Tell me I’m Wrong About the Hijab by Maniza Naqvi

One of the biggest mistakes people make when talking about Muslim women, rather than talking to Muslim women, is to assume that Muslim women are all the same, think the same, to ignore the diversity of thought, experience, opinion. Don’t condescend to the women, call them oppressed or slaves. Understand their mindset. So many of them are fiercely intelligent. One of my best students a young woman who covered her face. I struggled all semester but her intelligence still shone through. As for the idea that their voices are missing from public debate, this isn’t true either. They speak, but nobody listens to them. Search out their voices. They are there. Start here:

I found this essay by the Pakistani writer Maniza Naqvi on the hijab very passionately argued and provocative. I’m reproducing it here as a guest post.


I invite you to tell me why I am wrong. I wrote similar post on Facebook and now want to engage you here in this debate. So tell me am I wrong and why.

The issue about the hijab, burka and now burkini is not simply about its presence on the beach or in public institutions and spaces including schools, or about the presence of Islam in public spaces in Europe or about freedom of choice there. The issue is about the hijab, burka and burkini becoming the symbol of Islam and all that there is about Islam. A garment now defines Islam. A cloth, has become Islam. The issue is that modesty and virtue have been reduced to the abundance or lack of abundance of a garment. And that indeed is a shame.

It isn’t that the space for hijabs and niqabs is threated to be reduced. It is Islam that is being reduced. Reduced to a piece of cloth. And who is responsible for this?

Those responsible for doing so are Muslim women who wear it. Indeed it is about misogyny and patriarchy. Those who promote it are women. And they are predominantly articulating themselves to the West. They are reducing themselves, reducing the air around them, the light, the conversation, and they are reducing the faith that they profess to belong to by this reductionist action.

They have reduced Islam to a piece of cloth. There were two American Muslim women who participated in the Olympics and won medals. NBC and the media only played up and focused on one. Yup, the one wearing the hijab. Regularly, those women invited to speak about Muslims or Islam or represent Muslims are wearing hijabs. Those appointed and recruited to police and surveil and provide security duties are in hijab. Why?

Modesty, virtue and religion now symbolized by hijabs, pre-Islamic tribal garb for men and women. So are the women who are Muslim who do not wear this garb, not Muslim? Not modest? Not virtuous?

Is the hijab, burka, niqab, abaya and now the burkini a symbol of Islam and of religion?

Or is it a prop for communicating modesty and religiosity. The women that I know who wear hijabs wear them because they think it’s conveys religion and modesty. All of them are new to wearing the hijab. Most of them have something to hide or to not deal with intellectually. They are hiding, their sense of ugliness, they are hiding aging, they think it’s a way to instantly communicate that they are not only Muslim but also good Muslims, it allows them an easy pass through their neighborhood streets that are controlled by thugs and bullies, they are transmitting a demand or a plea to be treated better or differently than everyone else, they are hiding past bad behavior and keeping that tendency under check. It hides the shame of old clothes and not being able to keep up with the Jones. It helps women emerge from deeply patriarchal and authoritarian relationships and families. Whatever. It hides. There are a myriad of reasons for wearing the hijab. And all of them are deeply lazy and narcissistic.

The niqab deceives. It deceives foremost its wearer. The hijab and the niqab do not relay modesty or humility, they relay the opposite. It is a deeply narcissistic act that screams look at me! Look how different I am. Look how virtuous! I don’t need to do anything else to prove how good and moral I am. It allows a woman to hide her own idol, herself, inside her cover.

So a good Muslim woman wears a hijab or a niqab? Ask these women and push comes to shove they’ll say yes. They will indeed sit in judgement of other Muslim women, who don’t.

The police on the beach gave the woman a ticket and fined her for ‘not respecting good morals and secularism.” Poor putz of a policeman simply carrying out the decree of the Mayor, ends up scribbling and mixing up good morals with secularism. One a religious concept and the other supposedly not. So in doing so the police on the beach in Nice becomes the morality police—which has very little to do with secularism unless secularism in France means being naked. Not everyone being naked. Just women. Preferably only the good bits. Bare breasted women. That’s secularism?

Or did the policeman by writing ‘Not respecting of good morals’ actually inadvertently point to something very basic—a piece of garment is not the symbol of faith nor of goodness. It is in fact the symbol that you are weak of faith and goodness and must cloak yourself.

Nakedness. Nothing to hide. Open societies, bodies and minds. That’s a pretty good definition of morality and secularism isn’t it? Indeed the policeman shames the fully clothed woman, forcing her to take off her covering. Shames her in the name of good morality and secularism and does while being heavily clothed with body armor and had weapons. Did he reach deep inside his intellect and calling upon the entire Western Canon? Canon by the way, I have just learned, comes from the Arabic word, caanoon. Meaning, law. Come to think of it—modesty and morality for the French State is therefore the definition of what the Abrahamic God intended it to be—one where nakedness is the perfect state—and the unease with it—Shame, a crime.

Or does secularism in France mean ‘not Muslim’ Europe is being goaded to turn on itself, divide itself along religious lines. But this is not a fight within Europe. It is a conflict between women and their judgements of each other.

Wear what you want to but don’t tell me you do so in the name of ‘modesty’. Who decides what modesty is and what is virtue? Someone dressed in a burkini, hijab, burqa, or niqab? I say no. Do not argue the case of wearing a burkini or anything else in the name of modesty. If you do this then you are providing a judgement on what constitutes modesty and virtue and that those who do not don this garb are immodest.

