Monday, October 29, 2012

A box of chocolates is like... with the Dutchman.

A few days ago I received a box of very pretty, artisanal, handmade chocolates and a bouquet of flowers from my colleagues (for falling off my bicycle -- I ought to do that more often!).

I looked at the label and most of the chocolates had some sort of alcohol in them. Now I've never intentionally had  a drop of alcohol in my life, but I have had several unpleasant and unexpected experiences with liquor chocolates. Because when it comes to miniscule amounts of alcohol, the irony of never having tasted Irish Coffee or Bailey's Cream meant that I had no idea if there was some of it in a piece of chocolate (at least until I feel flushed and unbearably hot for no good reason).

In this box, some were liquor free and some were not. The problem was, there was also no way to identify which one was which. Hmm, there was one mocha-flavoured piece. I picked up the one that smelled most strongly of coffee and bingo!

But now there was a missing piece -- I couldn't possibly give it away to someone else. But maybe I could still offer a piece or two to my friends if they came to visit.

So when the Dutchman came home he decided that these chocolates were too fabulous to leave in peace, and he decided to take a tiny bite out of every piece to figure out and match it to the description on the box.

There was one piece with an orange dot on it. I was convinced that was the one containing "mandarin liqueur" because it was well, orange!

Me: Leave that one alone, I'm pretty sure it's the mandarin one.
Dutchman: (Picks it up)
Me: Nooo!
DM: (Nibbles) Yup you're right, there's alcohol in this. (Puts it back in the box)
Me: That's what I said! Now there's a bite taken out of it -- who's going to eat it now?
DM: (Shrugs)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Eid Mubarak!

Happy Eid to all my readers! I hope you had an amazing three days of festivities with your families, loved ones, communities -- with lots of good food.

I've only just begun to be active on Twitter in the last few weeks, so I'm really happy to announce that my tweet about love was picked as the winner for Love, Inshallah's Eid contest!

For all the fans of the Dutchman, the Netherlands, or Couchsurfing, this tweet is for you:
I came to a foreign town & Couchsurfed while finding an apartment. Moved out in a week & moved back in 10 mths later, married.
As regular readers of my blog would know, the first of two marriages did not go down easy! Surf on over here for all my related posts on marriage. Love, InshAllah has invited me to write a post for their blog about how I met the Dutchman (which I've never really wrote about in this blog), so look out for that in two weeks time, inshallah!

Reinforcing the second shift: Malaysian PM Najib Razak talks about women in the New Economy

Who would choose, on a day dedicated to honouring women in his country, to completely discount all previous work done by its women?

That’s exactly what Najib Razak, the incumbent Malaysian prime minister, said during his speech during the National Women’s Day celebration on October 2. In addition to being the prime minister, Razak also holds the portfolio of Women, Family and Community Development – one of the few male ministers in the world (alongside Samoa) to head a ministry dedicated to women.

Razak has a record of saying contradictory things: after launching a “new economic model” in 2010 to shift the basis of affirmative action to class instead of race, he then launched a program to help increase the economic participation of the indigenous Malays.

Malay leaders in the region are only starting to speak about the need to formally acknowledge women’s political and economic participation. While Brunei’s minister of Youth, Culture and Sports recently spoke about the need for Bruneian women in addressing environmental sustainability, Razak spoke about how Malaysian women are needed to work in both the private and public spheres.

Below is a loose translation of his speech in English from Malay, as edited in this video (with emphasis added):
“If we look back in our country’s history, women in Malaysia are different from women in many countries… no need to fight for women’s rights directly, as a united movement… because from early on we had already decreed the equality of women in our country (by giving them voting rights).
We chose the theme ‘Women as Catalyst for the New Economy’. Women shape families, healthy families. Not only from the aspect of physical health, but mental health, moral health, healthy values, healthy manners…Women play an important role…At home they nurture with love, but in this love there is firmness.
In empowering women there are three important aspects. First is education. Education must be provided to the highest level possible. Second is skills and capabilities, we must stress this. Third is that women competing must have capabilities to compete. Definitely not women who think they cannot succeed. We want women who dare to be competitive.
Private sector gets a RM10000 grant, double tax deduction, and allowance for building and so on. We reduce their tax burden so they can build crèches so that women if they want to work they can bring their child to their workplace. Hope to get another RM1000 soon. Each company and government office must have their own crèches. The Chief Secretary can encourage this, send a directive to all Ministry Offices to set up crèches.
Based on the theme ‘Women as Catalyst for the New Economy’ and with the hope that all of us in and outside this room today because of our work to honour women, there must be sharing and partnership between the government, women’s groups, NGOs, and the private sector. Everyone should join forces, because this is an important part of the national agenda.”

Source: The Choice
As Razak’s speech was edited and then posted on Youtube by a government agency, I find it a good representation of what Malaysian women are supposed to be according to official political rhetoric. A quick summary:
  1. Malaysian women are equal to men because they have the right to vote.
  2. Malaysian women shape the economy by nurturing future citizens and economic actors to be healthy, moral, polite, responsible, etc.
  3. Malaysian women are empowered women if they are educated, skilled, and confident.
  4. Malaysian women should work if there are childcare options available.

First of all, I think it’s a great starting point that the economic contributions and potential of women are recognised to be important for Malaysia’s economic development. I think, in the context of Southeast Asia at least, it would just be really naive to ignore this because of the historical record of women working alongside men in this region. Women staying at home is likely a luxury for most families today.

It’s also a good to recognise that Malaysian women enjoyed voting rights ahead of other countries. Like many Muslim communities, Malays tend to look to the Middle East as the standard, so yes, Malaysia is way ahead of Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and especially Saudi Arabia (but of course!) when it comes to giving women suffrage. But even other Malaysian women can tell you that gender equality encompasses more than just the right to vote.

This representation of Malaysian women only becomes problematic because of the multiple roles that women are expected to play. Besides calling to women to work outside the home, he still calls on the notion of women as primary caregivers, in a society with strict gender roles – men only work in the public sphere. However, while women are encouraged to be both workers and mothers, men are not similarly encouraged to take on their share of housework and childcare.

