“Those who commit acts of violence in the name of religion often also have a history of abuse of women” – my interview with Margarida Santos-Lopes for Expresso (Portugal) now in English

Margarida Santos Lopes interviewed me for the Portuguese weekly “Expresso” in June, following the horrific attack on the Pulse nightclub. It is now available in English, posted below (you can also read it on her blog, here).  To read the full article in Portuguese, click here.

 
“Those who commit acts of violence in the name of religion often also have a history of abuse of women” – by Margarida Santos Lopes

Raquel Evita Saraswati is an American Muslim activist who focuses primarily on issues related to the status of women and girls in Muslim-majority societies and communities. She is also a member of the steering committee of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD). She gave me this interview a few days after Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others inside the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, on June 12. This massacre was considered the deadliest incident of violence against LGTBQ people in U.S. history, and the deadliest terrorist attack in America since 9/11.

What was your initial rea­­­ction when you heard about the dreadful massacre in Orlando? 

I initially heard reports of a shooting in a nightclub and was saddened but not shocked – we continue to have a problem with gun violence in the United States, and nightclubs are certainly not immune. When I heard that there were twenty victims, I knew something was different.

Then the news came that there were nearly fifty victims, and that the act was potentially carried out by someone who claimed my faith. At first, all I could do was cry. Out of sadness for the victims, the horror of their last hours, and the pain of their community.

I received a phone call from a friend – someone who is like a brother to me – checking to see if I was ok and calling to coordinate a response. I spent most of that terrible day in tears. At the same time, I was aware that this would initiate a national conversation, expose tensions between communities, and add petrol to an already noxious political climate. I was devastated and frightened.

How do you assess the events – terrorism/religious fanaticism, self-hating, addiction to violence (he allegedly abused his ex-wife, idolized the NYPD, worked for a security company…), easy access to guns…?

As someone who has looked closely at these issues for over a decade, the narrative surrounding Omar Mateen comes as no surprise. I have for years been drawing the connection between misogyny and extremist ideology, noting that those who commit acts of violence in the name of religion often also have a history of violence against and abuse of women.

Even now, the only reason we are talking about Omar Mateen’s history of domestic violence is because he ultimately killed [almost] fifty people – and the discussion of his misogyny has been but a brief footnote. Further, it is also true that many of those who endorse radical extremism, as well as those who carry out the acts, often have a history of indulging in the very acts their radical ideology condemns.

Radicals recruit these individuals with the promise of salvation in exchange for their full membership in what is ultimately a cult. It is my view that if there were more conversations about this, we could understand and counter radical ideology well before blood is spilled.

However, it is simply true that the lives of girls, women, and LGBTQ people are valued less in our society than the lives of those who would seek to oppress us. Thus, these conversations are not had, signs are missed, lives are lost – and the media and politicians pull out the same cue cards they use after every massacre – “we are shocked” – “what were the signs?” – etc., and the same five self-appointed experts are invited to comment, offering nothing useful to say.

The attack revived a perception of “Islamic homophobia”, not only in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran – where gays have been subject to imprisonment, corporal punishing or even death penalty -, but also in the American Muslim community. Is this perception right and how do you explain it? What should be done to change it? 

I do not believe that my faith is homophobic, but unfortunately there is rampant homophobia within my community.

Following the Orlando attacks, self-appointed “representatives” of the Muslim community rushed to condemn it, and some even feigned support for the LGBTQ community. These individuals are leaders of the very organizations who host “scholars” and preachers who believe LGBTQ people are sick, criminal, and worthy of death.

As tragic and disgusting as this past week has been, it has caused many to see through the charade. It also now provides us with an opportunity to hold these individuals and organizations accountable once the cameras and microphones are off, and to demand that they live up to the words they uttered for the press.

In addition to holding these organizations accountable, we must fight with urgency the rise of far-right fascism and the ignorance that tells us that identities like LGBTQ and Muslim are mutually exclusive. They are not. There are many of us living at the complicated and at times deeply painful intersection of these identities.

Further, it is worth noting that some of the conservative voices who have used this opportunity to condemn Muslims and Islam for homophobia themselves support measures to restrict the rights of LGBT people. Some of these individuals and groups in the United States even support murderous policies – such as the notorious “Kill the Gays Bill” in places like Uganda. We must also demand accountability from these individuals and groups, and let them know that we are not fooled.

Scholar Mehammed Amadeus Mack writes in Newsweek: “The word homosexual does not appear anywhere in the Koran, and indeed it couldn’t, because the word is an invention of the late 19th century, when medical societies in Europe tried to place groups of people who took part in similar sex acts under a common category, which they then labeled ‘homosexuality.’ Later on, the community of people pathologized by this term rallied together under the term of their persecution and began to demand recognition, equality and, finally, rights.” What is your opinion? 

