Gender, sexuality and identity: An interview with Islamic feminist Dr Amina Wadud

Back in 2011. I was studying for my Master’s degree in Human Rights and Human Values and as part of my course I took a module called: Feminism in the Muslim World. Now, being a Muslim, a woman and a passionate feminist, taking this module was a must. I saw this as an opportunity to gain more knowledge and to (further) see how women’s rights are protected and enshrined in Islam. The module was based in another department and not traditionally part of my degree but that didn’t deter me. If I could do it, I would. What’s not to love?!

Departmental logistics aside, here comes the issue. “Feminism? Islamic feminism?!” is what you may hear many people cry in a confused stupor. Yes, many non-Muslims may believe that Islam is anything but a feminist religion which works to actively promote women’s equality. Whilst I fervently disagree, on the other side of the fence there are those Muslims (both male and female!) who actively in both their socio-cultural and political practice and also critically, theological teachings, do anything but promote women’s equality.

IMG_0138.JPGNow here is where us Muslim Feminists stand proudly. During my studies I was introduced to the scholar Dr Amina Wadud through her book “Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam“. Dr Wadud is an Islamic Feminist and leading scholar in this field. A Professor Emeritus based in the US, she has dedicated her life in academia to issues surrounding women’s rights and equality within Islam, promoting pluralism, human dignity and additionally LGBT rights. The media however most often refer to her as the Muslim woman who lead mixed prayer back in 2005 and the topic of female imama (women imams).

With such an inspirational approach towards Islamic and a big fan, I was delighted to speak to Dr Wadud herself. Here’s our interview on gender, sexuality, identity and human dignity.

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VoS: Assalam aleykum. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule. So to start with could you give a brief intro about your work, what you’re working on at the moment and what are your current projects?

AW: Wa aleykum salam. Currently I am doing a funded research project. I’m in the third of three years to examine classical Islamic sources on the topic of sexual diversity and human dignity – not only what was said in the classical period of Islamic thought but also the implications of those statements. I believe that certain things are outdated and we need to figure out how to address them succinctly and not to defer to past – even intellectual – engagements as if the matter is closed.

VoS: That’s fabulous! So when will the public be able to find out more about the project? When will everything be published?

AW: I’ve not shared much of the results of the research so far, except in a closed setting. I would like to compose an entire monograph on my findings and my thoughts but to also work on curriculum development for the teaching of sexual diversity in Islamic thought in graduate level courses.

We thought maybe we should develop a reference text to develop hopefully programmes that will encourage others who are trying to address the topic in their teaching to use the resources to again enhance the conversation with students. I’m looking forward to some of the products of the research but am still enjoying the opportunity to simply do the research part, not to do the writing and the publication yet!

VoS: It’s a long journey! That must be fascinating because there’s definitely not a lot out there.

AM: We have growing diversities in our community and part of the conservation because whenever I describe the research project I always say sexual diversity and human dignity because that will be the principle that I will use to determine how you address the specifics and some of the conversations that are there are somewhat singular in terms of their objections to sexual diversity. I want to bring the conversation to hopefully a more nuanced way and just make it possible for us to open up to have some genuine conversations.

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Image credit: Ikhlasul Amal (CC BY-NC 2.0)

VoS: Insha’Allah that will be a good eye-opener to really get discussions going. So for those who are perhaps not familiar will the idea of gender jihad or are perhaps confused by the term Islamic Feminism, how would you define that?

AW: Well, I don’t necessarily do a single definition. I think the distinctions [between gender jihad and Islamic feminism] are important. Gender jihad I actually lifted from my South African colleagues when they invited me in 1994. I was there for a lecture tour and a conference and was ultimately invited to give the khutbha (the sermon) in the Friday jumaa service at the Main Road Mosque and I lifted the phrase gender jihad from them because they made a concerted effort to include that in their antiapartheid struggles and because they also combined a conversation about the war against poverty – the class jihad.

I very much liked the idea that we take the metaphysical understanding of jihad as a struggle and evoke it for issues of community, like gender and sexuality and then I named my book after it. I very much feel for the term and its relevance and for the ways in which I have experienced that women in diverse communities across the globe are themselves leading that struggle by determining what issues will be most significant, how those issues need to be addressed in their particular context and that the mandate that women’s voices and lived experiences be a part of the formula for how we address those issues. There is no community where women have not risen up and begun to take greater agency in determining how Islam will be used in their lives and how they themselves identify with their Islam.

I distinguish that from Islamic feminism because Islamic feminism is a specific methodology and not everyone who is addressing the issue of the gender jihad is addressing it from the perspective of any kind of feminism. There are also diverse kinds of feminism so it’s a very specific use and I don’t advocate it. It doesn’t matter to me whether or not a person identifies as feminist because I also myself did not accept the description of feminist for the majority of the years in which I’ve been doing work on Islam because the majority interpretations of feminism are part of the problem of the relationship between Islamic nation states and their colonial masters from another era who still call the right to determine what is the best way for previously colonised people to progress in development. They hold the monopoly over that. The way in which they address the issues pretends the best solution for everyone: to leave Islam and all of its manifestations because they have marked Islam as the problem.

