Islam


I was standing in my closet, tears rolling down my face, a pile of clothes at my feet when I admitted something I thought would never come out of my mouth: I HATE hijab.

Moments earlier I was pouting and stomping around the apartment — feeling frumpy and ridiculously hot in a winter sweater. The Hubby, sensing that something was wrong, asked why on earth I was dressed for the second ice age when it was a balmy 30C outside. When I groaned that it was the only thing that fit my postpartum body, was breastfeeding accessible, AND comfortable enough to wear with the baby in a sling, he took me by the hand and proceeded to go through all of my clothes.

Unfortunately, the Hubby could not have known that a torrent of hormones and insecurities let loose by baby-blues and a negative body image was bubbling up inside me, just waiting for an excuse to explode.

He handed me a black nursing top: Too tight. It’s not hijabi enough.
A long blouse: I.am.too.FAT now. It won’t close over my chest.
My favourite cap-sleeve patterned shirt: I can’t! I have to wear a long sleeve shirt underneath to hijabify it — and then it won’t be breastfeeding accessible!

That’s when I stamped my feet and erupted into tears. It was a full-on adult tantrum — and I took all of my frustrations out on hijab.

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I cannot express how much I ardently admire the work of Nahida from the Fatal Feminist. So I was overjoyed when she agreed to write for our month of guest posts. Not only is she an amazing and feisty author:

Nahida is an American Muslim feminist who frequently disagrees with the positions of male scholars, including but not limited to the rightful and valid dynamics of feminism in Islam, the certification of halaal meat requiring actual well-treatment of animals and not just ritual slaughter, and the permissibility of eating mermaids. She writes about sound Quranic exegesis as well as spectacular women in Islamic history, criticizes logical fallacies evident in male interpretations, and engages in other such scary feminist activities. She returns the salaams of parrots.

So please join me in welcoming the fantastic Nahida as she shares her thoughts on the erosion of “the feminine” in Islamic discourse and women’s religious right to reclaim their space.


Friday before last, I attended jummah prayer at the mosque, and I wore curlers underneath my hi’jab, because I had just raced there after finals and had barely had enough time to apply my red lipstick (a personal employment of verse 7:31), and why not save some time? Needless to say, it was very obvious I was attending the khutbah while simultaneously curling my hair, and I looked badass, like a malformed dinosaur. Because I have lots and lots of hair, the hi’jab did wonders forcing it to hold together the way I had “arranged” when usually there isn’t enough surface area on my head for curlers wrapped with piles and piles of hair. Before we started one of my friends took one glance at my ginormous, lumpy hi’jab and burst into laughter. “WORST case of hi’jab stuffing EVER!”

I propped myself up against the wall and sat there smugly with a sideways smile. Soon I would be transformed into some sort of elevated reverie of reflection—that usual awed, heart-struck jummah feeling—but for the moment, in a different way, I felt strangely feminine, and peculiarly close to God. And it was not just because my blasphemously high hi’jab was closer to heaven.

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The months that followed were witness to a series of spiritual experiences that would remain singular in my life, all revolving around the Quran and my evening study hour with Mina. I would leave her room feeling lively, easily moved, my heart softened and sweet, my senses heightened. Often, I was too awake to sleep, and so I took to my desk—white muslin still bound to my head—to continue memorizing verses. After long nights like these, the mornings were not difficult, as Mother warned when she would find me at my desk past ten o’clock.

If anything, these mornings were even sweeter: the trees stippled with turning leaves and bathed in a glorious light that seemed like much more than just the sun’s illumination; the white clouds sculpted against blue skies, stacked like majestic monuments to the Almighty’s unfathomable glory. And it wasn’t only beauty that moved me in these heightened states. Even the grease-encrusted axle of the yellow school bus slowing to its morning stop at the end of my driveway could captivate me, its twisting joint—and the large, squeaking wheel that turned around it—seeming to point the inscrutable way to some rich, strange, and holy power.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to identify with a work of fiction. To have my thoughts and cultural experiences splayed out so nicely by a complete stranger. To have my ideas about religious interpretation and understanding shared beyond the blogosphere – and actualised in the imaginative words and deeds of colourful, intense characters.

Often while reading American Dervish, when I wasn’t snickering at the humour, rolling my eyes with the characters or gaping and cringing at the more sensitive and emotionally intense scenes, I was usually nodding my head and saying, “yes, exactly.” More than once I’d look around for a book club because I so wanted to share and deconstruct the issues Ayad Akhtar has raised in this wonderful novel.