It can be argued that a hijab, a niqab, a burka and abaya is a heightened and elevated sense of immodesty and titillation, bordering on pornography. It is a prop that constantly introduces sex and the danger of being raped into the public sphere when no such idea is even present. It suggests in a public sphere that a woman is covered because she is in danger of being molested or that if she were uncovered she would incite a molestation of her. Covered in the public sphere as these women who are wearing niqabs and burkas in Europe and the US where there is no social or cultural history for its presence these women are introducing the concept of being constantly stalked or in sexual danger or being the cause of it if they were uncovered. It is if not ridiculous, psychologically unstable. To cover herself is to suggest a constant pre-occupation with sex.

OH MY GOD! Oh my God what am I saying? How insulting of me! Is it? I am only repeat what we know from the Old Testament, the Bible and the Koran–what God said to Adam and Eve when God deported them, exiled them to earth, threw them out of Paradise–for their transgression, their loss of innocence–meaning their loss of equality, their loss of a sense of unawareness of any difference between them–a loss of their sense of freedom, their loss of an ultimate superiority which today we refer to as feminism. The acceptance of the burka and niqab is an acceptance of a loss of freedom, not its expansion.

If at a society’s level it is accepted that the covering from head to toe of a woman is her freedom of choice—to separate herself out and not interact with others, see them, but not be seen, create an unfair and unjust environment, a conversation that is only and only a perversion of sexuality, then why does she chose this? Does she make a moral judgement? The answer will be yes. Women who wear this, point falsely to religion for reason. They make a false claim to religion as well as to morality. Our ethics demand that she not impose her morality or the lack of it in our public spaces on us.

For to allow a woman in a full cover, the niqab and burka, to do so, makes her exception, the rule, her judgement valid and makes us all immoral, non-secular and unethical.

Book Review: Women in the Quran

Asma Lamrabet
translated from the French by Myriam Francois-Cerrah
Kube Publishing June 2016

Do you bring Islam to your feminism, or do you bring feminism to your Islam? Must we bend Islam to fit our modern sensibilities of women’s rights, humanism and justice towards both gender, or must we make compromises in our feminism to fit the classical interpretations of Islam that have always been skewed in favor of men?

In Asma Lamrabet’s Women in the Quran: An Emancipatory Reading (translated from the French by Myriam Francois-Cerrah), the author answers this question by declaring passionately and confidently that Islam has always considered women as equals to men. It is ‘certain biased readings, bolstered by patriarchal customs, which have rather legitimated these… inequalities.’

Lamrabet, a Moroccan pathologist and activist, blames ‘subjective human interpretation’ made by classicist, traditionalist and patriarchal interpreters, scholars, and translators for obfuscating the Quran’s essential humanist spirit. Islam in its original form, argues Lamrabet, doesn’t make distinctions according to gender, and certainly does not assign women a weaker spiritual status than men. Lamrabet distinguishes between an Islam that has been codified in centuries-old texts and a living Islam which women are struggling to re-negotiate in the light of a greater awareness of their rights as human beings to live in equality and peace with men.

Lamrabet goes further than the work of previous Islamic feminists by drawing upon the women in the Quran and deftly identifying archetypes such as: The Mother, The Governor, The Passionate Woman, The Spiritual, and The Sacrificial. Lamrabet’s classifications are especially compelling when discussing the excellent governing skills of Baklis, Queen of Sheba, or the insane passion of Zulaykha for Prophet Yusuf (peace be upon him) and her subsequent repentance for her wrongdoing.

There’s a refreshing refusal to dwell on women first and foremost as mothers, which male classical Islamic scholars tend to do. Lamrabet interprets the roles of Umm Musa and Asiah as parables to understand God’s tenderness towards women, and the value of piety and exemplary faith (Asiah disobeys her husband, the Pharaoh, in believing in Allah rather than following her husband’s religion), rather than focusing solely on their functions as mothers of the Prophet Musa (peace be upon him). Lamrabet draws the reader’s attention not to Maryam’s motherhood but to her “highly privileged spiritual station”, noting that God chose a woman rather than a man to be a symbolic link between Christians and Muslims.

Similarly, Lamrabet compellingly chronicles the lives of early Muslim women who stood up for their faith, and connects their resistance to political struggle. She writes of early Muslim muhajiratun (political refugees) Summaya, Zainab, Umm Sharik and Umm Kulthum noting their bravery, refusal to compromise, and willingness to even sacrifice their lives for their principles. This is in complete opposition to the modern portrayal of the Muslim woman as an oppressed victim unable to even raise her own voice.

A good case is made for women’s political participation through various examples from early Islamic history. In Surah Imran, the challenge from Muslims to Christians to participate in a theological debate called themubahalah asked for both men and women to take part. Similarly, women took part in mubayi’at, which included conversion, proselytzing, attending allegiance ceremonies, lectures at the mosque, and even being present in battle.

Lamrabet interprets mubayi’at as a political act, noting that the women took part in these activities of their own free will and independent agency. She argues against reductionism: the Prophet did not shake women’s hands during an allegiance ceremony. Classical scholars have used this as an excuse to invalidate the entire experience of women’s bayah, which Lamrabet castigates soundly in her discussion.

Lamrabet writes with verve and spirit, a tone which Francois-Cerrah captures well in her translation. Yet sometimes the style meanders and goes off into tangents where Lamrabet allows her imagination to supersede her arguments. Furthermore, some of Lamrabet’s circular arguments are stretched too far, diminished by her eagerness to make everything fit a modern feminist mold.

