Guest Post: Polarized Realities: Living a Theo-secular Purgatory in the Workplace

Zeina Shaaban is a graphic designer with interests in English and creative writing. Her approach to Islam is graced with wisdom, serenity, knowledge, and understanding. Those of you who have read this website for quite some time might be familiar with her; you’ve met Zeina before, and, as she has been a friend very close to my heart for nearly four years, it pleases me to introduce her to this space again, this time as a guest writer. Deeply invested in women’s security and freedom, Zeina has actively campaigned for legal consequences for abusive and controlling men, so that women can continue to live full, fulfilling lives that rival the liberation enjoyed by their male counterparts. Her exegesis of Islamic texts is caring, compassionate, sensitive, and highly detailed. In the tradition of the Prophet and early scholars, Zeina incorporates the contextual realities of century and society into her interpretations, and, most notably, an awareness of the spectrum of linguistic possibilities, to bring to life an Islam that is both sensible and sensitive.

For all her resilience of character, please welcome Zeina Shaaban.

There is a certain drive to modernity in Lebanon that is heavily associated with secularism. Or should I say, anti-theism. This is manifest in a way where all things religious are looked down on or automatically associated with backwardness and closed-mindedness. Of course, this also means that the religious frown down upon this modernity for that very same association. And the rest of us who don’t belong to either polars, get sucked into the purgatory of their in-between.

Sexism in the workplace is pretty much commonplace everywhere. But, at the very least, you would think that in an Arab country like Lebanon, worrying about things like wearing the headscarf wouldn’t be an issue. And you wouldn’t be farther from the truth.

I mean, sure, I get it. Sectarianism has really done its job screwing this country up and leaving us where we are today. I get this wanting to completely dissociate from it, and all things related: religion. And in attempts to move forward, you want to move past all of this rubble. That’s great, really. The problem comes in with the ostentatious know-it-all attitude, and in the shoving this worldview down people’s throat. “We don’t believe in it, so you’re not allowed to believe in it either/not allowed to display any sign that you believe in it.”

A young woman who was traveling to Canada saw the stark difference in university classes. When in Canada, she was not only allowed, but respected for asking for a small time-window to pray, in Lebanon, you are not even allowed out of class for Friday prayers. Because prayer is stupid, and doesn’t belong here, so we won’t tolerate it nor will we allow you to cultivate it.

Taking this conversation into the workplace: A flabbergasting amount of companies in Lebanon have completely forbidden all religious symbols. This basically means necklaces with a cross, and the veil, among other examples. It is interesting to note how the symbols they are restricting are conveniently symbols donned by women usually. And this becomes just another way of controlling women and what they can and can not wear/do.

I have often daydreamed about interviews where the interviewer would ask about my veil and I would look at him, shocked, “Veiled? I’m not veiled!” and would tell him that I’m wearing this scarf for beauty/fashion purposes. Or an interviewer asking me whether I would take the veil off, and I would say yes. Then come into work with a hat on that serves the same purpose but does not fall under their category of “religious symbol.” I would wonder if they would create a new “no hats” rule just for me. There is something very horrible about the fact that I even have to consider scenarios like this in the first place. Something very flawed in that women are being forced to hide how they choose to represent themselves.

This is not reserved to the secular companies. As I said, Lebanon is very sectarian, and its political parties represent the sects of the country. Then, you have major corporations who will support a certain political party as a call-out to their sect. This means there are big companies in Lebanon that associate with the Sunni political leader(s) and the Shiite political leader(s) (this also means that they probably have shares/have invested in the corporation in exchange for this support.) I am only focusing on the Muslim sects because I am discussing the issue of the veil, but the above also applies to Christian political leaders as well. However, even in those companies where they are supposedly by the Muslims and for the Muslims, the veil is still not allowed. (Note: This is a generalization and is certainly not true in all cases, there are even companies that ONLY hire veiled women, and here the issue is the same, only reversed.) Banks, TV shows, you name it, all those bigshot places where men and women are the company representatives, the veil is not even up for discussion.

This, and we did not even go into the default disadvantage we’re at for simply having two X chromosomes. The major I studied has a ratio of 5:1 women to men in classes on average. You would think that this means women would only naturally be more dominant/present in the workforce. However, what I’ve noticed is that: Sure, almost all the designers, the employees, are women. But almost all the creative directors, the CEOs, are men. Men who probably don’t even realize their privilege of not having to push against an almost unbreakable glass ceiling to get to where they are, and presumptuously attribute it to their own mastery.

In other majors, where there is a more balanced ratio, or in a ratio where the men rank out higher, companies will almost always prefer the men. Their rationale supposedly has nothing to do with sexism, too. It’s simply the more convenient choice.

