Archive for category Sexuality

Owning space

This post should probably come with trigger warnings. At least, the quote below was very triggering to me, when I first read it on Side Entrance.

“When our sisters are deprived from the right to come to the mosques, or given sub-standard accommodations and treated disrespectfully, it is only natural that some of them will take matters into their own hands and counter-react.

Some of that counter-reaction will be legitimate, and some illegitimate.

Rather than worry about what various counter-reactions have been and how legal they are, I believe we need to concentrate on the root cause of the problem. It is an undeniable reality that women’s prayer spaces (in those masjids that actually have them – for quite a few masjids still don’t even have such spaces) are less accessible, less clean, and less maintained than the men’s sections. Women have to deal with crying children, bad microphones, no visual access to the Imam/khatib, dank hallways to get in and out, and many other issues. Perhaps the worst issue of all: too many of our brothers comment on what they assume is inappropriate clothing when our sisters come to the masjid. This makes many sisters feel uncomfortable simply coming to the masjid.

In a day and age where our sisters are going everywhere, visible everywhere, active everywhere, the BEST place for them to be is in the masjid, praying to Allah, and being with fellow Muslims, and learning about their faith. Rather than believe that they should stay home, we need to contextualize our environment and ENCOURAGE our sisters to come to the most blessed places in their cities: their mosques. We need to make sister’s facilities as neat and clean and well-lit and accessible as the brothers. We either put them in the same hall as the men (as was the case in the time of the Prophet (SAW), behind the men), or provide state of the art AV access to the lectures/khutbah. We need separate rooms (also with AV) for sisters with young infants so that others can also pray and listen in peace. And most importantly, we need to tell our men that it is not THEIR business (unless a family man is dealing with his own wife/daughter) how other women dress. Let the people in charge of the masjid deal with dress codes.

Frankly, in this day and age, if a sister actually comes to the masjid (rather than going shopping or watching a movie or doing any other activity), we should WELCOME her, have the sisters get to know her, and make her feel special. Her priority is not the scarf on her head but her attachment to Allah. Once she feels that attachment, the rest will follow.

Our sisters in faith are our mothers, wives, and daughters. How can we treat them any less than we expect to be treated ourselves in this regard? And how can we deprive them of coming to the masjid when our Prophet (SAW) explicitly forbade it in his own time, and our time requires even more spirituality and education for them?!”

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The Handmaid’s Tale: some reflections

Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I am conscious that I am reading it with what I would call doubled vision. Meaning, as I read it I am constantly aware of how I would likely have received it if I had read it back in the day when I was a hyper-conservative Muslim, as well as how it comes across to me now. So, I am all too aware that aspects of it that I now regard as insightful wouldn’t have seemed that way to me then.

"I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit." (The Handmaid's Tale, p. 131)

“I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit.” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 131)

The primary target is evangelical Christian political activism aimed at limiting women’s rights to control their own bodies and lives, in the name of supposedly “biblical” values (with some biting critique also of certain strains of ’80’s feminism). The “biblical values” being promoted by groups such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority back when this book was written were usually spun as good old-fashioned wholesome warm-n-fuzzy all-American values that for some strange reason had only recently been questioned by a few misguided feminists and liberals. However, Atwood is having none of that eye-wash—the “biblical values” described in The Handmaid’s Tale are absolutely nightmarish—yet, they can arguably be justified from biblical passages that speak of women desperately desiring to bear children, men having sex with female slaves in order to sire offspring (whether said female slaves consented was irrelevant), arranged marriages of daughters, commands addressed to wives to obey their husbands, and so forth.

This makes the point that “biblical values” are ultimately less about whatever the Bible says (or doesn’t say), and more about  what parts of the Bible one wants to highlight, as well as about who has the power to define what “biblical values” are in a given context. “Biblical values” might sound as though they come with some sort of guarantee of fairness or compassion, at least as far as “good Christian women” are concerned… but they do not. Even those women like Serena Joy, who had devoted their lives to promoting such values, did not have the power to define what “biblical values” would mean. It was powerful men hell-bent on control and feeling entitled to it who had that power.

Back in the day, I wouldn’t have wanted to read any further, because this obviously raises questions about any religious movement claiming that its allegedly divinely given values should govern followers’ lives (much less religious movements with political ambitions). I would have seen this as unfair, as foreclosing the possibility of religious women seeking liberation within their religious tradition. I would have also taken offense at the Orientalism of comparing the handmaids’ boredom to a painting of harem women, and dismissed the entire book as therefore irrelevant to Muslim women.