This is most apparent when Lamrabet deals with some of the contentions with verses such as 4:34 (it doesn’t permit wife-beating, but advises separation), 4:29 (making polygamy discouraged, but permissible in certain contexts), and other verses concerning inheritance, women’s testimony and the like. Lamrabet’s arguments will shore up those who already believe in Islam’s fairness towards women but will not convince those who are already certain that the religion is inherently misogynist.

Yet her writing is at its sharpest when Lamrabet excoriates modern Muslim governments and countries for obfuscating the revolutionary egalitarian spirit of Islam. She expresses justifiable anger in noting reform has taken 1500 years to come in countries like Morocco and Saudi Arabia: a willful theft of women’s rights for which adequate reparations have not yet been made. Her phrase ‘an aborted women’s revolution’ captures the essence of the conflict: a patriarchal backlash against the freedom and equality given to early Muslim women under the Prophet’s guidance.

Unusually, Kube Publishing have taken the step of distancing themselves from some of Lamrabet’s more radical positions. In a detailed introduction they say they do not necessarily endorse all the ideas in this work, but are publishing it ‘with a view to providing access to some trends in contemporary Muslim thinking.’ The note that the author’s interpretations are daring and ‘will no doubt be seen as problematic’ and remark on her ‘disregard for the hadith corpus.’ Her ‘sweeping judgments regarding ‘traditionalist’ understanding of Islam, by which she seems to be referring to the scholastic tradition of the past 1400 years, are unfortunately not substantiated in her work.’  The publishers have, ‘in an attempt to remedy this to some degree… included some end notes’ which refute some of Larambet’s points and correct others.

Whether the publishers fear Larambret’s book displeasing their conservative reader consumer base, or are trying to cover their legal bases, the caveat and endnotes detract from the overall reading experience. Still, perhaps this is a working compromise that guaranteed the text being published in its entirety. Whatever the case, it illustrates quite literally how contentious is the idea of women’s freedom and independence even within an Islamic framework, and how carefully women still have to tread in asserting their viewpoint on matters of theology, even when it is fully their Islamic right to do so.

This book review was first published in Sister-Hood magazine

The Rise and Fall of “Muslim Selfie Girl”

A couple of weeks ago, a Belgian woman called Zakia Belkhiri became Internet-famous for appearing at a fascist anti-Muslim rally flashing peace signs while wearing a hijab. Her photos went viral (I myself tweeted them happily) as it was pointed out that anti-Islamic bigotry was best fought with a sense of humor.

Indeed, even the protestors themselves seemed to be smiling or laughing at the irony of the situation: one brave Muslim woman in a scarf making funny faces against a backdrop of hostile people carrying posters, and the horror of fascism can be forgotten because everyone is friends again!

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Yesterday old tweets and social media posts of Belkhiri came to light, some from as far back as 2012: Belkhiri declaring her hatred for Jews, her understanding of Adolf Hitler’s methods, her hatred for the Hebrew language. Horrible, ugly stuff, which is unacceptable in any circumstances. Belkhiri was 18 years old, old enough to know better, when she posted those words. Instead of offering a full apology she claimed her tweets were fake, then deleted them, then deleted her social media accounts altogether.

In the wake of this debacle are now “I told you so’s” from all corners: Muslims are anti-Semitic, Muslims don’t belong in Europe, the fascists were correct all along about them. The hot takes and think pieces are coming in fast and furious, as they tend to do when digital newsrooms need clicks and views. But in this case there’s also a particular need to divorce themselves from their previous endorsement of Belkhiri and her hijab heroics in the fascist rally in Belgium.

We’re forgetting something, though: here’s a photo we saw a month earlier of a lone woman in the midst of a fascist protest in Sweden, Tess Asplund.

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Belkhiri’s hypocrisy, her stupidity, her grandiose beliefs that social media works differently for her than it does for everyone else, are one thing. Her ugly anti-Semitism is another. But we turned her into a hero by projecting her all around the world with our tweets, retweets, breathless blog posts, and excitement about her stunt. She’s going to face ignominy for a very long time (and she may come up with a Ted talk in about ten years on the subject of Internet shaming and forgiveness and compassion, who knows?).

We could take this as an object lesson in choosing our heroes more carefully.

And yet even if you’re right about the Muslims and they’re everything you think Belkhiri is, it doesn’t erase this fact:

No matter who its target, fascism is still evil.

(UPDATE: There are reports that she has since fully apologized and explained her posts as the result of anger when reading about Israeli aggression against Palestinians. Perhaps she has realized her mistakes, but I don’t think this is going to help her case at this point, even though some will argue that she was immature, ignorant, or misled. We all need a team of PR advisers when dealing with the Internet. And we all love a scapegoat when it comes to someone else screwing up online.)

Patriarchy, the world’s most popular religion

I’ve been exchanging notes with a novelist in America, Carolyn Cohagan, who has written a very interesting Young Adult novel called Time Zero. In a New York Times article for Women in the World, she describes her book as a dystopian novel for girls, inspired by homegrown fundamentalism. In an email, she asked me, “Do you think people in Pakistan realize that the US has fundamentalist communities with polygamy, forced marriages, and restricted rights for women? What do you think their reaction would be?”

Cohagan was inspired by the Taliban’s draconian rules for girls and women during their rule in Afghanistan. In her novel, Cohagan writes about an America taken over by fundamentalists, and her protagonist is a 15 year old girl, Mina Clark. But in her NYT article, Cohagan refers to not just Muslim communities in the US, but Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and fundamentalist Christian communities such as evangelical and Mormon ones, immigrant and non-immigrant families. These are where American girls are subject to many of the same rules and practices you might see under the Taliban, or authoritarian regimes or extremist societies in the developing world.