Hiring a woman means she might get married one day/get pregnant if she is married, and leave the job to take care of her children, so she is not worth a long-term investment.
Hiring a woman means she can’t go to Saudi Arabia alone because they forbid traveling without a mahram (a male relative or husband).
Hiring a woman means her husband/father will not let her stay late at work and so she won’t be able to carry the unthinkable load we want to put on our employees
Hiring a woman means her husband/father won’t allow her to travel, and so she won’t be able to carry out some projects through till the end
Hiring a woman means you have to worry about her getting raped when she goes to construction scenes/is a liability
Hiring a woman means you have to tolerate one regular day a month when she might not come into work because she is in too much pain
Hiring a woman means you will be subject to her regular mood swings, and cat fights with other women, because women are more emotional and not as professional as men

Most of these points are riddled with sexist thoughts and assumptions. And it’s because men themselves perpetuate those thoughts that they expect it of the men in the women’s lives also. As a man, he expects his wife and daughter to be stay-at-home moms, or do a job that doesn’t disrupt her “household duties”; he will not allow her to travel or stay late at work, and most certainly won’t allow her onto construction sites and the like. As a result, he will most certainly assume that not only is it the correct way to go about things, but that ALL men of the country will treat their wife/daughter the same way.

So they will hire women, but they will hire just enough to make them look like an equal-opportunity employer, then move on to giving all the spots to men, because it’s more convenient.

This is why in an interview, before I am asked to show my work or share my experience, I am asked (after the interviewer noted that I am a newly wed) whether I have a curfew or should be at home a certain time (read: what is the latest that your husband allows you to stay out?). I can hardly contain my disdained surprise in my response: “Who the hell do you think I married?” The reason this is so problematic is because it can be two-fold: The interviewer can either be of the religious/conservative party and asks this question because he actually perpetuates it and believes in it, and my response to him is “Your standards do not apply to me,” – or he can be of the anti-theist party, and the question carries an undertone of cynicism. He carries with him the assumption that all (backward) veiled ladies would only marry (backward) religious men who do not allow them to work after sundown. Considering the pretentious tone with which the question was asked, I would say it’s the latter.

So my being a veiled married woman ends up putting me at a triple disadvantage in the workforce, before the employer even opens up my portfolio. I am sure that this purgatory where the religious and the modern do not clash in arms has a whole community of people, who, like me, are fed up with not pleasing either side of the spectrum and not belonging anywhere. And this community should have its own companies and its own vision for how they perceive the future.

This is a community I would like to foster.

Guest Post: Muslim Women and the Politics of Authority. Or: How to Determine a Woman’s Right to Speak on Islam

I’m pleased to introduce the author behind Orbala, Pashto for firefly, who, despite being a PhD student of Islamic Studies with emphasis in gender, sexuality, and Islamic law, is still overlooked as qualified to discuss Islamic jurisprudence, undoubtedly due to many of the factors explored in this post. Deeply inquisitive and refreshingly demanding, Orbala has undertaken the task of answering insistent, insightful, and probing questions; most notable of these is her search for the addressed feminine in the Qur’an, a question glossed over by male scholarship through the citation of singular (exceptional) verses. Orbala’s pressing interrogations of the tightly-structured, institutionalized understandings of the Qur’an and of Islam are, however,  a direct challenge to this dismissive and intellectually lazy system of answering women’s concerns. Orbala is highly critical of cultural restrictions & oppression, including those within communities of color against each other. Her favorite creature in the world is currently her little niece, Kashmala.

Please join me in welcoming our second guest writer, Orbala, and her sharp perceptivity into patriarchal discrepancies.

Most Muslims determine whether or not a Muslim has a right to speak authoritatively on Islam or provide new interpretations of certain Islamic precepts by merely a simple list of criteria, although it varies significantly for women and men. For men, it’s a little more complicated than for women, since a man’s credentials are not always questioned even if he does not wear a traditional “Muslim” garb (think Zakir Naik). A woman’s credentials, however, are always challenged if her clothing preferences do not conform to traditional, patriarchal Muslim expectations of modesty and hijab. As an example, if a woman’s hair is not covered, nothing she says is given any value; the content of her lecture, when she’s giving a lecture, is entirely ignored, and emphasis is instead placed on her choice not to cover her head. Since she is obviously not a good Muslimah, she obviously has no right to speak on Islam—so the logic goes.

But the logic tends to transcend a little beyond clothing when the woman speaker is wearing a hijab, or is not defending her choice of not wearing the hijab: then we look, instead, at her ideology. Does she believe that Islam as it is currently practiced and understood by most Muslims is flawed? Does she believe in ijtihad? Does she believe that gender roles and rights should not be continued on gender and/or sex? Does she believe in the re-interpretations of certain Islamic principles (i.e., ijtihad), particularly in regards to gender more broadly and women more specifically? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then she is misguided, is not a good Muslim, and has no authority and right to speak on Islam. Never mind that she might not be interested in teaching other Muslims how to be good Muslims. Few female scholars of Islam trained academically are interested in overtaking the task of teaching Muslims how to be better Muslims, by which I mean emphasizing the spiritual importance of ritual behavior; if it is to mean educating Muslims about the larger concepts that Islam espouses, such as human rights, social justice, and gender equality, then, yes, they are deeply committed to the act of guiding Muslims.

One of the glaring problems with basing a person’s credentials to speak on Islam by whether they advocate everything that past traditionally trained scholars of Islam have concluded is that it leaves no space for new interpretations, interpretations and understandings of Islam that can speak to us and our time, address our needs and questions. Ultimately, if everything the scholars have said before us is to be taken at face value without any question or criticism (and criticism needs to be stopped being associated with disrespect), then why do we have the Qur’an still? Why do we need to read and understand the Qur’an at all when it’s already been explained for us? Why do we seek knowledge if it is expected merely to affirm what the majority of our scholars has said before us?

