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On April 23rd, 2012, Mona Eltahawy wrote an article titled, “Why Do They Hate Us?” to protest the treatment of women in the Middle East. The article, featured in Foreign Policy magazine, prompted a variety of responses, ranging from admiration for the author’s courage to criticism for her portrayal of Egyptian men. In online Islamic feminist circles, the most frequent and perceptive criticism was that Eltahawy had written the article in English, even though she is a native Arabic-speaker capable of effectively conveying her message in the language of the demographic she critiques. Eltahawy’s decision to protest in English served to partially remove the language barrier between Egyptian feminists and a potentially harmful English-speaking audience. This is significant because it suggests that the language barrier serves a protective purpose in protest. The language barrier does more than specify an audience: it precludes one.
Typically, the language barrier is a source of frustration when there is a desire for interaction across linguistic boundaries, which social media facilitates. However, the choice of language can be utilized advantageously in protest: it is a way to criticize misogyny in the Muslim community and circumvent inciting Islamophobia. When Muslim women critique Muslim men in English, some assume the women’s passions for equality are influenced by colonialism, and proceed to appropriate these critiques to embolden xenophobia. However, when Muslim women write in, for example, Arabic, Pashto, Bangla, Mandarin, Punjabi, and Farsi, not only are their critiques rendered inaccessible to an unintended audience, but that audience is barred from assuming ownership of those critiques. The language barrier deters the piracy of the marginalized voice.
There are ways in which, rather than stifling the effect of protest, the language barrier subtly enhances it by limiting agency to those whose struggles are central to its objective, and by enforcing these limits on social media platforms. In fact, language as a metaphorical shield even predates social media: during the British conquest of India, revolutionary writers, such as Kazi Nazrul Islam, whose rebellion against British colonialism won him the title of “Rebel Poet,” advocated gender equality and protested the bigotry of invaders by calling for independence in Bangla, an indigenous language; subsequently, the colonists were hindered from the immediate identification of a threat because they could not access or read his writing. Eventually, Kazi Nazrul Islam was jailed as the language barrier between Indians and the British began to erode. It was Nazrul Islam’s title as “Rebel Poet” that aroused British suspicions. It is no well-kept secret, furthermore, that when colonists arrived on Turtle Island, they not only sought to eliminate Native cultures but the children’s use of indigenous languages in schools. In the United States there are often workplace policies against the use of non-English languages among employees: in 2010, sixty-nine Filipina immigrants filed a lawsuit against the Delano Regional Medical Center in California for harassment and discrimination due to the hospital’s English-only policy. This is a strong indication that the language barrier has a potential to uproot establishments of power by leaving them out—a potential that those in power recognize.
However, in these examples, the potential object of the speakers’ criticism is the system of power itself, and not the religious interpretations or cultures of those who speak the Othered language. There are several prominent Islamic feminists, such as Asra Nomani, as well as prominent Muslim male writers, such as Haroon Moghul, who’ve used their social media platforms to critique the Muslim communities’ application and practice of Islamic beliefs—in English. A subject of criticism among Islamic feminists is Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa’s article in The Washington Post titled, “As Muslim women, we actually ask you not to wear the hijab in the name of interfaith solidarity”; the article does not—as the title suggests—discourage against cultural appropriation. Instead, it advises non-Muslim women “not [to] wear a headscarf in ‘solidarity’ with the ideology that most silences us, equating our bodies with ‘honor.’ Stand with us instead with moral courage against the ideology of Islamism that demands we cover our hair.” Although Nomani and Arafa discuss the re-interpretation of “hijab” to mean “headscarf” and argue that this is not the original command of the Qur’an, detailing their struggles against Muslims who’ve harassed women to wear the headscarf—and although these are all points made and supported by other Muslim feminists—the targeted audience of the article, (white) non-Muslim women, questionably repositions non-Muslim feminists into the role of the imposing white savior, from which so many Islamic feminists have fought to remove them.