Cohagan’s work (and this is why it’s so important that we talk to each other, especially when we’re from different sides of the world, to see what’s common and experienced universally) reaffirms my own explorations of these subjects. I’ve come to the conclusion that patriarchy is a powerful religion in its own right. Powerful because it is able to subsume so many of our established religions, whether Abrahamic or polytheistic, or non-theistic, and to subvert the roles of women to its own agenda, which is to establish a world order in which women are a type of slave class in servitude to men.

Patriarchy is also intricately linked to capitalism, which requires the servitude of women, minorities, people from developing nations, and ranks them as inferior to a ruling class made up mostly of men. There’s no surprise in the fact that men own most of the property on the planet, most of the land, lead most of the companies and the means of production.

This paragraph in Cohagan’s essay stood out for me.

As the world moves forward with technology and communication, one might assume that social progress is inevitable within these conservative communities. On the contrary, according to the religious scholar Karen Armstrong, fundamentalism thrives in times of technological leaps forward. “All fundamentalists feel that in a secular society, God has been relegated to the margin, to the periphery and they are all in different ways seeking to drag him out of that peripheral position, back to center stage.”

These days, Muslim women are struggling mightily for empowerment in their lives and in their countries and communities.  But their work, in their own contexts and on their own terms, runs the risk of being hijacked by those with other agendas. I’m not talking about ex-Muslims, who have their own struggle and many valuable things to say about the state of affairs in the rotten Denmarks we live in,  both in the Muslim countries and elsewhere. Nor am I talking about secularists and humanists, who have been invaluable in pushing the agenda of human rights and of tolerance of all people, regardless of faith (This is why I very much respect Taslima Nasreen, for example, because she’s been through it all and her perspective is important, even if her atheism is in direct opposition to my practice).

I’m talking about the male “allies” who think they’re freeing Muslim women, when all they’re really doing is replacing the patriarchy of religion, and the religion of patriarchy, with the religion of the future: technology, science, and the self – which can be as oppressive to women as religion can, when all three fields are dominated by men. (Take a look at this article from NatGeo which tells us that most of the world’s secularists are white men). Women, and especially women of color, have no seat at any of these tables.

These “allies” claim to care for the plight of Muslim women, and they firmly believe that without their help, Muslim women will never be “free”. They’re the ones that continue to insist Muslim women cannot free themselves without male stewardship. They show their care by “by bombing their countries, demonizing the religion, and supporting patriarchal structures” as grad student Hari Prasad put it:

I honestly adore how atheists, secularists and neo-cons are so concerned for the plight of Muslim women. It’s heart-warming.

@BinaShah they care so much for Muslim women, by bombing their countries, demonizing the religion, and supporting patriarchal structures

Less violently, but no less insidiously, they choose who can and can’t speak for Muslim women. They lionize certain spokespeople while demonizing others. They decide what Muslim women should and shouldn’t wear.  When Muslim women protest, or insist that they should be the ones with choice, these “allies” declare Muslim women brainwashed, terrorists, apologists, sympathizers, and slaves.

Witness how Mona Eltahawy was pilloried on Twitter when she said (and she doesn’t mince her words) that if you aren’t a Muslim woman, or non-white, you need to “shut up” and “listen”, instead of attempting to call the shots in this movement. The howls of anger were loudest from “allies” who couldn’t believe they were being told they couldn’t take the lead in this revolution. She went on to say “I don’t care about Western feminists. This is a fight for us, Muslim feminists, to have.” (And then she called everyone “fuckboys” which really made the fur fly)

Non-Muslims can certainly be allies to Muslim women in their struggle for empowerment, freedom, and equality. Western feminists, too, can be allies to Muslim women. But they need to take the back seat in this revolution. They need to listen to Muslim women talk about what they want for themselves. As Malik Ali tweeted, “Even the privileged (within Pakistan), unless they’re active or have ground experience can’t fully relate to the struggles of the oppressed. So it’s challenging for those ten thousand miles away, whether they’re expats, ex-Muslims, etc. If you’re sincere, research local activists and social workers, listen to what they say and support them.” (You are wise indeed, and a full ally of this movement)

The moment “allies” impose themselves on this struggle, dictating to Muslim women what’s good and bad for them, and decide what the end result of that struggle looks like (“Give up Islam!” is the biggest refrain which certainly doesn’t help anyone), they cease to become allies. And when men do this, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, eastern or western, they are simply continuing the tradition of patriarchy – only under different rulers.

There’s a great term for these allies, which comes from grammar: “false friends”. They are words “in two languages (or letters in two alphabets) that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning.” In this case, these “allies” of Muslim women are actually false friends who want you to choose them and their way of life over the one that you want for yourself. They want to convince you that you don’t actually know what’s best for you because you’ve been so brainwashed or intimidated or oppressed by the men of your community.  Their agenda is to prove that their way of life is superior to yours, and they need to hold your hand and lead you to it.

Don’t fall for it.

Erasing Cultural Diversity in the Muslim World

This collage of photographs really doesn’t need much explanation. On the left, women in Saudi-style abayas and niqabs. They’ve been convinced or coerced into wearing this uniform. They’ve been told that this is the way to paradise. Or they’ve been threatened with violence, or fines and jail if they don’t comply. For many of them, this is the only way to leave the house.

On the right, the beautiful array of traditional clothing for women that you can find all over Muslim countries. Not one of these outfits is immodest or obscene. Some include a head covering, some don’t. Yet they have all been deemed sinful, and a deliberate effort is going on to suppress and erase women’s traditional clothing (and in many cases, men’s, in favor of the Arab-style thobe and skullcap).