Then there is the case of Muslim converts. White convert males, let’s face it, have it far easier than black, Latina, or other non-white converts—and non-white women converts face far more challenges. On the one hand, we Muslims fetishize converts and reverts because they have presumably spent ample time to study Islam and appreciate it enough to choose as their religion; on the other hand, if their beliefs and practices do not lead them to conventional notions of Muslimness, they are doing it all wrong, and it is our responsibility to guide them, which is often towards an Arab or a Desi form of Islam. We treat the case of specifically (and only) white converts as a validation of Islam: It often feels like a relief that a western white individual has willingly embraced Islam because now we have proof that Islam is the correct religion; after all, our collective obsession with whiteness is a disease inherent to many Muslim communities (and, yes, non-Muslims, but let’s focus here). Non-white converts do not receive the same treatment and are barely recognized, despite the growing number of Latina/o converts to Islam, among others.

Since (white) converts are not racialized—because white people are obviously the default creation of God—they have to prove their Muslimness through their clothing style in order to “look” Muslim. Hence many white male converts’ need to wear traditional Arab garbs (think Hamza Yusuf). I’m not going to elaborate on white male convert privilege since plenty has already been written on the subject—see, for example, Performing Belief and Reviving Islam: Prominent (White Male) Converts in Muslim Revival Conventions, by Mahdi Tourage; Racialized Muslim Bodies and White Revert Privilege; The Problem with White Converts. But the point regarding converts is raised in order to point to the importance of clothing and identity among Muslims and our habit of linking belief and practice specifically through “Muslim” clothing.

Still, this article wasn’t initially intended as a discussion on race, conversion, and authority—it was intended as a discussion solely on the simplified, narrow, flawed standards by which we measure a Muslim woman’s ability to speak on Islam. When I tell a Muslim that I am a student of Islamic Studies, they should not react by looking me up and down, often condescendingly, which happens especially if the questioner is a scarf-wearing female, and arrogantly comment, “But … But why in the U.S.? Do you know Arabic? Are your teachers Muslims? I hope they’re teaching you authentic Islam! Be careful because they might be taking you away from Islam and you don’t see it. There’s a hadith that says that there will come a time when those most ignorant of Islam will be teaching us Islam posing as scholars.” My response is usually to smile and say, “Yeah, there’s a hadith out there for everything, innit, bruh.” Because judging, and not unfairly, by the this line of questions, they’re not interested in discussing the various methods of training with me, the complicated notion of authenticity, or what “Islamic Studies” means to most Muslims and what its different role and purpose in secular and religious institutions. For those interested in my pursuit of Islamic Studies in the west, here’s an explanation.  

The community’s unfair criteria of authority matter because the work that feminist and reformist activist Muslims are engaged in are, for the most part, for the community, not necessarily for themselves as individuals. Some of us may not personally face many of the issues we deal with, but we are sincerely committed to urging the community to rethinking its understanding of Islam if Islam is used as an excuse for some of our unjust beliefs and practices; they include homophobia, domestic abuse, denying Muslim women the right to marry non-Muslims, disavowing the claim that women can lead gender-mixed prayers, and so on. What needs to be emphasized is that there is nothing Islamic, nothing divine about patriarchy; it is not the natural worldview, but it has been normalized. It was the worldview of the past, albeit patriarchy is still the dominant force in today’s world—but it is actively being challenged and confronted in favor of a more egalitarian world. The problem we’re facing regarding patriarchy and misogyny is that we foolishly believe that all things gender equality, including feminism, are western inventions, and since “western” and “Islamic” are obviously mutually exclusive, we can have either one or the other—and our level of faith and piety is measured by whether we choose “Islamic” or “western.”  

Yet, few Muslims today will agree with the classical, medieval, and pre-modern claim that God favors men because (or that) men are superior to women. But this was the dominant belief in terms of gender hierarchy according to Islamic scholarship (see, as an example, Ayesha Chaudhry’s book Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition (Oxford Islamic Legal Studies) for more details; Khaled Abou El Fadl’s Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women is also worth reading on the subject of “authority”). Similarly, I cannot imagine any Muslim disagreeing with the fact that justice is a virtue in Islam to the extent that, as the Qur’an tells us, we must stand up for justice even if it means turning against ourselves, our parents, or our kin (Qur’an 4:135). But the Qur’an does not define the meaning of justice or how to command justice in a given situation. This is left to Muslims to decide for themselves because, like any other great Text, the Qur’an recognizes the subjective meanings of concepts like justice. As such, when killing an individual for leaving a religion they were born into is universally considered unethical and immoral, it is an injustice for Muslims to maintain this thought and practice. (Note: While there are absolutely no Qur’anic grounds for the punishment for apostasy in the first place, the Shari’a unfortunately does consider apostasy a capital crime.) Just as well, no Muslim would agree that slavery is Islamic or that Islam would support it in our time. But exactly how do we imagine this came to be the case when Islam never outright forbade slavery and when the Qur’an instead talks of female wars of prisoners for men as “those whom your right hand possess” and there’s no limit on how many they can have, in addition to their four wives? Exactly how did we come to the belief that men are in fact not intellectually, mentally, or even physically superior to women after all, contrary to what humans, including Muslims, formerly believed? The answer entails an acknowledgment of the significant changes in universal standards of equality and justice over the last few decades, let alone over the centuries.