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Image credit: Andrea Moroni (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Now, there are people for whom their own identities as Muslims also problematises how we address Islam in terms of the solutions of certain civic problems like gender discrimination. I call those people now secular feminists because they are bedded to a very conservative definition of Islam as the eternal definition and they are not able to grapple with what I consider to be one of the major contributions to Islamic feminism and that is: the right to be able to determine for yourself what is the definition of Islam and even what is the appropriate, educated, relevant interpretation of Islamic sources in the context of the nation state.

Islamic feminism has a very specific methodology and that methodology involves taking full agency with regard to how key terms will be applied in our circumstances and how they will be adjudicated in our laws. But, there are, feminists who for example who are more liberal feminists – Muslim liberal feminists – who don’t have a specific methodology. Using liberal mechanisms wasn’t the strategy that led me to the use of Islam as a means for eradicating inequality experienced by women. That’s something that only came about with the solidification of this idea of Islamic feminism.

I do want to emphasise that in no way is feminism a title for people engaged in gender jihad, in no way is feminism an objective. It’s simply a method developed with an understanding of how Islam is understood today, politicised today and is still an important factor in the self-identity in particular of so many Muslim women today.

VoS: Thank you, that’s a really important distinction. So something I found particularly interesting in your book Inside the Gender Jihad was how you talked about various social issues within the community as well as theological teachings, such as single parent families and the way Muslim women are stigmatised in regards to HIV/AIDS. In terms of mobilising the Muslim community and tackling misogyny, what’s one of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced so far?

AW: The biggest challenge I face personally in doing this work is the lack of critical engagement with some of the vast diversity of interpretations which have always been a part of our tradition. They get swept under the rug today because everything gets summarised into a simple formula of anti-imperialism under the name of Islam.

I call it the takfiri factor. They will call someone “not a Muslim” if their interpretation of what is Islam is different from the interpretation that has the dominate control in terms of [being] conservative and patriarchal but if anybody examines the aspects of Islamic intellectual history – which is ongoing – then they will see that there has never been a consensus over any of the multiple factors that impinge upon the way in which we actually get to live our Islam.

Believing communities are notoriously emotionally attached to what they consider to be their religion and are not always thinking critically. I find there was a singular expectation that somehow all critical thinking belongs to men and politics – that women are not capable of doing it, let alone engaging in it! I really do feel like that’s the biggest problem – how to get people to actually engage in the work with a certain level of intellectual rigor.

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Image credit: Omar Chatriwala (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

VoS: In talking about takfiri behaviour, do you think that perhaps people are scared to engage and that they’ve been convinced that it’s a, b, c, d, it’s black and white, or do you think people are just not interested or not familiar with the great intellectual history and the diversity within Islamic theology?

AM: I actually think all three of those and I do see them as three. First let me just say something about people being afraid to engage. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. We have a very heavy self-censor going on.

I feel that Muslim women who are working are afraid of being accused of going against Islam and they struggle to gain mastery over just the rubrics of the debates. Often I find people saying things like: “I’m not a scholar” and just the very idea that you have to be a scholar in order to make a comment over things that literally impact on your life and wellbeing is something that we’re trying to dismantle. But, I think a lot of women fear being pushed up against the wall and then have somebody throwing, hurling random versus at them as if this, hurling of verses is the same as saying “You’re wrong!” and “You’re outside of Islam”. That’s why women are so intimidated by it – or anyone struggling for human rights and dignity in our time – because we now have a different amalgam of information and the idea that all information that’s good can only come from Islamic sources is a little bit naive but that’s how people will approach it.

I also do think that there is a certain level of ignorance because Muslim laity want to feel that Islam is the natural course because that’s the course that they’ve been on. And so: What is this Islam? is my main question. The idea that one could even question What is Islam? to such an extent is something that most people just don’t think about.

VOS: Well it’s seen as sort of sacrilege! 

AM: For people who are outside of Islam. They simply come up with a conclusion: This is Islam. There’s nothing you can do about it…. and it’s like where did that this is Islam come from? That’s a lot of work. People don’t want to do that. You’re either “enemies” or “believers”.

The other thing is I think quite frankly that the idea of an easy answer to “what is Islam?” has failed us and yet we have not changed our overall curriculum approaches in the context of a Muslim majority context. They still teach Islam the same way they’ve been teaching it for hundreds of years and it doesn’t serve us. It doesn’t build equal confidence and competence in embracing the nuanced diversity of what is or what has been Islam over little less than two millennia and in so many different ways.

So it’s a combination of all those things and although I’ve been at it long enough to accept that this combination is going to have certain consequences still for some time more, I’m actually hoping to be a part of the conversation of lifting the tendency towards taboo in Islam and Islamic thought because I think that there is so much richness in this tradition and in the cultural historical experiences of Muslims that simply doesn’t come to the front when we are always feeling like we’re under siege. Islamophobia is very real and it is a threat but that is not the not the only thing that’s going on and how to move beyond it, critique it, engage with and challenge it without making ourselves subject only to how easily we might be able to justify, explain or apologise for Islam in the context where it is not the same as another worldview or system of practice.