In the case of Nomani and Arafa, the target audience is made clear even from as early as the title of the article, which blatantly addresses a non-Muslim audience. In most cases, however, it is only implied, and can be deciphered from where the publication appears and its main audience.
Subsequently, the question then arises of where Muslims who speak only English are situated in protesting the inequalities in Muslim communities. Muslims critiquing oppressive power structures in either English or non-English languages is protest, and effective. Muslims critiquing each other in their own languages is protest, and effective. Muslims critiquing each other in English, such as the scholar and Islamic feminist Amina Wadud, for Muslim audiences is protest, and effective. Amina Wadud still operates within a form of the language barrier; since she writes for a Muslim audience, she does not define words that recur in Islamic discourse. Culture is tied very much to language, and the language barrier encompasses a cultural one. However, articles in journals such as The Washington Post and The Guardian don’t cater to a Muslim readership or bare the burden of social responsibility, and become sensationalist. Mona Eltahawy, whose activism has been valuable, fell short with her Foreign Policy article.
Articles written in English are still effective if published on a platform whose audience is aware of not only the injustices which the author protests, but of the injustices affecting the Muslim author herself. An author who critiques gender inequality in the Muslim community is just as subject to Islamophobia from her audience as she is to misogyny from her community. Since language hierarchies exist in most Muslim communities in the United States, with a preference for Arabic above all Others, it is important to find a place for diasphoric Muslims who speak languages other than English or Arabic. This may, after all, facilitate the development of a different facet of feminism, one that is freer from both a white savior complex and Arab exclusivity.
When, in Los Angeles in February of 2015, an all-women’s mosque opened as an alternative space to the oppressive, segregated mosques in the remainder of the country, it was identified at once by male scholars as problematic in prohibiting the attendance of men, even though mosques with barriers—literal barriers—bar (and discourage) female attendance. While disparaging women, scholars like Yasir Qadhi, struck by an opportunistic enlightenment, encouraged their audiences on Facebook to address the “root” of the problem: the unwelcome atmosphere in mainstream mosques. Women who attend the mosque, Qadhi argued, should be treated with a special respect for choosing to attend instead of shopping. He stated that it was natural that women would “counter-react” to feeling unwelcome and that some of those counter-reactions would be “illegitimate.” The implication that an all-women’s mosque was illegitimate would have come as a surprise to Muslims who primarily speak neither English nor Arabic, such as, for example Muslim women in China.
In “Debates over Islamic Feminism and Empowerment in Contemporary China,” Masumi Matsumoto describes all-female madrasas and mosques in China:
“Nüxue, or female madrasas, have been mushrooming in China’s Muslim communities since the beginning of the 1990s. Arabic and Islam are taught there. The government permits them tacitly. Such schools have given Muslim women unexpected gender roles and have supported the growth of China’s Islamic feminism. The female madrasa offers alternative values which Party-controlled public schools cannot provide. Based on the tradition of female mosques and female ahong, nüxue is the result of intense negotiations between Muslims and non-Muslim Chinese society, between Muslim women and men, and between Muslims of different social classes. Islamic feminism in China is aimed at eliminating gender discrimination and traditional patriarchy. However, their notion of gender equality with Islamic characteristics contradicts with the more “masculine” gender equality supported by Western feminists and the CCP, which tend to emphasize materialism, nationalism, and militarism.”
In China, the concept of female imams and religious leaders is not a foreign one. Islamophobia is as rampant in China as it is in the United States, but Chinese Muslim feminists have developed an Islamic feminism that is able to dodge accusations from critics of Western influence—they face, I am sure, different accusations, but this raises an incredible point: if (Western) Muslim feminists are too influenced by Western feminism to attain legitimacy in their own communities, how have Chinese Muslim feminists arrived at the same interpretations for centuries? Muslim men who are concerned about neocolonialism and Islamophobia may have an appropriate fear, though manifested in inappropriate measures, of Westernization (colonialism), but their arguments against Islamic feminism perpetuating neocolonialism are insufficient when Chinese Islamic feminists, who don’t communicate their interpretations primarily in English or any Western language, engage in the same practices, assign the same leadership roles to women, as the “Westernized” Islamic feminist.