This is not Islam. This is cultural imperialism, mixed with misogyny.

As Inas Younis wrote in her deeply insightful essay “The Moderate Muslim Misogynist,”

…he too believes that God has created him to be a rational being,  except when it comes to his sexual capacity, where he is totally helpless and inclined by nature to gravitate towards the path of least resistance.  And to prevent him from falling into the deplorable world governed by loose women, he demands that all women exercise whatever degree of modesty he needs to maintain a state of chemical castration.   All women must, for the benefit of preserving his dignity, and the dignity of his society, act as one organism and not as individuals.  In some places this is taken so literally that all women are legally required to dress exactly the same.  In other societies they are expected to be completely desexualized.  Naturally this has had the opposite effect,  by hyper- sexualizing  the most benign and innocent expressions of female beauty.   And  if a woman  should step out and express her individuality,  it is perceived as an invitation to violently put her  in her place.

I read those words yesterday, but it was the photograph above that really made it hit home. Younis goes on to write, about Muslim women who take part in this travesty, “Nevertheless, women in Islam continue to fulfill their part of the social contract, by feigning weakness as a sign of spiritual strength.” But Muslim women who take up the abaya and niqab by choice also are complicit in the lie perpetuated by misogynists (who can be found the world over) that they are responsible for keeping men from sinning, by erasing every inch of their bodies so that they do not tempt men.

I have met women who attended Al-Huda classes who refused to wear perfume for fear of arousing strange men, as if men would turn around and sexually assault them if they got a whiff of Chanel No 5. In some countries women’s voices are silenced from public broadcasts because of the fear that men will become aroused listening to them. Salafi interpretations of the Quran add to the verses instructing women to draw their outer clothes over themselves with a parenthetical instruction to cover their faces entirely so that only one eye can see the way.

When Muslim women believe in this sort of nonsense, they imprison themselves, and they insult men. They deprive men of the opportunity to practice exerting self-control over themselves. They do not allow men to deal with their temptations and conquer them and emerge better men. Even our prophets had to deal with these very human urges and control themselves. By hiding themselves away, women contribute to the sexual immaturity and underdevelopment of the men in their society.

And it’s not as if those urges go away; when repressed, they emerge even more strongly and destructively in the form of sexual violence.

Women have a responsibility: to be normal, and to move in the world normally, so that men can also be normal. Carrying yourself in the world as if your very existence is a sin will never allow that to happen.

PS: Don’t use this post to justify anti-Muslim bigotry or prejudice, or anti-immigrant racism. That’s not what this post was meant for. Also, I have no problem with women wearing the hijab; it’s the complete erasure of women that I protest.

Dukhtar

When you hear about child marriages taking place in rural areas of Pakistan, you sometimes wonder what kind of mother would allow her underage child to be married to an adult man, whether ten or twenty or fifty years older than the child. All too often it’s a woman who was also married to an adult man when she was just a girl, and is powerless to stand up to a patriarchy that demands a similar child sacrifice to perpetuate itself. But in “Dukhtar,” Pakistan director Afia Nathaniel dares to imagine what happens when a woman defies the order of her husband to have her ten-year-old daughter married to an elderly tribal leader in order to put an end to a blood feud.

Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) lives with her ten year old daughter Zainab (Saleha Arif) and husband Daulat Khan (Asif Khan), perched high above the world in the mountains of Pakistan. Allah Rakhi’s most meaningful relationship is with her daughter, who teaches her English words that she learns in school. Her interactions with her husband are limited to serving him food and obeying his instructions, but she lives mostly in peace with him and her surroundings. Nathaniel avoids romanticizing the scenery (though Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is showcased in all its desolate beauty; the cinematography is one of the film’s strongest features) or portraying Allah Rakhi’s life as extraordinarily miserable; it’s a realistic picture of what life is like in hamlets all over the mountainous regions of Pakistan, bleak and strenuous, but not without its small joys.

The action starts quickly when Daulat Khan is forced to visit a tribal leader, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan), to negotiate a resolution to an old enmity that has claimed lives on both sides. Tor Gul forces Daulat Khan to give Zainab in marriage to him, saying that creating a bond between the two warring families is the only way to satisfy the demands of honor. Daulat Khan barely protests; he leaves Tor Gul’s territory with a promise that the Nikah between Tor Gul and the underage Zainab will be performed the following Friday. The speed with which the rishta is suggested and accepted illustrates that not only are girls and women considered disposable property by men, but that nobody’s really interested in changing the status quo.

When Allah Rakhi hears the news, at first she too feels she has little choice but to agree to Zainab’s wedding to the influential and dangerous Tor Gul. But a chance exchange with her daughter wakes her up from her stupor, and she quickly thinks of a plan to escape. Tor Gul’s men, and Daulat Khan’s own nephew Shehbaz Khan (Ajaz Gul) pursue them, and Allah Rakhi and Zainab’s fate seems inescapable in the face of these armed men with no mercy in their hearts chasing two women on foot in their jeeps.

But then a knight in shining armour appears: Sohail (Mohib Mirza), a Punjabi whose galloping steed is a huge Bedford truck kitted out in full truck art regalia: colorful fans and mirror work all over the body, a tiger painted on the back, and a big false hood fitted onto the top. He calls this vehicle Rani and for his livelihood he carries cargo up and down the route from Lahore into the mountains and back down again. Allah Rakhi begs him to help her and her daughter in a scene that shows what a fine actor Samiya Mumtaz is; her face can go from weary to passionate just by the way she widens or narrows her eyes. Though she’s in almost every scene, you can’t take your eyes off her when she’s onscreen. She manages to portray both strength and vulnerability at the same time, which makes her a truly complex character.