Our answer to difficult questions of “the beating verse” in the Qur’an (4:34), killing non-Muslims in times of war, women’s testimony purportedly being half that of a man, women’s inheritance share being half that of a man is usually: “Context!” We tell non-Muslims that there’s a context to this verse and that, to this guideline and that, but when it comes to other issues, such as that of women’s leading prayer or gender segregation, we completely ignore that there is context there as well—assuming, wrongly, that Islam does forbid women from leading men or gender-mixed communities in prayers. And that context is the patriarchal, often misogynistic, mindset of our scholars who established the Shari’a and hence basically Islam, who interpreted the Qur’an for us, defined Islam for us. They may have meant well, and most of them may have been sincere in their intentions, but that doesn’t remove the negative and unjust consequences of their interpretations of the Qur’an that have been harmful to women (and homosexuals in other cases). When will it finally become more popular for us to say, “If we can condemn slavery because it’s considered wrong in today’s world, we must also re-think many of our other practices and beliefs that we insist are Islamic, such as forbidding women the right to marry non-Muslim men when such a right, such an option is available to men.” I’m hopeful, and I’ve faith in us.

Guest Post: Ending Systemic Discrimination Starts with Individual Acts

Sarah Elizabeth Pahman, a masters level social worker licensed & certified in advanced practice social work, is experienced in trauma counseling and advocacy for survivors of sexual violence, sexual abuse, trafficking, and interpersonal violence. She is interested in trauma-informed care and has passions in empowerment & social justice within our communities. Based in Chicago, Sarah loves writing, working out, and Pablo Neruda.

Please welcome our first guest writer, Sarah Elizabeth, who is exhilaratingly discerning, fiercely loyal, and rooted in being.

The first time I noticed my privilege as a white person was in high school. I was in the 10th grade and I was quite the unmanageable, unruly child due to a myriad of circumstances in my home and in my environment. I had little guidance as a teenager and was very much on my own from about the age of 15 on. I found comfort and acceptance in the communities of color that made up the tapestry of my friendships and the people who I genuinely loved. I started recognizing I was different from my friends on several occasions, but the ones that stick out for me are the ones where I was a witness to the racism my friends experienced.

I remember walking through a grocery store parking lot when I was 16 and an old white man yelling “you should have never been born!” out of his car window at myself and my motley crew of friends with a similar life to mine: those of us on our own. Was the old man yelling this to us because everyone else in the group was black and Mexican, or was he yelling at me – the white girl in a crowd of young men of color? Back then we laughed, threw up our middle finger at the guy and joked about it for the rest of the evening. It is only as an adult I recognize the poignancy. And yet, throughout my high school experience I knew white people saw me differently as a white person who hung out with people of color.

There was the time a white male teacher approached me in the hallway and with venom dripping from his lips stated “your parents must be so ashamed of you” in reference to the fact that my boyfriend was black and my best friend was Mexican and my loyalty lived in the brown skinned shades of friendships I held tightly to me as I survived my life through the love I held for the same people this teacher so abusively proclaimed as shameful.

Shame.

Riding on the bus next to my black girlfriend and watching as the two white girls standing in front of her grabbed their purses and zipped them up while staring at the only black woman on the bus and talking about being scared on campus because people “who didn’t belong there” were protesting in the streets.

I remember driving in a predominately black neighborhood in my city to visit friends and being pulled over by police and asked “do your parents know where you are?” I remember being pulled over as the only white person in a car full of black people and asked if my car could be searched. I remember being called a wigger. A white n*****. I remember being told I was “going through a phase” and would “eventually grow out of it” because of who I surrounded myself with. Because I did not uphold the value of sticking to my own race, and I did not sit at the white table, or the black table, in the racially segregated high school cafeteria… I rotated my days and because of this I was an outcast.

Shame.

And I internalized the shame and blame and venom that poisoned my young soul into believing I was different and I was unacceptable because white people are not supposed to have THAT MANY friends of color, else we get called wannabes, wiggers, betrayals to our race and squanderers of our inherited privilege.

I knew I had privilege as a white person because whenever my black friends needed to do something important, like go to the bank, or court – they would step back and let me do the speaking. Mind you, we were kids, 17, 18 years old – and I could see the effects racism and classism had on my black friends because at those tender ages they already clearly understood white people talk differently to each other than they do to people of color. I clearly understood as well, it became a game for me – I would show off how “white” and “proper” I could be in order to get the answers and privileges we were seeking.

And so what I could so easily call a game, turn on and off at my discretion, and not have to think about when alone in public with only my white skin as my first impression on people – what I could so easily choose to partake in or decide to shun based solely on my decision of what race I would hang out with – was my inherited privileges as a white person. And so the games of a 17 year old become the lessons of adulthood, the lessons of recognition that my friends of color had barriers to overcome simply walking into a store, the bank, the courthouse, the classroom, or cafeteria, the boardroom or the office or the interview or or or – where white middle and upper middle class values and norms and worldviews and cultural standards predominate and outcast those who don’t play by these rigidly defined rules, who don’t look and act a certain way – who dissent and reject imperialism as it stands before us.

Embracing each other is a revolutionary act. Embracing each other is an act of dissent.