It is true that the word “homosexual” does not appear in the Quran. Indeed, it has been interpreted that the Quranic story most often used to condemn LGBTQ people – the story of Lot – is not about same-sex attraction, but about a people cursed for their violence – including sexual violence – and other forms of cruelty and abuse. The fact is that interpretations of the Quran based in what we believe to be the nature of God – merciful and compassionate – DO exist.

It is also true that these interpretations are theologically sound. They are not fringe or un-Islamic. They have, however, been pushed to the margins and made difficult to access. This has been done by those within our community who have malignant and political intentions; and by governments who continue to ally and exchange favors with the very regimes who murder people like me – women and LGBTQ people especially.

Saudi Arabia condemned the attack in Orlando – why? Because gays were shot rather than beheaded? Because it was in a private establishment rather than in a town square? And then Barack Obama rushed to meet with Saudi leadership. This would be a joke if it weren’t so dangerous.

How do you characterize the Muslim American community and the LGBT Muslim American community? At to what extent what happened in Orlando will influence them? 

Both communities are diverse; and while they hold political and social power to some degree, are also marginalized. The attacks in Orlando provide an opportunity for each community to reposition itself as a stakeholder in the conversation about today’s political and social climates.

How this is done, and with what level of integrity and consistency, is what we will come to see. It is absolutely true that both communities have been and will continue to be pushed into the national spotlight. I continue to hope for and advocate for accountability from those in positions of power, though that hope is currently hard to come by.

You belong to the steering committee of an association for gender equality. Can you give us some information on its work? And also on your other roles as a human rights activist? 

The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) was founded in 2013 following the dissolution of al-Fatiha, an organization many of us were involved with. The mission statement of MASGD is as follows:

“The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) works to support, empower and connect LGBTQ Muslims. We seek to challenge root causes of oppression, including misogyny and xenophobia. We aim to increase the acceptance of gender and sexual diversity within Muslim communities, and to promote a progressive understanding of Islam that is centered on inclusion, justice, and equality.” We host a retreat for LGBTQ Muslims each May.

My own personal work outside of MASGD is focused primarily on the rights of women, girls and minorities in Muslim-majority societies and communities. I work to combat various forms of gender-based violence, and while I absolutely do this work outside of my faith community, my primary focus is my community. I work to combat honor-based violence, forced and child marriage, and female genital mutilation (FGM), as well as other violations of human rights and decency.

Would you share with us some personal info on what does it mean to be a Muslim woman in America, and what impact did the Orlando massacre had in your daily life?

In the past week, I’ve been harassed on the street – first called a “stupid terrorist [expletive]” by a non-Muslim man who pushed me in the street; and by a Muslim man who screamed at me, accusing me of apostasy.

While these examples are extreme, they are true – and they encapsulate perfectly what it’s like to be a Muslim woman who wears the hijab and advocates for universal human rights. Because I exist at the intersection of Muslim womanhood and the LGBTQ experience, the past week and a half has been especially raw and painful.

It must be said, however, that many people have been incredibly loving, and that there is great power, beauty, and strength in my communities. I would not sacrifice who I am for any price or promise of ease. I choose instead to live in love, working for our full liberation.

Extracts from this interview were included in an article published in the Portuguese news weekly EXPRESSO on June 25, 2016

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The Price of Honor: documentary on the killings of Sarah and Amina Said

With filmmaker Xoel Pamos
With filmmaker Xoel Pamos

Sarah and Amina Said were murdered by their father, Yaser Abdel Said, in Texas on January 1, 2008. Yaser Said is still at large, and remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

If you’ve followed my work or heard me speak, you know that I care very much about this case and have done everything in my power to bring Yaser Said to justice.

I am immensely proud, then, to share with you what I believe to be the product of the most important work on this case to date: filmmakers Neena Nejad and Xoel Pamos have produced a stunning documentary, “The Price of Honor,” which brings to light the truth about the murder of Sarah and Amina Said – and the details will rattle you to your core.

I have had the pleasure of getting to know Neena and Xoel, and sharing with them a deep a commitment to keeping the memory of Sarah and Amina alive as well as to finding Yaser Said. Their tireless, brave, and incredible work has done more to resolve this case than anyone or any entity has.

Their film, The Price of Honor, will be released next month. Here is the trailer, which I encourage you to watch:

Below is the press release for the film, as well as the synopsis. Please feel free to distribute widely, and join us on Twitter using #CatchYaserNow.

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Documentary on “Honor Killings” of Lewisville’s

Amina & Sarah Said Premieres Sept. 7 in Dallas

 

THE PRICE OF HONOR Film Aims to Bring the Alleged Murderer/Father to Justice

 

DALLAS, TEXAS – August 6, 2014 – The world premiere for “The Price of Honor” documentary film will take place at the Lakewood Theater in Dallas on Sunday, September 7, 2014, at 6:00 pm.

The film tells the story of Amina and Sarah Said, two teenage sisters from Lewisville, Texas, who were murdered by their own father Yaser Said in a so-called “honor killing” in Irving, Texas in 2008.