The rest of the movie follows the threesome as they attempt to make their way down to Lahore, much like the story of “The Bride” by Bapsi Sidhwa, which seems like a major influence on the screenplay. It’s standard escape-movie stuff, but manages to stay absorbing all the way until they stop at the village of Sohail’s friend, Zarak Khan (Omair Gul), who welcomes them to his abode and promises them sanctuary. We get to see the positive side of Pakhtunwali, the tribal code of honor, which is all too often  portrayed as a one-dimensional cycle of murder and revenge, and harsh treatment of women. Instead, we’re reminded that Pakhtuns consider loyalty and protection to guests two of the most important characteristics of their integrity as Pakhtuns, and kindness to women and girls are part of that too.

This pause in the action is also where the movie takes a meandering turn from the central question of whether Allah Rakhi and Zainab will escape Tor Gul’s revenge. Instead, it turns to deepening the relationship between Allah Rakhi and Sohail, picturing them as lovers who can’t be together because of circumstances. Nathaniel conveys this by having Sohail tell Allah Rakhi the story of how the Kabul and Indus River came to be intertwined at the spot near Attock where they’re sheltering with Zarak Khan.

But the addition of this Sufi-like parable to the story, like the emerging love between the two, feels a little forced. Nathaniel continues with heavy-handed Sufi symbolism when the trio make it to Lahore and walk around the shrine of Data Darbar, watching the musicians and drummers and malangs commune with God, and the inclusion of a few qawwali numbers into the soundtrack, particularly Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Ya Rahem, Maula Maula.” Overall, the diversion into love story territory weakens what is otherwise a credible and enjoyable film.

Still, Dukhtar is a refreshing look at an age-old story: the very human and universal need to escape oppression, as played out within the specific iteration of Pakhtun culture. Nathaniel’s camera opens up parts of Pakistan that remain closed off to most of the world (she’s to be commended for having shot footage in some of the most unforgiving and dangerous territory in South Asia). Her gaze on this land makes you fall in love with both the kitsch and the majesty found side by side in Khyber Paktunkhwa. And the ending scene brings the movie back to its original premise: that the most intense love in Dukhtar is the one between a mother and her daughter. They are the lover and the beloved who cannot bear separation from one another even for a second. If the lover shows the requisite amount of courage in protecting the beloved, perhaps they never will.

Here is the official trailer for Dukhtar, which premiered a few weeks ago at the Toronto International Film Festival 

Why All Women Should Drive

It’s probably part of your morning routine, like drinking coffee or taking a shower – you pick up your keys, step out the door, walk over to your car. Put the key in the ignition, adjust your rearview mirror, step on the gas, and you’re off, driving down the road, taking the kids to school or going to work or just running down the road to get some groceries.

Not a big deal at all – unless you are a woman living in Saudi Arabia. Then you are not allowed to drive. Or get a drivers license. By law. Even if your child is dying in front of you, you can’t put her in the car and drive her to the hospital yourself. You’ve got to rely on a man – your husband, brother, driver, twelve year old son. You, an adult woman of sound mind and willing spirit, are not allowed to drive.

The reasons have been many, each more irrational than the last. It isn’t safe for Saudi women to drive, the security of Saudi women is most important, the customs and traditions of the Kingdom do not allow for this. If women drive, there will be mixing of the sexes which will lead to women losing their virginity. Driving causes harm to women’s pelvises and ovaries, resulting in children born with deformities.

But today on October 26, brave Saudi women will take to the streets behind the wheels of their cars and protest against being deprived of this right. I stand in solidarity with their protest. I read reports in the news that 200 clerics went to the Royal Palace in Jeddah to complain about the protest, and I also read that the women who are going to drive today are concerned that other activists might use this day as an excuse to get out on the streets and protest for other issues. Which would be a shame because this one needs to have the most attention, and doesn’t deserve to get hijacked – at least not today.

All women must learn how to drive. It’s a life skill that has so many uses in modern life today. I’ve seen women bus drivers in China, women taxi drivers in the UK, women truck drivers in the US, women driving mopeds and scooters in Thailand and India. In Pakistan, women drive. It’s an economic necessity. Not everyone is rich enough to afford a driver.

It’s unbelievable that there’s a country which takes pride in handicapping half its population, and bragging that this is because its women are so cherished and valued that they are treated like queens and don’t have to do something as menial as driving. But the women who want to drive know that’s a whitewash on the fact that the reason they’re not allowed to drive is because the men fear the independence it gives them. A woman who can drive is a woman in control of where she’s going, not just on the road, but in life.

And to a weak man, that thought is almost too frightening to bear.

Amina Wadud: Gender in the Quran

Today I followed a Twitter seminar on the topic “Reading for Gender from the Quran” based on the teachings of the Islamic Scholar Amina Wadud. This was a lecture delivered by Tweets – you followed the hashtag #femquran — on Islamic feminism, reading for gender in the Qur’an and other valuable lessons. The lecture was based on a workshop on the same topic held in May 2013 in Kuala Lumpur.

I’ve always been fascinated with studying the Quran in terms of how the original verses compare with the translations and interpretations that have emerged, most of them with a distinctly chauvinist flavor. There are several prominent female scholars of the Quran who are taking the Quran back, as it were, and reinterpreting those verses truer to the original intent of the Quran to give men and women equal status. One of those women is Professor Wadud; another is Laleh Bakhtiar, whose “Sublime Quran” I have ordered from Amazon and can’t wait to read.