American Dervish is a non-traditional “coming of age” story – where each character takes his or her own journey to discover themselves and what it means to be American and Muslim. Taking place in Milwaukee during the 1980s, Pakistani-American Hayat Shah narrates a heartbreaking story of love, the Divine, and negotiating faith and culture.

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this. This. THIS. THIS!

Mona Eltahawy says in five minutes what I can barely get at in two posts.

 

God, I LOVE this woman.

I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been said.

I believe completely that the last 1,400 years of scholarship has been dominated by men. It’s indisputable. And while it may sound like some seedy “conspiracy theory,” there is also ample evidence illustrating that pro-female interpretations and male interpretations favouring prophetic and Qur’anic expectations of equity are largely drowned out.

Misogynist interpretations came to the fore not necessarily because they were the most correct, the closest to how Islam was practiced by the Prophet, or what God really wanted to say – but are most likely the result of whoever had the strongest army. There were hundreds of legal schools within the first few centuries of Islam. Hundreds. All died out through lack of popularity or persecution by the Caliph of the day who was usually more concerned with his political aspirations than religious goals.

Finding a variety of scholarly opinions and debates on women and women’s roles in Islam is nothing new. This is why Muslim feminists are needed today to call people out on their misogyny and for believers in “Islamic feminism” to do more than just acknowledge that things have vastly changed from what God and the Prophet intended.

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Common topics discussed in the Islamosphere tend to appear and reappear cyclically. It’s like a wave that spreads through the many talented voices dedicated to grappling with the more “uncomfortable” discourses in our nuanced communities – where suddenly, Muslim bloggers are all talking about the same thing at the same time: the “beating verse,” hijab, gender segregation at mosques, hijab, women’s rights and roles, hijab, polygamy, hijab, menstruation, hijab, domestic violence, hijab, and on it goes.

This month the topic of choice is Islamic and Muslim Feminism – discussed here, here, here, here and here by people more brilliant than I.

This post was supposed to allow me to daydream myself into a faerie-tale discussion of the “perfect” mosque – but a reader sent an e-mail requesting my thoughts on the recent Goatmilk debate: Islam is incompatible with Feminism, and I decided to throw my two cents in.

Two respectable minds entered the debate – only one emerged victorious … though, the jury is still out, and will probably be out for a very long time on this very complex subject.

Debater Mohamad Tabbaa favoured the motion, and argued that Islam and Feminism are two different and irreconcilable ideologies:

Muslim feminists must now make the choice between the Islamic paradigm, which is centred around God, or the secularised modern theology, which is based almost exclusively around (white) men.

In his rebuttal, Tabbaa nuanced his arguments further with the idea that merging Islam into Feminism colonises “Muslim spaces and voices” and that, “Islam already has within its paradigm the language and tools with which to deal with women’s issues.”

Arguing against the motion, Katrina Daly Thompson took the position that there are some Muslims who simply don’t understand Feminism (just as there are Feminists who don’t understand Islam is open to interpretation) – and that Islam and Feminism are fundamentally linked:

Feminism and Islam both need Muslim feminists—Muslim men and women who believe in the full humanity of women—to fight against gender discrimination within Muslim cultures and spaces.

Guess which one I sided with.

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When I was young, one of the things I looked forward to the most during Christmas was opening the doors to my Advent calendar.

My favourite calendars were the ones without chocolate — traditional European-styled posters, with small, thin doors that revealed simple pictures. There was something magical about finding the door, and trying to guess if the surprise-of-the-day was a colourful candy cane, a wooden horse or a gingerbread cookie.

Every year I would stare at the picturesque winter scene for hours imagining myself playing with the glistening snow and the sleigh-riding children.  I would wipe my hands across the Christmas star and carry the glitter on my hands all day long.

While I know many Lutherans and Christians recognise the Advent as having a religious significance — counting down to the celebration of Jesus’ birth, the birth of their Lord — for us it became a way to simply count down the days to Christmas Eve. As a non-practicing, but fiercely loyal Lutheran, celebrating Advent and meeting for tea and lighting a candle every Sunday in December was my mother’s way of making Christmas special for me while hanging on to her German heritage and raising me in Canada.

It was such a lovely and warm childhood memory, and creative way to make the holiday “festive” that I made Eryn an “advent calendar” for Ramadan, counting down to ‘Eid.

It just made sense to retain a part of my culture in order to help make a Muslim celebration extra special — especially being a religious minority competing with the likes of Christmas.