From the language barrier erect between Muslim American feminists and Muslim Chinese feminists, we are able to discard the notion that equality is inherently and exclusively a colonialist value—it is, in fact, inherently not. There is a feminism that survives in non-English speaking communities that is worth preserving, because it serves the very people it is meant to serve rather than imposing domineering, incompatible concepts, by precluding colonialist audiences and allowing feminism to develop organically in the community.
This preclusion of colonialist audiences through language is already a subject of amusement on social media. In the beginning of 2016, an image was viral on major social media platforms—Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.—which read In Bengali we don’t say ‘I love you.’ We say ‘Tui manush na goru,’ which means ‘My heart loses purpose without you,’ and I think that’s beautiful. Of course, tui manush na goru means Are you human or cow? The joke takes a stab at cultural appropriators, who employ languages foreign to them to maneuver through cultural experiences from which they are barred(i.e. the popular question “How do you say ‘I love you’ in your language?”). It is a subtle, and humorous, form of protest—which makes it powerful. Despite popular notions that Muslim cultures require colonialist influences to create a more just and equal society, Nazira Zeineddine, a pioneer of 20th century feminism, addressed a prominent contemporary scholar she criticized for using an interpretation of Islam to perpetuate misogyny, saying,
“You mentioned, my dear Sheikh, that the health and the morality of the Bedouin and the villagers earned them the right to be unveiled. It was a corrupt morality of city dwellers that blighted them with the veil. Excuse me, sir, I’m a village woman living in the city and I have observed both villagers and city dwellers. I have not seen your city sisters and brothers to be inherently less moral than my sisters and brothers from the villages […] Woe to us if we do not join with our men in breaking our chains to seize our freedoms that are gifts from God Almighty. They provide for the welfare, advancement, and happiness of all.” (Unveiling and Veiling, 290)
Zeineddine manages to make a compelling feminist argument within the parameters of Islamic philosophies. When referencing European authors or appealing to concepts popularly attributed to Western thought, Zeineddine strips herself of pretention by communicating her argument in Arabic. She discusses, specifically, the settings in her own country—the village, the city—to formulate her argument against male figures of authority. Because she communicates her point in Arabic, she speaks to the people whom she criticizes, rather than speaking behind them, the conversation is a more honest one.
Ghalayini, Zeineddine’s most frequent subject of critique, published a refutation entitled Views on the Book “Attributed to Miss Nazira Zeineddine” in which he alleged that Unveiling and Veiling had been written not by a woman named Nazira Zeineddine but by a group of men, while simultaneously accusing Zeineddine of treason by connecting her to the French and foreign enemies of Islam who seek to embarrass the religion—subsequently admitting, of course, that his own interpretations were embarrassing to the religion.
When such critiques are written in Arabic or indigenous languages, it provides a larger space for examination and reexamination. It provides a larger space to examine and reexamine freely, but removing external pressures—which is the reason I suspect that al-Ghalayini and men like him reach desperately for the confines of those pressures even when criticism is communicated in their own languages.
There was a time when I used to read the Qur’an daily for about 30 minutes. When I did this, I noticed myself changing and was forced to reduce the reading to twice a week. When I read “too often,” I became calmer, more at peace, and I cared very little about troublesome events or material loss. It was as though I were turning to water. Unfortunately, this all also meant that I was too tranquil when any kind of injustice befell me. I can not afford to be so forgiving. I need to be a fighter.
