Monday, 22 September 2008

Too busy with Ramadan

Spiritual hedonism. A contradiction of course. Spirituality is seldom hedonistic, in whatever faith you look at. But my view, is that it can be. The most awe-inspiring, majestic month of Ramadan is now upon us, moreover, is fast dwindling away from us with its most blessed days now in our grasp. The masjids spill out onto the street, the banter and warmth between the Muslim brethren is more than ever. The salat are lengthy, the duas are tear-filled, alhumdulilah. The spiritual feeling of the Deen, exists in the hearts of people in abundance and people we see run to perform the nawafil deeds with longing and desire.

There is goodness in this of course, however it's no doubt that the atmosphere created in this month is utterly feel-good. There's a sense of unity and sense of togetherness which one feels as everyone is carrying out these ibadah actions. So one who seldom prayed a fard salah, stands still to the recitiation of taraweeh salat through the night, day after day within such an atmosphere. Of course as Allah Almighty says, that it is the rememberance of Allah, that hearts do find rest. But should we not be careful that the objective of our ibadah truly is subservience to Allah, and not in seeking the pleasure of feeling spiritual and at rest?

I mention this not to pick a bone, but because someone in this blessed month, when asked whether they had been discussing the recent devestating Pakistan bombing on their Ramadan radio station, stated that they had simply been 'too busy with Ramadan'. Too busy with this month to have been able to use a section of their radio airtime to discuss this critical and devestating event which not only killed Muslim brethren, but was important politically for the Muslims. To discuss that political unrest plagues the air of Pakistan, the place where no leader in the current system - be they Musharraf, Bhutto or Zardari - has acceptance from the people. Where the government, whoever the ruler, has betrayed the people by fighting it's warped war on terror against its very own people (I here have to mention Dr Afia Siddique). Where secular law has escalated sectarian and tribal violence; and where the people now call for justice and there is a growing call for Islam.

As Muslims it is our duty to understand the affairs of our Muslim brothers and sisters and be able to engage in advocating the correct politics for them in their declined state with the absence of Islam. This is a a crucial part of being Muslim. It was in the month of Ramadan that our beloved Prophet SAW became busy enough to fight the Battle of Badr, and in the 13th century that the famous Ain Jaloot battle in Palestine was fought by the Muslim army. Isn't it the month where all good deeds are multiplied, so giving in charity, wanting for your brother what you want for yourself, speaking for the oppressed and accounting tyrant rulers? Ibadah is living by Allah's rules, laws and commands. Be this fasting, praying, or politics.

Ibadah for a Muslim ain't just no feel-good drug. It's our passport to Allah's promised Paradise. Therefore we have to ensure that we use the rest of this month to not only multiply and intensify our ibadah to him - our praying, dua, Qiyam ul Layl through the thickness of the night; but our obligations to this noble Ummah of Rasulullah SAW.

Al Qamar

I heard you wake when we all sleep
When you change your face for the day to come
Your man-boots, your struggle,
Your journey to keep going.
Oh my sister, my sweet sister, I love you.

It's a male affair
But you've swallowed the pain
And glide through with dignity,
Making the floors that you sweep
Pages of your deeds
Oh my sister, my sweet sister, I love you.

Five innocent hearts await
The echoes of your steps
You hide the bruised knees
From their glances
They know not but I do and of course
Does the Almighty above
Oh my sister, my sweet sister, I love you.

The scent of your perfume
And the tenderness of your hands
return to fill the air
in a house of islam
Oh my sister, my sweet sister, I love you.