It’s a difficult time but I really hope that we can move into a place with a greater tolerance and acceptance – accepting diversity within the community as well as accepting that not all conversations are going to be closed and fixed and that we can have more than one conversation about any matter that is on the table today. Islam is not going to be destroyed because we have different opinions!

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VoS: I agree with you completely. Some of it is just accepting different opinions and even having those discussions – not that we all have to agree on the same thing.

You were saying that about taboo. What do you think about the role of culture? There are some very strong taboos in terms of even discussing women’s issues and issues surrounding the LGBT community. How much do you think of that is a specific to conservative views of religion or culture or do you sort of see the two as intertwined?

AW: Well for some reason, some people will say things like: “Oh, that’s just cultural Islam.” Well actually there’s no living Islam that’s not cultural. So that’s not even a factor. Understanding and embracing the complexities of the different cultures I think goes along with developing more tolerance and more critical engagement and to understand that of course cultures are both impacted by and have an impact on what comes to constitute Islam and Muslim and have always done so. And that’s OK. And it’s even OK to make distinctions between your culture and other cultures when it comes to an understanding about any particular location on any particular issue. Coincidentally, this is something that’s been very important to the Muslim convert communities to which I belong because I’m Muslim by choice.

I learned this best living in south-east Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia where they have a very proud understanding of their own identity and a pride and love for Islam. They articulate clear tensions between “We’re Indonesian, this is our culture” and at the same time, ownership of Islam to combat the idea that certain manifestations of practice and ideology have a relationship to say our culture but it’s not universal and it’s not the only Islamic response. It was an interesting place for me because Islam has been there forover a thousand years in south-east Asia. So we’re not talking about new communities as in say the United States, which comprises not only immigrant populations from Muslim majority countries that go back several centuries but also new converts.

It’s nice to think about the fact that every culture has been shaped by and is shaping what is Islam and that is also something that’s true for new communities that are forming in the last 100 to 200 years.

VoS: What’s your message to those people who would promulgate takfiri ideologies? Do you tend to engage much with them or do you focus more on educating people as we were saying who perhaps don’t have the exposure to different intellectual teachings?

AW: That’s a very interesting question. I want to say in all honesty that I do not prioritise engaging with Islamophobia and Islamophobes. Nor do I prioritise engaging with the takfiri brigade – although I do have a YouTube video says “Do not fear takfir!”which I addressed because of, as I said, the fear component. People are doing their work and then they are afraid of it but I do not prioritise those who have the greatest disagreement with me in the work that I do.

I prioritise the target community. I write what I would like to read and that is: I am an African-American Muslim hijabi woman by choice – all of it, except for being African American. That is just my legacy. I have chosen to be Muslim. I have chosen to wear hijab most of the time and when I don’t, I also choose when I don’t wear it. I meet Muslim women of colour globally -African, Asian, Latinex African-American, Black – who are Muslim and the overwhelming majority of Muslim women – which is not to say that I have any lack of interest in white Muslim women, it’s just that their numbers are very small. I engage with that intersection of race and class, gender, sexuality, ableism and also intellectual and spiritual stations or locations. That’s my primary target and because that’s my primary target group, I am trying to focus on what are the lived realities for Muslim women, how we grapple with them in order to achieve well-being, human dignity, spiritual acumen and wholeness.

So I either talk theology or I taught policy but I’m only talking policy in a very pragmatic hands-on way. I engage with issues relative to the places where they come up because that is a mandate within those communities. Female imama is not yet a universal issue of concern but people think that I prioritise what the media tends to focus on and once again it means that they lose. They’re focused on the issues that make greater headlines and takfir makes a lot of headlines. I am literally blacklisted from communities. I don’t get an invitation in the confessional and communities in my own African American community. It’s a tender spot for me because again, working at intersections, I’m very conscientious about my intersecting identities and I would love to feel that my most natural home is among other African-American Muslims.

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Image credit: Glen Halog (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The reality is however that my most natural form is among Muslim women of colour globally. I travel a lot and every time I am reconfirmed in what I consider to be the freedom of being a Muslim among many Muslims – not necessarily exactly like anyone else – but at the same time sharing something, whatever that something might be called with all Muslims, especially Muslim women. And so I that’s my focus.

I believe that the negation of a negative does not equal a positive. If you switch to address your attention to the negative, you will be negating the opposition eternally and you will never go forward.

VoS: Well some people are never going to be willing to engage. I suppose you carry on and do what you do and maybe some people who have maybe changed their minds. In the meantime, you work with the women that you can do valuable things with.

AW: My feeling is whatever it is that people use to allow them to not critically engage is a major problem for our community which we need to try and work out because ours is one of the most intense intellectual traditions ever. And yet we come to our current community and the laziness with which we actually engage is just such a disappointment. I’m still studying! I don’t understand how we have such a rigorously intellectual tradition and such lazy reactionary kinds of responses!

VoS: Well in the UK, Islamic education is encouraged but there wouldn’t be an engagement or challenging or discussion around different issues. It would be include a pre-set kind of curriculum. You generally wouldn’t be able to step outside certain boundaries or think or question.