I’m also particularly excited about the field of Islamic feminism: women interpreting the Quran for a more balanced perspective about how the Quran applies to us. I think reclaiming the Quran in this manner is the only way for Muslim women to truly achieve the equality we have been denied for so long by men who do not want us to step out of our second-class standing because it suits them to have a slave class sanctioned by religious text.

Professor Wadud is a Muslim scholar of long standing, and has addressed mixed-sex congregations in Cape Town and led prayers in 2005 at a US mosque – something women traditionally are never allowed to do; her brand of Islamic feminism argues that women can be imams. For Pakistanis, it’s good to know that the Pakistani scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi supports her stance, as well as other progressive Islamic scholars around the world.

She was most recently the source of controversy because when she went to India, fundamentalist Muslims in Tamil Nadu protested her presence and her lecture there was canceled. She posted a short essay called “Why I Try to Stay Away From The Media” saying that the media had made a huge deal about the protest in Tamil Nadu, ignoring the entire year of work she’d done without problem all over India.

Beginning her lecture, Dr. Wadud said, “Part of taking agency with our own belief is engaging with Qur’an. This is an eternal relationship with the Divine.” And she assured those of us following her lecture that nobody would be able to use the words of the Quran against us (as women). In fact, she said, women need to claim their own authority in order to add to the understanding of our tradition, and of Allah.

She recommended the book ‘Ulum Al-Quran’ as a very good introduction to Quranic exegisis, then noted that the Quran continuously chastises 7th century Arabia, the time and place that the Prophet, an ordinary person with extraordinary experience, lived. “Might it not be possible that Quran addresses that culture?” she asked.

She went on to give some background into the history of the Quran: “Within one year of the Prophet’s death, the revelations were compiled into one large manuscript with the leadership of Abu Bakr. The manuscript went to Umar, next Caliph, and on to Hafsa bint Umar (Hafsa the daughter of Umar), and then to Uthman, the next Caliph after Umar. And what we have today is the perfect revealed text – the original text is as it is. It is the primary source of Islam”

Dr. Wadud warned her listeners: “Just because you grew up speaking Arabic does not mean you can give an authentic interpretation of the Quran. Just because you are a ‘Quran specialist’ does not mean you are the only one who has the understanding.” (These are the usual excuses many male Islamic scholars give when excluding women from the discourse on religion and the Quran). Arabic is a prerequisite science to understanding the Quran, said Dr. Wadud. “But it is a classical Arabic that nobody speaks.”

She also explained Sunnah as the normative behaviour of Prophet is related to the 7th century context, not just in his relationship with Allah. Therefore we can consider Sunnah as the living embodiment of Islam.

Then came more explication about how the Quran’s language works: “God speaks in meta language, through the stories in the Quran. Metaphors are used to communicate the revelatory experience.”

Earlier verses of Makkah period are emphatic about the Oneness of God, of the Divine (the concept of Tawhid that all Muslims are familiar with), while the later verses of Madinah period are more practical, and meant for 7th century Arabia. According to Dr. Wadud the idea that Madinah verses have more authority than Makkah verses has been refuted. In fact, the earlier verses are more universal – and this adds weight to their importance and timelessness, whereas the Madini verses are more practical, and addressed Arabs living in the 7th century.

(And the major mistake we make as Muslims today is taking those verses out of context and trying to apply them to our lives today – slaves and concubines, for example, do not exist in modern life, but in 7th century Arabia they were a reality, and so had to be addressed. This does not mean that Muslims today can take slaves and concubines, though – and you’d be amazed how many people come to my blog with the keyword search “Can I have a concubine in Islam?”)

Dr. Wadud then turned to the issue of gender in the Quran. “In the Quran, the use of gender-neutral language is virtually impossible because the Arabic language has gender markers.” Moving from these gender markers is a real challenge. Amazingly, in the Quran, Allah refers to Himself, Herself and in the plural (that blew me away when I read it!). And according to Dr. Wadud, “Grammar is literal, not an ideology.” In other words, if Allah refers to Himself, or in the plural, it is not meant to be taken literally – as Allah has no gender and is only One.

Addressing the issue of how women have been squeezed out of the religious conversation, Dr. Wadud asked, “Doesn’t the female have a relationship with God? There are consequences to leaving the female out. We need to interrogate this.” She added that nowhere in Quran nor does the Prophet say that the leader of prayer has to be male. “Where does that come from? We have been duped.”

The Quran, said Wadud, mentioned 35 prophets by name but there were thousands of other prophets. “The thousands of other prophets could have included women. Why can’t we imagine this to be a possibility?”

Dr. Wadud said that Quranic language ascribes the masculine form neutrality, and called this a matter of linguistic convenience, not gender privilege. “When someone says this is what the text means, you have to ask how they came to know that. It is your job to question.”

Here is one of Dr. Wadud’s most important points: All gender inequalities in the text refer to 7th century Arabia and what Quran was trying to achieve at that time. Justice is relative. And when it comes to resolving contradictions between verses, Dr. Wadud recommends that we resolve on the side of justice – “then you’ll be an active participant in meaning-making.”

According to Dr. Wadud, “Accept contradictions in the Text. They are context-specific. They are not universal, not intra-Quranic, and not Divine.”