I was thinking recently, with all of the Islamophobia I’ve seen, with Muslim women harassed, with men showing up at masjids with guns, that the “violent” verses of the Qur’an that used to bother me–don’t anymore. I’ve written an entire series about verses taken out of context, about how they are actually defensive, but even when I knew that, they’d still bothered me a little, because who really wants to see any unashamed advocation of violence anywhere, even if it is in self-defense, especially in their religious texts of Love? And now they don’t. I have always been unapologetic, but I have never been as unapologetic as now. The non-Muslims who present these verses out of context to prove how violent I am have literally driven me to not caring, to thinking “Good. I hope you learn not to oppress those who are coming to worship.” It made me realize that what I thought was a virtue of my character, the sense that these verses were too harsh, was an unkindness to those whose situations I could not understand. What seems like God’s vengeance towards one group of people is in truth God’s mercy toward another.
Originally a guest post on Orbala.
My favorite masjid is so severely sex-segregated that there isn’t merely a barrier for the women; there’s an entirely separate tiny afterthought of a room. But it’s my favorite because it is in the hills, where the stars are the brightest, next to sheds with horses in them (my mother once chastised me for feeding the horses before breaking my own fast during iftar time) and in the midst of wild plants, cats, rabbits, and snakes—and, according to the claims of my brothers, jinn. It is a wild, tangled, untamed place, and my heart always quakes at the glimmering city lights far away. On Ruby Avenue, my imagination is also wild, vibrant, and irrepressible. It was where I went to Quran classes as a child and studied under the imam, but because of the segregation, I rarely attend anymore, since I’m not fond of second-class citizen treatment; though aunties constantly demand to know why, the response from my mother is always that I’m busy with class and work, which they then proceed to make clear is an unacceptable excuse.
Currently, the masjid is under an expansion project. My mother relayed to me that the new building won’t have a barrier, and so I should attend. I informed her that men lie (a male leader told me once that he would take down the barrier at a different masjid and did not keep his word) and so I will not believe this until I can witness that it is true.
In the meantime, on a Friday during Ramadan on Ruby Avenue, in a prayer room separate from the women’s, one of the imams casually mentioned through the intercom that anyone from the congregation can call the azaan. I turned to my mother and announced, “I’m going to call the azaan on Sunday.”
She stared at me for a few minutes, and I added, “He said anyone!” I knew, however, as well as she did, that he’d only meant the men in the other room whose presence he could appreciate. The message was not intended for me. We do not exist. Earlier that week the imam had asked for feedback on whether maghrib should begin 10 minutes or 15 minutes after iftari.
“10 minutes,” I had voted softly in the women’s section in vain. We were in a different room, deliberately could not be heard, and would not be counted.
“10 minutes!” shouted several of the men. For some reason, they always shouted, as though the imam couldn’t hear them two feet away. At any opportunity they would then of course proceed to complain that the women were too loud.
But the imam had said anyone and should be held accountable for his words. After all, if he meant to exclude women, he ought to have said so. He should hear himself say it, hear how terrible it sounds. There is a reason none of the men have the courage to say these things out loud. They quietly go about them instead, self-liberated from the burden of forming words from their actions to give them consciousness.
“I don’t know if he meant women…” my mother responded.
“He ought to be more explicit with his sexism then.”
“I’ll ask him for you tomorrow. It would also depend on if the community allows it. It’s not just his masjid alone you know.”
I had prior arrangements to meet a friend for dinner and wasn’t able to attend the prayers at the masjid with her the day she sought an answer. After tarabee when my mother returned, I would let her rest and not disturb her. So, the soonest was Sunday morning when, stumbling downstairs half-asleep, too eager to bother waking up completely, I asked her whether I would be calling the azaan that night.
My mother is naturally soft-spoken, but this time, she made a point to lower her voice. “I asked the hafiz’s wife to ask him if you can call the azaan, and she responded that he said that since you were once a student of his, you should come to him so that he could explain to you why women can’t give the azaan, and you would understand.”
I never imagined I would, but I started to cry. I was so angry. I told her I would never go back (but for her, of course I did), that there was no reason for me to go to a place that doesn’t want me there, that I don’t want to hear his “explanations.” I’ve heard all of them before. On Fridays, my little brother uses my material for his khutbahs—because I can’t. I told her I would not speak to the imam.
“Please don’t be this way,” my mother pleaded. “Come with me. Stop crying; you are fasting and you cannot lose water.”