Recognizing on an intellectual level exactly what white privilege was did not happen until I entered college. It was when I read “white privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh and found myself nodding my head over and over again that I began to recognize the experiences I had as a youth was a systemic experience for people of color and not something unique. My “acting white and proper” as a youth was my own developmental understanding of what white privilege meant, albeit ignorant – I felt it. When I presented to other whites as a stereotypical white, middle class female in the way I talked, dressed, and behaved I was rewarded for it. When I surrounded myself with people of color white people were sure to make sure I understood I was a betrayal. I also think class status has a profound effect on how we view each other, and think we must keep intersectionality in mind when discussing privilege.

As an adult I am first and foremost thankful I was able to attend college because this was where my mind was opened to the systemic issues of race and class discrimination and white privilege. This is not a subject taught or talked about in the basic educational system that most people go through. Having the childhood experiences I had was what helped me connect the dots, and not view what was being discussed as a theory, which I fear many white youth consider diversity classes to be due to their own limited exposure to these issues. If one grows up in a small town surrounded only by other white people and only receives exposure to these issues through college diversity classes (which is always the class most complained about), it can be perceived as an attack on whites, it can cause white guilt, and extreme defensiveness.

What this country needs is to address white privilege and white guilt and defensiveness constructively through compassionate and assertive advocacy within not only diversity trainings, but also within the everyday dynamics of the classroom, work culture and broader everyday environment. Making race and class and gender issues a part of the discussions and meetings and using ourselves as the catalyst for change by addressing these topics openly is how we uphold the ethics and values that we as a nation claim to hold dear. In agencies and corporations dominated heavily by whites, making sure the issues of privilege, guilt, race and class are not ignored is the task at hand, approaching ourselves with the assumption we are racist, at the very least. Recognizing that racism and structural discrimination against people of color can only change when whites acknowledge their own isms within, and address it on a daily basis – is the only way systems built on whiteness and maintained by white denial can ever crumble. Recognizing that affirmative action has not done nearly enough, that white people still have predominantly white friends, that we segregate ourselves both personally and professionally, that we still can’t talk to each other across racial/class/religious/gender differences because the group in power still hasn’t learned how to in a productive manner….

Because The Group In Power Still Hasn’t Learned How To In A Productive Manner.

And this benefits the group in power over and over again because silence is akin to shame, and shame creates dysfunction across entire generations, it keeps the isms within us swept under the rug and hidden away, conveniently denied. The modern isms that permeate liberal circles, white activists, and male feminists.

Our activism, our feminism, our liberal values and proclamations, our friends and loved ones of color…. None of these things shield us from participating in the very things we claim to be fighting against.

Women in the Media: the “Stay Away from Your Friends” Trope

There’s a “category” of women on television and in the movies, typically contrasted with another “category” of (the good kind) of woman, whose sole depiction of being “wrong” for the male lead involves her behavior toward his male friends: she’s cold, distant, isn’t enthusiastic about his spending time with them, in general appears to disapprove of them, and may even obstruct him from being with them. Inevitably, another female character (the good version) will be introduced, and she will be depicted as “right” for him–because she not only tolerates his friends, but shouts at the tv during football games, doesn’t ask them to move their feet off her coffee table, and laughs at all their sexist jokes. Oh, and she’s somehow still a classy lady.

When I was in middle school, one of the boys attending decided he was interested in me. (He’d only ever seen me and had never spoken to me in his life.) Rather than, you know, act normal, he evidently decided it was a good idea to send each one of his friends, all eleven of them, over to me to “convince” me to go out with him. I had no interest in going out with anyone, and after the first episode of this preposterous plan, certainly not with him. All of these friends were women, but in the coming years, I’d experience the aggravation of similar strategies from groups of male friends. It always went like this: a man decides he’s romantically interested in me. He makes his feelings clear to me. When I don’t return them, his friends continue to badger me about it. “Are you going to said event with him?” “You should go with him!” “Did you talk to him last night? You should call him!” “You would be so great together!”

Men are scary enough alone–they’re something else in packs. We are meant, as television sitcoms and movies are written, to sympathize with the poor guy whose girlfriend doesn’t get along with his friends, supposedly because she’s a judgmental jerk who thinks they’re all losers. Of course, on screen we can see how disproportionately socially inept these friends are: we see them come over to an otherwise quiet house, pile into the living room, make a mess with popcorn on the couch (who do you think actually cleans that up after that scene plays out in real life?), yell obscenities at the television, make fun of each other for living with their mothers or not “getting laid” or not having a job, yet when the soon-to-be-replaced-with-a-male-approved-version of the female lead is hostile toward them, we’re supposed to think it’s because she just doesn’t “get” it and doesn’t “deserve” the male lead.

There’s an old joke (that I hate) that goes something like this: the difference between men and women (enlighten me) is that when a man, suspecting infidelity, calls each of his woman’s friends to ask if she was over at any of their homes last night, they all tell the truth and say they hadn’t seen her. When a woman calls each of her man’s friends to ask the same question, not only do each one of them claim that he was there, but two of them insist that he still is. This joke is supposed to exemplify male “loyalty” as the very truest kind.

Of course, what the joke doesn’t tell you is that the women are telling the truth because, when my friend’s significant other calls asking if I’d seen her, my immediate thought is not that she’s cheating–it’s that she might be missing. She might have been kidnapped. She might have been drugged, raped, murdered–why would I lie about having been with her last night when it only delays the rescue? The law needs to know immediately. In a world where our fears aren’t the same, actions can’t be judged according to the same criteria.

