Monday, April 29, 2013

Why women shouldn't lead prayer Part III: On society.

This is the final post on why women shouldn't lead prayer, addressing the following assumptions in this article entitled 'Dr. Amina Wadud and the Progressive Muslims: Some Reflections on Woman-Led Prayerwritten by Zaynab Ansari. (More information behind this post here, or read Part I and Part II.)


This final post addresses the following assumptions:
  1. Progressives are one homogeneous group of people as represented by PMUNA.
  2. Progressive movements have no credibility because they promote sex outside of marriage.
  3. Non-Muslims have values different from 'traditional Islamic values'.
  4. Female imamate divides society, so we shouldn't discuss it.
  5. Harsh male imams prevent women from going to the mosque. Not humiliating women will make them feel welcome in the mosque.

1. Progressives are one homogeneous group of people as represented by PMUNA.

The author refers to progressive Muslims as 'The Progressives' as if they were one group of identical people. The point of a progressive movement that tries to bring in different perspectives is diversity, not homogeneity. There is a remarkably high level of tolerance, open-mindedness and acceptance in such groups. There is no point in working towards giving more voice and space to one marginalised group e.g. women, by excluding another group e.g. LGBTIQ. Providing a safe space for everyone is the objective, not replacing one point of view with another.

In short: 'Progressive' is a way of thinking, not an identity. Two people with progressive values can disagree.

2. Progressive movements have no credibility because they promote sex outside of marriage.
Ms. Nomani also has an "Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom," which asserts, "Women have an Islamic right to exemption from criminalization or punishment for consensual adult sex." What is most troubling about this latter "Bill of Rights" is that it directly goes against the Qur'anic and Prophetic proscriptions on sex outside of marriage. This apparent appeal to sexual license does little to aid the credibility of Ms. Nomani's movement.
This is an example of both an ad hominem argument (aims to reduce the esteem or moral value of the person making a point) and straw man argument (aims to distract the reader from the topic). Pointing out someone's different point of view on sex and then using it to discredit their argument for another topic is an example of a straw man argument. 

And why sex? Because it's the easiest way to discredit someone's worth in society's eyes. Especially in Muslim societies. (Perhaps not so relevant but nevertheless entertaining: a Muslim cyber-harasser tried to intimidate me by saying he had sex videos of me, thinking I would be scared and do what he asked. Too bad I was more interested in seeing the non-existent video!) 

The bill of rights for women in the bedroom that the author is referring to is found here (it's actually quite useful). Briefly, this particular bill that the author refers to does have Quranic backup (4:15-16), including a punishment prescribed for the people who accuse or criminalise such women without proof (24:4). More relevant for the topic at hand would be Asra Nomani's bill of rights for women in the mosque
This topic really hit home for me, because as a woman, I too have experienced discrimination in the mosque.
Why didn't the author bring up the fact that Asra Nomani also thinks women should have the right to enter a mosque, to address any member of the congregation, to be greeted respectfully, and to participate fully in congregational activities -- issues of possible discrimination that the author also alludes to having experienced herself.

In short: Counter someone's argument with an intellectual response, not irrelevant sexual information.

3. Non-Muslims have values different from 'traditional Islamic values'.
Granted the Islamic Bill of Rights has some merits. In a very public way, Asra Nomani and Amina Wadud have uniquely managed to draw attention to the marginalization of Muslim women. Ultimately, however, the airing of this particular dirty laundry only serves to reinforce the stereotypical portrayal of the oppressed Muslim female and her Muslim male oppressor
While I'm pleased that the author is able to point to the tendency of liberal feminists to portray Muslim women as all being oppressed, and by their men, problems in a society are still problems. It is not your responsibility to hide 'dirty laundry' in the hopes that Muslim women will not be seen as oppressed; that is the responsibility of liberal feminists and others who are looking at the problem. There is a fine line to tread when making an internal critique of Muslim societies, and then raising the issue at a global level (case in point: FGM).
It is also noteworthy that the most ardent supporters of this event are non-Muslims, many of whom stand in complete opposition to traditional Islamic values.
The recourse to 'traditional' and 'Islamic' values is the same as a recourse to 'family', 'Eastern', or 'Asian' values. Often, this involves women and men playing specific gender roles, often men in the public sphere (working outside the home) and women in the private sphere (housework, childcare). Beyond this, 'traditional' can cover many issues, some of which are common across religions, cultures and societies, and not especially or uniquely Islamic.

It's strange that the author highlights non-Muslims as the 'most ardent supporters'. Who knows how many people were there and how many of them were non-Muslims. But I think the author has missed out the 'most ardent supporters' of female imamate of all: the members of the congregation. As Asma Barlas has put it, the members of the congregation were not forced to pray behind her; they selected her as their imam.

In short: The definition of 'traditional' varies across space and time. Used usually to refer to the status quo. Using 'non-Muslims' as scapegoats for problems within Muslim societies is counterproductive.

4. Female imamate divides society, so we shouldn't discuss it.
Is it wise to make the prayer a bone of contention among Muslims? The Imam should be someone who can unite the congregation, not divide them. The issue of female imamate has the potential to divide rather than unite.
Just because society doesn't agree on one issue, it doesn't mean that society falls apart. When the Prophet called to his people to worship one God, he divided society and there were always people who disagreed and hated him throughout his life. Important issues have to be discussed, and should not be swept under the carpet just because society disagrees on how to deal with it (cases in point: domestic violence, rape, teenage pregnancies).
Ustadh Recep recollected the story of Iblis, defying Allah's command to bow down to Adam. Iblis tried to use the 'aql, or intellect, in matters of worship. But for Ustadh Recep, this debate represents a misuse of 'aql; such issues are beyond the realm of human reason, though not contrary to reason. Thus, we do not model our religion after social change.

Did the author just compare female imams, or people who use their intellect, to Iblis? Let's keep it classy, people. The story of Iblis bowing down to Adam was an issue of recognising his role as a human on earth, as a vicegerent. Iblis was not supposed to bow down to Adam as an act of worship -- that is only reserved for God.

In short: Islam is all about social change and moving the world towards justice. Not discussing important issues only maintains the status quo.