But your heart doesn't stop
Your mind doesn't rest
The promise of Allah holds it's unrelenting thread
you give everything, every breath left in that day
To scatter forth the word of Allah
And the hope of the Amir who we know, inshaAllah
is to come
My sister, my sweet sister, I love you.
Winds, seas and miles of land
Hurdle between my smile and yours
But I pray that my Creator
In all of his mercy
One day unlocks me to you
Till then, my sister
Stay strong
Because I pray to Allah
Oh Allah
That blessed Jannah yearns for you

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

It's just a piece of cloth

It's just a piece of cloth
Without your headscarf, you'll attract flies. The elusive Egyptian ad campaign has not only stirred up discussion, but interestingly laid another misdemeanor on the whole veil debate. The poster shows two pink lollipops, one wrapped and the other unwrapped and covered in flies. The caption reads, "You can't stop them, but you can protect yourself." Crazy I would say. How can a piece of cotton, chiffon or maybe even luxury authentic pashmina stop men from sexually harassing a woman? Headscarves are not woven with secret weapons or conceal personal rape alarms, but to the surprise I'm sure of everyone, really are just pieces of cloth.
I myself donned my headscarf and jilbab several years ago, not actually because I decided I needed a weapon to protect myself - Moreover I anticipated subjection to torrents of verbal and perhaps physical abuse at the time by donning it, as it was shortly after 9/11 in a very heated political climate.
It is of course true that the hijab is part of the social system of Islam, which seeks to create a society which is harmonious and void of lewdness and promiscuity. However the argument that covered women somehow have acquired an automatic man-repellent, is a well repeated one across the media. And it's high time that such a supposition is broken down, as it is no way as simplistic as this - A lollipop wrapper really can't just solve the acute problem of the continuing exploitation of women.

The Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR) recently conducted a survey of hundred of Egyptian and foreign women of all backgrounds. Shockingly, 84.5% of them said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment, with most reporting that they were bothered by men every day. This seems shocking, and many may feel that a Muslim country would have lower levels of sexual harassment due to the Islamic viewpoint towards women. But this is where it is crucial to understand the importance of the implementation of Islam in society over, the practicing of Islam amongst families and within the home. The authors of the Egyptian ad campaign may have attempted to try to solve the harassment problem by urging women to cover up, but have failed to realise that even if women cover up in the society they live in, they will still be subject to harassment and sexual exploitation once they leave the home. This is because whether the women cover up or not, once they walk out their front doors they are subject to the free and secular ideas which are thrown around about women in society.
No Muslim nation today implements the Islamic Shariah and rules by Islam. Therefore all of the Muslim nations have a deadly concoction of many ideas in their societies, with a presumption that Western free and secular values must be withheld upmost to be able to progress. But what people fail to recognise is that it is these very values, coupled with traditional tribal values, which are growingly to blame for such degradation of women in our society.
The Prophet SAW said in a hadith: 'The world and all things in the world are precious but the most precious thing in the world is a virtuous woman'
Women instead of being treasured and protected as is laid out in Islam , are left to be savaged by the ravages of freedom and secular thought. It has allowed men, as well as various industries, to view women in whatever way they please, be it a sexual object and this has became reality in many of the Muslim countries. Ruby, the famous Egyptian singer, is a popular success of the Egyptian music industry and has pushed the path of liberation for women by dressing and singing as provocatively as possible. Such images and messages about women have given the all OK in society allowing people, all the more, to view women through their sexual appeal. It is irrelevant then whether a woman covers or not, as the way in which that woman should be seen in society has already been defined.
Additionally the Muslim societies have taken on board again the many backward, tribal and traditional ideas that exist about women within various cultures - That men have the right to exploit them and dominate them. In modern day Egypt, such ideas have manifested themselves in an extremely low reporting rate of sexual crime. Women, the ECWR further found, felt ashamed and embarrassed about the harassment they underwent and therefore did not want to report it. It's a devastating thought to see women feel so helpless and out on their own in a society, that they couldn't even feel they could report a crime carried out against them. Such subversion of women also existed before the advent of Islam in the time of the Prophet SAW - Women were exploited and routinely gang raped. However when the Islamic Shariah was implemented, it ensured that such practices were abolished - Adultery and fornification have strict punishments, as well as the crime of accusing a chaste woman in Islam. Hence the Islamic Shariah, ensures that the value and protection of the women, the mothers of the Ummah, in society, is paramount.
The Islamic social system are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. They need to all fit together to work to create the harmonious society Islam envisages. And the essence of this harmonious society proposed in Islam, is ensuring that respect and dignity of both sexes in society is absolutely enshrined. Therefore the Islamic social code promotes and restricts whatever is needed to protect this. Women are not to be viewed as sexual commodities in society, through billboards, music or TV ads; and it is obligatory in Islam for both men and women to dress in a particular manner and lower their gaze so as to not even begin the process of the wolf whistles. The Prophet SAW maintained a general segregation of men and women in the society he governed, except for specific situations and needs. What all this did, was create a society where sex and the agitation for sex, was taken out of society. This is to guarantee, as much as possible that people are not urged to view each other sexually as and when they please, rather sex is something for stable marital relationships. But all this in itself means nothing, unless the actual society and state ensures that the mentality of chastity, respect towards the opposite sex and accountability to God is present in each and every individual.
Islam does in no way promote the idea that women are responsible for any sexual harassment they undergo, rather Islam promotes the idea that women are to be valued and respected, and not viewed as sexual commodities. The headscarf cannot therefore in itself fight it's own battle, it is merely part of a wider system which Muslims believe has been divinely constructed to attempt to deal with many of the social problems humankind has faced for time.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Bangladeshi Universities and their power for prem