But instead, this joke is supposed to illustrate an (imaginary) manifestation of how women have a reputation of being disloyal and “catty” with each other. And how we always hate our lovers’ friends.

You know that other old trope that is associated with this one–when there’s a group of “typically douchey” college-level male friends, and one of them, one of them is “different.” He falls in love with some girl who says something like, “Remember there was that one time, your friend was really douchey,” when they first meet, and he responds in a dreamy tone of voice, “I’m not really like them,” and we’re supposed to think oh my God, what a special little diamond in the rough you are? I roll my eyes every time I see a scene like this. And it’s pathetic how many.

I don’t ever claim to preemptively “know” anyone’s friends, but when a man’s friends create an environment where I feel unsafe–where it’s clear they’re being sexist, racist, inconsiderate of my space, or attempting to pressure me to go out with him, it’s a red flag that I’m not going to ignore. You don’t get to be different. If your friends make a bad impression on me before we’ve even spoken, you can rest assured that you don’t have a chance.

I’m perfectly capable with warming up to someone’s friends–if they aren’t oppressive, if they aren’t wholly inconsiderate, if they’re not under the impression that they can tell me how to behave around our mutual friend who’s interested in me; this amicable consideration, warmth, this knowing when to stop, are characteristics of my friends, who are actually–you know, good friends–and just because these new people you’re introducing are your friends doesn’t mean they don’t have earn the trust of the woman you’re dating simply because they’ve earned yours.

And it’s not that men (who write sitcoms) don’t know this. When the inversion is the plot of the show, when a woman’s friends are hostile toward the new man she’s dating, he’s never the one depicted as needing to adapt to their standards. Instead, it’s the female friends who are shown as catty, judgmental, and unwilling to accept someone new into their circle. The male lead is either depicted as trying (and failing) to “satisfy” this “horrible” group of women or backstabbing them and it’s supposed to be funny to the audience. (Imagine that reversed?)

While I understand realistically that friends are formed over several years, that they grow differently, that a bond cannot be broken as easily as an oppressive comment (believe me, I know), this double standard in attitude toward women who are critical of their lovers’ friends and men who are outright oppressive toward their lovers’ friends is only a delineation of a dangerous facet of patriarchy. In the culture of patriarchy and its media depiction, a woman’s reasons for not getting along with a man, whether that man is the friend of her lover or the lover of her friend, is always illegitimized. It’s always because she’s judgmental, catty, and over-critical, and never because she’s feeling unsafe, pressured, disconcerted, or protective.

discussion of language with amina wadud

By popular demand, I’m writing a post about tea with amina wadud, who prefers (as I confirmed while I spun around in her bedroom) that her name be spelled with lowercase letters, like bell hooks. My auntie amina is currently visiting Indonesia and Malaysia, but before she left she gave me a copy of Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition, and, like the badass she is, showed me the three books she was reading at once. One of them included Feminist Edges of the Qur’an. I brought her a hard copy. She has lived in several countries, likes flowers, drinks tea without sugar, and is probably more qualified a religious leader than any sheikh you’ve ever met. (I’m sure she wouldn’t sit well with that last part, but I will maintain it.)

I’m not going to talk too much about the visit here–but I will share parts of our discussion that are pertinent to Islamic feminism and subjects that have been touched on in this space, because she very much ought to be credited for the insights about to be imparted.

One of the …concerns (?) I inquired her about, that have been introduced in the comments of this website, pertains to the preservation of the Qur’an. I believe that the Qur’an has been preserved in its original form, and so the question has never been a source of distress for me. However, in the comments of a post that engages with an Altmuslimah article regarding grammatical nuances, there was a lengthy discussion of the nature of this preservation. The verse featured in the article is 33:33; it is the verse in which we are commanded to “behave with dignity” in our homes. (Male) scholars have read this verse as commanding us “stay” in our homes. They create this reading on the grounds of an assumed vowel, an assumption that is incorrect; they read waqarna as waqirna, the first meaning “settle the ego” or “behave with dignity” and the latter meaning “settle (physically)” in your home.

As amina wadud explains (better than I could back then) this discrepancy isn’t the result of a failure to preserve the Qur’an. As the Qur’an is written originally (in the Qureyshi dialect) the waves, curves, and knots of the letters were noted and remain as they always have. The script is vowelless. The vowels are hypothesized, rather intuitively, based on context. The natural thing for me to go on and say now is that “the early Muslims would have known, etc. etc.” in order to ensure you that objectivity is still secured, but I’m not interested in saying that sort of thing anymore. Quite frankly, I am done grasping at the criteria of the self-appointed male ulema for confirmation of my religion. I am done giving the excuses you’ve all heard from male scholars about why they know it and you don’t. So here is what you should take away from this: Objectivity is not Divine. There is “objective” truth, and that objective truth is a thing so imbued with beauty that the mere shards of it we observe in the Qur’an are only baffling to us because we cannot see the full picture. What you’ve learned as “objective”–you’ve learned from the West. True objectivity must encompass flexibility to be functional. True objectivity introduces the liberation of adaptability. It knows itself to be unobtainable. It is universal not because it is you–it is universal because it is every form of you.