5. Harsh male imams prevent women from going to the mosque. Not humiliating women will make them feel welcome in the mosque.
When the Imam in the masjid harshly tells the women to sit in their own space, tells them to be quiet because their voice is a private part, tells them that he has to protect the men from them because "the worst rows are those nearest to the women," honestly, how do you think these sisters are going to feel? and who will they feel the most welcome with, the local Imam who humiliates them, or the Progressives who greet them (literally) with open arms?
I've saved the best assumption for last, because this is so obvious! The author definitely thinks that rude male imams are a problem. She also thinks that such mainstream teachings and etiquette related to women in the mosque should not be perpetuated. But she doesn't think women should be imams. I can fly with that, but then there is no reason for her to demonise Muslims who think differently from the mainstream.
I believe that it is time that Muslim women reclaim their rights from within Islam. I humbly suggest that our scholars be more aware of the sensitivity of women's issues. The Progressive Muslims raise some important points, and while we may not accept their philosophy, we do ourselves a disservice by dismissing legitimate concerns that affect Muslim women today.
In short: Welcome to the world where women in the mosque are treated with respect!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Why women shouldn't lead prayer Part II: On rules and rituals.

This is the second post (of 3) on why women shouldn't lead prayer, addressing the following assumptions in this article entitled 'Dr. Amina Wadud and the Progressive Muslims: Some Reflections on Woman-Led Prayerwritten by Zaynab Ansari. (More information behind this post here, or read Part I.)
  1. Prayer is either valid or invalid, according to jurisprudence.
  2. Women's biological conditions (i.e. menstruation, pregnancy, post-partum bleeding) prevent 'complete' prayer.
  3. Women praying next to men does not produce an environment of mutual respect and piety.
These assumptions broadly relate to the rules and rituals behind prayer, and why such a strict idea of prayer prevents women from being imam.
1. Prayer is either valid or invalid, according to jurisprudence.
When we pray, our foremost concern is that our prayers meet all the requirements for validity as laid down by the jurisprudence of Islam.
Mainstream ideas about prayer emphasise its i) validity, and ii) acceptance. This means that prayer must be done according to a set of rules (e.g. certain parts of body must be covered, ablution done preferably with water, must not pass gas during prayer, or even vaginal discharge; clothes must be clean, prayer area must be clean, must face Mecca, no living being must be in front of the prayer mat, and so on). Even then, there is no guarantee that the prayer will be accepted by God, because it depends on your level of khusyu' (mindfulness/concentration).

I find this idea problematic because it implies that God needs our prayers, and that our prayers are a kind of offering. Yet, God does not need anything, let alone demands things from us. (Same argument for animal sacrifice during Eid ul-Adha.)

Why did the scholars go so far as to elaborate on all the different ways that prayer can be done? It must be because there is a deeper purpose to prayer than the mere movements -- it is the connection that you make with God. Omid Safi provides an alternative vision of prayer that emphasises our relationship with God.

In short: Prayer goes beyond in/validity. An alternative conception of prayer is as an act of connection, and not an offering to God.

2. Women's biological conditions prevent 'complete' prayer.
What happens when the female imam is menstruating or experiencing postpartum bleeding? What happens when she is pregnant and not able to perform the complete prayer, in terms of bowing and prostrating? Should the whole congregation be apprised of the fact that the imam is menstruating? Interestingly enough, the Progressives assert that there is nothing prohibiting a woman praying while menstruating!
The author implicitly argues that menstruation is something shameful, because the 'whole congregation' should not have to know that a woman is menstruating. Menstruating women should not even be in sight, many mosques forbid menstruating women from even sitting in the prayer hall. The author also states with surprise that menstruation, a natural bodily phenomenon, is accepted by some Muslims as not being a reason to avoid prayer.

But first let's look at the ways that prayer can be done, in the variety of situations. We are told, in the Quran, that prayer can be shortened temporarily in cases of travel or emergency e.g. war time, when you're afraid that the enemy will strike any time. Fiqh scholars have elaborated on this to include the possibility of combining prayers if you are travelling.

Temporary or permanent conditions may also require different positions in prayer. Older people may sit on a chair if they find bowing and prostrating too difficult. If you have a broken arm, naturally you don't have to do the full takbir, but when your arm is healed, you can. If you sit in a wheelchair, you pray sitting down all the time. If you are sick in the hospital, you may pray lying down -- we are taught that even prayer by the very ill, with only movements of the eyelids, is possible and acceptable. The fact that ablution can be done in situations without water indicates that the intention to pray is more important than the actual washing itself.

Naturally, pregnant women fall under the temporary category. When bowing or prostrating becomes too difficult, they may sit or lie down, according to their individual comfort and conscience. However, because of the special circumstances of travel, war, or illness, prayer does not have to be done in a 'complete' way (i.e. how it is usually done in normal circumstances). Saying that prayer is only 'complete' when done by a healthy person in comfortable circumstances often means that only the prayer by men, and those with no special physical conditions is acceptable.


On a minor note, there is never one man that is the imam for a congregation all the time. If a male imam is ill, another one takes his place, right? The argument that people who bleed or cannot bow or prostrate therefore cannot be imams simply doesn't make sense.

In short: In special circumstances, there are many ways to modify the positions or duration or prayer. Menstruation, pregnancy, and post-partum bleeding are all temporary conditions, like illness, and do not indicate one's ability to be an imam.

3. Women praying next to men does not produce an environment of mutual respect and piety.
How many sisters would like a brother to stand right next to them, touching their bodies with his as they pray? In such a situation, what would prevent a man with a diseased heart from harassing the sister? ...Women experience enough sexual harassment at the hands of men without making the prayer another venue for sexual advances!

Imama Amina Wadud. Source.
Imama Raheel Raza. Source
Imama Laury Silvers. Source.
Imama Amina Wadud. Source.

Look at some photos of mixed-gender congregations led by women. I can observe that i) there are no lecherous or flirtatious looks on the faces of the women and men? ii) there are no men touching the women (or vice versa), and iii) there are no men harassing the women. Wow, Muslims who want to pray really deserve more credit than what is given to them.

Even with a male imam, alternative arrangements to women-in-the-back can consist of women on the left and men on the right, so each group can have access to the front and back -- as some mosques have done. Women and men don't have to touch each other; there can be a gap, a painted line, or a low barrier to demarcate the spaces.

A mixed-gender congregation in Masjid al-Istiqlal, Jakarta. Source.
Masjid al-Istiqlal, Jakarta. Source.
I think many Muslim societies today are obsessed about sex (and not in a good way). They strictly segregate boys and girls, men and women when the situation is 'religious', but think nothing of working alongside each other in 'secular' situations. In a prayer setting, will women and men go wild just because they are in the same room? Nope, and guess why? Some women and men are actually mature beings who are able to concentrate on their prayer, despite their surroundings.