The solution proposed by Razak is more childcare centres in public and private businesses. This scheme was started under the economic plan of the previous government; families with lower incomes cannot afford to place their children in a high-quality childcare, depending instead on informal childcare networks like relatives and grandparents.

Razak makes the argument that the only successful and empowered working women are those who “dare to be competitive.” A recent event on women’s leadership in Indonesia highlighted the individual woman in the same way. By focusing on individual factors of success, Razak is indirectly blaming ‘unsuccessful’ women for not having enough self-esteem or confidence. Less focus is put on addressing larger structural factors, such as the lack of affordable childcare or insufficient male household participation.

Encouraging educated women to participate in the labour force requires a re-shuffling of larger society; otherwise, women will be still be stuck with the “second shift.” Malaysian men could be encouraged to participate in household work and childcare and to be allowed paternity leave. The socio-religious basis of excuses allowing women to work only if their “primary” caregiving roles have been fulfilled should also be addressed.

Women’s organisations in Malaysia were in uproar (here, here and here) over Razak’s comment that a women’s movement was no longer needed. Since the Malaysian women’s movement has a strong track record of lobbying for and achieving formal rights for women (details here), Razak’s comment only served to make Western women the “Other.” By telling Malaysian women that they are “different” from those in “developed countries,” Razak implied that they should not “ape their Western counterparts.” In other words, Malaysian women should not organise for gender equality because these are “Western” concepts.

Female political and economic participation is already fraught with multiple and intersecting issues – confused politicians are an additional burden. It is ironic that Razak dismissed the efforts and achievements of women’s groups in obtaining legislative equality for women in marriage, child custody and employment, while at the same time he lauds the liberal feminist goals of equal voting rights and promotes equal economic participation.

Razak wants Malaysian women to be workers, just like Malaysian men, to contribute to the country as a “Catalyst for the New Economy.” But Malaysian women still have to be mothers, according to Malaysia’s traditional/Islamic/Asian values, while Malaysian men don’t necessarily have to be fathers. Without addressing Malaysian men as a “Catalyst for the New Family,” there seems to be no way out of the “second shift” for Malaysian women.
Cross-posted at Muslimah Media Watch.

Friday, October 26, 2012

What are you imitating?

I've been trawling through a lot of Islamic cartoons lately, as research for an article I wrote some time ago on the gendered messages in them. I found this cute little gem:

Panel 1 of this cartoon reminded me of a religious class I once attended, based on a book by Imam Nawawi called 'Al-Maqasid'. Because the word maqasid had been translated to as 'what was necessary to know', I thought I would be learning about the Quranic fundamentals of Islam (I was just getting into studying sources and original references then). Silly me.

Putting aside frustrating moments of insisting that the female students in the class should be allowed to read out loud from the book, I still remember fondly the class where chapter on taharah, or purity, was discussed.

The teacher (kept anonymous, obviously!) pointed out a recommendation from the book for us to take wudu' just after waking up. Similar to this cute little cartoon above, right? I asked him if there was any reason given for doing so. I was expecting some practical reason about how we were going to pray fajr anyway or a spiritual reason like refreshing ourselves, so imagine my shock when he recounted to me this instead:

"I read in some narrations that, upon hearing the words of the Prophet: "If one of you awaken from sleep, then he should not dip his hand in a container unless he washes his hand because he does not know where it was while he was sleeping," an innovator said: "I know where my hands went while in bed, so I do not have to fulfill this command!" 
Consequently, upon waking up the next morning, his hand - up to the forearm - was found inserted into his anus." ['Bustan al-'Arifin' by an-Nawawi; p. 94]

The reason for morning ablution was because some guy a long time ago woke up with his hand in his anus? If there was ever a mockery of religious education, this would pretty much win hands down, I think. While sitting in that class, I was thinking: these are the valuable gems he learned from scholars in Yemen?

[Digression: Interestingly enough, the source to the story above is one of many other stories used to illustrate the bad things that will happen to you if you don't blindly follow what the Prophet (supposedly) said. Which brings us to Panel 3 below.]

Panel 2 reminded me of an issue that I wrote about elsewhere, on (mis)using the verses of the Quran as a magical protective spell, instead of unleashing the magic of human potential when we actually strive towards Quranic ideals of social justice.

Panel 3 led me to think of the many discussions I've had about what exactly it is about the Prophet that we follow. Another teacher in some other class I used to attend used to say that he used miswak everyday (not sure if it was a replacement for or an alternative to his modern Western plastic toothbrush) and he would not feel confident about leaving the house if he didn't.

At seminars I used to see Malay men who had gone to study in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and upon coming back would start wearing triangular turbans, eyeliner, and thobes with various kinds of shawls over their shoulder -- the reason being that the Prophet dressed like this. And if we dress like this, or eat like him with 3 fingers, or sleep on-the-right-side-with-hand-under-cheek we'll get points!

I find it hard to understand how imitating the Prophet's daily habits = following his way of life. Surely it's to be compassionate to the old and the young (and even carry children during prayer!), to listen to all his followers, to be humble and not extravagant whether in consumption or in demeanour, to be kind to all his neighbours Muslim and non-Muslim -- in short, to live by the ideals set out in the Quran, the word of God.

Anyone seen any cartoons addressing these ideals instead?

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Social Involvement of Women in Islam

I don't usually re-post entire articles, but this rather old article by Imam Zaid Shakir is no longer found on its original publishing site, and I found it here in an obscure forum. and I think it contains many useful arguments for the political participation of women. Enjoy!

The Social Involvement of Women in Islam
Imam Zaid Shakir
4 Jan 2004

One of the persistent attacks against Islam is that it is a religion which stifles the social involvement of women. By social involvement, we mean involvement in those spheres of endeavor which occur outside of the home and impact on the general nature and direction of society. Islam, it is said, desires to divest women of any meaningful social role, to keep them “trapped” in the confines of their homes, under the constant surveillance and control of men. This claim, as we will endeavor to show, does not accurately reflect the fullness of Islamic teachings on this issue.