My own brother asked me this morning why the Qur’an isn’t clear. I think many Muslims operate on the assumption that reading the Qur’an is only an act of worship and a guide to how one lives, and therefore should harbor a straight-forward quality concerned with only that purpose. They don’t incorporate the more intimate function: to also reflect the state of one’s soul. I’m sure many of you have had the thought, “I wish I could see my list of sins compared to my list of virtues so I know where I am.” The Qur’an is a direct answer to your wistfulness. If you read it and it induces pain for (O)thers, if you read it and you have decided its command to women is “stay in your homes” rather than “behave with dignity in your homes” that is the Qur’an warning you that you are headed down the wrong path. I don’t mean just that it is an outward compass, or that its powers are limited to the superficiality of a mirror. I mean this is the Qur’an screaming at you to evaluate the state of your soul. It is the Qur’an saying, “Look at this. Look at what you’ve just read in me. Please–I am trying to show you that you are going in the wrong direction.” It is the Qur’an appealing to the qur’an in yourself.

When a man reads wqrn as waqirna instead of waqarna, he is seeing his destiny (in the hereafter) before him. He is seeing that he, like the tribes that threatened to kill the Prophet and oppress him and his family, is an oppressor, and will be made to answer for that transgression of his soul. Of course, he will not listen to the cries of the Qur’an, he will not heed its warnings, regardless of how overt his oppression reflecting back at him is on the page. The ambiguity of the Qur’an is the clarity of the human soul. You are a book as well. The qur’an that is you has a moral conscience. You were written by God. This is intertexuality of the spirit, between yourself and what you are holding.

So here are the words of caution you’ve always heard from me: men have monopolized interpretation, in all of its levels in more ways that you’re aware. Reading wqrn as waqirna instead of waqarna is a clear indication that what has been paraded as “objective” and “scholarly” is nothing short of a patriarchal bias applied to matters that do not concern them. The Qur’an commands us to take its best meaning. When women have decided, perhaps in another kind of universe, in the changes of circumstance that are inevitable and expected in the cultural currents of the world, that “staying home” is a better meaning than “behaving with dignity,” that possibility is there for our use, to enrich us, as a device of worshiping God. The flexibility and ambiguity of the Qur’an is an act of Love. It is to say I understand your situation, Love.

Before we parted, auntie amina and I also discussed the use of the feminine pronoun to refer to God. English, auntie amina pointed out, compels us to making a gender distinction when describing or referring to people. In languages in which this does not exist–including my mother’s–speakers are more inclined to understand instantly when God is referred to with She in English. But the insertion of gender creates a false unOrdinated religiosity; my mother, when speaking English, will sometimes mix up he and she because there is only one word for both those pronouns in her first language; if I were to deliberately refer to God with feminine pronouns, however, she is less likely to be receptive. In other words, she’d adopted enough of the (wrong) mentality to become uncomfortable. This is a result of the adoption of not only English as the one true American language (TM), but of Arabic as the one true form (TM) of “permissible” for Islamic jurisprudence. Language controls the way we think; the availability of two gender pronouns in the languages that are viewed as “superior” by our national and religious communities allow the speaker–and the Muslim community–to associate maleness with God (shirk); it is crucial that we evaluate our levels of discomfort with referring to God with She as compared to he and discern.

It wasn't consistently seriously like it sounds.

It wasn’t consistently serious like it sounds.

One of the (many) reasons amina wadud is a crucial leader and scholar is that her academic contributions to Islamic scholarship is manifested in the application of these interpretations. Islam makes no distinction between the sphere of belief and the sphere of practice. When an imam tells you that men and women are “spiritually equal” (a term that is now meaningless) but he is opposed to following a woman who is leading prayer, he is telling you he doesn’t practice his beliefs and is inconsistent and untrustworthy. He is telling you that God may believe men and women are “spiritually equal,” but he sure doesn’t.

Eid (al Adha) Mubarak

There is a saying–in Farsi, I think–that one tells their dearest friends. It means, “May I be sacrificed for you.” I think it is why, when his father asked him if he would die, Isma’il said yes. To God, he said. May I be sacrificed for you.

This, like any act of love, was misconstrued.

He knew his mother, Eve, after all, had lain awake with Adam’s hand at her waist, beneath a new-formed evening alit with stars. Adam must have been asleep, you see, or he would have never allowed it. (Ibrahim, tearful, accepts his son’s response. His sobs are unrecorded. Isma’il, grasping the blade, trembles at the chin.) When God said gently before the sleeping Adam and the waking Eve that surely their children would find one of them to blame until the end of time, the Prophetess replied at once, “Me. Let it be me.” And there, before Adam, she crumbled to dust. May I be sacrificed for you. Love, may I be sacrificed for you.

Adam woke and found slander on the mouths of his children.

This, like any act of love, was misconstrued.

Do you speak the language of Love? Is there only one? (There is Only. Love.) Remember that for this day, Ibrahim sacrificed his patriarchal power over his son by asking Isma’il’s consent. Remember that for this day, Ibrahim sacrificed his patriarchal power over the love of his son. Over the Love of his son.

Only Love. In Love there is no Other.