I'm not sure why the author assumes that a mixed gender congregation that does not place women behind men automatically means that it is totally mixed. Some women may prefer to stand with other women, just as men may prefer to stand with men. Some of these congregations leave gaps (you can be sure none of them are going to push the Satan gap theory), or married couples stand beside each other.
Indeed, the Progressives view the way Muslims have always prayed, with men in the front and women in the back, as a form of rigid gender discrimination.
This is also another fallacy, that harks to a romanticised golden age of Islam being practiced perfectly in order to justify today's norms. If the author was right and Muslims have always prayed like this, why do so many mosques designate a separate or closed-off space for women, use a partial or total barrier, and claim this to be 'the way it has always been'? Why do some entire countries (e.g. India) completely disallow women from entering mosques?

Muslims have never prayed, and still do not pray in a uniform way. Not the arrangement of the congregation (here, here, and here), and not even the ritual movements of the prayer (e.g. placement of hands during recitation, in between bowing and prostrating).

In short: Mixed-gender congregations do not cause harassment, harassers do. There are a variety of arrangements possible for mixed-gender congregations, no matter the gender of the imam.


Read the final post, Why women shouldn't lead prayer Part III: On society!

Why women shouldn't lead prayer Part I: On knowledge

Welcome to the first post (of 3) on why women shouldn't lead prayer. More information behind this post here.


This post is not giving arguments explaining why women should not lead prayer. But it's also not going to give arguments about why women should lead prayer. What this post does however, is break down some of the more abstract assumptions behind this article entitled 'Dr. Amina Wadud and the Progressive Muslims: Some Reflections on Woman-Led Prayer' written by Zaynab Ansari, an article which in fact gives arguments for why women should not lead prayer (you wouldn't have guessed that by the word 'reflections' in the title, right?).
  1. Quran = Sacred law = Sharia of Allah = Sharia law.
  2. Hadith should be accepted at face value, especially those with certain names in its transmission.
  3. Feminist scholars have biases, but male scholars are unbiased.
  4. Most Sunni and Shia scholars agree that a woman cannot be imam. Two scholars said it was possible under certain conditions. Majority opinion wins.
  5. Western scientists, Western gender theorists, Western feminists exist. They are inferior to Muslim scholars.
  6. Shari' conceptions of gender identity exist. These are the 'true' forms of gender identity.
Instead of addressing the list of 14 assumptions chronologically, I've categorised them broadly by topic. This post will address 6 assumptions related to the nature of knowledge (a.k.a 'epistemology') in the most straightforward terms as possible (33:70): what is considered knowledge, where does it come from, and who is allowed to receive knowledge.

1. Quran = Sacred law = Sharia of Allah = Sharia law.
Many of the Progressives' ideologues envision a wholesale reformulation of Sacred Law. This divine gift of guidance has withstood the test of time immemorial. It is sheer folly for any Muslim to claim the right to alter the Sharia of Allah.
Clearly, Dr. Wadud approaches the Qur'an from a vantage point that conflicts with the well-established methodology of Islamic scholarship and exegesis of the Qur'an. Mainstream Sunni and Shi'i scholars alike accept the principles of the universality, immutability, and applicability of the Qur'an's edicts. Saying yes to the Qur'an is very much at the core of Muslim faith.
"When I say "no" it is not the integrity of the literal text, it is to the implementation of some practices which is a 14 centuries long debate...with no ONE having the final word. That belongs only to Allah and Allahu A'lam." - A. Wadud
The author rightly quotes Wadud's argument, which states that she accepts the Quran fully as the word of God. For most people who consider themselves Muslim, this is usually the 'core' of their faith as well. The difference here is that the author conflates the Quran, a divine text from God, with sharia law as it is commonly understood today: a series of specific and general principles from the Qur'an, elaborations from hadith, then all the different interpretations as elaborated by (male) scholars of fiqh (jurisprudence) through qiyas (analogy) and ijma (consensus), and finally, colonial civil law (often, British or French). What passes for shari'a law in many postcolonial countries is simply colonial laws which did not contradict the principles of shari'a. What passes for shari'a law in Malaysia is not what passes for shari'a law in Egypt.

The word shari'a appears in the Quran only 5 times, in 4 different forms. The root, sh-r-'a connotes a clear or visible path or law. God ordained for us a way of living that was the same for all other prophets before us (42:13, 42:21, 45:18), but there were certain laws that are specific to each group (5:48). The principles of shari'a (e.g. social justice, the right to a family) are timeless, but the models are limited. Some rulings were created in the 7th century, some rulings are from the traditional laws of the land (e.g. stoning being an ancient practice) which are brought over to other countries under the guise of it being Islamic (e.g. stoning introduced to Aceh).

Shari'a may also be understood as a bottom-up approach: people to behave in ways that embody the Qur'an, how God wants us to be. Shari'a, as the law of God, does not exist when there is not enough physical and ideological space for everyone (17:70, 58:11), it does not exist when those who are marginalised do not receive the help they need (4:36), it does not exist when people who believe in God find themselves threatened and insulted (49:11-12); but it exists when everyone starts doing good. (More on shari'a here).

In short: God's law is sacred, as written in the Quran. Any interpretation, elaboration and codification of God's laws by people is necessarily contextual, subject to flaws, and may change for different societies in different times.

2. Hadith should be accepted at face value, especially those with certain names in its transmission.
Any hadith that comes to us through these two Imams cannot be disregarded. Centuries ago, hadith experts, like Bukhari and Muslim, established a rigorous methodology for hadith scholarship that contemporary scholars simply cannot replicate...Who are we to disqualify their immense achievements by arbitrarily rejecting and accepting hadith?
Hadith, by nature of being written by people, are bound to be subject to human biases based on their social and geographical context. The mainstream majority of Muslims would say that the speech of the Prophet was also divine, and cite 53:4 from the Quran. The reasoning then goes, the words of the Prophet help to explain the Quran i.e. hadith help to explain the Quran.

However, I have always had two issues with this reasoning. One is that much of the hadith literature is a compilation from a few scholars who referred to among themselves (kind of like academics today who only quote each other). Two, believing that all the Prophet's words are divinely inspired is different from believing that what the hadith scholars wrote down is correct, since there is a long chain of transmission across hundreds of years. Questioning this usually leads to the argument that the people in this chain of transmission were exquisitely upright in character, and the scribes had otherworldly memory powers and intelligence. But anything written by people has its shortcomings and requires critical study. (A balanced study of hadith here, with a summary of its possible forgeries here.)

Alternatively, you may choose to see the Quran as being complete and with enough details for you to live an upright life (6:114, 16:89). Nevertheless, any human interpretation has its shortcomings.

In short: Hadith is one such example of human interpretation, elaboration and codification of God's laws. As a human text, it has its strengths and limitations and should not be accepted without some critical thinking.

