Progressive Muslim: nothing contradictory about it

with Yazmin, August 2008
Feisty Muslim females: with Yazmin, August 2008

I met Yazmin Khan on the set of Shariah TV this summer, when she turned to me and made a truly poignant commentary about something I had said. Following the taping, we skipped out to spend the afternoon discussing our experiences and the issues discussed on the show. We’ve kept in close contact since then, which has been a wonderful experience for me. She recently published an especially thoughtful blog post about how the term “progressive Muslim” often feels like an oxymoron.

I actually think her post helps to illustrate how this simply doesn’t have to be so. In fact, being “progressive” and being a Muslim are quite compatible. I’d also assert that Islam itself takes on human rights issues some vehemently anti-religious progressives shy away from. I’d further argue that when Muslims live up to the best of our faith, “progressive Muslim” almost becomes redundant.

An excerpt from Yazmin’s post:

“Being a woman within the framework of speaking about Islam and being Muslim is an incendiary position to be in. I find that speaking to other Muslims, my Islamic authenticity is challenged and questioned, as if believing in equal rights for all people, not supporting injustice of any kind and being pro-social justice makes my shahada (declaration of faith) less valid. People, including a coworker last week, will literally quiz me on the pillars of Islam or details regarding the proper way to pray or verses from the Quran that all Muslims must memorize in order to be able to pray. I find these interactions incredibly insulting and frustrating- I self identify as a Muslim, therefore I am.

… None of this faithful belief infringes on my ability to think that women should have control over their bodies always and under all conditions and that women deserve nothing short of reproductive justice and freedom- all the time, no matter what. That includes everything from access to abortion, birth control, family planning, right to marry or not marry as one chooses, the right to an education, the right to move freely where and with whomever and wherever a woman pleases, the right to work, the right to pursue any occupation, career or life path a woman might ever want, the right to love whomever she wants, and the right to protection against all forms of rape, genital mutilation, assault, harrasment, domestic violence, molestation, and any type of intimidation or coercion that puts any girls or women in any kind of danger.”

Read the rest here.

Muslim women don’t need your approval, but you can make yourself useful in our cause

What do you have against sheperds?
What do you have against sheperds?

Time to confess something to you: I’m more than a little disturbed by some of the responses to my post on the Pakistani Taliban’s threats to maim women with acid.

Talk about missing the point! I’ve received emails from seething white supremacists who want to annihilate all Muslims, angry feminists demanding that I remove my headscarf (funny, shouldn’t feminists be fighting for choice?! As a feminist, I fight for theirs!), not to mention verbose comments about “sheparding cultures breeding terrorists” – (wait, wasn’t Jesus “the good sheperd”?), etc etc etc. I even got a message from someone who felt the need to let me know how hideous he thinks I am. Thanks for the pointers, buddy. Now stop looking through my album before you get sick.

I’ll tell you right now – my gut reaction is not just shock at how people can completely overlook the point of something like this – not to mention how anyone can feel absolutely no mercy when it comes to the suffering of others. I’m also choking down a desire to tell individuals to quit wasting our collective time, save their herding commentaries and hit-lists for their own diaries and get back to us when they’ve decided how to help the world in a constructive way. A good many of us have work to do – take your hate and get out of our way. (And a tip for the would-be lynchers: your emails are traceable. D’OH!)

At the same time, I encourage open dialogue. So, other than some downright undigestable hate language, I let most comments go up over the weekend. I’m glad I did, because some positivity did come of it: I received notes from several of you looking for more ways to help Pakistan’s women. I also heard from contacts at the International Campaign Against Honour Killings that they experienced an increase in requests to join their mailing list. This is great news. I encourage more of you to support the work of the ICAHK. This is not a partisan issue. This is something all people of conscience must address.

Some contributors made excellent points:

* A writer from Malaysia reminded readers that Muslims are not the monolithic entity many would have us be;

* Several men decried violence against women, including one who wrote:

I, RJ as a man, personally condemn these horrible/terrible attacks on women for whatever purpose they have been done for, for whatever period of time these crimes will be carried out or have been carried out, whereever in this planet/realm they have been carried out, are being carried out or are being planned for the future. I respect the rights of women and their dignity not to conform to violent views of their sexual practices, morality ( including outlawing and punishing having sexual intercourse before marriage, having multiple partners and etc..), or other manufactured perceptions of their clothing, style and ethics. I personally use all my power and will to stop violence and lack of understanding that is used as a sword against women and their rights. And I from all of my hearts do call upon those in the know, those who lead the banks who support religious terrorism and extremism of whatever kind and also my very distant bloodline relatives, who like to think of themselves as in the minority to do something to stop this – since my example might not be enough. I was not picked by the Divine before I was even born to rule over others and to say to them what to do, but clearly I am not a peasant who will stand by the sidelines and watch one of the few pure sources of joy in my personal life be abused. Since harming women is harming me as a man.”

* Someone named Daoud brought a meaningful defense of Islam to the table – while also calling on Muslim leaders to take action. What do I mean? He didn’t just cite Qur’an and hadith, then stomp away indignantly. He also said:

“It is the role and responsibility of imams, shaykhs, scholars, and political and government figures to lead and give relevant advice to those they are responsible for for the time and situations we are living in. If they will not do this, then they are betrayers of their trust the consequences of which we see meted out to such as these poor women.

