because this is partly the reason why women stop.  Because our society doesn’t prioritise the baby’s needs, and because there are some who would give more importance to their discomfort over the sight of a woman nurturing her infant. It is not always easy to find a private space, and although, legally you can breastfeed anywhere, women are often made to feel uncomfortable with public feeding.

As a society, we need to give more importance to the needs of the child and to increase the importance of the family. Not only are breastfeeding rates low, but England also has some of the unhappiest children in the world. Across the pond in Europe, the culture is centred much more around family life and the needs of children in particular. It’s something the UK could certainly learn from.

Breastfeeding has a whole host of additional health and social benefits for babies, and it would be somewhat naïve to deny this. But rather than judgment, shame and pressure, let’s make it easier, not harder. The culture needs to change to boost women’s confidence and give them the support they so vitally need to achieve successful breastfeeding.

Image credit: Breastfed graffiti, https://flic.kr/p/5uGfo8 – Eli Duke via Flickr
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.
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Women’s Peace Tribute following London Bridge and Borough Market Attacks

She Speaks We Hear organised a Women’s Peace Tribute with Women’s March on London, following the brutal atrocity in Manchester, in which twenty-two people were killed and 116 injured in a suicide bombing at Manchester Arena. We never expected to also be paying tribute to victims of two further attacks, that took place on Saturday night,  4 June 2017, on London Bridge and Borough Market. Julie Siddiqi reflects on the tribute:

On Sunday evening a few women got together to meet, to share, to listen, to connect. The same women who came together on Westminster Bridge met this time at the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park (no idea why I have never been before, it’s so nice!). It was a lovely couple of hours with old friends and some new. I was completely oblivious to the photographer most of the time but she captured some lovely moments as you can see here. I cried that evening when I tried to speak. We had originally arranged the small gathering post Manchester. Then the London attack happened and we decided to still carry on the next day. It felt raw, still does. Sometimes it is so important to meet and be with others, good people. I was grateful that evening to have that opportunity and it helped to laugh and to cry with good people around. I post it not so you can see my crying face necessarily but I hope people reading this will consider and find chances to do something similar, when you feel you need it, whatever works for you, because it really can be a great help 

By Julie Siddiqi

Julie Siddiqi is a mentor, consultant and activist with a focus on gender issues, Jewish-Muslim relations and social action. Julie was the Executive Director of the Islamic Society of Britain from 2010-2014, Founder and Director of Sadaqa Day, a one day Muslim-led focus on social action, and is co-chair of Jewish and Muslims women’s network, Nisa-Nashim.


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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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The Aliens; Islam & Feminine Spirituality

by Roszeen Afsar 

Bird painting by Roszeen Afsar

Bird painting by Roszeen Afsar

In my previous post; ‘The Smiling Sister; Paintings of Hijab’, I wrote that knowledge of spirituality today is very little, and as such female spirituality is never brought up in discussions on Islam. I was asked why that is. This is an interesting question and one I touched on in my final year at university. The answer, I found, is both because of how Islam is perceived on the outside as well as how Islam has largely continued on the inside.

Islam from Outside

In terms of religion in the present day, although many believe the developed world to be mostly secular, I found in my research that there’s been a growth of new religions and the resurgence of interest in human spirituality. This is believed to be due to a backlash against the Enlightenment and modernity. In an age of globalisation many individuals in the developed world have lesser ties to the community, there’s a breaking up of the family unit (leading to a lack of identity), more focus on fiscal gain, and a lack of ‘standing for something’. The individual therefore has to find other ways to feel at peace. Followers of niche religions or agnostics (who believe in something but don’t follow any particular religion) see religions such as Christianity and Islam as rigid dogmas; too controlling, too backwards, not providing a way for their individual problems/needs to be addressed.

Although many Muslims would argue against this, we must understand that the Western view of Islam has always been rudimentary and I would argue that Western scholars haven’t made much effort in the past to understand Islam beyond seeing it from their knowledge of Christianity. If you add this to the Enlightenment’s criticism of, and moving away from, religion you have to question how Islam could have stood a chance in being recognised for the depth of its beliefs. I had this experience with my own lecturers; those of which I spoke to about Islam during my research had no idea about its spirituality or complexities. It’s no surprise then that individuals who are identified with Muslim backgrounds and who are causing harm in the world, bring about a questioning of the tenants of Islam itself rather than their actions being seen as perversions of religion or as politically motivated with political objectives as my research found was almost always the case.