3. Feminist scholars have biases, but male scholars are unbiased.
Approaching the Qur'an from a feminist perspective, Dr. Wadud is not exempt from her own biases.
Since you've made it this far, you will probably see what's wrong with this sentence. All humans are subject to bias because we do not have infinite knowledge, this includes scholars of jurisprudence, no matter how smart they were. It's not about women scholars having different biases from male scholars, but also, richer scholars (e.g. funded by the ruling powers) having different biases from poorer (or independent) scholars, Persian scholars having different biases from Greek scholars. Every aspect of social identity matters, not just gender.

A feminist perspective of the Quran assumes that dominant interpretations today are pro-men and pro-male interests. Saying that men are allowed to (lightly) beat their wives with the aim of humiliation is one of the best examples of this. There are plenty of male scholars who also come up with feminist perspectives of verses in the Quran: Edip Yuksel, Farouk Peru, Shabbir Ahmed, to name a few.

This assumption that men are neutral and rational while women are emotional actually comes from the Renaissance, and there is no Quranic argument that supports such an intellectual division between male and female scholars.
They believe that Islam needs to be freed from centuries of male-dominated, conservative scholarship to adequately address issues of human rights and gender equality. While this idea might appeal to some, it certainly has its flaws.
I don't see anything wrong with injecting new interpretations into society. Today we are too concerned with following rules from certain names, without actually thinking for ourselves on what they mean to us. For every person with knowledge, there is another one with more knowledge, and we should always seek more knowledge (17:26, 20:114). How can we do this if we shut down certain arguments just because they don't fit with what we have always considered to be true?

In short: This assumption has no basis in the Quran. Judging scholars by their gender is an ad hominem fallacy. (And actually sort of childish, no?)

4. Most Sunni and Shia scholars agree that a woman cannot be imam. Two scholars said it was possible under certain conditions. Majority opinion wins.
Furthermore, the vast majority of Sunni and Shi'i scholars are agreed that women are not permitted to lead men in prayer. One can assume, as the Progressives have, that these men simply were not as enlightened as we are or were influenced by existing gender prejudice in their societies. On the other hand, one can also give these scholars the benefit of the doubt instead of impugning to them base motives of male prejudice
'Male prejudice' is not a judgmental phrase. It simply means that by virtue of being a man, there are certain aspects of knowledge that cannot be known. For example, when a Muslim man enters any mosque in the world, as long as he is wearing the minimum coverage, he can enter by the front entrance, sit anywhere in the prayer hall, and not have an inkling of worry that he might be rebuked. In contrast, not every mosque in the world is open to Muslim women, and even if so, she may not be able to enter by the front gate, may have to search for the separate space which is often smaller and dirtier, and at any time might be scolded for not being covered sufficiently or being in the wrong area. Most Muslim men, if they are not told about women's experiences, may never be aware of this.

Today's society is not more or less enlightened than previous societies. Scientific progress can tell you that girls are no worse than boys (and so don't kill them!), but scientific progress can also allow you to check the sex of the baby by ultrasound and abort it instead of killing it when it's born. 
I believe that if they had been aware of an established Prophetic precedent for female imamate, then they would have supported it unanimously. As it were, only a few scholars, such as Imam Abi Thaur and Imam Muzani, allowed female prayer leaders. This allowance was not blanket permission for women to lead men in prayer, but contingent on certain circumstances, the details of which were not transmitted with the same clarity as the majority consensus.
Fiqh, or jurisprudence, was never meant to close down debate. The role of these scholars were to elaborate on the general principles in the Quran, for their own time and society. In their time, their opinions co-existed with each other, and they never said to create a madhhab or school of thought based on their name. Much of why their opinions are dominant in certain parts of the world (e.g. Shafi'i in Southeast Asia, Maliki in Northern Africa) have a lot more to do with political power, trade and shifting alliances.

There is a Prophetic precedence for a woman leading prayer: Nafisa or Umm Waraqa bint Abdullah. And a minority opinion in the Hanbali school of thought permits women to lead women and mixed-congregations in prayer. Like all human interpretations, one can choose to follow a scholar or not. The problem here is that the author has placed her intellectual trust in the majority of scholars, and did not even give minority scholars the space for their arguments. How scholars gain followers also depends a lot on power.

In short: Fiqh aimed to provide different opinions on an issue, with the same objective. A dominant idea has a lot more to do with power, and not because it's necessarily right. Cases in point: sects, neo-liberalism, modernity.

5. Western scientists, Western gender theorists, Western feminists exist. They are inferior to Muslim scholars.
Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad, in his writings on Islam and gender, contends that certain Western scientists, gender theorists, and even feminists, like Germaine Greer, are coming to realisations about gender that are highly reminiscent of Shari' conceptions of gender identity.
This assumption indicates a worldview that separates knowledge from the West from knowledge from the East/Islamic world. And yet, scholars like the author often refer to an Islamic Golden Age (mid-8th to 13th century). During this time, everything that was awesome about Islam happened, like the invention of the water wheel, the astrolabes, the writing of the comprehensive medical Canon -- everything that religious teachers today hark to, to motivate us into doing something useful as Muslims.

But what was unique about that time was the exchange of knowledge from the East and the West (if we must use these terms, for simplicity). Much of Greek philosophy was influenced by Muslim scholars. Scholars traveled far and wide to seek knowledge, translate books and learn from each other. They moved across different regions; there were Muslim scholars from and in the West (as there are today!)

Today, what is often called 'the West' is anything that is considered threatening to the ideas in conservative mainstream Islam, and is often a label that is applied accordingly. Don't like scholars that argue that femininity and masculinity are constructed by society? "Western gender theorist" Scholars that think women have bodily autonomy? "Western feminist".

This is especially clear because the author decides to mention Germaine Greer, a "Western feminist" whom she agrees with, because she thinks men and women are fundamentally different. Despite this, Greer and other 'Western' scholars are only accepted when they "realise" what men and women are really like (as pushed by mainstream Islam).

In short: West and East/Islam is a false dichotomy. All knowledges are valuable, and should not be put on a hierarchy because this prevents you from using your brain.

6. Shari' conceptions of gender identity exist. These are the 'true' forms of gender identity.
Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad, in his writings on Islam and gender, contends that certain Western scientists, gender theorists, and even feminists, like Germaine Greer, are coming to realisations about gender that are highly reminiscent of Shari' conceptions of gender identity.
Firstly, I think the author meant gender expression (how women and men should behave), not identity (what gender you conceive of yourself), because then she would to accept that women who have the sense of being a man and behaves like a man, are in fact men.

The author thinks that men and women are fundamentally different from each other, according to shari'a. Since we already saw that sharia is a broad collection of principles, there is in fact no way of knowing what the 'true' conceptions of 'gender identity' are. There is no such thing as a shari'a-compliant gender identity. The closest idea I can think of is that women can give birth and nurse (2:233, 65:6) and since men earn more and have more privilege in global patriarchy, they should financially support women (4:34).