While Islam does advocate a social scheme which places great emphasis on the domestic role of women, it also creates ample space for their meaningful participation in public affairs. The purpose of this article is to examine aspects of that social involvement based on the Qur’an and the prophetic tradition. That examination will be preceded by a brief expose on the fundamental equality of men and women in Islam.

The Fundamental Equality of Men and Women in Islam
The Qur’an emphasizes that men and women are equal in their essential physical and metaphysical nature. We read in that regard,
“We have surely ennobled the descendants of Adam.” Al-Qur’an 17:70
This ennoblement of the human being precludes any claims to gender superiority, or any feelings of inferiority based on physical, or metaphysical composition. Such feelings underlie schemes of gender-based oppression, and have no place in Islam.

We also read in the Qur’an,
“We have surely created the human in the best of molds.” Al-Qur’an 95:4
Again, this process of human creation is not gender specific. It includes men and women. As human beings, they have both been created in the best of molds, and their respective ability to fulfill their human potential hinges on factors which have nothing to do with their physical differences.

Islam also emphasizes that both men and women are equal in their servitude to God. Neither gender is a greater or lesser servant of the Divine, even though that servitude may vary in some minor details. For example, women are ordered to cover their hair, while husbands are ordered to spend for their wives’ maintenance. In the modern human-centric worldview, both of these orders would be considered manifestations of oppression; of women in the first instance, of men in the second. However, as Muslims we understand that these are simply two varying manifestations of servitude. We further understand that
“God does not desire to oppress His servants in any way.” Al-Qur’an 40: 31
Furthermore, men and women are rewarded equally for their righteous deeds. God says in the Qur’an,
“And your Lord replied, ‘I shall never cause the deeds of any of you to be lost, male or female, you are of each other.” Al-Qur’an 3:195
This verse, and those immediately following it, advocate that women and men are equal in their religion, human worth, the rewards they receive for their worship, and the recompense for their worldly struggles. Imam Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi summarizes these meanings in his commentary on these verses:
There is no difference in God’s response [to their supplications], nor in the recompense received by the male and the female [for their righteous deeds], as long as they are equal in steadfastly maintaining the obedience of God. 
This indicates that virtue in religion is based on deeds and not accidental attributes. The fact that some people are male or female, or from lowly or lofty lineage has no bearing in this area. [5]

A related verse mentions that this fundamental equality also pertains in terms of their susceptibility to the punishment of God as a consequence of transgression. God says,
“Whoever does wrong will be recompensed accordingly. And whoever does good, male or female, as long as they are believers, they will enter Gardens, provided for therein without stint.” Al-Qur’an 40:40
Even if one believed that men are “better” than women, that belief has no meaning in practical terms, as a particular woman can be better than a particular man, based on her deeds and actions. Similarly, the generality of women can be better than the generality of men in a particular time and place. The great grammarian, Ibn Hisham al-Ansari, elucidates this point in his explanation of the use of the definite article in the Arabic language. He says:
The definite article is for demarcating a category. Hence, your saying, “The man is better than the woman,” if you do not mean by that statement a particular man or a particular woman. Rather, what you mean is that the [former] category in and of itself is better [than the latter]. It is not correct to say that every single man is better than every single woman, because reality contradicts that. [7]
Hence, there is no basis in Islam, if it is properly understood, for any woman to believe that she is inferior to any man. The deeds of the individual are what distinguishes him or her. One whose deeds are best, be he male or female, is best. As God proclaims,
“The most noble of you with God is the most pious.” Al-Qur’an 49:13
The Social Involvement of Women
God says in the Qur’an,
“Those who when we give them authority on earth, establish regular prayers, pay the poor due, command good, and forbid wrong. And unto God is the end of all affairs.” Al-Qur’an 22:41
This verse presents four pillars of an Islamic social order, specifically:
  • Establishing regular prayer.
  • Paying the poor due.
  • Commanding the good.
  • Forbidding the wrong.
In a functional Islamic society women share all of these duties with men. This is made clear from the following verse in the Qur’an:
“The believing men and women are supportive and protective friends unto each other. They enjoin the right, forbid the wrong, establish regular prayer, pay the poor due, and are dutifully obedient to God and His Messenger. They will receive the Mercy of God. Surely, God is Almighty, Wise.” Al-Qur’an 9:75
In this verse, the four duties mentioned above are restated, and then mentioned as being undertaken by both men and women. The socio-political implications of this verse are made clear to us if we consider that the relationship it articulates between men and women is one of tremendous relevance in the greater societal sphere. This relationship is described by the Arabic term “Wilaya.” This term is defined by al-Fayruzabadi in al-Qumus, one of the most authoritative Arabic dictionaries, as involving, “Planning, governance, and authority.” [11]

In all of these duties, men and women support and strengthen each other, as Ibn Kathir, among others, makes clear in his commentary on this verse.[12] The result of such a healthy relationship between the sexes would be a strong, balanced, just, and pious society.

The political implications of commanding the good and forbidding the wrong are further clarified by the wording of the Second Oath of ‘Aqaba, which is referred to as the Oath of War, because of its clear political implications. This oath is distinguished from the First Oath of ‘Aqaba, which focused on issues related to personal piety and individual conduct, and was known as the Oath of the Women. [13]

The former oath, as related by Ibn Hisham, reads as follows:
The Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God upon him, spoke. He recited the Qur’an, invited [people] to God, encouraged them to accept Islam, and then said: “I take the oath from you that you protect me as you protect your women and children.” Al-Bara’ b. Ma’rur took his [blessed] hand and said, “Yes, O Messenger of God! We will protect you as we protect our womenfolk and our very souls! We take the oath from you O Messenger of God! We are a warrior people, armed with weapons we have inherited over long generations. [14]
In addition to the men taking this oath, which clearly delineates socio-political duties and obligations, it was also entered into by two women, Umm ‘Umarah Nusayba bint Ka’b, and Umm Muni’ Asma’ bint ‘Amr, and accepted from them by the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him. [15]

This is a clear proof that both men and women are equal partners in the Islamic social project. From this general description of the social involvement of women in a Islamic society, we wish to move to specific examples.

