Terveisia Suomesta! (Greetings from Finland!) – Part 1

Metro station, Helsinki, Finland (photo: Jussi K. Niemela)
Metro station, Helsinki, Finland (photo: Jussi K. Niemela)

 Greetings from Helsinki, Finland!

A very short time ago, a Helsinki-based friend and I were exchanging emails over our shared frustrations. He was working hard to combat both Islamophobia and cultural relativism in his own progressive circles. I was surrounded by boxes in my furnitureless apartment, wondering how real positive change can happen when some of the most vocal ‘activists’ are often ruled more by their own megalomania than sincere concern for the human condition. Bummed, exhausted and uncharacteristically pessimistic, I desperately needed a boost.

It came in the form of an invitation to Finland. My friend told me that he was sure there was some way for us to not just host a dynamic seminar event, but also to enrich the already blossoming movement to protect Muslim women’s rights in Scandinavia. Within twenty-four hours, we had sponsors. Shortly thereafter, we had my red-eye plane tickets totaling 14 hours in transit. I borrowed some mittens and got on my way.

With the incredible Iivi Anna Masso
With the incredible Iivi Anna Masso

This is no money-making trip, and no media-mongering frenzy, though we’ve gotten lots of helpful coverage across Scandinavia. This is something so much better. Here, we are hosting seminars on freedom of religion, honor violence, female genital cutting, and immigration. At my request, we are also meeting with activists for children’s rights and working with the staff of an HIV/AIDS support center supporting mainly Somali refugees.

I’ll keep you posted throughout the trip. So far, I can tell you that I’m moved and inspired by the Finnish dedication to understanding, honesty, compassion and real support for the Muslims coming to their shores. People have been honest about that which they believe ails the Muslim community – but have also been seeking constructive solutions to better Muslim lives. That, my friends, should be how activism is conducted. Stay tuned!

***

PS: Check out these interesting documents from the Islamic Society of North America. ISNA hasn’t always gotten it right, but I think that these guides for imams are actually more constructive than many other leaflets meant to help individuals working with victims and survivors.

1 – Guidelines for imams working with victims and survivors of domestic violence

2 – Guidelines for imams working with abusive persons

Halal grocery, Helsinki (photo: Jussi K. Niemela)
Halal grocery, Helsinki (photo: Jussi K. Niemela)

Too little, too late for Sarah and Amina Said

For months before their father allegedly murdered them, Sarah and Amina Said confided in their friends about the threats he had made against their lives. Classmates remember the girls showing up to school with “welts and bruises”, getting in trouble for talking to non-Muslim boys and for acting “too Western.”

Despite these signs of danger, no one intervened before the girls were found dead in their father’s taxicab in Texas. Shot to death on New Year’s Day, the girls had already tried escaping when their father threatened them with a firearm earlier.

In December of 2007, the girls and their mother temporarily fled when their father, Yaser Said, was enraged to find out that the girls had non-Muslim boyfriends. They were lured back home by promises that no harm would come to them upon their return.

Now, the FBI is calling the murders a possible case of a double “honor killing” – making the deaths of Sarah and Amina Said the first time the FBI has used the term. The FBI’s recognition of honor killings is significant in at least one respect: understanding “honor” could help law enforcement officials better identify the motivation behind slayings like these.

But how does this help Sarah and Amina Said? Theoretically, understanding honor killings would increase community sensitivity about the kinds of threats the Said sisters were experiencing.

Unfortunately for Sarah and Amina, this is a case of too little, too late. While I believe that it is crucial for law enforcement officials at every level to understand cultural motivations for murder, it seems that the issue here was not that their community didn’t understand honor killings. The issue, rather, was relativism in the face of obvious abuse.

I’ve often called out the Muslim community for not doing enough about honor killings. This time, however, I take issue with my fellow Americans. A Muslim man may be to blame for the killings of Sarah and Amina Said – but it is not just his hands that are bloodied now. Indeed, those who knew of the danger the girls were in are guilty as well.

The girls arrived at school with welts and bruises. Friends and family knew that when Sarah and Amina said their father was “going to kill” them – it was very likely that he was serious. The girls’ non-Muslim family members now champion themselves as knowing “all along” that the girls would eventually be murdered by their father, and that it would in fact be an honor killing.

Whose “culture” is to blame this time? Texas law requires anyone who suspects that a child is being abused to report the case to the Department of Family and Protective Services. This document, on display where the girls attended school, provides the contact information necessary to anonymously report cases of child abuse. Further, according to both Texas law and the school policy, anyone who fails to report a possible case of child abuse is committing a crime.

So, what gives? It seems that everyone knew that the girls were in danger. They weren’t isolated from extended family – including non-Muslim relatives who were concerned about their father’s violence and railed against his “culture”. Why didn’t these informed individuals stop at nothing to get the girls out of there? It can’t be possible that any reasonable individual would call this a “cultural” or “family issue” and step aside.

Unless, of course, they were engaging the very worst of American culture: relativism. It got the best of us when communities and authorities called domestic violence a “private matter” and when we waited to intervene in Bosnia. It makes us lazy cowards when it tells us that we have no place in the conversation about female genital mutilation, even when it happens on our own soil. And now it’s cost Sarah and Amina their lives.

Many are ready to make “other” cultures out to be evil, dangerous or scary. But if we can’t take action to assist those in danger right here – it is our attitudes and our inaction that are dangerous and even deadly.

It is too late for Sarah and Amina. But it needn’t be too late for other young women in danger – if we recognize and heed our responsibility to help them. We have every resource before us and no reason to remain silent.

Take action:

* Learn about the International Campaign Against Honour Killings

* Check out the resources available in your area. If you’re in Maryland, a new Muslim women’s shelter has just opened.

* Find the right person to call by seeing lists like this one, provided by the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Jumu’ah dispatch #3 – Friday news updates

As always, Muslimah Media Watch brings us the latest in news from the Muslim world, focusing on women’s issues. Check out this week’s (very thorough) update. Some selections:

* Women have started a group called Sisters Against Violent Extremism. The idea? Courageous dialogue will not just transgress national boundaries – but mobilize women to make positive change. They’re redefining the conversation from Sri Lanka to New York. Stay updated by subscribing to their newsletter.

* If you’re already at the Women Without Borders website, you’ll see a link to Men for Change. They feel that “to be free means being equal in every way” – and they’re taking on issues from honor killings in Pakistan to domestic violence in the United States. Mashallah.

* Iran steps up threats against Shirin Ebadi.

* A community in Uganda has banned female genital cutting. Community leaders are petitioning the country’s government to ban the practice nationwide. They’re not waiting around for the United Nation’s goal to “significantly reduce” female genital cutting by 2015.

* A Muslim woman was brutally attacked on her campus in Chicago. This follows a string of anti-Muslim incidents at the school, including the vandalism of the young woman’s locker with hate speech.

Check out the rest of MMW’s weekly links here.