Perhaps she means modesty? But this applies to both men and women (24:30-31). Or perhaps she means that women should know they have to pray in the back or in another room? Or that all men should be leaders? Or that all men have high sex drives and therefore harassment and polygamy is natural?

Greer thinks that men and women are fundamentally different, because of biological differences. Functions of the female body determine women's actions and the male body determine's men's actions. Needless to say, this is extremely reductive and diminishes the complex desires and actions of women all over the world, depending on their religion, ethnicity, class, and so on. Today, many Muslim women also contribute to the household. Muslim men are also playing roles as house-husbands or being the primary caregiver at home, and there is nothing to indicate that this goes against the laws of nature.

While women can give birth, not all women are able to, and so birth doesn't make one a woman. Likewise, while men can have a high sex drive, expressing this drive depends on how a man is brought up, and doesn't excuse harassment or rape.

In short: There is no such thing as a 'shari' conception of gender identity'. Being a woman or a man varies across and within societies.

Read next Part II: On Rules and Rituals!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why women shouldn't lead prayer: Prologue

Sometimes, people write my posts for me. An acquaintance, whom I knew in high school, and whom I never spoke too much with (even until today), appears to have discovered a new level of spirituality -- something I noticed was so common among my friends who hit the mid-twenties and start searching for meaning.

In young women, this often manifests itself as the decision to wear hijab. In both young men and women, this is manifested by the switching of Facebook profile pictures, notes, and photos with more Islam-oriented ones. Statuses are used as a channel for public supplications, photos of nature and/or some sort of peaceful scenery replace photos of their actual faces, and quotes from religious texts proliferate.

I had seen, a few weeks ago, this young man in question post a message aimed to dispel the notion that Islam oppresses women (le sigh, Islam doesn't, Muslims do). His contribution to this tired debate was a hadith telling people to treat their women kindly.
"The believer with the most complete faith is the one with the best character, and the best of them are those whom treat their women the best." (Tirmidhi)
But why don't people see that just because the Prophet said do something, it doesn't mean that we human beings actually act that way?

Articles with titles containing 'women', 'Islam', and 'status'/'role'/'rights' are inevitably going to be apologist, quoting religious texts on the rights of women (which can be used either way, mind you), dismissing oppression as unrepresentative of this mysterious monolith called 'Islam', and then usually concluding with praising the elevated status of mothers (and you wonder why you have to tell Muslim women who are stressed about getting married that that shouldn't be their main focus in life). (PS: not every woman can or want to have children, okay?)

I know people have the best intentions, but some people who know I have an interest in gender and Islam think that I am interested in the abovementioned genre of articles. So for the record: NOT INTERESTED. Make an effort to understand the diversity of women's movements within Islam first.


Now on to the good stuff! Recently this article 'Dr. Amina Wadud and the Progressive Muslims: Some Reflections on Woman-Led Prayer' was sent to me as a sincere (read: patronising) aim at correcting my 'twisted' views on women in Islam, as represented by my gushing over this beautiful article by Asma Barlas on the need to claim for all of us to read and understand the Quran, and to remove the monopoly of interpretation from the authority of the (male) ulama. (Since the source links in that one suck, here's another.) The article by Asma Barlas touched briefly on why people need to chill TF out over Amina Wadud's imamate:
"...At least the people who prayed behind her have democratically selected her. The authority of an imam or leader of prayer is not the same as a priest or a pope. Nobody is going to be forced to obey her. An imam can be anybody leading the prayer. If people want to pray behind her, why not? If she is the most knowledgeable Muslim in that room and she can lead the prayer: why not?"
Health warning: Feelings may range from empathy to outrage, or flit back and forth while reading this article. This may or may not be good for your own emotional well-being and self-esteem.

In general, the author seemed to be torn between two camps: the mainstream, and her own gut feelings of being treated like crap in the mosque and in social interactions just for being a woman. She seems to go back and forth between demonising this strangely-homogenous-sounding group called the 'Progressive Muslims' and highlighting legitimate concerns of feminist Muslim scholars.

As an appetiser, I picked out a whole load of assumptions from the article...
  1. Progressives are one homogenous group of people as represented by PMUNA.
  2. Quran = Sacred law = Sharia law = Sharia of Allah.
  3. Feminist scholars have biases, but male scholars are unbiased.
  4. Progressive movements have no credibility because they promote sex outside of marriage.
  5. Non-Muslims have values different from 'traditional Islamic values'.
  6. Hadith should be accepted at face value, especially those with certain names in its transmission.
  7. Mainstream scholars agree that a woman cannot be imam. Two scholars said it was possible on certain conditions. These two are the minority and so the majority opinion wins.
  8. Female imamate divides society, so we shouldn't discuss it.
  9. Women's biological conditions (i.e. menstruation, pregnancy, post-partum bleeding) prevent 'complete' prayer.
    • Menstruation should not be advertised.
    • Prayer requires bowing and prostrating. 
  10. Women praying next to men does not produce an environment of mutual respect and piety.
    • Mixed congregation = touching each other's bodies.
    • Men will harass women once they are close to them.
    • Women are responsible for NOT being harassed.
  11. Prayer is either valid or invalid, according to jurisprudence.
  12. Shari' conceptions of gender identity exist. These are the true forms of gender identity. 
  13. Western scientists, Western gender theorists, Western feminists exist. They are inferior to Muslim scholars.
  14. Harsh male imams prevent women from going to the mosque. Not humiliating women will make them feel welcome in the mosque.
...which would make for an crazy long post if I were to address them all, so I've decided to split it up over 3 separate blog posts. Bon appetit!

  1. Quran = Sacred law = Sharia law = Sharia of Allah.
  2. Hadith should be accepted at face value, especially those with certain names in its transmission.
  3. Feminist scholars have biases, but male scholars are unbiased.
  4. Most Sunni and Shia scholars agree that a woman cannot be imam. Two scholars said it was possible on certain conditions. These two are the minority and so the majority opinion wins.
  5. Western scientists, Western gender theorists, Western feminists exist. They are inferior to Muslim scholars.
  6. Shari' conceptions of gender identity exist. These are the true forms of gender identity. 
  1. Prayer is either valid or invalid, according to jurisprudence.
  2. Women's biological conditions (i.e. menstruation, pregnancy, post-partum bleeding) prevent 'complete' prayer.
  3. Women praying next to men does not produce an environment of mutual respect and piety.
Why women shouldn't lead prayer Part III: On society
  1. Progressives are one homogenous group of people as represented by PMUNA.
  2. Progressive movements have no credibility because they promote sex outside of marriage.
  3. Non-Muslims have values different from 'traditional Islamic values'.
  4. Female imamate divides society, so we shouldn't discuss it.
  5. Harsh male imams prevent women from going to the mosque. Not humiliating women will make them feel welcome in the mosque.