Directed by Neena Nejad and Xoel Pamos, “The Price of Honor” reveals new details and evidence about the case that have never before been made public, including a secret plan that Amina had to protect the love of her life, and a previous murder Yaser committed overseas that was covered up and never punished.

“Amina left behind a treasure trove of secrets critical to convicting her father of her murder that no one had explored until we started investigating,” says Pamos. “In her own words, through letters, emails and diary entries, she answered almost every question we had about this disturbing case.”

Yaser Said, who fled the crime scene, is still at large and remains on the FBI Most Wanted List. The film analyzes and discredits the theory of Yaser having fled to his native Egypt. “Our findings lead us to believe he is hiding in plain sight in the U.S.,” says Nejad.

The film is instrumental in a movement to bring this cold case back to the spotlight, increase the $30,000 reward that is currently being offered for tips leading to Yaser’s conviction, and bring awareness that “honor violence” has spread to the United States. The filmmakers also hope the exposure of law enforcement’s mismanagement of this case will raise the bar for how honor violence is handled by police in the U.S. henceforth.

An “honor killing” is the act in which a family member, usually a female, is murdered by another member, usually a male, for disobedience, promiscuity, being raped or other transgressions of cultural norms in the traditional societies of the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, North Africa and immigrant communities worldwide. They are called “honor killings” because the murder is an attempt to salvage the family honor that has been supposedly disgraced by the offending family member. An estimated 20,000 women and girls are victims of this practice every year. Many perpetrators get away with their crimes because of weak laws and strong traditions where these happen.

The world premiere event for “The Price of Honor” will feature the almost two-hour documentary film, followed by a Q&A session with the filmmakers, including Consulting Producer and Dallas native Amy Logan, and the appearance of some special guests who will discuss the film and honor violence in depth. Unlike other film premieres, the producers have decided to make it a public event, in consideration of friends of the sisters who would like to attend.

“We wanted to make sure that anybody who knew and cared about Amina and Sarah have the opportunity to be part of this event, said Producer Sogol Tehranizadeh. “I know it is painful to go back and remember, but we hope our film will bring them some closure.”

The film is anticipated to have distribution nationwide and will hit the most important film festivals.

Smart Lips Productions strives to create intimate films that leave viewers with a renewed sense of self, an increased awareness of important issues, and most of all, the inspiration to take action.

Tickets to the world premiere in Dallas may be purchased at: http://www.thepriceofhonorfilm.com

Press passes available under request: info@smartlipsproductions.com

For more information about this film visit:

Official website: http://www.thepriceofhonorfilm.com

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/thepriceofhonor

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/tpohfilm

 

PRESS-KIT: Download a full press kit here:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/q3kdp3lk8d4x2dg/TPOH%20Media%20Kit.zip

 

SYNOPSIS: The Price of Honor is a documentary film about the murders of Amina and Sarah Said, teenage sisters from Lewisville, Texas, who were killed in a premeditated “honor killing” in 2008. The film shows the lives of the sisters and the path to their eventual murders by their own father, Yaser Said, who fled the crime scene and remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.

 

The film reveals new details and uncovers evidence about the case that has never before been made public, including a previous murder committed by Yaser, and the ultimate sacrifice of Amina Said, who had a secret plan to protect the love of her life. Her words, through emails, letters and diary entries, become the voice of the film and change much of what has heretofore been assumed about this case. Despite the tragedy, viewers will learn of an incredible love story that still has life after death.

 

Friends, family members, experts and activists against “honor violence” emotionally guide viewers through the girls’ lives and deaths, in the process launching a movement to bring Yaser Said to justice. The Price of Honor discredits the prevailing theory that Yaser fled to his native Egypt after shooting his daughters, instead proposing that he is in hiding in the U.S.

 

The film’s additional mission is to bring awareness to this international issue of honor violence, expose law enforcement’s mismanagement of the Said case, and raise the bar for how honor violence is handled by police in the U.S. henceforth.

 

Leyla Hussein, champion against FGM and for women and girls

Remember 17-year old Fahma Mohamed, mentioned here, who has organized some 100 youth to fight FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) in the UK through rap and education?

 

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Leyla Hussein (photo: Washington Post)

Also hailing from the UK is Leyla Hussein, who is spearheading efforts to raise awareness about the practice and work against it in the United Kingdom. Another amazing hero of our time. Learn more about Leyla’s work here.

“FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, usually with a knife or razor blade and often without anaesthetic. In its most severe form — Type 3 — the vaginal opening is sewn almost entirely shut. In addition to the psychological trauma, women can experience urinary infections, menstrual problems, infertility and even death.”

Congratulations to two wonderful friends

Last year, two very dear friends asked me to officiate their nikah, or Islamic wedding ceremony. It was a tremendous honor to do so. This blog post contains the entire khutbah (sermon) I gave plus the nikah ceremony. I post this here  in celebration and honor of their first year of marriage – and to many more!