I could not stop. I didn’t care how much water I lost. It was an insignificant detail to what I felt and I was not thinking of it. There might have possibly been a very small part of me that genuinely believed I would call the azaan. How could a masjid situated in such a beautiful place, a place where the air shifted and somehow always felt misty, where there used to be a tire swing that would fill with water and that I’d run to as a child, be so unjust?
“How was the dinner yesterday?” my mother asked.
“It went well. I was allowed to speak during it. …It’s better than the masjid.” I began to cry again.
“You seem to be well-loved,” my mother said. “I mentioned that you were fond of a certain dish that was being served at the masjid and all of the aunties wanted to fill plates of it for me to take home to you.”
Vision still blurred with tears, I asked my friends to pray that I don’t burst into tears over a plate of samosas later that night at the masjid iftari. My mother returned to clarify that the imam’s actual words were, “Yes, she can. But… since she was once one of my students, tell her to come to me. I’ll explain to her why a woman can’t give the azaan.”
He might have been implying that it would create too much of an uproar in the community… even if it were the truth. But I didn’t care enough to find out what he’d meant.
Upon hearing all this, one of my two little brothers, three years my junior, who follows me around frequently to pester me with Islamic questions, texted me, “Am I a plagiarist?” I responded he was free to use my material as long as he acted according to the spirit of what he lectured. After all, I never protested before, even when he softened the blow of my words… which circumstance compelled of him, always.
The day before I decided to pray in the men’s section, my brother stood in the hallway outside my room with an awkward expression on his face. “They [some of the younger girls at the masjid] were telling me they weren’t allowed to pray on their periods,” he recounted to me, “and I told them, actually they could if they wanted. And they were like NO, you can’t. And I was like, but it’s not in the Qur’an; if you want to make something haraam you have to show the verse.”
My eyebrows furrowed in subtle protest of a man “educating” a woman on her menstrual cycle. At the same time it was unique that he was not disgusted with the subject. But I already knew where this was going. As admired a Quran reciter my brother was in the community, he did not have the power of age to pull this off.
He continued. “And they were like, my mom says you can’t. …And one of them went up to her mom and asked! And her mom said, no he’s wrong. And strange. Don’t talk to him. She told her not to talk to me!”
I laughed, “Well yeah, don’t bring up girls’ periods like you know better.”
“But I didn’t! They brought it up first! To me! They brought it up to me! It’s not like I was some random guy! But now I look like some random guy going up to women like, hey, did you know you could pray during your periods?”
I laughed a little harder. My brother had also been a student of the imam, and a much admired one by the community. He gave khutbahs (even if the materials were mine) and recitations. It was peculiar and hilarious to hear that he had weirded out masjid aunties.
We left earlier for the masjid than usual, almost as soon as I returned from the office. It was a Sunday, so we were expecting a crowd and few parking spaces. For iftar I had only a date. I’d gotten into the habit of eating very little for iftari. I don’t pray with the imam, because I don’t pray behind men, and certainly not behind walls, which act like the sutras that we place in front of us when we pray to prevent interruption of our prayers by those walking in front of us—therefore severing us from the imam leading on the other side, rending our prayers dismembered and incomplete. Instead, I finish the salah before the imam starts. This requires fast eating, or little to no eating. I go with the latter.
One time, I overheard a sister ask my mom, “What [prayer] is your daughter praying?” while the women were waiting for the imam to begin.
My mother had responded, “Oh no, she is praying maghrib… she…” —nervous laughter—“she just doesn’t think prayer should be hindered so she prays immediately after iftari.” This excuse was less controversial; it made me look like a quiet, pious young woman who was eager to pray immediately after iftar rather than a troublemaking feminist rebel.
There is nothing I could do to not be a spectacle. Although everyone at the masjid breaks their fast as the azaan starts, I always wait for it to finish. The first couple of times this happened, a few of the women repeated to me that it was time to break the fast. I smiled and said, “I’m listening to the azaan.” One of them gave me a strange look. “You don’t have to wait.”