    Sunday, April 14, 2013

    Ethnic Makeup: Good migrant, bad migrant.

    This post was originally written for, published on 13 Apr 2013.
    "Meet the whole world at The Hague Market"

    Judging a book

    My first experience with Holland was a tin of condensed milk of the “Dutch Lady” brand. Many of you might have grown up with it as well: a fair-skinned milkmaid wearing a blue and white traditional dress, holding a pail of milk, freshly expressed from the black and white cows behind her, munching on green grass, with windmills in the far horizon. Today, tourist advertisements for Holland emphasise the Keukenhof tulips and windmills. In particular, the tourist video playing on loop at the Dutch Consulate will endlessly repeat that “The Dutch are among the tallest people in the world.”

    Don’t blame me for thinking that Holland was full of tall, white, milk-drinking people frolicking among tulips and/or windmills.

    On the other hand, Singapore has consistently portrayed itself to be a country of immigrants (to the point of ignoring the indigenous population) who can keep on receiving foreigners as long as they fit into certain ideas of class and race. While Holland has yet to admit that it is indeed a multicultural country, Singapore has created four ‘races’ or socio-politically constructed categories, often referred to as CMIO (Chinese/Malay/Indian/Other), which Kat has beautifully unpacked previously, and which Chua Beng Huat criticises for being a ‘neutral empire’ in creating ‘racial’ divisions and managing ‘racial harmony’, peace and equality.[i]

    What’s sure is that the constant “gloat[ing] of Chinese hegemony” means that people I meet in Holland either think Singapore is part of China, or they insist I’m not Singaporean because my skin is “so brown!” (excuse me—olive or sawo matang, please).


    When I was studying in France, I was often told that I looked Polynesian, with some people even comparing me to their relatives who lived on Wallis and Futuna islands (a French territory in the South Pacific). Because I spoke fluent French, many people I met simply assumed that I was born in France. People try to make sense of strangers by connecting them to their country’s heritage; in this case, the Polynesian territories of France.

    So it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise that I would be constantly taken as Indonesian.I’ve been told repeatedly by Indonesian friends that I have a typical Javanese appearance (which helped me to blend in with my Indonesian domestic workers respondents when I was researching for my thesis). I have been told once that I look like I’m “from the East Indies”, the biggest Dutch colony, (which says something about the relationship of contemporary Dutch society with their colonial past).

    I accept that in Singapore I am often mistaken for a domestic worker when I’m hanging around my Pasir Ris heartlands. I used to be offended before I knew better, but now I see it as a form of solidarity with them. Before I went to study in Holland, I expected to be simply taken as an Indonesian in Holland but as I found out, it was a little more complicated than that.

    "Friends for life"

    Good migrant, bad migrant

    The majority of the Indo people in Holland arrived in a series of migrations called the ‘repatriation’, after the Second World War, when most Eurasians of mixed Dutch (and other European) and indigenous ancestry left what was then the Dutch East Indies. The Dutchman’s (my husband, but that’s another story) grandmother (born in a town close to my own grandparents in East Java) was one of these migrants.

    Many Dutch people my age have some ancestor from what is now Indonesia, and might possibly have grown up or lived for some time in Indonesia themselves. During the Japanese occupation of 1942-45, many were put into Japanese concentration camps aimed at eliminating European presence. Later, when they arrived in Holland, they may have also suffered some sort of discrimination or feelings of a loss of belonging because of their mixed ancestry.

    "Healthy/You'll find it at The Hague Market"

    My father-in-law is proud to tell me that his mother “completely integrated” by learning Dutch; only speaking Javanese occasionally with her brothers and sisters. Hans van Amersfoort posits that the Indos’ familiarity with Dutch language and culture before coming to Holland, and also their Dutch citizenship, helped them to “seamlessly assimilate” into contemporary Dutch society.[ii]  As a result, migrants today from Indonesia who move to Holland for studies or marriage are more likely to be accepted—at least at face value—as authentically ‘Dutch’.

    The fact that white Dutch people will talk to me in Dutch automatically is a sign that my Javanese appearance has some cultural capital. Other appearances that ensure a positive welcome are being white, or Chinese.

    "Present/You'll find it at The Hague Market"

    "Fashion/You'll find it at The Hague Market"

    A group of ‘good’ migrants are those of Chinese-Surinamese descent, or those who look Chinese, no matter the country of origin. Formerly a Dutch colony, Suriname saw a lot of Surinamese migration to the Netherlands after its independence in 1975. Just like Singapore, Suriname is also made up of several ethnic groups (besides their indigenous Amerindians) which include Chinese, Hindustani, and Javanese: their ancestors originally came over as contract plantation labourers from China, India, and Java respectively. In addition, Surinamese migrants to the Netherlands also include Maroons (descendants of West African slaves) and Creoles (mixed West African-European ancestry).

    "Party/Meet the whole world at The Hague Market"

    Singapore also has categories for its temporary labour force, based on their countries of origin: ‘expats’ or high-skilled workers, and ‘foreign workers’ or low-wage transient workers such as male construction workers from mostly Bangladesh, and female live-in migrant domestic workers from mostly Indonesia and The Philippines (this group forming the bulk of all foreigners in Singapore).

    To put it rather crudely, thanks to its history of colonisation, Holland has a population that is mixed: white, black, yellow, brown, and every shade in between. But in right-wing political discourse, migrants are racially profiled according to their socio-economic status, conflated with their religion or ethnicity. Another right-wing discourse is that these newer migrants from Turkey and Morocco (1960s onwards) are ‘parasites’, ‘Islamic terrorists’ or ‘criminele allochtonen’ (from a foreign soil, with the tendency to be involved in crime). Now, which ethnic group in Singapore faces the same conflation of socioeconomic status and ethnicity?

    A Singaporean in Holland

    If you look Chinese, you won’t have a problem. Even though the Chinese-Dutch community can remain insular, politically speaking they do not pose a problem because they can be rather well-off and/or own significant businesses. More recent migrants from China come via networks that are already existing in various Dutch cities. A girlfriend (Chinese born in Holland, grew up in Shanghai and now studying in Amsterdam) explained the familial closeness of these networks, i.e., “all the Chinese people in Amsterdam know if I’m dating a white guy”.

