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.

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.

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)

News updates from the Muslim world

As always, Muslimah Media Watch keeps us aware of the latest…

* Eight women and a man face stoning for “adultery” (quotations mine)

My assertion: the Guardian would be wise to reconsider that headline. Those sold into sexual slavery are not committing adultery. Regardless of what the charges are, the Guardian is validating barbarism by calling it anything less than such in their headline.

* Yemeni feminists clash with “moral police”

* Latest on sexual harassment in Egypt

I choose to wear hijab, but not because I think it protects me from men’s eyes. I have lived through too much to buy into that reasoning. Some women have experienced life in such a way that they do feel protected by their hijab – and that’s great. There are several valid reasons to wear hijab, but above all: we must recognize that women are in danger regardless of how modestly – or how skimpily – they dress. Muhajabah sisters and others: your thoughts?

* In Saudi, a 60-year old creep “wins” a 10-year old girl in a bet with her father

Alhamdulillah, the Saudi Human Rights Council is doing something about it.

US Government: profiling a-ok?

The Justice Department is considering letting the FBI investigate Americans without any evidence of wrongdoing, ABC reports.


Currently, or on the books, at least- something called evidence (go figure!) is needed to open an investigation of suspected terrorist activity.

Intensive investigation – wiretapping, bank record tracking – wouldn’t be permitted until an official investigation is opened. However, traits considered “suspect” – race, ethnicity, jobs related to religion, travel to “terrorist” countries – would all be considered legitimate reasons to conduct open-ended questioning of and about a person.


Now, the proposed regulations would include some things that make sense: for example, I have no objection to those who have atypical access to weaponry and who have obtained training in combat being investigated. That would presumably include all kinds of people – including domestic, white supremacist militias, right? But legitimizing the investigation of a particular racial or ethnic group without evidence or reason?

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse assures us that the changes wouldn’t give the FBI more authority than it now has. He says: “Any review and change to the guidelines will reflect our traditional concerns for civil liberties and First Amendment liberties.”

This statement is nothing short of an insult to the intelligence of regular people everywhere.

First of all, how this doesn’t give the FBI more authority than it already has, I’m not sure. It’s quite clear that things that were not permissible before will now become permissible. Therefore, greater authority would absolutely be granted. If that were not the case, why would these proceedings be happening at all?

The fundamentally American idea that we are “innocent until proven guilty” flies out the window with this one. Absolutely no suspicion of actual wrongdoing would be necessary to open questioning on an individual. While the United States regularly criticizes other governments for unfairly targeting groups of people – this very tactic would be employed to ‘protect our democracy’. It seems that our government lacks the awareness to see the flagrantly hypocritical nature of its own practices.


Yes, I recognize that in many places in the world I’d be jailed – even killed – for writing this very blog entry. I owe the United States an enormous debt of gratitude for the liberties I enjoy. So, to mark America’s birthday this weekend, I’m exercising the very liberty that makes us a great democracy: dissent.

Dissent is what won the United States its freedom. May it also be what leads Americans to tell our government that we will not stand for paranoid, racist regulations like the ones being proposed now. Demanding that every American be seen as equal – regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or national extraction – is the most American thing we can do.


Faith and reason – let me know what you think

 “Faith is more than my guiding light. It is my kinetic energy.”

  – Helen Keller

 I recently attended an event and panel discussion on Islam. All panelists were people active in movements for human rights.

Something about the panel struck me immediately: there were no women on it who identified as practicing Muslims. In fact, there was only one woman on the panel at all. She certainly had valuable things to say, and I appreciated her perspective.

Unfortunately, though, no effort was made (that I know of) to include the voices of believing women on the panel. While the event was enlightening and positive overall, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by what I felt to be a conspicuous void in the conversation. While the men on the panel represented various levels of belief, there was no diversity when it came to women’s voices.

The implications of situations like these are, I think, grave. The fact of the matter is this: the panel was worthwhile, the sponsoring organization sincere in their mission, and the participants all passionate and intelligent people. However, what is the unspoken message when believing women are excluded from conversations about human rights, reason, and justice within Islam?

I trust you’ll all tell me if I’ve just gotten too caught up in the “politics of representing”. However, to me, the unspoken message – unintentional as it may have been – was that Muslim women aren’t inclined – or outspoken enough – to engage in public dialogues about human rights and our faith. Even when progressive viewpoints are presented, the silencing of the female Muslim voice reinforces the stereotype that women of faith are passive and not engaged with the relevant issues of our time.

I know this stereotype to be false; and I’m almost positive that the panel’s organizers would agree with me.

If it weren’t for my faith, I know I could not maintain my resolve through the trials of daily life. I know the same is true for countless Muslim women.

So, my question is this: how do Muslim women ensure that our voices are front and center in conversations like the one I attended? How do we demand that we are not ignored, even by those who claim to be interested in working for our rights?

“If anyone says, `Why have you included Rabia [often called Islam’s first female saint] in the rank of men?’, my answer is that the Prophet himself said: `God does not regard your outward forms’. The root of the matter is not form, but intention, as the Prophet said.” – Farid-ud-Din Attar, Tazkirat al-Auliya