Further to Islam’s alien position in the Western world, the appearance of Muslim women is seen from a black and white perspective – as alluded to in the previous post – in which the spiritual notion of hijab is never once brought up, but rather female attire is seen as oppressive or the result of fanatical ideology, or being socially motivated.

Islam from Inside & Feminine Spirituality

As amongst non-Muslims, the reason why female spirituality is not brought up in Islamic discussions by Muslims is because of the incredible lack of knowledge regarding it. Many cultural traditions which have taken on Islamic beliefs have unfortunately held strong to their backwards views on the position of women, disregarding the feminine in society. In both the secular and non-secular world, this ignorance leads to catastrophe, as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf writes;

‘When her natural virtues—compassion, kindness, caring, selflessness, and love—predominate in men, men are able to overcome their natural vices and realize their full humanity. When, however, those virtues are absent, men descend to the lowest of the low and are worse than beasts.’*

This is not just the case in cultural traditions, but also in those Muslims claiming to be following a ‘pure’ and ‘untainted’ version of Islam. I’m sure that many of you have noticed the literalism with which Islam is approached nowadays by some. I’ve come across writers commenting that Muslim literalism has been a result of the Enlightenment and Rationalism because of which some have approached their faith from scientific perspectives, using the Qur’an to verify mathematical and scientific notions rather than using it as a practical and spiritual guide to cleanse the heart. Along with this many have tried to ‘simplify’ the religion, leading to a kind of reductionism of teachings, principally the sayings of the Prophet (pbuh). Even worse, some have taken it upon themselves – disregarding any scholarly lineage – to make their own interpretations, leading to chaos. Spirituality and inward knowledge has been pushed aside in all of this, reducing worship to rigid, meaningless ritual at best, and incredible violence at worst.

Before I end up going too much into literalism, I’ll quickly bring it back to female spirituality. I’ve heard from many sisters recently, and even from some brothers, that there’s a need for more female scholarship and I wholeheartedly agree with this. This demand, it could be said, has also brought a revival of history which was forgotten of late regarding female contributions to Islam – just as I learnt of Rabia al Basri. And so I do believe things are changing.

 

Image of a woman wearing Hijab by Roszeen Afsar

Image of a woman wearing Hijab by Roszeen Afsar

 

Nowadays Muslim women demand for their spiritual space in the Masjid. They’re becoming more active in their worship and in their participation in the community (from my experience) than their male counterparts. They also participate in society in ways separate to other women, e.g. through the creation of businesses, sister study groups and socials, and events specifically catering towards the Muslimah – which become an extension of her worship and combine with her other duties. They’ve shown courage in their adherence to hijab in the face of criticism which comes from a real lack of understanding about the feminine virtue and its relation to God. And so I would like to end this article with another quote from Shaykh Hamza’s Yusuf’s writing – a piece I’m obsessed with and have also quoted in a previous article (https://ispeakinwriting.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/do-women-have-a-soul-religious-revival-the-feminine/);

‘The Arabic and Hebrew word for womb (rahm) is derived from the word for mercy (rahma) and an expression of the creative power of God in man…When her natural virtues—compassion, kindness, caring, selflessness, and love—predominate in men, men are able to overcome their natural vices and realize their full humanity.’*

*Hamza Yusuf, ‘Climbing Mount Purgatorio: Reflections from the Seventh Cornice’, Zaytuna College, p.1-20

You can view more art work by Roszeen Afsar [Inky-Art by Roszeen] on her Instagram @InkyArtbyRoszeen and follow her on Twitter @Roszeen she also blogs on http://ispeakinwriting.wordpress.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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Where do we stand with Rape on Our Screens?

by Sabrina Mahmood

(Trigger warning: this article contains references to rape, which may be distressing for some)

 

Have you ever seen ‘The Last House on The Left’? It’s classified as a horror film, and being a well-known name in the horror world, I decided to watch it. When I read the info on the back of my dvd case, it mentioned something about an isolated house and a family, so I assumed it would fit the bill of many similar films where people go to an isolated house and get haunted or killed by the strange locals.