AW: Well that’s true in lots of places and that’s why I say that, hopefully we will make a change. Indonesia has engaged in a project to update the primary teaching manuals that are used to tackle their expressions of gender inequality. The project should be able to reform the main manuals. This is a huge project because there are so many schools and they literally don’t have the money to be able to create new manuals just off the bat. So what they did is they created a companion text in order to challenge certain habits of gender inequality. So the educational process has to be looked at comprehensively from what we teach our children to what we develop our degree programs to look like. It’s a big thing – not impossible but it’s big!

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Image credit: Ikhlasul Amal (CC BY-NC 2.0)

VoS: Amazing! So last question: what inspires you each and every day in your work?

AW: It’s a pretty corny answer but I was born and raised a believer. My father was a Methodist minister so what he was doing in terms of his own personal devotions and his personality had a very strong impact on me taught me integrity and honesty but also taught me the theology of liberation.

So I’m actually inspired by the desire to live my life in a way where the presence of the divine, of the sacred – of Allah – is manifest in everything that I do. I’m motivated by lots of things, not all of them necessarily “high” or loftier or even good, but to live a life with the consciousness of this sacred goal: our returning to Allah, our origin point, and with the intimacy of the divine presence.

The gift of life is presented to each of us so we can be the best of who we are and the best of who I am is the me that manifests the embrace of the love of God so that I myself become an instrument of God and God’s will. It is a little bit corny!

VoS: Well it was a corny question – sorry! But it was a good answer!

AW: I’m very much very much a believer and it very heavily motivates me.

VoS: Well, I suppose that ultimately is what it should all be about – not about habits and behaviours but the consciousness of God and that motivating the everyday. So that’s a really good point to end on. Thank you so much for taking the time out for this interview!

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Acknowledgements and further information:

First of all I’d like to say a massive thank you to Dr Wadud for taking the time out for this interview and I wish her all the best in her current research and future work.

For readers, please note: this is an edited version of what was a much longer transcript!

For further information on Dr Wadud, visit her social media pages:

For more information on the issues discussed surrounding gender, human rights and Islam, you can also check out the organisation Musawah via their website and follow them on Twitter.

Salam! ♡

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10 More disturbing extremist rantings and how to respond

Following my previous blog on 10 Typical Islamist rantings and how to respond, I’d like to present a very much needed sequel!

We must drown out extremist, outdated, misogynistic narratives. So, here are sadly more disappointing examples of intolerance and extremism that are normalised within many Muslim/scholarly circles. Here’s also how to respond in order to promote a real, healthier message!

1. Kill or disown apostates

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Examples of popular scholars/Islamic websites preaching such narrative can be found here (Zakir Naik) and here (Islam Q+A).

Here’s how to respond:

  • Allah Almighty gave us free will and the chance of redemption.
  • Faith is a personal journey – an individual journey between God and our own soul.

More information can be found here.

2. Women must do all the housework and serve their husbands

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Examples from preachers can be found here (Zakir Naik). Very frustrating and not very egalitarian!

Here’s how to respond:

  • We have choices. A woman’s choice to go to work should not be at the detriment of having two (full-time sole) jobs – one at home and one at work.
  • In many cases, without her own income (a second family income), the family will struggle financially. In fact, financially dependent women remain incredibly vulnerable – imagine their spouse falls ill, dies or turns abusive? Women need a back-up / some sort of financial independence.
  • The Prophet (pbuh) shared the chores at home, so why are such misogynistic attitudes being peddled in the name of Islam?

More information can be found here.

3. Jews are “the enemies of Islam”

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Anti-Semitism is being pedalled by “Islamic scholars” and it’s shocking. In this video, Dr Zakir Naik is quoted as saying:

“America is controlled by the Jews”
“We have to be careful of the Jews”
“Jews are the biggest enemy of Muslims”

Dr Naik’s use of language (“The Jews”) in itself is shocking. Again, back in my previous post on three popular Islamic scholars who promote extremism, Shayk al-Munajjid of the website Islam Q&A has publicly stated that Jews are: “the people of lies, fabrications, treachery, and conspiracies… They are the filthiest of nations…” (Featured on Al-Majd TV, Saudi Arabia – 15/05/2016).

Let’s get this clear please. Here’s how to respond:

  • Judaism and Islam come from the same Abrahamic family. We have A LOT in common and the Jewish community deserve respect.
  • Both communities are increasingly becoming victims of religiously-motivated hate crime and are “in the same boat”.
  • Whatever your beliefs – religious, political etc. – we are all human and deserve honesty and respect.
  • The Jewish community does a lot of interfaith work to promote friendship and peace amongst Jews and Muslims.
  • Lies, harmful stereotypes and polarising of communities is not acceptable.
  • The Israeli-Palestinian issue is vast and does not simply relate to two religious communities and “us vs. them”.
  • Remember, a Muslim man is permitted to marry a Jewish sister!

A great example of Jewish-Muslim sisterhood can be found here:

Check them out and get involved!