“I know. I believe it’s nice.”
Since the masjid is under construction, we had iftari several feet away in a very large, spacious tent outside, so it was difficult to hear the azaan that was called from the inside. (Nevertheless, I was still not allowed to call it.) I waited, straining to hear that it had finished, consumed the date, and then quickly slipped out of the tent.
Some of the congregants who don’t fit inside spill out onto the deck, where the women pray behind the men (as opposed to an entirely separate room like the arrangement on the inside.) This is only a Sunday community iftar phenomenon, when the masjid is most packed.
As usual, I started praying maghrib long before the imam began—this time in the men’s section outside on the expansive deck, so that I would be finished before the rest of men came. The summer air was cool and lovely.
When I was almost done, with 2 rakat nafl left, a man attempted an aggressive “Excuse me!” but I started the takbeer for nafl before he could say anything else. Frustrated, he walked behind me to the sisters, who hadn’t been there when I’d begun but had gathered in a line in the back as I was finishing, and he said to them, “Excuse me, when she’s done can you make sure she moves back? We need this space.”
(There was plenty of space.)
One of sisters laughed and answered, “Uh, yeah, that’s why she’s, uh, yeah.”
I finished just as the imam started, turned to leave and saw 2 entire rows of women formed far in the back, staring wide-eyed at me across the safe gap they’d maintained, and I descended down the stairs as the rest of the men who’d been waiting for me to end the prayer ascended. In the sky, Saturn could be observed beneath the moon, and so could Venus and Jupiter. My heart leapt.
On the way home, I asked my mother in the car, “Are you mad at me?”
“No. Why would I be mad at you?”
I was straining her reputation, I knew it. Once, during maghrib, my hijab kept sliding off, because it was heavy and jeweled and the fabric shimmered, so I tossed it to the ground where it was inclined. I finished the prayer sans hijab, with my hair falling in dark curls around my neck during sejda. I did not look around to see who was gaping at me in disapproval. When I turned to bid salaam to the angels, I saw only that the women were preoccupied with themselves. MashAllah. My mother, though, had winced, as these behaviors are magnified when it is your own daughter, though she related that she understood the hijab would not stay.
But this, this was a whole new level of a transgression. It didn’t matter that I technically wasn’t in the way of the men, that I had started before the imam and finished before him so that the men only had to wait a few moments to start forming lines. (Regardless of the fact that they really didn’t have to wait, and it was their arrogance that prevented them from lining up beside me, even if on the other end of the same row, leaving a wide distance in between.) They missed no part of the prayer. What mattered was that I was a different creeping shariah—a quiet challenge, out of order, a threat. I’m too young to have the advantage of the masjid aunties, with whom no one messes, and they were not going to support me either.
The next morning, my brother reported to me, “My reputation is ruined.”
“Why?” I asked, thinking for a second it was because of me.
“I’m known as Menstrual Man.”
I laughed, “Who calls you Menstrual Man?”
“I call myself Menstrual Man. They call me Period Man.”
His renovation did have a better ring to it. He continued, meekly laughing at himself, “One of the girls showed me a hadith to prove that she was right, so I sent her some links to show that I was right too.”
I opened and closed my eyes.
“And my friend was like, dude, you went back?! And I said, yeah, I mean if they’re already going to ridicule me I might as well substantiate my perspective with some evidence. And he was like, yeah, go down a martyr.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Just tell them you got it from me and it won’t be so weird.”
“Well, you’re already a weirdo for wanting to do the azaan so I don’t know how much that would help.”
“I meant because I’m a girl, dunderhead,” I said crossly. “You have a sister, who menstruates.”
To justify women forced to the back, men cite a hadith by Abu Huraira, a renowned sexist and a liar. Imam Zarkashi in al-Ijaba writes, “They told ‘A’isha that Abu Hurayra was asserting that the Messenger of God said: ‘Three things bring bad luck: house, woman, and horse.’ ‘A’isha responded: ‘Abu Hurayra learned his lessons very badly. He came into our house when the Prophet was in the middle of a sentence. He heard only the end of it. What the Prophet said was: ‘May Allah refuse the Jews; they say three things bring bad luck: house, woman, and horse.’”