I always remember cuddling next to my mum, engulfed in big fleecy deshi blankets, and joining the family glued to the latest natak (drama) that had been shipped over from relatives in Bangladesh. For anyone who has never watched a Bangladeshi serial drama - the real authentic ones, not the ones where heros and heroines now dance around trees, will know that they do depict a life which is considerably true to the life of people in Bangladesh. I cannot now recall names and storylines very exactly from those sleepy days, but one thing I do remember was almost every one had some sort of cushy romance between a young female student and her teacher, or tutor.

Last month the Bangladeshi Mahila Parishad organised a meeting to propose a policy to tackle the growing sexual harassment happening in universities and colleges in Bangladesh, by the teaching staff on female students. A policy to curb it.

“Our movement is not against a particular teacher or teacher community, rather it is the movement against the ailing culture that might engulf the whole society if not resisted,” said BMP President Ayesha Khanam.

What strikes me, strong and hard(!), is how a policy to attempt to restrict such behaviour by teachers and lecturers will really work. I mean cmon its Bangladesh! Since when did the rule of law mean anything to anyone? No one's saying it's not implemented, but it's fact that everyone and anyone from the very elite to the very middle classs to the poor, just to get by, have to evade the rule of law, participate in bribery and ghoosh just to live their daily lives. This isn't exactly a culture and society where the rule of law and policy has really helped to alleviate problems.

More than anything, President Ayesha Khanam said it herself- 'an ailing culture that might engulf the whole of society'. It's a culture not a legislative problem. Legislation can help deal with perpetrators and depict the states' viewpoint on the issue, but society and culture in Bangladesh is saying a totally different thing. On the suburban streets of Dhaka, women who are progressed and a touch above from the commonfolk are seen as those who have taken on the model of the free, liberated, sexually alluring as seen in the West.. and of course Bollywood. It is the sexual aspect and femininity of the women which has had to be exposed, revealed for her to be seen as progressive and appealing in society. Weeks before even the advent of Ramadan tailors across Dhaka were fully booked all preparing people's jaw-dropping Eid outfits, beauty parlours have mushroomed across the city in which every type of beauty treatment is not only offered, but is the norm for many young women. Therefore the viewpoint towards women being sexual commodities is being normalised, allowing everyone, including men, companies, to also view her in this way. It is then no wonder that such a view of women in society has given rise to sexual crimes against her - If society, media and advertising is telling us to view women in this way, why shouldn't I, the common man may consciously or unconsciously feel.

Therefore new policy, women rights groups and all the rest may try to bring their share of solutions to this growing problem, but they are building sandcastles to close too the shore. Current thoughts in society about women, trickled over from the West, will eventually wear and wash them away. President Ayesha Khanam is right. We should fear an ailing culture, but instead of trying to patch it up and work with it, we need to uproot secular, free values to replace it with a society which will truly value and protect the viewpoint towards women.