Me officiating Yazmin and Patrick's nikah
Me officiating Yazmin and Patrick’s nikah

Bismillah ir rahman ir rahim: we gather here today in the name of God, the most gracious and most merciful.

Dearest family and friends: thank you so much for being here to celebrate the union of this incredible couple.

Yazmin and Patrick chose each of you to be here because of the important contributions you have made to their lives.

Your presence here is a great blessing, and I know each of us is thrilled to see Yazmin and Patrick declare publicly what they know already: that their love is enduring, powerful, and sustaining.

The Quran, Islam’s holy book, tells us that God intentionally created the “diversity of our tongues and colors,” making us people of many nations and tribes, so that we might come to know one another. This marriage is infinitely blessed by the coming together of two very different families, who are here today to express their love for Yazmin and Patrick and their support of this marriage, as well as their commitment to know one another, trust one another, and love one another as family. This wedding doesn’t just bring together a couple.  It also brings together this couple’s most important source of strength after their faith in God and their love for one another: all of us gathered here today. Having met many of you this weekend, and after sharing a wonderful evening together last night, I have no doubt that Yazmin and Patrick’s marriage is uniquely blessed by love beyond measure.

It is my great honor to preside over Yazmin and Patrick’s nikah, or Islamic wedding ceremony. I realize that for some, this is your first Muslim wedding. Perhaps for all of you, it is the first with a woman presiding. Whatever your faith, and wherever you are on your own path to truth, we are honored to have you here and ask that, in the words of Rumi – you come whoever you are, as you are. One of the many wonderful things about today is that the values Yazmin and Patrick share – including a steadfast commitment to equality, justice and meaningful diversity – are evident in every aspect of this ceremony and this weekend’s celebrations. As the nikah is the public declaration of a couple’s commitment to share a life together, there is something especially beautiful about how Yazmin and Patrick are expressing their values today.

The nikah ceremony is very simple: it consists of a short sermon, followed by the bride and groom each confirming, in the presence of two witnesses, that they accept one another in marriage. The bride and groom then sign a marriage contract, which details their responsibilities to one another and serves as a record of their union.

One of the requirements of the nikah is that the khutbah, or sermon, be based on verses of the Quran dealing with “taqwa,” or “awareness of God…God consciousness.” It is hard to imagine what could possibly bring one greater awareness of God’s presence on Earth than the love He places between two people – especially when that love drives them to promise one another a lifetime of partnership based on compassion, trust, and the constant quest for mutual understanding.

The Quran speaks of many signs sent by God to His people, as messages of His omnipotence and love for His creation. One of these signs is the coming together of two people in love. He says: “by one of His signs, He created you from dust, and now you are human beings spread over the earth….by another sign He created for you mates from among yourselves, so that you may incline toward them, and He has placed love and tenderness between you.” (30:21)

This verse speaks of being drawn to one’s spouse as something divinely inspired, and so thought out by God that even the slightest feeling of tenderness is His work. Patrick, the look I saw on your face as you watched Yazmin practice her walk down the aisle yesterday; and Yazmin, the light in your eyes when you speak of Patrick – these are each moments of Allah working through you, drawing you closer together in order to strengthen you on your individual and shared paths.

Patrick, I only met you in person just yesterday, and your kindness, attentiveness, warmth and quick humor are immediately apparent. It is obvious to see why you and Yazmin once knew one another as friends. It is my having met you through Yazmin’s words about you, however (from excited text messages, blackberry messenger conversations in the middle of the night, and hours of talking over sushi), as well as the growth I’ve seen in her as a person – – – that have made it so obvious why your long friendship turned into a lifelong love. Roughly a month ago, Yazmin came to meet me for one of our marathon chats – and I remember very vividly the sight of her walking over to the table, sitting down, and glowing with a peace and incredible joy I had never seen in her before. While Yazmin has always been someone who celebrates life and cultivates joy whatever her circumstances, to say that she seemed to be a changed woman does not feel the least like an overstatement. For the next several hours, she told me how deeply loved, supported and safe she feels with you; and that, quite simply, she didn’t realize that she could ever feel the way you make her feel. She has found in you the person God created for her. The Quran tells us that when we find our lifelong mate, that that person is our garment – our cloak and our comfort, as we are theirs. (Quran 2:187.) It is clear to me – and I believe to all of us who know Yazmin – that you are the one who was sent to be her cloak and comfort, and she yours. In marriage, you will hold and protect one another through every difficulty and every joy.

Garments of course do not only protect us from the elements – they also adorn us. The beauty of your love has already begun to do the same: you both embody the joy that Allah has placed in your hearts when He brought you together. As each of you accomplishes your individual goals, and as you work toward and achieve mutual ones, your pride in and appreciation for one another will serve as witness to the love and devotion between you.