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The woman poured hot tea from her cup into the saucer, gave it a couple of cooling swirls and gulped it down in one, refreshing slurp. Having never seen someone drink out of a saucer before, Eryn gave the woman the oddest, what-on-earth-are-you-DOING look and drew closer to my leg. The woman laughed heartily and coaxed Eryn with a chocolate. By the end of tea, Eryn was flying through the air to give her kisses.

Hajiya’s hands were covered in traditional Iraqi Bedouin tattoos. As were her feet, chest and, to my surprise, much of her face. From her eyebrows to her toes, this kind elder stuffing my toddler full of chocolates was officially the most tattooed woman I had ever met. And I desperately wanted to hear the story behind each dot and talisman flowing like poetry on her skin.

For almost two years Hajiya and her lovely daughter have taken care of my sister-in-law – sharing food and family support since both extended families live an ocean away. I’ve heard many stories of Hajiya’s desert wisdom and kindness and was very excited to meet her.

Speaking broken English and though translations of a Kuwaiti dialect, we discussed my sister-in-law’s upcoming boxing match and my current pregnancy. Eryn interrupted and put her hand on my belly, saying: “Baby! Mama, womb.” Then, nodding for emphasis, she took the opportunity to mention our nursing arrangement.

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(inspired after finding Dr. Lang’s book hidden behind a stack of Foucault — and just some musings flying in-between meetings and the commute home)

When I was an impressionable, young convert I wore my Islam on my sleeve. Before hijab, I’d openly play with my “Allah” necklace and pepper my conversations with recognisable “Muslim” catchphrases in the hopes that I’d be questioned about my faith, just so I could tell others about the awesomeness of Islam.

Then when I became a hijabi, I became a quiet activist working with the Muslim Student Association organising events to bring “Muslims on the margins” into the religious fold. I spoke passionately about my conversion at lectures, worked at establishing interfaith dialogue, and helped promote Islam by handing out easily digestible pamphlets on “Women in Islam,” “Science in Islam,” and “Misconceptions in Islam” every Islamic Awareness Week.

Believing that conversion magically imbued me with education in religious matters (something that came much later with years of actual study, and really, is ongoing),  people turned to me for religious advice – seeking my knowledge on shaking hands with unrelated men, fasting for repentance, how to date a Muslim the “halal way,” or the permissibility of saying “Merry Christmas” to non-Muslims. I’d do my research online or delve into pamphlet Islam to find quick and easy answers – never once thinking to question sources or actively try to understand the impact that my advice would have on people. Why would I? These sources are sound – from pious, well-meaning Muslims who know better than me.

There was no problem telling people to avert their gaze from the opposite sex, that “hell is hotter” when struggling with the requirements of hijab, and that sex segregation made perfect sense in God’s grand scheme of maintaining chastity and encouraging the sexes to fulfill their “natural” duties and talents. I was more than happy to say that Islam guarantees the rights of women, JUST because the Prophet gave more rights to 7th century women (thousands of years before Western women got the right to vote! Because that comparison means something tangible?). Those who subjugate women today are just not following Islam and aren’t real Muslims. End of story.

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Cross-posted at Womanist Musings.


The Prophet said:

If a man calls his wife to bed and she refuses, thereby upsetting him, the angels will continue to curse her until the morning.

If it were permissible for a human to prostrate to another, I would have ordered a wife to prostrate to her husband because of the enormity of his rights over her. By God, if there is an ulcer excreting puss from his feet to the top of his head and she licked it for him – she would not fulfill his rights.

After my conversion it didn’t take long for the advice to start rolling in. A lot of it was couched in more cultural expectations, such as: “change your name to a more Muslim (read: Arab) sounding name” or “you can’t be a vegetarian now, God has made meat allowable for you to enjoy.” But sometimes people would give me sincere religious advice based on sayings made by the Prophet. A few were excellent and made sense to me: “Eat and drink moderately,” “please your partner sexually,” and “tie up your camel” — meaning: do everything you can to ensure your safety, protect your property or implement a plan, and then trust in God. But if you just leave everything up to God and hope that everything will turn out okay, instead of taking personal action, your camel will walk away.

But sometimes I was offered advice based on sayings that didn’t sit well with me. Especially the religious advice for women that seemed to come at the price of personal freedom or with the threat of hellfire — and backed with, “well the Prophet said it, so it must be valid and important” and “if it doesn’t sit well with you, you’re not being faithful enough.” True, for many Muslims worldwide, following the Sunnah or the Prophet’s example is just as important as revering the Qur’an as the word of God. The Prophet is untouchable, a model human to be admired and loved. To deny any of the sayings attributed to him could be blasphemous.

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