Women Fighting to Protect Islam
During the Battle of Uhud, Umm ‘Umara Nusayba bint K’ab, one of the women present at the Second Oath of ‘Aqaba, valiantly defended the Messenger of God, sustaining twelve wounds in the process. She nearly killed Ibn Qami’a, one of the fiercest warriors in the opposing force. After the fray, the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, praised her courage and skill. [16]

This affirmation from the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, prevents anyone from denying the permissibility of women fighting under similar circumstances, even if other prophetic traditions argue against such fighting being obligatory for them. [17]

The Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, also gave tidings to Umm Haram bint Mulham that she would fight in a naval battle. This came after she sought his permission to go forth in a military campaign. She subsequently married Ubada b. as-Samit, and participated with him in a naval expedition.  [18]

The fact that her participation in that battle occurred with the foreknowledge and permission of the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, is again a powerful argument against those who would refuse to acknowledge the permissibility of this and far lesser significant types social involvement.

It is a well-known principle in the Divine Law that in the face of a direct invasion of a Muslim land by non-Muslim forces, it is mandatory for every able-bodied woman to join the Muslim defenses to repulse the aggressor. [19]

As a general practice, the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, would bring women along on military campaigns to function as nurses and to undertake other support and logistical roles. [20] ‘Aisha, Umm Sulaym, Umm Salit, and many others distinguished themselves performing such duties.

Direct Participation of Women in the Political Process
If we can generally define the political process of a particular society as the method by which publicly binding decisions are made, then it is clear that women were an integral part of the political process in the polity presided over by the Prophet Muhammad, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him. An example of this would be the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, accepting the advise of his wife, Umm Salama, to go out and sacrifice his animal then shave his head during the crisis which occurred at al-Hudaybiyya.

All of the companions, dissatisfied with the conditions of the treaty that had been struck between the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God upon him, and his enemies, refused his order to end their lesser pilgrimage. However, when they saw the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, undertake the rites of release they quickly followed suit. Hence, it was the counsel of a woman which ended one of the greatest political crisis yet to occur in the nascent Islamic state. [21]

A similar example can be taken from an incident which occurred during the conquest of Makka. Umm Hani’ bint Abi Talib, the sister of Imam ‘Ali, granted an oath of protection to two idolaters who had actually fought the advancing Muslim forces. When she informed the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, of that, he responded, “We give our collective oath of protection to anyone you have pledged to protect, Umm Hani’.” [22]

This act of Umm Hani’ was a state-level political edict which was affirmed by the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him. These and many other examples clearly indicate that the social involvement of women in Islam reaches the highest levels of public affairs.

The social involvement of Muslim women is further illustrated by the controversial issue of ‘Aisha leading a military campaign to seek retribution for the murder of ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, the third leader of the Muslim community after the passing of the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him. ‘Aisha did not enjoy universal support in the endeavor. Among those refusing to endorse ‘Aisha’s mission was Abu Bakra. [23] He based his refusal on a tradition he had heard from the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, mentioning that a people who depute their affair to a woman will never succeed. That tradition reads as follows:
In the days prior to the Battle of the Camel [24], God benefited me from a prophetic tradition I [recalled] hearing from the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God upon him.
When it reached the Prophet that the Persians had elevated the daughter of Kisra to the throne, he said, “A people who depute their affair to a woman will never succeed.” [25]
Hence, Abu Bakra deduced that ‘Aisha’s effort was futile. However, this conclusion was not shared by other companions, many of them more learned than Abu Bakra. ‘Aisha, a great jurist in her own right, agreed to lead the expedition. Talha and al-Zubayr, two of the ten specifically promised Paradise, supported her decision. Hence, from this earliest time, there was a difference of opinion as to the scope and parameters of a woman’s leadership.

This difference of opinion occurring amongst the Companions, concerning the extent of a woman’s political authority continued among latter jurists. While they agreed on the prohibition of a woman ascending to the highest office in the Islamic state, the Caliphate, they differed concerning other high level positions. For example, Imam al-Tabari and Ibn Hazm considered it permissible for women to serve as judges, unconditionally. Imam Abu Hanifa viewed it permissible for a woman to serve as a judge in those issues where her witness is accepted. Others viewed it as being impermissible for a woman to serve in the judiciary under any circumstances. [26]

We should note that the interpretation of the Prophet’s, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him, words concerning the outcome of a woman’s leadership, may involve intangibles which we are incapable of comprehending. In that context, they might not be the expression of a binding historical law. Were they the expression of such a law, they would seemingly be contradicted by events which occurred both before and after its utterance.

As for pre-Islamic times, the Qur’an itself relates the story of Bilqis, the legendary Queen of Sheba. She is mentioned in the Qur’an as attaining worldly success [27], and as eventually accepting Islam. Ibn Kathir mentions that she commanded a council of 312 delegates, each of whom represented 10,000 men [28]. She was a very successful leader, and her people prospered under her reign.

After the time of the Prophet, Peace and Blessing of God be upon him, there are similar instances of successful woman leaders. Both in general, and in specific military campaigns, of the type undertaken by ‘Aisha. In this latter category, we could mention the British rout of the Argentines during the 1982 Falklands War. That victory occurred at a time when England was under the leadership of two women, Queen Elizabeth II, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

These two examples in no way contradict the statement of the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of God be upon him,
“A people who depute their affairs to a woman will never succeed,” 
if we accept that the tradition in question has an interpretation beyond our superficial understanding. Surely, God knows best.

In conclusion, Islam is for all people, all times, and all places. It is flexible enough to accommodate many different types of societies, and societal arrangements. It advocates a balanced social order where men and women occupy largely complimentary roles. Although these roles are not always “equal” as we have come to use that term in the context of contemporary analyses of gender relations, they have enough flexibility to accommodate the dignified social involvement of women. The examples used in our brief analysis could have been expanded to include areas such as seeking knowledge, teaching, commerce, business, professions, and other realms. However, what we have mentioned should suffice to show that claims which posit that Islam denies women a space for meaningful social involvement are both misleading and inaccurate.