4. Secularism is anti-Islamic and wayward

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Ah here we go. Here’s a typical anti-secular narrative:

Secularism is a new philosophy and a corrupt movement which aims to separate religion from the state, and focuses on worldly matters, and worldly desires and pleasures; it makes this world the only goal in life, and forgets and ignores the Hereafter. It pays no attention to deeds pertaining to the Hereafter. The words of the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) may be applied to the secularist:

‘Wretched is the slave of the dinar and the slave of the dirham and the slave of the khameesah (a kind of luxurious garment made of wool with patterns). If he is given he is pleased and if he is not given he becomes discontent. May he be wretched and doomed, and if he is pricked with a thorn may it not be pulled out (i.e., may he have no help to remove it).’ Narrated by al-Bukhaari (2887).”

(Islam Q+A)

There seems to be a conflation between secularism and materialism and atheism.

Here’s how to respond:

  • Secularism is not “anti-faith” – it’s actually designed to promote religious freedom of freedom of belief (if also non-religious).
  • Without some degree of separation of politics and religious we ultimately on the far end of the scale end up with a religious theocracy (e.g. as in Iran, Saudi Arabia, ISIS territory) which violates the right to freedom and in many cases turns people away from faith!
  • For example, in the UK we are not officially secular (we are Anglican as a State) but we very much operate in line with secular principles in relation to religious minorities.
  • On the other end of the scale, examples of extreme secularism which remove rights of minorities and religious observants can be found in Turkey and France who follow(ed) a hardline model of laïcité. This model of secularism is more concerned with the removal of religion from the public sphere and does/did not allow certain religious practices in public places (e.g. hijab in school, teaching etc.). This however is not the standard universalised practice/understanding of secularism and is an abuse of personal religious freedoms.
  • Secularism therefore has varying forms, degrees, practices and outlooks.
  • Not everyone in every country is Muslim/of one single religion – even in apparently “Muslim countries” – they may be Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, agnostic, atheist etc. Minority rights are essential and must be respected.
  • Worship is for God alone and not for governments.

More information can be found here.

5. Doubting and questioning makes you a kafir

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This is sadly so common (see here) and very, very harmful. This does not empower people and is incredibly damaging to a person’s self-esteem and spiritual growth and wellbeing.

Here’s how to respond:

  • How can you accept something without discovery and reflection?
  • You cannot accept what you do not know or understand.
  • We mature, evolve, change our views on things over time and this is a good thing! It means we are sincerely seeking and seeing new answers, new interpretations and new realities!

More information can be found here.

6. The Qur’an is enough – we don’t need learning, research and discovery

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Similar to point number five, here’s how to respond:

  • The Qur’an teaches us to learn to think but not to stop there!
  • A broad range of knowledge will actually help us better understand the Qur’an and references to the natural world and other faith traditions.
  • The more we advance as a society in terms of philosophy, ethics, politics, medicine etc., the more/better we can understand Allah’s creation, save lives through the advancement of medicine etc., live together peacefully in a multicultural, multifaith state, respect each other’s rights etc.

7. Science is “anti-God”

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Again, similar to the previous two points, we must read and discover the world around us.

Here’s how to respond:

  • The universe belongs to Allah and is “run” according to His will!
  • During “The Golden Era of Islam”, Muslims excelled in the fields of science and mathematics.

Find out more information here:

8. You should not have close non-Muslim friends

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A person who is kind, tolerant and open poses no threat (despite what may be said here).

If you come across this, here’s how to respond:

  • Muslim men marry Christian women and many Muslims have family members of various faiths – so it doesn’t really make sense then does it?
  • As long as a person is not violent and/or stopping you from practising your religion, there is no reason you cannot be friends with them!
  • Let’s be honest, you’d not want to be friends with an Islamophobe and neither would they!
  • In any case, we are encouraged to avoid anger and deal with people kindly (sorry haters!)

More info can be found here:

9. Being gay makes you non-Muslim

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To be a Muslim, you must believe in and recite the shahada (declaration of belief):

Muslim Profession of Faith

The Shahada is the Muslim profession of faith and the first of the ‘Five Pillars’ of Islam. The word shahada in Arabic means ‘testimony.’ The shahada is to testify to two things:

(a) Nothing deserves worship except God (Allah).

(b) Muhammad is the Messenger of God (Allah).

A Muslim is simply one who bears witness and testifies that “nothing deserves worship except God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” One becomes a Muslim by making this simple declaration.

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In doing so, they de-facto accept Islamic teachings. We therefore have to bear two things in mind:

  • Interpretations of what is halal and haram differ.
  • Even if you believe something is a sin, sinning doesn’t mean you’re/a person is not a believer.

10. Non-Muslims are “out to get us”

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Firstly, I take extreme issue with the term “kafir” just being flung around (that’s however, another (long) story!).

What I have sensed amongst some young Muslims is a sense of fear, paranoia and concern relating to prior colonialism, surveillance and anti-extremism measures. I’d like to point out that these are not extremists. These are regular people going to work, living their lives. In fact, I reckon it’s quite common.

These “us vs. them” narratives are however exploited by extremists and can ultimately lead to people becoming radicalised if they feel isolated and that they are “under threat” in some sort of religious ideological “battle”.