The_Last_House_On_The_Left_Promotional_Poster
Theatrical release poster

The film started off like any other, but halfway through there was an unimaginably traumatic rape scene. It was completely unexpected, and although the film is rated 18, I did not ever imagine witnessing such horror. The scene continues for over 3 minutes, showing in gruesome detail a minor watching his father rape another minor with the help of his girlfriend.

That sounds horrific doesn’t it? It was. Absolutely and brain numbingly horrific. I thought about why anyone would want a visualisation or to depict an image like this in such detail. Was it to get viewings and ratings? Was it to make the film more credible, more ‘extreme’ than any other horror film. Horror as a category is not always about ghosts, but in the main there is supernatural influence or senseless killing by deranged humans. Even if there is a rape scene it is insinuated or referred to verbally but I had never seen anything like this. It left me with so many questions.

Is this what we accept in society? That to make something more exciting or watchable or to have higher ratings, we incorporate graphic rape scenes and sexual violence. It’s massively important to talk about these issues in our society, and to make sure that our children know about rape, but in an appropriate fashion. By showing it in such detail, do the moviemakers desensitise us to it? So that the next time we watch a tv show or film that shows a rape scene, do we say ‘it was just a rape scene’. Because it’s not ‘just’ anything.

Rape ruins lives and I guess it’s the same argument that parents use when they don’t want their children to watch violence on tv, because unknowingly they start to mimic it. I’m not saying that we will all become rapists by watching rape scenes, but merely that when societies’ impressionable and often vulnerable people see these acts of sexual violence as an ‘exciting aspect’ of a film or tv show, will it make them look for similar ‘exciting’ experiences in real life?

Does the graphic depictions of rape on our screens stem from a wider rape culture that exists in society? If we look out our music charts as an example, the song ‘Blurred Lines’ in 2014 peaked at number one in 14 different countries. The uncut (explicit) version of the video features fully nude women and the censored version has ‘censored nudity’. When did it become okay to show a naked women on any other platform but porn? And even then it was acknowledged that this was reducing women to mere sexual objects! The song’s key theme is pushing boundaries with women and there is an undertone of coercion.

Robin Thicke, TI and Pharrell performed 'Blurred Lines'. Image credit: http://thompsonhall.com/copyright-lawsuit-blurred-lines/

Robin Thicke, TI and Pharrell performed ‘Blurred Lines’. Image credit: http://thompsonhall.com/copyright-lawsuit-blurred-lines/

 

Robin Thicke sings;

‘What do they make dreams for

When you got them jeans on’

 

He insinuates that the womens’ choice of jeans are merely as a tool to be provocative in seducing men. The lyrics and video itself completely objectify women, making them sound as though they are purposefully seductive for men to ‘blur lines’ with. Yes it’s catchy, but when you consider the real message of the song, it becomes sinister. That song stayed in the top of the charts for months, and it’s not just in music, even on our TVs and basic advertising that we are exposed to on a daily basis. We’re constantly shown images of women which turns them into objects and this contributes to the the way in which women and girls are viewed less equally to men, in wider society. Isn’t it time that we took back our bodies?

Below is a short spoken word poetry piece, that I wrote which considers the embodiment of rape culture and how widespread and normalised it is in todays’ society.

Isn’t it okay to be real?

Isn’t it time we stopped
pretending that it’s okay
to judge a woman on her beauty
and not the strength of what she says
only cup size that matters
her intellect dismissed
if she wants to succeed
seal the deal with a kiss
it’s a time old concept
take a woman as a book
before you’re quick to judge
at least give it a proper look
read between the lines
get to know the real story
before you assume
that the cover is its glory
every single place we go
models and adverts
selling woman after woman
in an industry of perverts
because they say that sex sells
but don’t they have daughters
born from a womb
it’s the mother that taught us
shatter the ceilings
and don’t ever stop trying
when your told that you can’t
show them strength without crying
but most important thing of all
never take off your clothes
selling your dignity
while they show no remorse
because every woman is honour
but they want to create ‘whores’
feed into pornographic ideals
making us forget what’s real
just imagine
one of the most successful females
emerged from a sex tape
and while hers was a choice
so many come from rape
as a society we accept
that it’s a claim to fame
but shouldn’t we be showing our women
that they don’t have to perform acts
of submission and shame
isn’t it about time
we drop the patriarchy
show everybody that education
is the only real hierarchy
and that your looks or your hair
it doesn’t matter what’s there
or not
or whose hot
I mean who are we to decide
when we don’t even know what’s inside
it’s about time
we create a new ideal
I mean
Isn’t it okay to be real?