[1] Al-Qur’an 17:70
[2] Al-Qur’an 95:4
[3] Al-Qur’an 40: 31
[4] Al-Qur’an 3:195
[5] Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi, at-Tafsir al-Kabir, (Beirut: Dar Ihya at-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1417/1997), vol. 3, p. 470.
[6] Al-Qur’an 40:40
[7] Ibn Hisham al-Ansari, Qatr an-Nada wa Ball as-Sada, ed. Muyiddin ‘Abdul Hamid (Sayda, Lebanon: al-Maktaba al-‘Asriyya, 1421/2000), p. 135.
[8] Al-Qur’an 49:13
[9] Al-Qur’an 22:41
[10] Al-Qur’an 9:75
[11] Tahir Ahmad az-Zawi, Tartib al-Qamus al-Muhit, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, n.d.), vol.4, p. 658.
[12] See, for example Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Adhim, (Sayda, Lebanon: Al-Maktaba al-‘Asriyya, 1421/2000) vol. 2, p. 336.
[13] For an English language account of these two oaths in see Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1997), pp. 108-112.
[14] Ibn Hisham al-Mu’afiri, As-Sirah an-Nabawiyyah, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1410/1994), vol. 2, p. 75.
[15] Ibn Hisham al-Mu’afiri, vol. 2, p. 74.
[16] For one of the earliest accounts of the heroics of Umm ‘Umarah during the Battle of Uhud, see Muhammad b. Sa’d az-Zuhri, At-Tabaqat al-Kubra, (Beirut: Dar Ihya at-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1417/1996), vol. 8, pp. 440-441, #4535.
[17] This would include those traditions that mention the best Jihad for women is the Pilgrimage. See for example, Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari, (Riyadh: Maktaba Dar as-Salam, 1418/1997),vol. 6, p. 96, #2875, 2876.
[18] For an account of her story, see Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, vol. 6, pp. 94-95, #2877-2878.
[19] Muhammad Khayr Haykal, Al-Jihad wa’l Qital fi as-Siyasa ash-Shar’iyya, (Beirut: Dar al-Bawadir, 1317/1996), vol. 2, pp. 880-881.
[20] See Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, vol. 6, p. 96, #2880.
[21] For an English language account of this incident, see Lings, pp. 254-255.
[22] For a narration of this incident, see Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, vol. 6, p. 328; #3171.
[23] Abu Bakra’s full name is Nufay’ b. Ma’ruq. He should not be confused with Abu Bakr as-Siddiq.
[24] The Battle of the Camel, 35AH/656AD, involved the forces of Imam ‘Ali and the hosts supporting ‘Aisha. Imam ‘Ali’s forces achieved a quick and decisive victory. For an account of the events leading up to that conflict, see Marshal Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), vol. 1, pp. 212-215.
[25] Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, vol. 13, p. 67; #7099.
[26] Wahbah Az-Zuhayli, Al-Fiqh al-Islami wa Adillatuhu, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1418/1997), vol. 8, pp.6238-6239.
[27] In the Qur’an 27:23 she is mentioned as having been given, “An abundance of all things.” Ibn Kathir, qualifies this as meaning that she was given everything needed by a successful, well-established king. See Ibn Kathir, vol 3, p. 338.
[28] Ibn Kathir, vol. 3, p. 338.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Neo-colonial gazing.

I recently heard about the horrifying colonial legacy called the "human zoo". Carl Hagenbeck, after whom the Hagenbeck Zoo is named, was a trader in wild animals and pioneer of many European zoos. He started out with the brilliant idea of by kidnapping people (and animals) from various colonies and placed them in exhibits to be gawked at, until they died from diseases.

A friend then sent me a few links to contemporary exhibits that have been compared to these colonial human zoos. One details the protests against "The African Forest" in the Houston zoo, which was built anyway, although thankfully without 'conservation refugees'. However, though the zoo did not include real people in the zoo, they are still discursively present (but rather respectfully!):
Tommy is an exploitive collector and trader with a get-rich-quick agenda. That is, until his cargo plane goes down. He survives, barely, thanks to his timely rescue by indigenous peoples who treat his severe injuries. The experience results in a new-found respect for the deep wisdom of his benefactors and their spiritual connection with their environment.
The Augsburg Zoo was also in the news a few years ago for allegedly putting humans next to animals. Here's an amazing analysis of the "African Village" in Augsburg Zoo in 2005 by the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. It links the economic intention of the 'village' to larger processes of racialisation and the global commoditisation of cultural difference.

Source: Afro Netizen

In simpler words, the village was a site for vendors, artists and musicians of African descent (most of whom had already been in Germany for many years) to sell and market their crafts as a form of solidarity with Africa. However, the researchers found that it wasn't well organised, situated, or marketed as neither a money-making nor a humanitarian event by the organisers, a German development organisation.

Instead, visitors went home linking Africans to nature and animals, African Germans became more 'African' than 'German' (racialisation), diverse traditional and contemporary African music was reduced to drumming, diverse African cultures were all collapsed into generic 'African art', and some vendors wore their traditional costumes to appear more exotic and attract more customers (commoditisation of cultural difference).

Source: Plan Augsburg

This is called the neo-colonial gaze: it's no longer colonisers gawking at the colonised through lens of race, but it's the global North gawking at physical and cultural products of the global South.

For one African Village in Augsburg, there are hundreds of smaller African Villages in zoos and theme parks all over the world. I also previously wrote about the  representation of 'Africans' in Efteling, a Dutch amusement park in Tilburg.Why, even in Singapore's Jurong Bird Park there is a section called 'African Wetlands' with statues of half-naked 'African' women carrying water in a pot on her head, and another 'African' man paddling in a canoe. Here's what I got off Wikipedia:

"The new exhibit will give visitors a more balanced eco-system display and hopefully will be able to provide a better understanding of how nature, the birds and men co-exist in this one world we call our home. Species here include shoebill, saddle-billed stork, and a few species of African fish."