Yazmin, my friend and soul sister: I join your family and friends in being awestruck at your resilience, conviction, and beauty of spirit. We have all had the incredible gift of your support, grace, humor and strength, which have all enriched our lives in ways so great, they are impossible to quantify.

The Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah (peace and blessings be upon them both), was much like you: she was a strong, self-made woman. She was deeply connected to her family, and bold enough to have run an empire. In fact, it was she who proposed marriage to Muhammad, who was a younger man. Like you, she was a force to be reckoned with. In breaking with expected conventions, she raised not just herself in honest conviction, but the entire ummah – or community of believers. When those around her were unsure of their path, she asked them only to speak their truth. Indeed, she was the first to comfort Muhammad when his revelations filled his heart with fear; asking of him: “Hast thou not been loving to thy kinsfolk, kind to thy neighbours, charitable to the poor, hospitable to the stranger, faithful to thy word, and ever a defender of the truth?”

Muhammad spoke of Khadijah in this way: “she hailed my mission when everyone else shouted against it. She lent me the support of her conviction when there was hardly a believer. She enlivened my heart when I felt lonely and deserted…she believed in me when all others disbelieved; she held me truthful when all others called me a liar. She sheltered me when others abandoned me; she comforted me when others shunned me. Khadijah was sent to me by Allah.”

Yazmin, you have done all of these things for your family and friends. You have been ever true, ever loving, and ever compassionate, and always brave. We know that as you have shared your love and truth with us, you will share it in an even greater, more profound way with Patrick.

Your responsibilities to one another are vast, the greatest of which is to remember that in both joy and sorrow, you are, as the Quran says, “created of a single soul” (4:1), meant to love and protect one another. One of the great blessings of a truly Islamic marriage is the harmony in which men and women are intended to live. While the Quran speaks of “husbands,” and “wives,” the word “mate” or “spouse” is not gendered within the text even if it is being used to refer specifically to the husband or the wife. This indicates that both genders, while different, share the same role in protecting, valuing, and loving one another. The Quran also says that whether one is male or female, men and women are “members of one another” and “spiritually akin to one another” (3:195). In his final sermon, the Prophet Muhammad told believers that yes, husbands have certain rights with regard to their wives, but reminded his community that women also have rights over their husbands (and yes, he chose the word “over”). He reminded men that women are partners and helpers, entitled to be fed and clothed in kindness; and reminded women to remain true to their spouses. In this final message, he reminded Muslims that nothing is legitimately theirs unless it is given to them freely and willingly, without compulsion and free of injustice. The same is true for one’s heart and body in marriage: Yazmin and Patrick’s marriage will be a blessed one because they come together willingly and freely, rejecting inequity and injustice, and striving only for sincere love, mutual respect, and unfailing mercy.

Yazmin, may you continue to live the boldness and bravery of Khadijah, the always curious and questioning nature of Aishah, who became one of Islam’s earliest and most trusted teachers; may you continue loving God and your fellow man in the way of Rabia – never out of fear or compulsion, but always for the sake of God’s beauty, relentlessly seeking truth and light.

Patrick, may you continue to live with Muhammad’s mercy and strength as your example; the perseverance of Musa (Moses) as a source of resilience; and the passion, reason, and conviction of Ibn Rusd – known in the West as Averroes, as your guide.

May you both remain on this journey together, committed to loving one another, challenging one another to grow in love, honesty, and courage; addressing one another always from a place of mercy, remembering the words of Persian poet Hafiz: “There is only one reason we have followed God into this world: To encourage laughter, freedom, dance and love.” We believe in you, and you have renewed belief within each of us. May Allah bless and keep you always, using your love as an example of His work on earth. We love you, and cannot wait to see you take on the world together. Ameen.

Islam requires that two witnesses be present when the bride and groom sign their nikah contract. Could the witnesses please join us onstage now?

I will now ask the bride and groom to confirm that they accept one another in marriage. I will speak first in Arabic, then in English, so I ask Yazmin and Patrick to wait until I ask them to respond and repeat after me, so that all have the benefit of understanding the agreement they are making.

RAQUEL: Yasmeen, hal taqbali Patrick Zawjan laki?

Yazmin, do you offer your consent and accept Patrick as your spouse? If you do, please repeat after me: Na’am qabilt

YAZMIN: Na’am qabilt

RAQUEL: Patrick, hal tuwa’afiq alaal mahur al mu’aayan wa taqbal Yasmeen zawjan laka?

Patrick, do you, having agreed to provide Yazmin with a marriage gift, accept her as your spouse? If you do, please repeat after me: Na’am qabilt.

PATRICK: Na’am qabilt.

I will now ask our witnesses to confirm that they have heard and understood Yazmin and Patrick’s agreement to be joined in marriage. I will speak first in Arabic, then in English, so I ask the witnesses to wait until I ask them to respond and repeat after me, so that all have the benefit of understanding the questions and responses.

RAQUEL, turning to Yazmin’s uncle: “Hal tashadu ma aqaadna?”