    Preserved herring, a Dutch delicacy

    If you look Indian, you might be mistaken for a Hindustani. The reception to this community is ambivalent: they own most of the tropische winkels (neighbourhood stores that sell ‘exotic’ produce, spices, dried fish, etc.), but they cannot escape the racialised policing of public places that target young, dark-skinned men. A close girlfriend (Hindustani Surinamese born and living in Holland) laments that working in a Dutch government bureau meant constantly explaining where her parents were from and making sure that she was using enough fancy Dutch vocabulary to prove her fluency.

    If look Malay, you might be mistaken for an Indo or an Indonesian, both of which are two completely non-threatening groups. (This is shown by the seemingly class-based political classification of Indonesian migrants as ‘Western’ foreigners, alongside the Americans and Japanese.) I am often mistaken for being (honorary white) Dutch, with the expectations that I should be able to speak Dutch. And if I cannot (yet), I must assimilate by learning it. I can never be an expat, who are never expected to assimilate.

    If you look nothing like the above categories, congratulations. A friend of mine (white Canadian woman married to an Indian man) was even told by a Dutch girl before moving to Holland that she would have “no problems integrating” because she was white, while her husband would have some problems. Yet they were moving to Holland because he got a job here!

    "Meet the whole world at The Hague Market"

    Migration and Islamophobia

    When I first came to Holland, I was surprised to hear from an Egyptian-Dutch friend that she thought Holland was “one of the most Islamophobic countries in Europe”. I saw plenty of women wearing headscarves in the streets and trams and I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Later on I realised that while Indonesian-looking Muslim women in their neat instant-hijab did not attract any attention, Turkish- or Moroccan-looking Muslim women sometimes got dirty looks. Increase the degree of nastiness in this order: whether she’s wearing a long skirt or jeans, a long dress, or a face-covering.

    In solidarity with other Muslim women, I immediately took up arms—psychologically. I was ready to explain to politically liberal, young white Dutch people that Muslims are not just those who wear a beard or a headscarf. When one such young man asked me whether I had faced any negative prejudice for being Muslim, I admitted that because I didn’t wear a headscarf, and because I look Indo(nesian), not many people would assume I was Muslim. “Ah, then to us you’re not really Muslim!” His reply revealed just how ethnic appearances and religion had been easily conflated, in addition to socioeconomic status.

    According to Liz Fekete, before 9/11, the Dutch government was more concerned with the economic integration of migrants with a Moroccan or Turkish background.[iii]  These communities had migrated to the Netherlands from the 1960s as contract workers (and thus not expected by the government to stay), and were currently experiencing high levels of unemployment and poverty after decades of marginalisation. At the time, Dutch security measures primarily focused on asylum-seekers and migrants. However, after 9/11, security services took the view that Islam per se constituted a ‘threat’, and very quickly Muslim migrants or asylum-seekers all became threats by default.

    "Fruit/You'll find it at the Hague Market"

    Ethnic makeup

    I was once called a ‘Chinees kontje’ in the street; this racialised slur only reveals a lack of knowledge about the different ethnic communities within Holland, and greater issues of migration patterns in general. Simply because I “don’t look like a Muslim”, I don’t face the full force of Islamophobia, even though it is a personal and social wound.

    Somewhere on the hierarchies of race, religion and migrant status, my privileges shift in comparison to what I might have in Singapore, where they remain rather static. I didn’t think twice about being politically categorised in Singapore, but Holland has its own set of categories.

    And then I think, amidst global processes, what does it mean to be Malay? Or Chinese, or Indian, or Other?

    [i] Chua Beng Huat, “Multiculturalism in Singapore: an Instrument of Social Control,” Race and Class 44, no. 3 (2003), 58-77.
    [ii] Hans van Amersfoort, “Immigration as a colonial inheritance: post-colonial immigrants in the Netherlands, 1945-2002,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Commission for Racial Equality, 2006.
    [iii] Liz Fekete, A Suitable Enemy: Racism, Migration, and Islamophobia in Europe, (London/New York: Pluto Press, 2009), 43-73.

    Saturday, April 6, 2013

    Chicken soup and colonisation.

    I was making chicken soup last night, and marveled at how adding a cinnamon stick, star anise, some cardamom pods and some cloves made it taste just like my mother's chicken soup. It also made me wonder how these innocuous little dried things were practically the cause for the colonisation of what is now Indonesia.

    When it's been going on the stove for an hour or two, the whole house smells like chicken soup. Just then, the Dutchman came home and commented:

    "If you guys hadn't been making chicken soup, the Dutch ships would have never stopped at those islands!"

    Friday, April 5, 2013

    More advice for husbands, by a man.

    Aren't these such total gems? The source is a male motivational speaker from Malaysia, who has organised camps for young women such as GADIS (Girls’ Awareness Development & Inspirational Series, the acronym also means 'young lady')  to teach them a balance between ideal femininity and practical skills:-

    • Knowledge on women's rights
    • Image, appearance and etiquette
    • Technology and entrepreneurship
    • Self-defense
    • Women's biology, hormone and diet