In Jurong Bird Park, Singapore

Again, the conflation of 'Africans' as being closer to nature than other people. There's no other exhibit in the park that talks about men living with birds.

A part of the Max Planck report (look at page 18) points out that there were also caricatures of rural Bavarians in the park. You might ask, aren't Germans also being essentialised here? Let's take a more familiar example on a larger scale: the French-themed Colmar Tropicale in Bukit Tinggi, Pahang, Malaysia. The description on its corporate page:

Let the medieval village and picturesque surroundings bring you back to an era steeped in culture and romance....Colmar Tropicale beckons you with enchanting grace and hospitality.

One could argue that rich Asian tourists that come here are doing the same -- looking upon Europeans and essentialising them (by wearing 'French' rural costumes, for example. But playing dress-up is not the same as kidnapping a French person and making them live at Colmar Tropicale!). And arguably, there is a French chef cooking French cuisine in one of the hotels...but one could hardly say he is held captive, even economically. It's absurd to compare Colmar Tropicales to African Villages.

Source: theadobephotos2010

The important difference is that us in the Global South, who built Colmar Tropicale, look towards the Global North as paragons of high culture and class. (And arguably anything else that tries to associate itself with Europe, most easily seen in the use of French phrases and words like  chez moi, beautéaffaire, couture).

We imitate them and create icons of them because we want to be like them. Some call it our colonial hangover -- always looking up to the white man (we don't differentiate between white people either haha!). Also like the report points out, associating animals with Europeans are not part of the caricatures, even though there are animals which are indigenous to certain parts of Europe e.g. black bears.

Conversely, the representations of 'Africans', 'Africa', and 'African culture' is not the same case of "imitation as the sincerest form of flattery". The Hagenbeck zoo was disguised as education, but it compartmentalised and fixed the identities of the 'developing world'. Therefore, to see Sri Lankans as all dancing with masks, and Ethiopians living among zebras. The African Village of the Augsburg zoo was masked also as education, and even solidarity with the real continent of Africa. 

By racialising those who live with us, are we just trying to raise ourselves on a ladder of hierarchy? Or do we try to make them not-human, so we don't have to worry about giving them decent living standards?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gendered expectations in Facebook dakwah cartoons

I have noticed a trend on Facebook of pages created and maintained by male ustaz in the Malay-speaking communities of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Cahayaislam ("Light of Islam") and Lukisan Dakwah Islam ("Islamic Drawings for Da'wah") two pages are the most intriguing for me for two reasons: because they create and share cartoons that are drawn in the style of manga, which is popularly associated with comic books cheaply available to children and youth; and because they circumvent the rule in orthodox Islam against representations of the human form in art.

It seems that this abovementioned rule can be exempted if they have noble purposes, such as spreading messages about Islam or being a good Muslim. The popularity of these pages show that this interpretation is acceptable. These pages have a large following; the number of 'likes' total in the tens of thousands. Many of the cartoons posted on the site receive many positive comments and are shared thousands of times. Thus, it seems to be a fair representation of the dominant ideas about what is considered "Islamic" by the Malay-speaking community.

Firstly, an "Aisyah" is put forward as a mascot of the Cahayaislam community. This raises the tired question of when will women belong only to God and themselves, and not carry the weight of a community, nation, or religion on their shoulders? Too often I used to hear from religious teachers that the reason for hijab was expressly for the purposes of being a symbol of Islam, and not necessarily as an act of submission to God. This symbolism is often only visual, women are not exhorted to be symbols of social change through positive or meaningful actions.

But the main difference was the implicit messages for the young Muslim woman and the young Muslim man. Looking over the various Cahayaislam cartoons depicting a young man, I could conclude that a young Muslim man should love God and love the Prophet Muhammad, pray, repent, seek spiritual success, and help those around him. In other words, he should embody the main tenets of Islam and many of the virtues that the Quran teaches us to strive towards. Lukisan Dakwah Islam also focuses on prayer (even linking it to being a macho man!), brotherly love and knowledge of Allah as our Creator. Noble da'wah work, right?

However, young women get a different message. As a little girl, being good means to pray-fast-and-obey-God-and-her-parents-and-later-her-husband. When she is older, she is shy and modest, because it is part of a woman's attractiveness. She never forgets to follow the four rules of covering her aurat: don't show your skin colour, don't show the shape of your body, don't attract attention, don't use perfume (I guess there wasn't enough space to include intellect and personality).

A good Muslim woman should love God and do good deeds! But piety is only to be a source of happiness to someone (insert any male authority figure here), and her status is at par with other pleasant things such as a large house, good neighbours, and a comfortable vehicle (which of these material possessions do not belong?). Being a pious wife should be her lifelong ambition. Clearly, the scope of a woman's ambition is woeful compared to what men can be. Likewise, cartoons from Lukisan Dakwah Islam focus on her dress code (here, here, here, the list goes on!) and acts of worship as a wife. (Horrifyingly also reminding women that they'll easily end up in Hell.)

Another well-shared photo from this page are tips on how to raise boy and girl children, differentiating between their potentials. Besides the expected gendered differences on how boys should learn 'masculine' skills like fixing engines and electrical items while girls should learn 'feminine' skills such as housework, I was appalled to read that boys should do volunteer work and obtain passports to travel for their studies or just 'for the experience', while girls should know only what is related to reproduction and every sort of bleeding that they could possibly have in their lifetime.

Wherever these ideas were coming from, they are definitely being absorbed into the consciousness of today's Muslims.

I found these cartoons worth highlighting because as mentioned before, cartoons make it easier to transmit certain messages. Cahayaislam and Lukisan Dakwah Islam have a following of mostly young adults, this is reflected by their method of da'wah (Facebook) and content (visual, colourful, manga-style). I find most of the gendered messages to be highly unrealistic, because of the historically more egalitarian gender relations in this geographical region even after the coming of Islam. Before the regional Islamic revival of the 1980s, Muslims did not make a big deal about women working, travelling, or covering their hair. Perhaps these cartoons are indicating a growing trend towards a more conservative brand of Islam.