Are you a witness to this declaration? If so, please say, “Na’am.”

YAZMIN’S UNCLE: “Na’am.”

RAQUEL, turning to Yazmin’s uncle: “Hal tashadu ma aqaadna?”

Are you a witness to this declaration? If so, please say, “Na’am.”

YAZMIN’S UNCLE: “Na’am.”

Yazmin and Patrick sign nikah contract.

Witnesses sign over their shoulders.

RAQUEL: Al aan, wifqan li-shiaa’ir wilayit XX, wa deen al Islam, bi idnilah, ashadu bi annani qad atmamtu aqd an nikah bayna Patrick wa Yasmeen.

Barak allahu laka wa baraka laya wa jama’a baynakuma bikhayr.

I now testify, that by the laws of the state of XX, and also by God’s will, according to the laws of faith of Islam, you are wedded to one another. May Allah bless you, and have His blessings descend upon you, uniting you in goodness.

Witnesses may leave the stage.

The bride and me doing a little makeup shopping on the eve of her wedding (I not only did the nikah, but also her makeup - LOL!)
The bride and me doing a little makeup shopping on the eve of her wedding (I not only did the nikah, but also her makeup – LOL!)

Aquila Style is now tablet-only

Aquila Style, the magazine for cosmopolitan Muslim women, has moved from a print magazine to publishing for tablets only. I’ve written for their online and print editions before, but have published several new articles for their tablet-based magazine – including an article on Khawlah bint al-Azwar and another on Moroccan feminist (and legend!) Fatima Mernissi.

So, head on over to Aquila Style and subscribe today. (And remember to follow them on Twitter. I’m there too!)

Islam’s new Kartinis – March: Valerie Khan Yusufzai, chair, Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan

Dear readers,

Welcome to the “Islam’s new Kartinis” series! As explained in my last post, this column – originally published at MarcGopin.com – will focus on Muslim women from around the world who work to bring positive incremental change to their communities and beyond. This month, we’re featuring Valerie Khan Yusufzai, chairperson of the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan.

Valerie Khan Yusufzai speaks publicly about acid violence
Valerie Khan Yusufzai speaks publicly about acid violence

 Raquel: Have you always been interested in human rights work?

Valerie:  I grew up in a family where the ideas of freedom, thoughtfulness and fighting for what you believe is right were very much present. My great-grandparents resisted against the Germans in the First World War. My great-grandfather even received the Legion D’Honneur for excellent military conduct. This is the highest distinction for a French soldier. My grandfather, at age 19, joined the clandestine French forces to fight the Nazis during the Second World War.  His legacy is a gift to me – a reminder of the absolute necessity of fighting for human rights and enlightened values in the face of tyranny.

Since my youth, I not only understood but felt that we all had a role to play in producing a better society. A few of the first books that I remember as a child – given to me by my mother – were books about the religions of the world, a cartoon book about French history with the declaration of human rights as a preamble, and a book explaining the miracle of human reproduction.  I was also taught the value of human rights through enlightened French philosophers of the 18th century like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot.  I think I gained a deep respect for human beings through all of these readings.

Later, when I joined a Catholic private school at the age of 12, I discovered the simple happiness of providing help and support. I started my “social work” as a volunteer at the age of 11 and have never stopped.

Raquel:  What brought you to work with acid attack survivors in particular? 

Valerie:  I was blessed with a passionate but occasionally very difficult life. I have never forgotten those who have been there to support me through life’s challenges. I also remember the rare moments when I was not as well supported.  Those difficult times further motivated me to always be a support for others.

I believe in the cycle and process of learning. I believe our experiences are meant to teach us how to move forward and be better to one another.  Often, society tries to dehumanize us – to make us forget the humanity of others and also abandon it in ourselves. We have to re-learn humanity: how to really see people, really listen to their problems. I think this dehumanization is one of the greatest ills we are facing.

One of the most important learning experiences I’ve had was with acid survivors.  I was living in Lahore, and was a customer at a beauty parlor. At the parlor was a woman with tissue expanders (an expander is a way of developing fresh skin to be used for skin grafting. A silicone balloon is placed under the skin, which is expanded over time. As the balloon grows, the surrounding skin stretches and grows. Later, the expander is removed and the excess new skin is used for grafting.)  My seven year old son was with me, and asked: “Mummy, what happened to the lady?” I had no answer. I thought maybe she had cancer, that she had a tumor.

A few days later, I went to see the owner of the salon and asked her about the women there. This is how I learned about acid violence in Pakistan.  The owner had an NGO and said she was working to get treatment for these patients.
Subsequently, the owner contacted me and offered me the position of coordinator for her NGO. I initially told her that this was not my area of expertise. I was an educator and volunteer, but I had no experience in managing developing organizations.

She insisted.  I told her that I would think about it. For a week I had nightmares.  I realized that maybe this was my call to action. Leaving my previous job and starting to work with acid attack survivors was the biggest decision I’d ever made.