Dr. Wadud exhorted us to “Be dynamic, be passionate. Be an active participant in meaning-making. Consider all angles, all nuances. You are relating with the Divine.” The Quran is a revolutionary text. There’s more text about social justice and women than any other. But “We let it fall behind, to dis-use.” A living, dynamic eternal text, the Quran’s trajectory is towards greater and greater social justice, said Dr. Wadud.

The Quran is not a conditional text. It does not give conditions. It is jurists that imposed conditions through law. (No prize for guessing which gender those jurists have been throughout time).

Turning to some of the more troublesome aspects of gender in the Quran, Dr. Wadud addressed the issue of whether or not the Quran sanctioned wife-beating (as so many use 4:34 to argue that it does). “Men don’t hit women because there is a verse in Quran,” said Dr. Wadud. “Men hit women because they have issues with self-control and violence.”  The problems begin when men who hit women go back to Quran to justify their actions. Whither the intrinsic spirit of justice in Quran?

“We need to look at not just Quranic tafsir but also at fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) to understand what certain terms in the Text mean. Fiqh is man-made.”

There are many meanings to the term ‘darab’, Dr. Wadud pointed out. “Laleh Bakhtiar found over 30 meanings to ‘darab’. Who actually decides what meaning, what impact?” (‘Darab’ is the word in 4:34 which has been traditionally translated as ‘beat’ but Islamic feminist scholars translate it as ‘separate’).

Instead of going with what’s been traditionally told is the correct way to interpret the Quran, Wadud exhorted us to “take a ‘conscientious pause’ (first coined by Khaled Abu El Fadl). It is a requirement of true faith, a moral responsibility.”

“If you hear or see anything and cannot in your heart keep faith in Allah, you must observe a conscientious pause. If you feel you are not comfortable with something in your faith, observe a conscientious pause. It is not lazy, not an excuse. You don’t get to say ‘I don’t like that!’. An emotional response is not what is being sought, but a moral response.” And Wadud said that a conscientious pause was a moral phase because “you are going to actively seek a greater, fuller understanding.”

On feminism, Dr. Wadud had this to say: “Feminism may be historically rooted in the West, but it had its limits. It faced many challenges inevitably. Diverse global cultural contexts required a redefinition, even debunking of accepted version of feminism introduced by the West. So we see this historical trajectory, and that is Islamism –> secularism –> Islamic feminism.”

There are many people who say there is no such thing as Islamic feminism, or that Islam and feminism are contradictory terms, but Dr. Wadud believes otherwise. “Islamic feminism is a modern innovation. It came to us in late 1990s. It is modern, it is now because we are living in the now.” According to her, Islamic feminism uses gender as a category of thought, as a tool to interrogate ideas, concepts, goals, etc to decipher truth.

Dr. Wadud went on to question how we define ‘the human being’, saying that it must be true for all human beings. “To define ‘the human being’ as ‘male’ is problematic. To define the human being as male is to exclude women or make them somehow deficient, be an ‘other’, be deviant. To define the human being as male is to make women out to be other than fully human.”

The process of including everybody when making a definition becomes problematic. There are inevitable consequences, said Dr. Wadud. For example, “If you understand the Prophet to be receiver of knowledge and therefore the parameter, how to deal with issues of menstruation?”

Whether conscious or unconscious, blanket definitions are problematic, exclude, divide, have consequences that are dangerous. Such definitions should say something to you about the speaker. Such definitions are not ultimate human reality/realities.

Dr. Wadud addressed women specifically when she said, “Your life is an ultimate source of reality. Your biology is an ultimate source of reality. Nature is an ultimate source of reality.”  And that what the Quran says about the Creator is unique, not gendered. “What Quran says about the ultimate human being – all levels of existence occur in duality, i.e. yin yang. There is no [gender] hierarchy. “ She repeated: “What our Sacred Text says about the Ultimate Human Being: there is no [gender][hierarchy.”

Instead, the ultimate human being is both male and female (min kulli shay’in khalaqnaa zawjayn). “As a man or a woman, we are trustees of the Divine Will. As a human being, you become a moral agent on earth.”

Addressing the question of whether or not Islam is a fair religion, she stated: “Islam is about upholding ethics, justice. And that consciousness (taqwa) leads to a certain type of behaviour judged only by Allah.”

According to Dr. Wadud, the Quran is explicitly gender-inclusive in all stages of life, death and the afterlife. The umbrella term to encompass all this is Tawhid.

“Tawhid therefore includes elements of oneness, unity, uniqueness. Tawhid is not a method. It is the foundation of social justice. If Tawhid is the theological basis, then a system of ethics (Maqasid of Shari’ah) becomes the methodological basis.

“Islam is emphatic that there is NO intermediary between Allah and you (woman or man). Islam is emphatic about the fact that there is horizontal reciprocity between woman and man,” said Dr. Wadud. And she claims that “It is strategic, it is wise to decide on a case by case, issue by issue, nation by nation, etc basis.”

All citizens have same rights with respect to implementation of any law.  All citizens have same rights with respect to the reform of any policy that denies, prohibits or limits equality. And the “Buddhist principle of transcendence will also help understand Tawhid. We can understand this through other faiths.”

Today, reasoned Dr. Wadud, there are many who claim women’s roles at home (private sphere) are equally important as men’s as leaders (public sphere) But if women’s roles in the home are so important, why isn’t everyone clamoring for that role? Why isn’t there more competitiveness? Dr. Wadud rejects this “complementary” model of gender roles, saying, “The complementarity model is unequal. It is vertical, cannot be exchanged, people’s roles become fixed.”

“Equality isn’t about sameness,” continued Dr. Wadud. And the last word?  Islam does not advocate gender hierarchy.