Nevertheless, there was one cartoon that definitely reflected reality. Just like in real life, even the bodies of cartoon Muslimahs are policed if she does not cover her aurat properly. The following photo was uploaded as a colouring contest, but other Facebook users soon pointed out the fact that her (cartoon) feet were also a private part and should have been covered with socks!

Even though these cartoons are a new way of reaching out to Muslim youth, the messages they send are definitely not revolutionary, but instead, conventional and highly gendered. As Malay society evolves and absorbs norms and customs from other cultures (especially from the Middle East, as these are deemed superior), the common denominator seems to be conservatism and a rigid differentiation between women and men.

I find this worryingly problematic because of how easily these messages could be absorbed by today’s young Muslim women and men. They are living in secular, developing countries where women study, work, and appear in public alongside men and will probably to continue to do so for economic reasons. But in the name of religion, young women are receiving messages that limit their potentials, while young men are receiving messages that reinforce their privileges.

What is the future of Malay Muslim society going to look like?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What is?

Unconsciously, I have been writing posts that were mainly to help myself understand certain concepts that have been difficult for me, growing up in an Islamic environment. I always intuitively felt that there was something intrinsically ugly about how they had been taught to me, and my solution was to look up these words in the Quran, using this amazing online linguistic resource for understanding words in the Quran, which replaces probably what used to be a metre-thick book.

I'm collecting them here, in chronological order. Inshallah I'll be getting back here and adding to the list.

What is an Islamic marriage?
What is halal?
What is a civil marriage?
What is sharia?
What is paradise?
What is conversion?
What is abstinence?
What is hudud?
What are jinn?
What is nushuz?


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What are jinn?

One evening, after making tea with my roommate from Indonesia in our old Dutch apartment, I was surprised when she tried to stop me from pouring leftover hot water down the sink.

I asked her why, because I thought it was good for clearing out grease and smells from the pipes.

She said that her mother taught her not to do this, so as not to hurt any jinn.

I tried to not let my jaw drop -- it was the first time I had ever heard such a thing, even though we came from similar socio-religious backgrounds (Sunni/Shafii/Malay archipelago).

This little incident came to mind because today I came across across this article, containing a collection of quotes by Muslim exorcists from Egypt and Saudi Arabia about jinn, taken from the book ‘The Exorcist Tradition in Islam' by Dr. Bilaal Phillips.
“...She attended one of my lectures and after I recited the verses, we heard her scream. She was known to pray regularly and had memorized much of the Qur’aan, so I asked her what was wrong with her, and she replied in a man’s voice, “I am ‘Alee.” I asked him, “Are you a Muslim?” and he replied, “Yes.” I asked, “How did you enter her?” He said, “She poured hot water outside and hurt me.” I told him, “Get out!” and he left her.
“...Another unconscious woman was brought to me, and after I recited over her and grasped her throat, the jinnee began to speak, because it suffered from this. The jinnee spoke, saying, “My name is Saalih.” Then I said, “Saalih is a Muslim name,” and he replied, “I am a Muslim,” I scolded him, saying, “Since you are a Muslim, why are you hurting this Muslim woman?” He said, “She hurt me. Why did she hurt me?” I asked how she hurt him and he replied, “She poured hot water on me in the toilet and wounded me. She did not even warn me.”
Apparently this is some kind of Islamic taboo that I was not familiar with. (Thanks Mum and Dad!) But I grew up with many superstitions and folk ghosts and phantoms, and I remember having many nightmares as a child after the religious teachers in Sunday Islamic school would tell us about jinn, and other culture-specific phantoms like toyol.

Sociologically, the hot water taboo has sensible justifications. It's dangerous to pour water outside your house without looking outside first because you could injure someone seriously! And maybe in the days of poor sanitation, pouring hot water down the toilet might increase bad smells (even though it would be arguably better for killing germs?). And after personally experiencing how bomoh or witch doctors could not spot schizophrenia or genetic diseases, I think they serve a psychological purpose for the people around the sick person, more than anything else.


I used to work at a mosque-museum, giving tours about Islam to Muslim and non-Muslim visitors. My favourite part of the tour was always the free question-and-answer session at the end. Once, an adult Chinese man asked me if it was true that Muslims could bring back toyol from Mecca. His friend, a Muslim, told him about this.

I was utterly amazed to hear this (and again, utterly grateful for my parents for not stuffing my head with this!) He went on to explain that apparently his friend told him that this was possible -- you could buy some kind of powerful spirit in a bottle somewhere in Mecca (must be the polytheistic influence, haha) to bring back and make it do all kinds of nasty deeds like steal money, or put spells on people.

In summary, I grew up with a great fear of the unseen thanks to all these stories by religious teachers. But as young as 14, I made the decision that as far as jinn and other phantoms were concerned, these did not exist for me until the day I actually experienced or saw one face-to-face. I didn't meet anyone religious who thought the way I did -- a friend once wrote about how he got rid of his guitar, normally kept under his bed, because he believed that jinn gravitated towards such dark and unholy places (because music is haraam!).

When I moved to France by myself at the age of 19, I was struck by how unfearful everything seeemed, even late at night (maybe only a drunk man here and there, but lacking the motor skills to actually hurt you). In Singapore, thick trees and the humid air coupled with folk stories of all kinds of phantoms and jinn created an atmosphere where anything could happen. Maybe this one night would be the night I would actually see a penanggal sitting in the tree above me.

This year I spent living on my own was also a time when I started reading more about the Islam I grew up with, trying to understand it for myself. It was a period when I stopped believing that Chapter 36 had some kind of magical Quranic protective properties when read on Thursday nights, or that I would be hung upside down in hell and have melted metal poured on my head if I didn't cover my hair with a headscarf. Here I truly understood the meaning of ascribing jinn as the partners of God (6:100), because nothing non-human can hurt you without the permission of God.