Here’s how to respond:

  • Colonialism – it’s a terrible thing but that’s the past. My generation, my parent’s generation etc. are/were not responsible.
  • The UK population are also not responsible for Iraq, Afghanistan etc. Politics and religion here are two different things.
  • Muslims are thriving – here in the UK anyway! Take entrepreneur James Cann, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain etc.
  • Yes, there is Islamophobia and we must fight it but let’s not tar everyone with the same brush please!
  • Let’s all work towards an inclusive integrated cohesive society. When we’re all looking out for each other, we’re a safer, stronger society. Ultimately, we all benefit.

So there you have it folks. There’s some very intolerant, outdated, un/misinformed views out there but let’s not attack people. Many people are being taught/exposed to poisonous beliefs (unknowingly!). So, treat people kindly and try and explain how you feel (with evidence plus logic!). Also speak out against hatred when things are clearly not right.

We can all make a difference. Spread some peace 🙂

Salam!

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“I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me…”- Experiences of American convert to Islam Ashley Bounoura

In light of Trump’s new “career change” and the rise in Islamophobic hate crime both here in the UK and USA, Muslims here in the UK, across Europe and in the US in particular, face being potentially verbally and physically abused whilst going about their daily lives. Discourse around values, identity and belonging feed Islamophobic rhetoric. As a Muslim convert living in the UK, I’ve had no real trouble so far. I feel happy, safe and wanted here in the UK. But what about in the US?

Having met the lovely Ashley – a young American convert to Islam currently living in Algeria with her husband and founder of the blog Muslimah According to Me – I wanted to get an insight into her experiences as a convert: how did her friends and family react to her decision to become a Muslim? Was she welcomed within and outside the Muslim community? What is life like in the US for a Muslim convert? Well, here’s Ashley’s guest post talking about her experiences in both the US and UK. Enjoy!

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15181533_10211268880938203_2784240802646481146_n.jpgAs I began to seriously think about reverting to Islam, I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was scared of the reactions of my friends and family, and I knew to expect some backlash in general from the public as I went out for the first couple of times in my hijab, but I didn’t know what form any of that might take.

Looking back, in the few months after I first reverted, the reaction was far kinder than anything I had come to expect. Especially within my family, the people who are most important to me were the most supportive. My mother, sister, and grandfather all felt some apprehension at first, but as they began to see that I was the same person, and even becoming a better person because of this faith, they were quick to let me know that they supported anything that made me happy.

Within my friendship group there was a slightly more mixed reaction; I had a couple of friends from Los Angeles area that had a little bit of a difficult time stepping out of their affluent republican mindset, and unfortunately my decision to wear the hijab officiated the end of some friendships. My best friend, however, was completely supportive of me, and now even participates in World Hijab Day every year to spread awareness. Of course, I also made a couple of new friends along the way, both born Muslims and reverts [Muslim converts].

Integration into the Muslim community itself – another problem many reverts face – was easy and painless for me, in the beginning at least. I had one very good friend, who acted as a sort of all-in-one mentor, shoulder to lean on, and resource library. She always took me along to classes and lectures with her, and her friends all accepted me as I was. I joined the Muslim Students Association at my university, and the sisters there were all also very welcoming and ready to share in my journey.

However, upon moving to London (United Kingdom), I found that such accepting communities are actually quite rare to find. I had in fact been spiritually “growing up” in a metaphorical bubble. I had been excited to move out of my tiny community into something bigger, and I thought London would be a great opportunity for me to make tons of new friends. I instead found the community there to be far less open, and deeply separated into cultural cliques that had no place for a native-English speaking American university student. Because of this, I ended up being very isolated for the year I was studying there. The one good thing about moving to the diverse city of London however was the fact that the people on the street hardly gave me a second look.

Back in my university town in California, I had found myself in an odd place between the two communities. I found myself experiencing my majority cultural community in a much different way than I ever had before. Though I am always, to some degree, a novelty within the Muslim community, within the wider community, I experienced everything from micro-aggressions and confused stares, to actual violent threats (though this was by far the exception to the rule). For the most part, I got an odd look or two walking down the street, but I made it my policy to just look back and smile, and this tended to put people at ease. The broad majority of interactions I had in my university course, with my colleagues at work, and in my extra-curricular activities were positive. People were curious but kind, sceptical but supportive, and sometimes they just ignored the change completely.

The negative things I did experience mainly consisted of mildly irritating micro-aggression, usually in the form of slightly ridiculous questions. One thing I got asked a lot by random strangers was: “Where are you from?” Of course I would answer with: “California,” but they would almost always follow up with “yeah, but where are you from?” Sometimes I would just be given two choices: “Are you from Iran or Iraq?”, “Lebanon or Syria?”, “Albania or Turkey?” People seemed to have a very difficult time believing that I actually am just from California, and so are my parents, and my grandparents, and my great-grandparents (with the exception of my maternal grandfather’s parents, who are from Italy). Other times I have been asked very strange questions, but as long as there is space for a conversation I am always OK with giving an answer. Beyond the small things though, the biggest problem that I find that people had with me is not the fact that I am a Muslim, or that I “resemble the enemy,” but the fact that I am white and I choose to dress and believe as I do. Many of my most violent and aggressive encounters have stemmed from this type of animosity and the fact that, according to them, my lifestyle choices are not valid.