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How I know I’m still Muslim: because I’m still as critical as all hell :-(

Some days ago, someone sent me a link to a video of British Muslims being, well, happy. Lip-syncing, dancing, smiling, and acting goofy, mostly. Women, as well as men and children. Not all the women were wearing hijab. One hijabi was biking, and a number were dancing. I watched it, and had two automatic and rather contradictory reactions—“awww, that’s kind of cute” and “the following things in this video are haraam, makruh or at least Islamically questionable and therefore the makers probably should have avoided them, because X quranic verse and Y Z A hadiths and the sayings of such-and-such scholars.”

And the thing was, these were my automatic responses, that I didn’t even have to think about or try to formulate. Not just the “awww…” response, but the second one, the hyper-critical, These Are All The Things That Are Wrong Here And These Are The Proof-texts Why response.

Thinking about the second response, I am taken aback… and not in a good way.

Where does this hyper-critical response come from, complete with its associated proof-texts?

Sure, this stuff was all pounded into my head years ago, when I converted. But I’ve been away from conservative Muslim communities for a while now, and seldom interact with conservative Muslims (aside from a few family members). I don’t usually listen to conservative khutbas or attend mosques or read books written by conservatives or (god forbid) go to those fatwa sites. So, it’s not as though those attitudes and proof-texts could be expected to be uppermost in my mind, because they aren’t exactly receiving reinforcement.

And, these are mostly ideas that I don’t rationally believe in either (more on that in a minute).

So, where does this come from??

Well, wherever it comes from, it soon became evident that I was not the only person who has the same inbuilt Islamic Carping Criticism-o-meter (ICC), because it did not take long for a “halal” version of the video to be posted. Meaning, a version in which most of the women have been edited out, and those remaining are hijabis. Only the upper one-third of their bodies are shown, and they are mostly standing still. Not only are the dancing women now gone, but even the hijabi riding her bike.

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Boundaries

Years ago, I bought a copy of “Hijab–An Act of Faith” (way back when we still had VHS tapes). Recently, I noticed that I still own the thing, though I can’t actually watch it, because—like most other people nowadays—I don’t have a VCR. 🙂

But fortunately (?) enough, someone in youtubeland apparently was thinking of people in my situation, because they posted a copy of it.

Ok, so I watched it. Just for old times’ sake, I guess. I remember that I bought that video, even though it was kinda pricey, because I thought that on the whole, it was pretty good. Unlike most of the pamphlets and books and talks about hijab that I had ever run across, it didn’t feature some solemn-faced guy telling the womenz how they should be dressing and behaving. It was mostly women talking… and they were confident and articulate.

It’s interesting how the passage of time can alter one’s perceptions.

Back in the day, the main thing that struck me about that video was how new and fresh it all seemed. Instead of the books and pamphlets admonishing women to ensure that their clothing complied with x number of detailed rules, or warnings of divine punishment for those who didn’t comply, or suggestions that women who don’t wear hijab are somehow responsible for causing men to sin (or that they bring harassment on themselves)… instead, a number of clearly intelligent, informed and socially active Muslim women talked about a range of issues. Whether it was the history behind contemporary western stereotypes of veiled women, or the impact of advertising on girls’ self-concept, it seemed that these sisters had it all down. When I watched it, I felt validated. And, confident that my daughters would find it inspiring and validating.

But now, watching it again all these years later, I notice things that didn’t really register before.

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The 1950’s called, and they want their anti-gay bigotry back

A couple of weeks ago, Abu Eesa Niamatullah’s publicly expressions of misogyny was met with a spate of posts and tweets from Muslims from different walks of life who made their opposition to this clear. In a number of these posts as well as some comments on them, disgust, shock and a sense of betrayal were palpable. How could a scholar be doing this? It was clear that not only did many Muslims feel revolted by Abu Eesa’s comments, but that they do not think that this kind of thing is acceptable… and they were determined that this would not stand uncontested as a public representation of “what Muslims really think” about women.

Down through the years, I have encountered plenty of sexism and straight-up misogyny in North American Muslim circles (to say nothing of pamphlets and books written about Islam by Muslims, for Muslims). So, it was rather strange for me to watch this negative and very public backlash against Abu Eesa. But I also allowed myself to hope: Was this a proverbial straw-that-breaks-the-camel’s-back moment? Is there now a critical mass of Muslims in North America who are fed up enough by this sort of thing that they will publicly speak out about it?

Who knew. Only time would tell.

Well, we didn’t have to wait long.