    Somehow this collection of advice (I don't know who compiled them, or in what context) for Malay husbands seem to be really popular.
    By Mohd Fadzilah Kamsah
    1. Always value your wife's efforts, especially if she is working and forced to bear your debts. Yes, of course. Wait, what? 
    2. When your wife is speaking, look and listen to her. Let her words be stuck in your brain. Process her information intelligently and attentively. At least he didn't say 'pretend' to listen to her.
    3. Don't ever compare her cooking or house decoration skills with your mother, except if she is better than your mother. Er, best to avoid all such comparison. Doesn't the Quran say that one of the curses of the time was to call your wife your mother?
    4. Don't demand sex if your wife is tired or not in the mood. Religion doesn't say marriage is only to fulfil your carnal desires. Said no male religious teacher ever! Although I think this should be a compulsory sentence in all Muslim marital guidance courses.
    5. If you have children, both of you should take care of them. The seed is also from you. Don't ask your wife, if she's eating, to bring the child to the toilet and clean it up, while you sit back with your tummy full like a king. Thanks for highlighting the obvious to the obtuse men among you. I know, it's an amazing ego boost to have your name on your child's birth certificate, but don't let that stop you.
    6. Don't be resting in front of the TV or relaxing while your wife, when arriving home, immediately takes off her shoes and enters the kitchen -- cooking, cleaning, washing, chasing after kids, and so on. Wives are sad when we are overwhelmed with household tasks while husbands do nothing. And we are also sad when you don't want to help but want to hire a domestic worker instead!
    7. If you eat before her, leave her some dishes. Don't eat everything and only leave her a sliver of fish tail, the squid's tentacles, and the ends of the beansprouts. I would stay far away from such a man.
    8. If you want to invite friends over, tell your wife first, preferably a day or two in advance. So she can cook the best food and clean up the house. Imagine your wife's feelings if guests come over when the laundry is still unfolded, the children's toys are strewn around, and she only cooks instant noodles. Um, I really thought this was going another way.
    9. Don't ever comment on your wife's weight, whether she is getting bigger or thinner. Look at your own body first. Being a condescending hot bod is also not much better.
    10. Don't fart in front of your wife. You were able to control yourself when you were courting, right? Again, the point is whether either party is offended. Me, I am thankful to have someone who doesn't mind.
    11. Respect your wife's parents and relatives, even if you are pretending. Don't ever insult them, even in jest. Sigh, see 2.
    12. Don't be stingy with your wife and with household needs. Yeah or else she'll throw "qawwamun" in your face.
    13. Maintain your dignity as a husband and as a man. As much as possible, don't burden your wife with your financial problems. Usually, the more 'stubborn' you are in not asking help from your wife, the more she will be willing to help. Honesty vs. masculine ideals?
    14. Don't be messy and dirty. Put your clothes in the laundry hamper, throw away your toothpicks after using them, screw the cap back on the toothpaste, put back things where you found them, flush after you go to the toilet. Is it so difficult? Do you have to be taught everything? My sentiments exactly! But let's not be condescending to men if you don't want them to learn it from you.
    15. Be diligent in asking your wife if she needs your help with the housework or with the children. But don't ask her once in two years. Don't pretend to be hardworking only when there are guests. Interesting, I wonder if he has empirical evidence?
    16. Respect your wife as you would want to be respected. She is a human being too. Allah gives many special qualities to wives but interpretations have been twisted by men for their own selfish needs. Oh my, thanks for reminding us that we are indeed human! Kudos to the second part, could you send a memo to the male religious teachers?
    17. Don't flirt with other women. Don't fool around either. If your wife does it, for sure you can't tolerate it, so why should your wife tolerate it if you do? Add a note on polygamy to that memo too.
    18. If you don't like a part of your wife's personality or behaviour, tell her kindly, don't shout. If you are sick and dying, who will take care of you? The baker? The grocer? Your neighbour? Well let's not make it all about your self-interest, again.
    19. If your wife doesn't look well, quickly bring her to the doctor. Do show that you care about her. Yes I would hope so! T_T
    20. Discuss with your wife before making a decision. Even though the husband has veto power, it doesn't make you a sissy to take your wife's opinions into consideration. The important thing is to be sensitive and mutually appreciative. Try to put aside excessive ego. It's not like it has any value when you are dead. While you try to not be sexist, don't be homophobic. 
    21. Learn about religion and guide your children and wife sincerely, as how the religion asks of you. Remember, if a husband goes to heaven, his wife is likely to go to heaven. If a husband goes to hell, his wife does not necessarily go to hell. If a wife goes to hell, her husband is likely to also go to hell, but if a wife goes to heaven, it doesn't mean that her husband will go to heaven too. I didn't make this up but I heard from a (male) religious teacher. Hey, I thought you weren't in cahoots with the male religious teachers?
    22. Try your best to maintain household harmony. Don't do something if your wife doesn't like it. Believe me, if a husband does good with his wife, his wife will repay him ten-fold. Sigh, see 18.
    23. Don't ignore your wife if she is sulking or his hurt. If you need to apologise, apologise. If she needs to be persuaded to stop sulking, do it. A woman's heart is sensitive. If we feel that our husbands don't care, it cuts deep. Husbands may see something as trivial but it can be like a cancer to wives. To husbands and men in general, don't trivialise emotional problems and women's feelings. Yeah, let's not make sulking and persuading a routine part of Malay communication. But kudos for constructing women as emotional beings and men as rational, you belong to the Renaissance.
    And Allah s.w.t. said “And Allah knows what is in your heart, so beware of Allah." (2:235)
    In other words, do good 'cos Big Brother's watching. 

    This is the crap that passes for marriage advice these days. I concede that this is better than most, but it just reminds me why I would rather walk on coals than listen to such advice, especially the religious kind found in  these marital guidance courses.

    "And you belong to him": Male guardianship in The Sound of Music.

    Over the Easter weekend, we went to Salzburg, Austria (and its surroundings) for a few days. I didn't realise that this city was the setting for the film 'The Sound of Music'! Having only learnt its songs and watched bits of it when I was young, I was so excited to watch the entire film in the hostel (which screens it every night without fail).

    Being single makes you happy! Source.

    The storyline is great: Maria, a trainee nun, is sent on 'God's errand' to be a governess to the 7 children of a naval captain. Along the way she falls in love with him, and (predictably) marries him.  Watching the full film after having studied sociology and gender studies (curses --  these have spoiled my joy of films!), I was amazed at the amount of gendering going on. But I guess the film was not meant to be otherwise.

    Besides the dichotomy of young, virgin, innocent Maria and the charming, dark, manipulative Baroness, I was most disturbed by this song that Maria sings with Liesl, the eldest von Trapp daughter:

    Where Maria suddenly forgets she belongs to God

    You are sixteen going on seventeen
    Waiting for life to start
    Somebody kind who touches your mind
    Will suddenly touch your heart

    When that happens, after it happens
    Nothing is quite the same
    Somehow I know I'll jump up and go
    If ever he calls my name

    Gone are your old ideas of life
    The old ideas grow dim
    Lo and behold you're someone's wife
    And you belong to him

     You may think this kind of adventure
    Never may come to you
    Darling sixteen going on seventeen
    Wait a year...or two

     What! This coming from a nun, who previously thought that loving a man would mean loving God less. Suddenly when she gets married she loses all those spiritual ideas and says that she belongs to a man?

    What I liked about that period was that being a nun was a legit way of living life as a single woman. Granted, you were subject to lots of rules, but you could still live by yourself and be considered more spiritual than the average person. (The b├ęguinages in the Low Countries in the 13th century were another legit way for women to live by themselves, without the rules of a spiritual order like the nuns.)

    The real Maria.
    Luckily, the real Maria von Trapp did not seem to espouse such ideas. The real Maria didn't want to marry Georg, the captain. According to her:
    "I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn't love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children. . . . I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after." 
    Sadly, no such idea exists in mainstream Islam. First, we belong to our fathers, then our husbands (as so aptly illustrated by a quote that is often mistaken as a hadith). We can help men become more spiritual (if we're the right kind of woman), but it's so difficult for us to be spiritual beings in the first place. Women are denied spiritual leadership in many, many cases, even if we have the qualifications.

     I still love The Sound of Music, but I think I'll just avoid this scene next time.


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