Unfortunately, three months later, I discovered that the funds for this organization were being used in a suspicious manner, and I suspected that funds were being embezzled.  I quit.

In the meantime, we were visited by Acid Survivors Trust International.  They told me that if I really wanted to help acid survivors, I should not give up. They trusted me – and advised me to create a board and register our new NGO – Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan. They had the funds and were willing to help get the initiative off the ground. 
It took my husband and me one month to decide to start this new organization.  We started it in Islamabad with a dedicated group of activists. I will never regret that decision – not when I see women transformed and living happily again. Not when I think about how much I’ve learned, and how much this hast taught me about humility.

Raquel:  Is there a common thread you’re noticing in the cases you’re seeing? 

Valerie: Yes. The commonalities include violence sourced in poverty, lack of education and feudal /tribal cultural systems.

Raquel:  What does the ASF do, and how do you reach victims of acid violence? (For example, is there a networking relationship with hospitals or communities to contact you?)

Valerie: ASF provides comprehensive rehabilitation services to acid survivors, such as medical services, psychological and social counseling, and socio-economic assistance. We also provide legal aid. These services are provided by staff and volunteers as well as pro-bono doctors, specialists and lawyers.

To reach survivors, we have developed a notification and referral system. Our field officer and volunteers are linked to journalists, social workers, hospitals, police stations, government institutions, shelters and other NGOs.  When a case has occurred, or an incident has been identified as an acid attack, the appropriate individuals and entities are notified so that the victim can begin receiving services immediately in the most efficient and comprehensive way possible.

ASF also advocates for a new legal framework to be established in order to monitor and regulate the sale of acid and to punish perpetrators of acid attacks. We also seek assistance in securing rehabilitation services for survivors.

Valerie and her husband, Mohammad
Valerie and her husband, Mohammad

Raquel:  Can you tell me more about the involvement of men in your fight against acid violence? How do these men come to be involved, and how do they add to the movement?

Valerie: Men have been present in our fight against acid attacks from day one.

To begin with, my husband is the one who fought to get us registered as an NGO – without bribes or illegitimate practices others have used. We have male directors, male doctors and pro-bono lawyers, and a male field officer.

Salim Mahmood Salim was the secretary of the Ministry of Women’s Development at the time of our founding.  All of these men help to provide and identify support, mobilize media, assist with fundraising events (such as coordinating a fund-raising rock concert at no cost to our organization), and more. Additionally, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court  officially condemned acid violence and asked the Pakistani parliament to act on it from a legislative perspective.

With men on board, supporting you at the highest level, you are better able to reach communities that follow patriarchal traditions. They do not feel threatened. Rather, they are more likely to join you in creating constructive, sustainable changes. When men reach out to other men, they feel proud rather than emasculated. If other men are active, they actually see involvement as their duty. When men support women, our empowerment will arise – naturally and peacefully.

Finally, it is important to note that Pakistan, like many countries, has a male-dominated power structure.  Engaging men on this issue ensures that we have a constructive, realistic strategy and approach to change. I also must mention that having men on board is valuable from a safety perspective.

Nazeeran and Valerie during a French cooking lesson at the rehabilitation center
(Above: Nazeeran and Valerie during a French cooking lesson at the rehabilitation center)

Raquel:  There is no denying that stories of acid violence are deeply troubling and the attacks themselves devastating. From what sources do you, personally, derive your hope? How does the organization as a whole maintain a forward-thinking, positive approach in this very difficult work?

Valerie: Raquel, I am a fighter. Ask anyone – that is the first adjective they’d use to describe me. I simply do not give up. At the same time, I am patient.

I believe that if you are fighting for a good cause, God does not let you down.  One must concentrate on the achievements – and use that as fuel to tackle all obstacles.

As the chairperson of the organization, it is my job and responsibility to generate positive energy. I need to be able to listen when people are down – and to motivate and mobilize them. When my colleagues need a break, they get one. Direct work with our psychotherapist is not just important for the survivors, but also for us. Clinical supervision and regular check-ins guarantee that none of us suffers from burnout.

We are dedicated to a collaborative approach, and positive feedback and team-building are very much part of our management strategy. We promote and salute both effort and results .  One person’s victory or success is a team victory. We are very much like a family, and we recognize the individual efforts of each family member. We are also all activists – and that spirit drives us.

Beyond our organizational approach, we have other reasons to remain hopeful. Every day, we see survivors getting better  – physically, mentally and emotionally. They’re rebuilding they’re lives. They’re happy and proud of their achievements. Nazeraan, for example, is blind and disfigured. She is fighting for custody of her two daughters. While she naturally feels sorrow and shares that with us, she is working at learning Braille and sewing. She wants to make a new life for herself and to become a role model.

Nazeraan shows the world that acid may burn you – but it cannot burn you entirely. Your spirit and your will still make you exist as a woman. When the survivors themselves are so full of hope, how can we not follow their example?