The quagmire of women's rights

Saudi Arabia and women. Put the two words together and either shake your head in pity or the more common reaction - make a face in disgust. Whilst Muslim women, like myself, living in the West are banging on about how an Islamic society can protect and elevate the status of women, the reality of the female position in a so-called Islamic place like Saudi Arabia raises an uncomfortable eyebrow.

The Human Rights Watch report released recently reviewing the position of Saudi women, unleashed scores of energised media and journalistic discussion. Some articulating their inevitable deep criticism; and others relaying their personal experiences of being female in Saudi Arabia - the alarming sexual harassment which takes place in a country which is supposed to be brushing sex under the carpet. Secret but fatalistic meetings between strangers, just to find a marriage partner is the shocking reality of Saudi Arabian society; and with a Saudi Prince having married his 100th wife, not so long ago - the value and rights of women, in this pseudo-Islamic society really isn't looking too good.

However the debate conjured around this report has very much been an 'either or' one, that if you reject Saudi Arabian female oppression, the natural antithesis we should call for is equality and total liberalism, as practised in secular states. But it is this mapping of the debate I find difficult to agree with.

I agree that being a woman and living in the shade of Riyadh would not be an experience I would find elevating; however I'd also say the reality of being a woman living in a secular, liberal state also brings it problems. Saudi Arabian society has denied women of basic rights, but Western liberal states, in their call for freedom of thought, expression, sexuality has meant that even though women can work, vote and have no restriction in what they wear or where they go; there is also absolute freedom when it comes to exploiting them and their sexuality. Although many may argue that they don't feel exploited; the reality is that the price of liberalism means utter freedom both ways – Freedom for the media, multi-national companies and men to view women in whatever capacity they see fit or makes money. And the more dangerous result being the effects of ‘freedom’ in a rapist or sexual harasser. The law may disallow and punish them afterwards, but the thoughts and mentality have already allowed to have been created - the law for many of these people are just an after thought.

Typical(!) Many I am sure are thinking - The typical Muslim lashing out on our freedoms. But it's time we admit that women have not only been exploited by distorted Islamic and cultural traditions, but also by the effects of liberalism. It's time we redefine the debate to begin thinking about real rights and value for women - not settle for whatever's half working in the world today. It will be this discussion which will help much of the world understand why scores of women are turning to Islam today.

Saudi Arabia claims to rule by Islamic law, but has little evidence of this and instead has grossly misapplied certain Islamic laws to buffet their sense of supremacy. It is rather another despotic, tyrannical regime where accountability is a far-off daydream and dodgy deals of oil and aircraft are primary concerns. If you believe Saudi Arabia implements Islamic law and values, then you must have seen a pig fly.

As a Muslim woman, this makes me more determined to sell the case for Islam. Islam, implemented correctly, was a complete mode of governance which in the past enabled women to exercise their rights - whether it be to vote, to work, to engage in politics or just be an active member of society. These rights could not be usurped for the benefit of any Government, leader or Minister - rather they are enshrined by the texts of Islam. Unlike Saudi Arabian society, women were protected from sexual harassment and abuse through the Islamic social system of segregation of sexes, and the hijab but these were not used as a method to exploit their position and oppress them. Rather it liberated them to be able to actively participate in society and be valued for their contributions, over the way they looked. This supported the mentality of chastity generated in society, due to an overwhelming consciousness of God and accountability to God.

Unlike liberalism, Islam recognises the need for the running of a harmonious society and instead of leaving women to fight their own gender rat races; it ensures that women are protected and valued - sexually, financially and in whatever roles they take on in society.

And before you start having flash images of the ‘them vs us’ minded Muslim ninjas charged in forcibly implementing their Shariah law on British soil – Just take a breath. Unfortunately continued sensationalist media coverage of Islam and Muslims has disabled the will for Muslims to have open and respectful debate about values, without making us sound like we hate everything and everyone Western and just want to violently take over the world.

Saudi Arabia is truly a quagmire for women's rights, however lets' not hide behind the facade that everything to the West of it, is female utopia. It’s time we really open up the discussion and begin talking about achieving real uncompromised women’s rights.