So, as I am preparing myself here in Algeria to begin the move back to the United States with my husband, I sometimes worry about the situation I will be returning to. I hear stories daily from my Muslim friends of attacks, mosques burning, being sworn at an intimidated in the street. I have been the recipient of not-so-cordial comments on my own blog and social media, and I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me, instead of being made to know that I am officially no longer welcome here, in the country where I spent the first 21 years of my life, because I choose to look and believe differently than those who hold the power.

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Credits and acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank Ashley for her time and efforts in writing this guest piece. I’d also like to wish her and her family all the very best for the future and their move back to the US.

If you’d like to find out more about Ashley and her experiences, please do visit her blog and Muslimah According to Me Facebook page. The blog is well worth a visit!

Images:

Greater than Fear (Shepard Fairey, Ridwan Adhami) (feature image) (CC), Ashley Bounoura (c)

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The 10 Biggest Misconceptions about Muslim Women

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Image source: luckyphotostream

Whenever you hear about Muslim women in the media, we’re always portrayed as oppressed, meek, silent victims. Doing a quick Google search using the words “Muslim women” just now, the suggested searches at the bottom of the page include:

do muslim women shavemuslim women rulessingle muslim womenmuslim women dress codemuslim women swimwearwhat do muslim women wear

Muslim women aren’t “victims” or “subjects”. We’re more than headscarves, burkinis, dress codes and potential wives for those looking for a spouse. We’ve got spiritual, intellectual, economic, social and sexual rights. There is a terrible wave of Islamophobic hate crime at present and there are cultural/social problems within some Muslim communities (see my prior post on gender jihad) but this isn’t what we’re about. Violations of women’s rights is unfortunately a global issue and Islamophobia is an increasing problem but these are problems – they don’t define us. They are problems just like all  other forms of racism, violence, discrimination and xenophobia. That’s not us.

Muslim women are proud, strong and free. We were given rights such as the right to inheritance centuries before women in Europe. I’ll leave all that for another post to go into greater detail. What I’d like to cover in this post is the 10 biggest misconceptions about Muslim women.

1. Muslim women dress in hijab and cover because their husbands demand so or because the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) told women to cover

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Image credit: Peter Dahlgren

Sigh. I and many other women (I’m sure!) have experienced this through misconceptions, (innocent) ignorance or by jumping to conclusions. It’s really patronising to presume that Muslim women cover their entire bodies for their husband when hijab is a choice, a decision and one act of following (one of ) God’s commands. Unfortunately there are cases of women being forced by men to cover by their fathers, husbands etc., there are oppressive laws in certain countries and in some societies there are judgmental attitudes and social pressure (all of which are wrong) but there’s also those sisters who wear it against their families’ wishes and despite the abuse and discrimination they may face within society. Following hijab in covering your body – not just your hair by the way (!) – is what Muslims believe to be a commandment from God and God alone (who is not male or female!). It’s a spiritual act, an act of modesty and an act of devotion. As Muslims, we believe that commandants are from God, compiled in the Qur’an and not from the Prophet Mohammed – who is the messenger not the Creator. It is and should always be the woman’s choice – a choice not defined by man. Please don’t assume otherwise.

2. Female converts had to convert to Islam in order to marry their Muslim spouses or they converted to Islam for their husband’s sake

Another huge stereotype! There are many many converts to Islam and most are young women. Whatever their timing, the decision to convert is (and must be) their choice. Those who convert simply to marry are not making a valid spiritual decision and those who force people to convert are breaking God’s commandment. God has given us free will and belief is personal – it has to be or it’s not real! You convert when you’re ready. Some sisters convert after witnessing the practice of their husband and learning more about the faith and some before they marry. This is their own personal spiritual choice. Out of those that convert before they marry, many of those aren’t even thinking about marriage. They’re not engaged, they’re not in love – they’re simply on their journey. Faith is personal and it’s once again really patronising to infer that women have no spiritual intelligence, needs, desires or free will. Faith is one thing. Marriage is another. Muslims believe that Allah’s plan is the greatest and therefore his timing is too!

3. Muslim men can touch unrelated women (shake hands etc.) whilst Muslim women can’t (the same goes for pre-martial sex!)

In Islam there is no sexual double standard. Pre- and extra-marital sex are forbidden as is kissing, touching etc. and everything in between. The limits between the opposite sex are the same. Whether this is always upheld is a different story but there should be no distinction between the level of contact between say a non-Muslim woman and a Muslim man and a Muslim man and a non-Muslim woman.

4. Muslim women can’t be scholars

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The general lack of female scholarship (in comparison to male figures) is a result of culture, patriarchy and socio-economic factors – not Islam. There are however numerous female Muslim scholars, translators, jurists and important advocates. Aisha (ra), the wife of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) was an early jurist and hadith transmitter. Another earlier example is Aishah bint Muhammad from Syria who was a 14th century hadith scholar. In today’s period, Laleh Bakhtiar (1938 – present) from the US, was the first American woman to translate the Qur’an into English. Her translation has been used in many mosques and universities. It has also been adopted by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan. Laleh has translated more than 30 books on Islam and the Islamic movement and is both a lecturer and published author of over 15 books in relation to Islam. For more inspirational Muslim women and their achievements see: 10 Muslim Women You Have to Knowthe Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) index and here for a list of female Muslim scholars. .