Raquel:  What are the greatest challenges facing the work of the Acid Survivors Foundation? The economy presents obvious obstacles. But are there especially pressing social, political or other barriers?

Valerie: The greatest barrier to our work is not just obtaining funding for lifesaving and reconstructive surgeries, but also for the rehabilitation center. Pakistani philanthropists have had to face a great deal of corruption from other NGOs, and are not sure who they should support. Additionally, the Pakistani government has other financial priorities – from the situation in Kashmir to terrorism and internally displaced persons.

Generally speaking, political instability and frequent changes in the government make collaboration with officials a bit difficult, since it is hard to get real commitments from them. High rates of illiteracy makes interaction with affected communities even more challenging.  Also, our survivors are from around the country. This geographical spread often makes it difficult for us to reach them.

Feudalism and tribalism remain a challenge, as they does not encourage development or interaction with outsiders. The more feudal or tribal an area is, the less welcoming they are likely to be of an organization like ours. Some families even refuse to have their female relatives treated for free. They fear what society might think when they see females “going away.” 

Raquel:  What would you consider to be some of the greatest victories achieved by the ASF?

Valerie: The case of Naila Farhat was important for us. For the first time, the highest jurisdiction in Pakistan heard the case of an acid attack; and justice was achieved.  This has given way to our lobbying work, which has already been cause for hope. The chief justice supports and praises our work, and has demanded that the Parliament establish a legal framework for acid sale regulation. He also supports the punishment of perpetrators and rehabilitation efforts for survivors.

Raquel:  What can be done to support the work of the Acid Survivors Foundation?

Valerie: We need awareness to be raised at an international level, both about acid violence – and about our rehabilitation center.  The center, which is still developing, is essential for survivors to rebuild their bodies and their lives. We need to increase our ability to both treat survivors and to investigate their cases. To do this, we need more sophisticated medical and forensic equipment, as well as more comprehensive systems to monitor funding and development of the Foundation.

ASF will lobby for legislative changes before the Pakistani national assembly, and continue to do its work locally, nationally and internationally. Financial and other support – like awareness-raising efforts – are key to our success.

To learn more about the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan, please click here.

To make a donation, please click here. When you open the donation window, please be sure to choose “D-ASF Pakistan” in the drop-down  menu under “additional details.” Please note: you will be able to specify your country and donate in the appropriate currency. There is a special link for donations from Canada. 

Saira, a survivor of acid violence, performs a dance
(Above: Saira, a survivor of acid violence, performs a dance)
(Photos courtesy Valerie Khan Yusufzai / ASF-P. )
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Islam’s new kartinis

Dear readers,

My apologies for such an extended absence.  While I’m gone, I’m going to keep up with a project I hope you’ll enjoy.

Last year, I was asked to write a column about “incremental positive change” in the Muslim world. In thinking about this idea, I couldn’t help but think of the many Muslims who make positive change every day – but who are never heard or seen by the mainstream (or even independent!) media. Much of the time, these individuals are women.

For the next year or so, I will be highlighting the work of Muslim women who, over the past decade, have worked for positive change in their communities in beyond. Please click here to see the introduction to the series, and enjoy.

PS:

* Following the situation in Malaysia? Please see this touching and important piece about the oneness of God’s name here.

* Not seeing coverage in the media about Muslims who are against terrorism? Check out these guys in Canada, and these protestors in Detroit.

Featured video: Mona Eltahawy on “happy Muslim men and women who confuse you”

with Mona Eltahawy, April 2009
with Mona Eltahawy, April 2009

Egyptian journalist (and very cool sister) Mona Eltahawy has just released a new video commentary of her piece  “happy Muslim men and women who confuse you.” For an enlightened and even witty commentary on the coverage of Muslims in the media (no pun intended) watch Mona’s video here.

Iranians protest honor killings after the death of another young woman

Iran Telegraf)
Iranians demonstrate against honor killings (photo: Iran Telegraf)

On August 14th, eighteen year-old Fereshteh Nejati was murdered by her father. Forced into marriage at 14, Fereshteh was seeking a divorce.

The details of her murder are gruesome. The response to the tragedy, however, shows signs of hope for Iran’s women.

Where am I finding this hope? Well, Fereshteh’s community decided that enough is enough. Some 2000 people – men and women – gathered in the streets to demand an end to honor killings, and to claim Fereshteh’s body for a respectful burial.

See photos of the demonstration here

As always, check out the International Campaign Against Honour Killings . There, you can join communities like Fereshteh’s in their efforts.

ACTION ITEMS:

* Please remember to keep taking action for Kobra Najjar, an Iranian woman facing imminent stoning.

* Sign the anti-honor killing petition I’ve told you about here.

* Send letters to the Pakistani government demanding that they take action against honor killings.

* Work against the epidemic of rape in Afghanistan.

* Help protect women threatened with acid attacks.

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.