I would say it was the start of a long period of questioning which lasted seven years, and is still going on now (but at a slower rate!). There are many, many other issues that I have had to think harder about (especially since after meeting the Dutchman). I once read an article about an adoptive mother with children of her own who said that at some point we all have to 'adopt' our own children. Similarly, at some point, we all have to 'convert', to truly understand what it is that we were raised as.

I have always had reservations about this compulsory 'belief' in jinn. Even though some people hold it up like an extra pillar of faith (like they do for the headscarf) and make the belief in jinn akin to belief in God (since both are unseen), I find this argument an absurd insult to God. For all intents and purposes, jinn have become some kind of Islamic boogeymen for us. We use them to scare children and women into doing what we want them to do. Here are a few more gems of quotes from the same article to illustrate what I mean:

“The percentage of possession among women is greater than it is among men – about 70 percent.” 
“The jinnee in her manifested itself and spoke to me. I realized that it was a male jinnee. It said that it came to her when she cried in the dark because her husband had traveled.” 
“Some (cases of possession) are imaginary. Women often imagine that someone has bewitched them or that the change of their husband’s treatment is due to a magic spell put upon their husbands.” 
“The greater majority are women, about 95 percent, because they like to adorn themselves, display their beauty, and are disobedient. I have only encountered one possessed woman who was pious.” 
“When I asked a female jinnee why she possessed a man I was treating, she replied, “Because he does not pray.”
“Sometimes they (jinns) appear as humans, sometimes as a black dog or a camel. In human form it may even greet a person, and when he extends his hand to shake hands, it disappears. This creates great fear in one’s heart, and the jinn usually possess humans who are in a weakened state due to extreme fear.”

To summarise, you have a higher chance of possession if you are a woman (gee, don't we also have higher chances of going to hell too?), don't wear hijab, wear make-up or jewellery, disobedient (to men of course),  cry because your husband is not around (is that also something discouraged, wtf?), jealous, don't pray or feel fear.

Jinn appear in the Quran 32 times. It comes from the root j-n-n meaning something unseen, like how jannah is a Paradise garden hidden among foliage, or jinnah is a fetus hidden in the womb (53:32). Janna is to cover something out of sight (6:76) or to use a false oath as an excuse for not believing (58:16, 63:2). Jinnatin is madness (a hidden condition, not easily seen until you talk to someone) and majnun is a madman -- a name that Prophet Muhammad has been called in his time (7:184, 15:6, 26:27, 44:14)

According to this interpretation, jinn can refer to nomads or wild tribes (27:39, 34:12, 34:14, 46:29, 72:1)-- the opposite of insi which can refer to urban people (naas is used to refer to mankind in general, and rijaal to specifically men). Jinn and insi often appear together in the same verse to show that while people of all backgrounds may work together, your wealth or nationality doesn't matter as you will be subject to the same laws (6:128, 6:130, 7:38, 7:179, 11:119, 17:88, 27:17, 32:13, 41:25, 41:29. 46:18, 49:29, 51:56, 55:33, 55:39, 72:5, 72:6).

Jinn can also refer to hidden or selfish desires that together with temptations from other people, we sometimes worship instead of God (6:100, 6:112, 34:41, 55:56, 55:74, 114:6), unseen forces of nature which some mistake for God (37:158) or having a fiery temper (6:101, 15:27, 18:50, 37:158, 55:15).

Needless to say, I am immensely relieved to find an alternative interpretation of jinn! So now there is nothing to fear when it's dark at night, except maybe mice. :)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Where are the women?

This article delighted me (being the twisted apologist that I am): it seems that IKEA has made two different versions of their catalogs, and not just differences in the language of the text. The version of the catalogue made for Saudi Arabia is completely devoid of women!

We don't know the motivations of IKEA behind the literal erasure of women from their catalogues. Maybe they were told to do so, maybe they thought of this as a pre-emptive strike, or maybe they thought it would be 'culturally-sensitive'. In any case, we can definitely enjoy the results and imagine what kind of society these photoshopped pictures portray.

Scenario #1: Father gets his children ready, bathing them. Toddler is independent enough to brush his teeth without Daddy or Mummy's help. Yay!

Scenario #2: Getting a pair of fabulous male designers to choose your furniture. Think Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan. Don't tell me this is not an absolutely smashing idea!

Scenario #3: Beds that make themselves without anyone's help!

On a more serious note, to quote the Swedish minister of trade Ewa Björling (not sure if this is even a quote, there sure are an awful lot of grammar mistakes):
"Women can not be retouch away in reality. If Saudi Arabia does not allow women to appear [in public] or work, they lose about half their intellectual capital", she told Metro.
"These pictures is sad example that shows that there is a long way to go in terms of equality between men and women in Saudi Arabia".
Oh Ewa and IKEA, you're missing the point here. Saudi Arabia does allow (limited parts of) women to be seen in public, women can and are allowed to work, and they also appear on state-sanctioned television comedies in various state of hijab (no hijab, hijab, niqab) and best of all, almost driving! (Forward to 21:12, 24:47 of this video for scenes of women getting in and out of the driver's seat, and 3:35, 9:46, 28:10 for actual driving!). Yes, there are a lot of restrictions in real life such as needing a male mahram all the time (even if you are there for your pilgrimage!) and women can't drive openly in real life.

But reality is a bit more complex than just "No women in magazines, therefore no women in public life". Here's an example of how the Saudis do it. On the website of an international school in Riyadh, there are about twice the number of photos of boys of various ages and in different poses, compared to girls. These are the boys you can see on the main pages of the school website:

And as for girls, you may show pictures of only pre-pubescent girls, or from a distance so you can't really see their faces.

As for older girls? Only with partially obscured faces.

Or stuff them into an obscure photo gallery buried several levels into the website. The website's only photo gallery is stuffed with all the photos of girls and young women they did not publish on the main pages of the website.

What do these pictures imply? Girls are okay for public viewing, but young women need to be obscured or conceptually hidden away. So where are the girls and women? They are around, but hidden. As for silly actions by IKEA, I think we can just look on the bright side of things: helpful fathers, interior designers, and technological beds!


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