The same misogynist who was consistently refuted by an angry ‘A’isha reported that the Messenger said, “The best of the rows of men is the first and the worst is the last. And, the best of the rows of women is the last and the worst of them is the first.”
For men, attending the masjid prayers is emphasized as crucial; women are allowed the flexibility to pray at home if they wish. If the Prophet even ever said this, I believe he said it to mean that if women are in the front, it signifies that men were late to the prayer, and women were faster than them. It was meant to ensure that the men were prompt.
So if I get there first, I have a right to pray there. It does not mean that you should push me to the back to accommodate your tardiness. (Who’re you fooling? You weren’t there first.)
“Nahida,” said my mother gently after she called me to her bedroom. “I’m going to ask something of you and I hope very much that you’ll listen—”
I already knew what was happening. “No.”
“You want me to stop praying in the men’s section.”
She was quiet, and then she said, “Please.”
“Why? Do you care about what people say?”
“It’s not that. They already think we’re a dysfunctional mess… I don’t want to fuel it.” And here she did not even know about my brother the Menstrual Man. “Please, you can still pray without the imam.”
There are several times, regarding what I wore or where I traveled, during which I disregard my mother’s insistence and live as I please, but I would always ensure it did not hurt her. This time, I succumbed to her request.
“This is against my religion,” I said.
“And I’m right.”
“It doesn’t seem to matter.”
Where could I pray? I wracked my brain for possibilities. Not inside the women’s room, behind a wall. Not on the deck, behind men. Not in the tent, where I would need to wait for everyone to leave after iftari first and thus delay the prayer. Not in the wilderness I love, though it is ideally situated behind the masjid, in the direction all the men face so that I would be in front of them, where the qibla was closest, because at the thought of snakes after sunset, my mother would surely prevent me.
I didn’t mind the idea of a couple of snakebites, which frankly sound far more appealing than this. I didn’t mind the wild plants we as children had referred to as spiders’ eggs because they erupted what looked like tiny dead spider children either. But that was it. Those were all my options and I’d run out. There was no where for me to pray.
In my ideal masjid, families pray together. It seems anti-Islamic to tear them apart. These are parts of Islam that are integral to my being. I can not freely practice them. I thought of Ibrahim’s sacrifice, his defiance of his fathers who worshipped idols, of tradition, of patriarchy. I thought of his sacrifice of his son, whom he made sure consented. There are many more sacrifices, by women in the Quran, countless sacrifices, time and time again, that are not considered sacrifice—but just things to expect of women.
This would be one of them.
On February 10th, 2015, Yusor Abu Salha, 21, was shot execution-style alongside her husband of six weeks, Deah Barakat, 23, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19, by a man who resembles a potato. The potato-terrorist’s name is Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46-year-old while male who, according to the malestream media, shot the three innocent students over a “parking dispute” while chanting the infinite wisdom of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, renowned leaders in the progressive Islamophobic new atheists movement. Like all white men with grievances and guns, Hicks had harassed the three Palestinian-American students for their religious beliefs incessantly before finally killing them in a pre-meditated “fit of rage,” while their cars were not parked at an empty parking space.
I apologize for waiting to write about this story. As you can tell, I’m still rather upset.