5. Muslim husbands are permitted to hit their wives

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Image credit: Hibr

Muslim men – despite what extremists say – are not permitted to hit their wives. The Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) did not hit his wives and taught men to respect, love and cherish their wives. Verse 4:34 of the Qu’ran is misused and mistranslated and thus used by some to justify violence against one’s wife :

The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them.

Translation: Talal Itani

Laleh Bakhtiar in her translation: “The Sublime Quran” (2007) translated the Arabic word daraba as “go away” instead of “beat” or “hit” – meaning the final commandment when in conflict with your spouse is to not actually have contact! Given the fact that the verse takes increasingly separatist stages: to first advise, then not share the marital bed until this last stage, this makes far more sense! As pointed out earlier, her translation of the Qur’an is used in various mosques and universities and was adopted by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan.

6. Muslim women are not (really) allowed in the mosque or community sphere 

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Image credit: Georgie Pauwels

This is simply a cultural issue. Women are not obliged to go to the mosque for Friday prayers – unlike men – as they may be busy looking after their children, looking after the house, perhaps not praying (time of the month!) etc. Women should never be stopped from going to a mosque. The authentic hadith (Al-Buhkhari) states the words of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) as following: “Do not stop women servants of God from the mosques of God.” See the WISE list of female Muslim spiritual and religious leaders for more on information on Muslim women in this area.

7. Muslim women are all a bit “meek and mild”

I think my message is becoming clear! Modesty is an important virtue in Islam but that doesn’t mean we have to hide away. There are many, many inspirational Muslim women figures – lawyers, writers, lecturers, translators, scholars, artists, political leaders, athletes and many more. Once again, check out the WISE index for a list of 100 extraordinary Muslim women!

8. Muslim women have no sexual rights

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Image credit: Nur Alia Mazalan

Both men and women in Islam have a right to sexual satisfaction. Islamic teachings – especially early on – talked openly about such issues including the need for foreplay with your wife. As previously explained, modesty and shyness are virtues but cultural habits have once again “got in the way” in relation to sexual education and attitudes. See for example this hadith in which the Prophet advised Abdullah bin Amr bin Al-As (who fasted all day and spent all night praying) to fast some days and to not fast on others and to likewise sometimes pray at night and other nights sleep – as to not act in excess: “Your body has a right over you, your eyes have a right over you and your wife has a right over you.” (Bukhari, Vol.7, No. 127). Muslims of course cannot be intimate with their spouse when fasting and any sexual act requires you to shower afterwards – especially in order to later perform prayers. Therefore a husband who is fasting every day (until sunset) and praying after sunset all night is not only being harsh on himself but is not allowing for sexual intimacy to take place, when his wife has the right to sexual pleasure.

9. Muslim women must/should be financially dependent on their husbands

Muslim women have the right to work if they want to as long as the children and other duties etc. are not neglected as the man is the (main) breadwinner (remember men can’t have children!). Obviously in today’s economy many women also work out of necessity. Muslim women are endowed with financial autonomy in relation to their earnings. The husband has no (automatic) right to her earnings – they can only be given with permission (which counts as charity). The husband, regardless of her earnings or lack of, must always provide for his wife and family – even if she is a multi millionaire!

10. Choosing one’s spouse is down to the men – the groom, the bride’s father, brother, uncles etc.

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Image credit: Azlan DuPree

Regardless of cultural or family behaviour, beliefs or tradition, in Islam marriage is between two consenting adults – be it a “love marriage” or arranged marriage (not forced for those who equate the two as being the same!). Firstly, women cannot and should not be forced to marry anyone – any such “marriage” would be invalid. Secondly, some couples chose their spouse, others ask their family and community to find a spouse for them. Each to their own! A Muslim woman has every right to ask her family, local imam etc. to help her find a spouse. If she falls in love, her potential husband may go to her father and ask for her hand. In the same way, if an unfamiliar brother wishes to marry a sister, he may approach her family who can ask their daughter what they make of him! Perhaps her father or brother know a nice brother they think is suitable and so they approach her to ask her thoughts but in no way is it a requirement that her family pick a husband for her. This works for some, for others things happen differently. Again – each to their own! The crucial point is that the marriage must be consensual. The woman’s family cannot give her hand against her will. Forced marriage is illegal, immoral and invalid. It is essentially a non-marriage involving forbidden sexual activity, immoral conduct and sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse. The Prophet Mohammad’s first wife Khadijah proposed the idea of marriage and they had a long happy marriage. Now me personally I’m a bit “traditional” and think it’s nicer for the men to ask/get the ball rolling but that’s not a rule! Modesty, respect and upright honest behaviour is the key.

So, I hope that’s cleared up some misconceptions around the so often mystified Muslim women! We’re human, we’re here, we have a voice, we have freedom, we have spiritual needs and we have opinions. We’re very normal! 🙂

Salam!

Credits:

Feature image: dzoro

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