The Hidden Bruised faces

The tragedies and tears which knife crime have brought to the forefront of the British landscape, have become cause of conversation for everyone - The epidemic that seems to be sweeping the country has been pitched in the media as a problem which all of us are potentially vulnerable to. And rightly so, of course, being callously stabbed alive, repeatedly, in broad daylight, in a public area for no reason at all, is a reality which would send chills down the spine of anyone. And for such a threat to exist in the very society you live in, is enough to cause a very relevant debate.
However Joan Smith in the Independent, very interestingly pointed out that although our brimming concern for knife crime out of the many violent crimes which affect people in our society today is very relevant and expected, there is another violent crime which affects scores of people across the country, and doesn't just mainly occur in inner-city hotspots like knife crime. The swollen bruised face of a woman who has been the victim of domestic violence does not make it onto front pages of all the main newspapers even though there are 12.9 million victims of domestic violence a year, whereas from 2007-8 there have been 130,000 recorded incidents involving knives. It isn't as exciting, if one can grotesquely label it as that, as this new knife crime epidemic on the tip of everyone's tongue. It's age-old, but who can deny, still rampantly exists.
Domestic violence accounts for about 16% of all UK violent crime. It is however chronically underreported, so it is likely that many homes up and down the UK harbour couples for whom inflicted bruises and injuries are commonplace. Victims can be both men and women, however statistics show that 77% of victims are women, and upto 2 women every week are killed by a current or former male partner.
The fact that domestic violence is a crime which has been around, and seems to have always been around, has inevitably meant that there have already been many measures pursued to try and deal with it. The Home Office launched a Domestic Violence National Plan, which has national targets it sets of to achieve; Local Government have departments and teams working in their local Boroughs, tackling domestic violence through cross-cutting approaches. The Crime Reduction department of the Home Office boasts of many initiatives and from 1997 these include pregnant women as well as children in education being routinely assessed for domestic violence; every police force having a domestic violence coordinator and the much documented recent Sanctuary scheme which was essentially an accommodation scheme supporting victims to remain in their own homes with surveillence.
Tackling domestic violence from the Government, as well as such measures which tackle the violence as and after it happens, also includes preventative measures. An example of this is a Crime Reduction Programme funded project which was about awareness raising for young people to shift attitudes about violence in schools. These initiatives are particularly targetted in areas where figures of violence are high. However how far have all these initiatives, actually helped to tackle domestic violence across society? Yes helping women live their lives with these perpetrating men whom they may not want to leave, providing support, bettering policing to be able to arrest perpetrators all has its merit and is needed, but will do nothing to eradicate the crime from society as a whole in the first place. The preventative measures such as education and awareness raising may touch individuals, but cannot reach the entire population and more than anything is confusing as outside in society, the opposite message about women exists.
If we are to really eradicate a violent crime mainly inflicted on women - from someone who maybe a wife of 15 years, to a one night stand from a nightclub, we need to get to the root of what it is which makes any man think and feel he has the legitimacy to physically beat a woman. And we need to solve this problem for everyone - not just the hotspots where figures are high so funding for awareness programmes are allocated - but we need to understand in society why this problem so rampantly exists. We should be looking at how we uproot domestic violence from its root instead of tackling it through a multitude of initiatives bit by bit - like a plant pulled out not just by it's pretty flowers or dainty leaves, but by it's thick and life-sustaining roots.
After observation, we can see that we live in a society where the personal freedoms, the freedom to think and practice what you like, is the cornerstone. Although packaged as the being the essence of a society that is most progressive, analysis will highlight that in fact it is the idea of freedoms in society have in fact meant that men and multinational companies have been free to exploit women in the way which most benefits them. Multinational companies have sold everything from cosmetics to advertising the British Motor Show by utilising women as sexual commodities - Flawless women with unrealistic body sizes and proportions are plastered across billboards, magazines, and television advertisements, giving a message across society that it is okay to view women in this way. It is no wonder then, that men subject to these images also take on this message - That viewing women in this way is normal and justified.