Quranic Verses and Misconceptions: The Limiting of 24:33

If you’ve been reading this website for a while, even if you’re not Muslim, chances are you’ve caught the drift from a couple of posts that the Qur’an is absolutely gorgeous. Since I spend a lot of time here discussing the more seemingly formidable verses (see the entire “Misconceptions” tab) I haven’t quite explicitly demonstrated exactly how gorgeous, and since each verse of the Qur’an has at least seven different meanings, it’s likely I never fully will. For a moment, I want to shift our attention from the verses that are more commonly misconceived (by both Muslims and non-Muslims) to the ones that whose misconceptions have more subtle (but equally sinister) effects, and point out that these misconceptions–and their effects–contribute to the undercurrents of sexism in the Muslim community and in the malestream exegesis of the Qur’an and Islamic texts.

Before we take a look at 24:33, I want to refer briefly to 24:31. It’s a verse that deals with hijab, but that’s not what I want to talk about. Verse 24:31 packed with interesting little admissions hinting toward the demographic of which societal–and domestic–life was composed:

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gazes and guard themselves, and not display their adornment except what is obvious (apparent, necessary) save to their husbands, or fathers, or father-in-laws, or sons, or brothers, or nephews, or children, or their women, or what their right hands possess, or those who have no desire of women. (Qur’an, 24:31) [emphasis mine, clearly]

Now, I know that must sound restrictive, reading this entire list of exceptions (husbands, sons, brothers, etc.) to the “public,” but let’s pretend for a while that we live in a world where there hasn’t been a patriarchal bias established as precedent, and people are rational and logical in their interpretations and patriarchy isn’t championed as neutrality. And then let’s take a look at the verse before this one,

Tell the believing men to lower their gazes and guard themselves. That is purer for them. (Qur’an, 24:30)

That’s it. No exceptions. Like, literally, no exceptions. Men are commanded to lower their gazes. From everyone. Now, with consideration of the context in terms of cultural setting (609-632 CE, Arabia), one can argue that the verse is referring specifically to women (as the audience from whom a man should lower his gaze) but that is presumptuous considering (1) it’s a broad generalization that overlooks the vast diversity in cultural makeup in this area during that period and (2) it isn’t present from the context in terms of the Qur’an itself. In fact, the verse preceding this one speaks of entering someone’s home politely–the very home, mind you, that is described in the verse addressing women that follows.

It is reasonable, then, to come to the understanding that the parties included in the verse addressing women are present when a man, in context, entering someone else’s home, is commanded to “lower the gaze.” When the act of modesty is meant to convey humility of character (in belief) then what is being regulated here is the arrogance of men. It is commentary on the entire culture of masculinity. Men are commanded to lower their gazes–or reduce their arrogance–not only in the presence of a woman, but in respect to her entire household.

Imagine an ulema in which the majority of exegetes are women. Imagine the interpretation of these verses under that ulema. Does that ulema arriving at this interpretation sound like they must be performing logical acrobatics in their arguments? Well, not considering the inconsistencies present in the interpretations of an ulema composed entirely of men. For example, the next verse reads,

And those of you who are solitary, marry the single among you and the righteous among your male and female slaves. If they are poor, God will enrich them. (Qur’an, 24:32)

I’m not kidding. That command is given to both men and women. It says male and female slaves. And the men as well as the women are single prior to the marriage i.e. there’s no way to read men marrying multiple women into this verse. But for some reason the male ulema has managed to “burden” only men with the task of marrying slaves and bringing them prosperity. Go look it up if you don’t believe me. Go on. And in case you still don’t believe this verse addresses women as well, “the single” is masculine–which again, means no polygamy if the men are single before this. When the Qur’an addresses men in referring to a group of women who are eligible for marriage (such as the “women your right hand possesses”) the feminine plural is used. This is not a group of women–it is either a group composed entirely of men, or a mixed group.

In fact, let’s talk about pronouns and the inconsistencies that the male ulema conveniently administers in interpreting them. Most of the religious activities that the malestream ulema has designed solely for men (such as Eid and jummah prayers, or marrying [multiple] slaves) are argued this way because of the employment of the masculine plural for “believers,” regardless of the explicit inclusion of women as in the verse regarding marriage above. (In other words, don’t let men tell you you’re not obligated to attend these prayers–you absolutely must. It is addressed to all believers.) And yet the beginning of verse 24:33 uses the masculine plural when it commands,

And let be chaste those who do not find means for marriage, until God enriches them. (Qur’an 24:33)

The male ulema suddenly decides that in this employment of the masculine plural, the chastity before marriage refers not only to men and women, but especially to women. Had we remained consistent with their logic when it comes to attending jummah prayers, according to this verse only men are required to remain chaste before marriage.

In light of these drastic interpretational inconsistencies resulting from patriarchal bias masquerading as neutrality, it’s especially profoundly logical that verses 2:30-2:31 regarding the lowering of the gaze, in which women are given exceptions and men strictly are not, can be concluded as a device for the regulation of masculine arrogance in the face of entering the feminine sphere (of domesticity or of expertise), and would have been reasonably seen as such had even half the ulema been composed of women.

Finally, the end of 24:33 reads,

And do not compel the woman to prostitution who desires chastity. (Qur’an, 24:33)

This verse is, unfortunately, starkly relevant today. Perhaps, sometime in the future, if we imagine wistfully for a moment, its secondary or tertiary meanings will have room to be applied–

that one mustn’t compel the woman to need who wishes to be independent.

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