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 credits: Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines image taken from http://thompsonhall.com/copyright-lawsuit-blurred-lines/  and ‘The Last House on the Left’ image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_House_on_the_Left_(2009_film)


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Lessons learnt: why don’t more women feel welcome in the mosque?

“Woman is a delicate creature with strong emotions who has been created by the Almighty God to shoulder responsibility for educating society and moving toward perfection. God created woman as symbol of His own beauty and to give solace to her partner and her family.”
Hazrat Ali ibn Abu-Talib A.S

barriers-to-faith-flickrLast month, Islamic centres around the UK joined forces to take part in the MCB’s VisitMyMosque initiative. Mosques taking part opened their doors to the general public and served tea and delicious cakes. However, rather than positive stories of communities getting to know one another, the initiative was overshadowed by Cathy Newman’s claims that she was ushered out of a mosque in South London. Through CCTV footage obtained, it is now apparent that Cathy turned up to the wrong mosque, and that the incident of ushering is at best, questionable, and at worse, probably not true at all.

Cathy has now apologised for “tweets sent in haste”; she’s now taken a break from Twitter. There’s no doubt in my mind that there was a serious error of judgement on her part, and if there’s one thing we can learn from all this, it’s the all-too familiar modern-day adage “think before you tweet”.

But what else could the Muslim community could learn from this incident? Perhaps we need to scratch beneath the surface and ask why Cathy was so quick to assume the worst.

When there are any negative stories about Muslims in the mainstream media, it’s only natural that Muslims will jump on the defensive. That’s because the mainstream media paints an overwhelmingly negative image of Muslim behaviour, which is arguably grossly unfair. However, we also need to be insightful and self-reflective in order to move forward and improve our own internal problems within the Muslim community.

There’s no justifying what Cathy did, but perhaps she wouldn’t have assumed the worst, if the idea of a mosque being unfriendly to women was completely ludicrous. In this case, the incident was due to a mix-up, not sexism, but the fact is, many mosques could definitely do more to make women feel more welcome.

Sometimes it does feel as though some mosques are made for men. The men’s rooms are always bigger, and they always seem to get fed first, while women have to contend with not only waiting to feed hungry children, but also perhaps not getting any of the dessert. 😉

I can only think back to some of my own experiences of trying to visit unfamiliar mosques around London. I remember being pretty excited to find a local mosque close to my university and eagerly printing off Streetmap instructions for how to get there (Google Maps wasn’t around then – I am officially old). Then being turned away hurriedly at the door with the words “Brothers only, brothers only!”

As a working woman, I also felt it was quite difficult to visit mosques in the vicinity of my workplace in order to pray during the day. When I did muster up the courage to visit a local mosque in the City, I found that I was the only woman in the entire building. Moreover, there were no separate washrooms for women, so the Imam had to stand outside the bathroom to prevent men from coming in while I performed the wudu or ritual ablution. While a separate room was unlocked for me, in the end, I felt extremely uncomfortable being a lone woman in a mosque entirely filled with men, so decided I would be better off praying in peace in my own home at a later time during the day.

The imam did well to accommodate me as well as he could, but it seems that a working woman praying in a mosque in the city is perhaps a rare thing.

You could argue that these couple of incidents are one-off experiences that I’ve been unlucky to have faced. However, there is plenty of evidence to show that many Muslim women aren’t accommodated that well. In an article for The Independent, Sara Khan of Inspire argues that despite the Cathy Newman incident being a mix-up, many Muslim women have faced “very real, unambiguous discrimination.”

There’s a strikingly similar account to mine in an article for the Telegraph and Argus. The author, Nabeelah Hafeez, conveys her own terrible experience of trying to visit a mosque while at university.

And, in a piece for The Muslim News, Masuma Rahim recounts the time she tried to offer salat at the West End Mosque, but was told by the imam that she was “not allowed to pray there”. This, despite having prayed there previously, and the mosque having four floors of empty space.

It seems ridiculous that some imams are putting up barriers to offering prayers; these are people who are going out of their way to pray on time. Surely the role of the mosque is to make it easier to worship God.