The argument can easily be made that women exposing their femininity and sexuality does not at all mean they are 'asking' to be beaten up - The classic rebuke. Of course not. No human being can be called responsible for another one's actions which inflict and oppress him. However as a society we need to be more intelligent and objective about the reasons as to why such endemic problems are increasingly existing. And it is without a doubt that if society around you is giving you the message that it is justified and normal to exploit the opposite sex in this way, this will inevitably have an impact on the viewpoint of certain people, and maybe the thinking which leads to such behaviour.

Additionally the idea of personal freedom gives the individual in society the sense that pleasing oneself and being subject to one's desires is the upmost concern - For some this may mean leading what would be constituted as a normal life, maybe getting married, and pleasing one's partner and enjoying their company but for some being subject to one's whims and desires may mean controlling your partner, chastising them emotionally and physically. Different people will inevitably exercise their freedoms according to their own desires and this is the crux of the problem.

The debate needs to therefore be about what type of society would create a community where such violence and exploitation would be minimised. A society that would be ruled by the rules and laws of Islam would implement the social system of Islam which aims to preserve the chastity of men and women in society and ensure harmony for the family unit. This means that anything that exploits the sexuality and femininity of a woman is forbidden and instead women are viewed as jewels to be honoured and protected. Good treatment of women is spoken about by the Prophet SAW on many an occasion. He (Sallallaho alaihi wasallam) has said:

O people, your wives have a certain right over you and you have certain rights over them. Treat them well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers. (Tirmidhi)

and He SAW said as narrated by Abu Huraira (radhialiaho anho),

"The believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the best disposition and the best of you are those who are best to their wives " (Tirmidhi).

He SAW also likened women to a bent rib, that if it is straightened too readily can cause it to break. This very aptly illustrates the need for sensitivity when dealing with women.

Allah SWT speaks in his words in the Noble Quran about the nature of a husband - wife relationship, that they are 'a garment for you and you are a garment for them' (TMQ 2:187). The image of garments for one another beautifully exemplifies the type of relationship Islam advocates in a couple - of covering and protecting one another from any type of harm. Additionally the Islamic society is based upon the idea of fear and accountability to a Creator which would curb the behaviour of treating others in whatever way you wish behind closed doors.

However many may argue that domestic violence is rampant in the Muslim community is Islam therefore not the problem? This is however very much the opposite case. Firstly although Muslim families may practice private aspects of Islam, they are still subject to the wider society we live under and therefore also suffer the consequences of personal freedoms. But in addition to this, much of the Muslim community also carry many backward traditional ideas from Eastern culture which view women as subordinate to men and as a result causes them to treat women badly. Islam came 1400 years ago to eradicate these practices and ideas and was able to through the implementation of the Islamic State. It has been the absence of Islam on a societal level which has allowed such poisonous ideas to return to the minds and community of the Muslims.

No way is the Islamic Khilafah an utopia where domestic violence is guaranteed to not exist, as human beings are all subject to flaws and to succumb to shortcomings. However the discussion which is pressing for us today, is whether the value of personal freedoms as a basis for society is exacerbating the social problems such as the rampant domestic violence that we see today. Until we begin this discussion, I feel sad to say that I fear the bruised faces and battered knees of women will become all the more common and an issue of normality.

Ramadan Lazing

It's Ramadan and we enter the month with such hype - Texts greeting each other with the mercies of this month flooding mobile cyberspace and an excitement as our spiritual senses are heightened after a whole year has passed. But like many things in life, it's easy to hype up a moment in excitement, but much harder to sustain that enthusiasm consistently. It's 30 days, 30 nights. That's over 600 hours. I'd love to discover a magic solution as to how we can remain committed and dedicated for those 600 hours (and more of course, I just can't be bothered to fork out my calculator). But then that's impossible right? We're insaan and can't keep going like the angels who know of nothing else than to worship Allah. But then, why not aim high?! Argh. More than this being an interesting first blog, it has been the process for me to feel energised again, energised to keep on going and strive for the highest rank on that all important Last Day. May you SWT keep us on the correct path. Ameen.