If people are genuinely concerned about these atrocities then they should be demanding that the appropriate authorities take appropriate action against the perpetrators – they often know which of the birarderi elders sanctioned these attacks. How about putting them in prison? How about putting the person who actually threw the acid in prison for a very long time? This would be quite acceptable under the Shariah, although the classical punishment would have been even more severe.

There is no tribalism in Islam (”la ‘asabiyyah fi-l Islam” ;) is a well-known hadith. “The best of you are the best of you to your womenfolk…” (akhyarukum akhyarukum li nisa’ikum… ;) is another.

* When confronted with hate, a Muslim woman wrote:

“Well, here’s the thing: there are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. If we were all terrorists, the world would have imploded years ago. The truth is that the majority of us are kind, normal people. The radicals, like the Taliban, Hamas, Al-Qaida etc etc are the ones doing all of the speaking through their actions.

I have said for a long time that it is time for moderate, peaceful believers in Islam to *speak up for ourselves* and say NOT in the name of Allah, of OUR God do you do these heinous things.”

Music to my ears.

* The post has been picked up by Impunity Watch. See their mention of it here, in an article by Managing Editor Lindsey Brady. The mission of Impunity Watch – housed at Syracuse University College of Law – is to “monitor and address horrific human rights abuses.”

* Someone else provided this link, to Pakistan’s Acid Survivor’s Foundation. They help survivors and work to end acid attacks. Their site also contains a list of actual ways you can help. Now that’s a useful contribution to the conversation. 

Finally, I received an email containing the story of Imrana, a survivor of sexual assault in India. When local authorities failed to produce a humane verdict in her case, Imrana, a Muslim, took her story elsewhere. Women’s groups mobilized to assist in her cause, and she’s inspired the formation of the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement. Spread over 13 states in India, with over 2,000 members, these women don’t need the approval of clerics (or racist wingnuts on the internet) to go after their God-given rights. They know that Islam gives them these freedoms. You go, sisters.

****

 “The most perfect man of religion is he who excels in character. The best among you is he who gives the best treatment to his womenfolk.”

The Prophet Muhammad, as narrated by Al-Tirmidhi

Pakistani Taliban: wear hijab, or be disfigured

Good news: Congratulations to The Hijab Blog and Hijab Style on their feature story in the Toronto Star. I’m excited about the additional coverage being given to women who are pushing the envelope. In challenging expectations about Muslim women, they’re not only educating the West – but also empowering Muslim women worldwide.

Think their work is all superficial? You’d be wrong. Many women – including a hefty number of Western feminists – refuse to openly condemn human rights abuses that have some sort of “cultural” underpinning. Even if the excuse of culture is obviously rubbish. Many of them don’t have the guts. Imaan of The Hijab Blog does. She is “infuriated” about what I’m about to share with you – and I am too. 

Very, very bad news: Yesterday, the Pakistani unit of the Taliban announced not only that it demands “unislamic” businesses to close (CD shops, cable service providers and internet cafes) – they also warned women that they have 15 days to start wearing hijab – or have their faces maimed with acid. These guys claim to be out to destroy the “traitors of Allah” – while they go against every Qur’anic command to respect human rights.

Disfiguring women’s faces with acid has a long, scary history. See this story about women being burned in Kashmir, this account of acid burning in Pakistan, not to mention Bangladesh, Uganda, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia, the UK, Turkey, Colombia, Thailand, and the United States.

In some cases, like this one in London, acid is used to destroy DNA evidence after a woman has already been brutalized by rape.

While acid attacks do happen most frequently in Muslim-majority countries, this crisis doesn’t plague Muslims alone. It is vitally important to understand just how widespread these kinds of attacks are.

These acts can do much more than maim someone’s physical appearance. Blindness, loss of speech and even death can result. Many, after losing significant amounts of skin, are unable to survive the infections that ravage their bodies after an acid attack.

UNICEF once reported a story about a baby girl whose father poured acid into her mouth because she was not the boy he wanted his wife to bring into the world. She grew up unable to speak or hear.

Receiving the threat of an acid attack is alarming – but to see the pervasiveness of this horror is petrifying.

Now, an acid-maiming campaign is being launched – openly – against Pakistani women. Unlike when communities have been taken by surprise, the Pakistani Taliban has stated their gruesome, disgusting mission publicly. We cannot claim shock this time around.

BBC)
Kamilat Mehdi, Ethiopia (photo: BBC)

What can you do?

* Get involved with groups like the International Campaign Against Honour Killings. Acid attacks are often used in instances where a woman is seen has having “dishonored” her family, community, or religion. The ICAHK works against this brutality.

* Learn more from Amnesty International, and join their campaign to protect women’s rights.

* Educate yourself and take action. Start by watching videos like this in their entirety, and learn about the organizations you can become involved with. An example is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which releases yearly reports on violence against women.

We cannot claim ignorance or justify inaction.

Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)
Asha, India (photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)