Because now a hateful article written by a Muslim lawyer on the Huffington Post, “Why Gay Marriage May Not Be Contrary to Islam” is making the rounds. I was sent the link, and stupidly clicked on it, thinking that while the title seemed a bit oddly worded, it would probably be a step or two forward in the tolerance department. Maybe it would even be a useful resource for kids like mine.

After reading it, I wanted to curl up and die.

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It’s all about control

Several weeks ago, one of my daughters had a school field trip that involved visiting a Hindu temple, a Christian church, and a mosque. A class project on world religions.

Actually, stop judging and body-shaming. My body is not an obscenity. If you don't like what I'm wearing, how about you try lowering your gaze??

Actually, stop judging and body-shaming. The female body is not an obscenity. If you don’t like what someone is wearing, how about lowering your gaze??

Along with the permission forms sent home for parents to sign came a letter from the teacher explaining the type of behavior and dress that would be required of the students. Much of it was very reasonable, reminding the students that these are places of worship, so they needed to behave respectfully. But the girls were also told that they needed to wear long, loose pants (preferably sweatpants) and headscarves when they were at the mosque.

I paused, reading this letter. The field trip was going to take place in the afternoon, in the middle of the week. They would not be attending Friday Prayers, or any congregational prayer. They were not going to pray, either—they were there to see the building, and to hear the imam explain a bit about Islam and the community and the kinds of rituals and activities that would normally take place in a mosque.

In other words, what on earth would be the reason for requiring a bunch of mostly non-Muslim teenage girls to wear headscarves?? Or even to worry about what they might or might not be wearing on their legs??

My daughter wasn’t bothered by this, however. Because she took it for granted that somehow, a girl entering a mosque with uncovered hair or limbs profanes the mosque. And she was proud that at least she knew better than to even think of doing that, unlike some of the non-Muslim girls in her class, who didn’t seem to understand that you have to really watch what you wear to the mosque.

I pointed out to her that when I had first visited that same mosque in the early ’80’s, I saw women wearing short-sleeved, tight, scoop-necked shalwar kameez entering that mosque with transparent dupattas loosely draped over part of their heads and not concealing much of their hair, in order to attend Friday Prayers. They entered through the main door, along with everyone else. Then, they went up to the women’s balcony, put on the large white cotton prayer khimars that were kept there for all those women who did not come to the mosque dressed “suitably” for prayer, prayed, and left at the end of the service.

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If you know what your life is worth…

Several months ago, I ran across a short film on youtube about twospirit people. The thing about it that particularly grabbed me was Joey Criddle’s description of traditional Native teachings on people who are different:

“You know, there’s a saying we say—We don’t throw our people away. So, people who are born differently, whether mentally, physically, emotionally, whatever, were considered sacred or holy people. There was a reason why the Creator made them different. So historically, traditionally, twospirit people were viewed as very special people. That all changed with the coming of the Europeans. When the Europeans came, they attacked that….”

Wow, I thought. That’s just such a really, really different attitude to human variety than what I am used to.

A particularly difficult part of putting my life back together has been learning to see my life as being worth anything. Some days, it seems as though all that's left is shards of cheap glass. The remnants of something that was not worth much in the first place, and is now simply worthless. (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Broken_glass,_Belfast,_April_2010.JPG)

A particularly difficult part of putting my life back together has been learning to see my life as being worth anything. Some days, it seems as though all that’s left is shards of cheap glass. The remnants of something that was not worth much in the first place, and is now simply worthless.
(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Broken_glass,_Belfast,_April_2010.JPG)

I can’t even begin to imagine any of the Muslim communities I have been involved with looking at queer people—or at anyone who didn’t fit the mold, really—in such a positive way. Especially not if the person who didn’t fit in for some reason was female-bodied. This was just not how we were taught to think about difference.

More recently, I heard a Catholic priest say that God created every single person, individually and deliberately. Which again struck me as just a very different way of looking at human variety than what I am used to

And then, I was rather taken aback. Sure, the idea that God created human beings is a very familiar one, and we certainly believed it. We even believed that God creates and recreates the world continuously—“yas’aluhu man fi’s-samawati wa’l-ard, kulla yaumin huwa fi sha’n.” That nasheed by Dawud Wharnsby is still stuck in my head, about how even an autumn leaf “only breaks away and sails on the breeze / when Allah commands it to do so.”

And yet. Somehow, I hadn’t connected the dots. I hadn’t really regarded myself as having been created individually and purposefully by God, much less thought about what that would mean.

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