There are similar accounts of women facing discrimination in the OpenMyMosque initiative. The campaign aims to highlight good and bad experiences of visiting UK mosques, via Facebook and Twitter:

Open-my-mosque

Posts from Open My Mosque on Facebook – click to expand in a new window

Check out the following tweet by the writer and activist, Raquel Evita Saraswati. It seems that in some mosques, men are often granted bigger areas to sit by default, regardless of numbers:

What about children in the mosque?

woman with child in the mosqueEase of access to the mosque seems to become even more difficult once you have kids, and this seems to be true regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman. I’ve spoken to many mums who don’t feel comfortable bringing young children to the mosque because elders say they dislike the noisiness or complain of being distracted.

Furthermore, the lack of baby changing facilities or just a separate, private room to take your children if they need a nappy change, a feed, or just a handy time out can make many parents left feeling unwelcome or reluctant to visit the mosque.

This feels very strange to me. Surely, we should be making it as easy as possible to bring children to the mosque from a very early age, because undoubtedly, the next generation are the future of the faith. And it’s only when they become accustomed to sitting in the mosque from an early age, that they will want to visit of their own accord when they are older. Moreover, visiting the mosque regularly will allow children to socialise and make friends within their own community. Surely, that can only be a good thing.

Even with a separate children’s room, it would be better if some mosques allowed parents to make their own choices about allowing their offspring to sit in the main hall. Putting children in separate rooms often creates pandemonium, whereas in the main hall, children will eventually learn how to behave and sit quietly without distracting others. But, we need fellow Muslims to be understanding and sympathetic in order to allow this to happen.

There’s a good post which explores the importance of bringing children to the mosque in more detail by Aman Ali on Facebook. In this post, Ali recalls his own happy childhood experiences of running freely through the mosque and how this contrasts with what he sees as an adult.

The mosque he talks about had the sign “”NO CHILDREN ALLOWED IN THE PRAYER AREA”, though one father chose to ignore this sign and insist on taking his four-year-old son to prayers.  The dad in question said he often receives complaints and gets shouted at for bringing his child to the mosque.

This is just so sad. We have to ask ourselves what is all this for, if not to allow for the continuity of the faith. How can we expect the next generation to practice the faith, when they are discouraged from visiting the centres of worship?

Is change on the horizon?

Having said all this, it’s not all bad news, however. Mosques such as Hyderi, where Cathy Newman ended up visiting have women on their committees and women are welcomed to pray in the main hall.

Some women have decided to start doing it for themselves and are setting up their own women-only organisations to counter the discrimination they face. Earlier this year, the US’s first women-only mosque opened its doors in LA.

One mosque I frequently visit, Bustan-e-Zehra, has its own women’s section where programmes are organised by a ladies committee. Though more can always be done, it works pretty well, because the women have their own programmes with female speakers and everything is organised impeccably.

While it’s good that women are empowering themselves, the ideal situation is for mosques to improve conditions, to reduce discrimination and to welcome women openly so they don’t have to set up separate organisations for the basic right to worship the Almighty.

I’m pretty optimistic and excited about the opening of the new Salaam Centre. It certainly feels like a new type of mosque, as the project will grant Muslims from all walks of life a much needed community centre. The mosque will provide worshippers not only a place to pray, but also a means for Muslims to educate themselves, socialise, keep fit and much more besides.

The Salaam Centre offers a unique shared space for the community. Open to all, it aims to fulfil the physical, intellectual and spiritual needs of people from all walks of life, age and gender. Beyond the bricks and mortar, we seek to foster an environment of warmth, thought and creativity through the open interaction of users at the Centre, be it during a workout at the gym, a book club in the library or over coffee at the cafeteria. The Salaam Centre can become a place to enjoy with friends and family, a resource for work on projects and shared dreams, and ultimately a space to develop oneself and the community.

The Salaam Centre website

The opening of these new mosques and committees is definitely a positive step forward, but there’s still a long way to go. I’m reminded of the recent HeForShe campaign, because to really change things, we need to recognise that this isn’t a “women’s problem”. We need solidarity, with men and women coming together to implement change, because allowing access to the mosque regardless of gender, race, disability or anything else, truly benefits us all.

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 credits: Barriers to faith, Farrukh via Flickr, Woman with child in a mosque, jankie via Flickr