However, I cannot describe the atrocious murder of these three in a clear act of terrorism without mentioning the February 6th assault of a 9-year-old Muslim boy in Sweden, whose head was smashed into the pavement by security as the 9-year-old struggled to breathe whilst reciting the shahada; or the vicious assault on a Muslim family inside of a grocery store on February 12th during which the father of a 10-year-old boy was physically beaten to the ground by a group of white men while his son was held back by bystanders from assisting his father, and while his young daughter was sexually harassed as the men demanded that she remove her hijab; or the 28-year-old Mustafa Mattan who was shot and killed through the door of his apartment on February 9th after he rose to answer a knock. Mattan was a Somali Muslim, a university graduate student who’d found work as a security guard to save for a wedding, and a humble and soft-spoken man whose funeral expenses were covered by donations that his family struggled to raise. And these are only the most prominent of countless hate-crimes motivated by growing Islamophobia. Surrounding these attacks on living, breathing people, most of whom have been made to stop living and breathing, are the February 13th burning of the Islamic Center in Huston, the February 14th vandalism (happy day of love everyone) of an Islamic school in Rhode Island, and the windows shot out of a Muslim secondary school in Montreal on February 10th.
Although the malestream media neglected to report the shooting on Chapel Hill accurately without the criticism of Twitter and independent journalists (that’s embarrassing) the Muslim community was overflowing with enough pain and outrage (and rightfully so) that eventually, reporters from CNN and MSNBC had the sense to realize their mistakes, though not without parading the “parking dispute” proposition for a few more days, checked with the words “police claim” to frame the favored excuse. Unfortunately, some expression of that pain and outrage from the Muslim community involved appropriation of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter–#MuslimLivesMatter—which was also embarrassing, and telling to say the least, considering the death of the Somali grad student had, comparatively, inspired nothing from us but the sound of crickets.
It is inarguable that Yusor, Razan, and Deah had been upstanding citizens, who built homes for those without homes, who raised money to donate to Syrian refugees, who were devoted and kind, who impacted their communities so profoundly that their efforts continued even after their deaths. It is inarguable that this world was better while they lived in it, that the loss of their lives is mourned by those loved best by God, that they were stellar Muslims and stellar human beings. But what if they hadn’t been? What if they hadn’t been the epitome of everything we uphold as ideal? What if they hadn’t been newly weds? What if they hadn’t been accepted into a university, hadn’t been planning to attend next fall? What if they hadn’t been hijabis? What if they hadn’t raised money for refugees, but had been impoverished themselves? What if they had been 16 and pregnant, or LGB or T, or… not Palestinian? —what if they, like the Somali man, shot in his apartment, whom we neglected, had actually fit the profile of the victims in #BlackLivesMatter?
Would Muslim lives matter then?
Before we “borrow” (read: appropriate) from the black community, whose struggles and movements benefit us all, it is crucial to evaluate whether those from whom we are “borrowing” are valued in our own. The relative silence in the death of Mattan, 16 hours before the deaths of Yusor, Razan, and Deah, speaks as many volumes about the racism in the Muslim community as the silence surrounding the deaths of Yusor, Razan, and Deah speaks about the American media. The Muslim community exists in a state of Arab supremacy, in which the devastation to Arab American lives—or Arab lives in a global context—is met with all the heartbreak that embraces an ideal victim, and destruction to all other lives, especially Black lives, is greeted with a shuffle of discomfort. Non-Arab lives are considerably devalued, and consequently, the narrative of their deaths neglected. As hard as it might be to face, our collective sorrow has a color.
The victims of the Chapel Hill shooting garnered this much attention in the Muslim community because the victims were upstanding. And no one should have to be upstanding for their lives to matter. There’s a really horrible sense that some who aren’t directly connected to the victims is publicly indulging themselves in the excuse to behave righteously about how good–and they were good–the victims were… and to credit the entire Muslim community through the good deeds of the respected dead. So that the Muslim American community can itself be depicted as the ideal victim.
But we are not an ideal victim. We are not all Arabs, and we are not all straight, and we are not all young and beautiful and excellent, and we are not all in positions to give rather than receive. And my heart is breaking, for Yusor, and Razan, and Deah, and for Mustafa too, and—forgive me—but especially for him. Because no one but his family is mourning him like they are mourning the victims of Hicks. And it is shattering me to the core.
.إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ
I honest to God was not going to write a post about this, but since I have begrudgingly begun, I’m going to make this as brief as possible.
I don’t expect celebrities, like Katy Perry, or Madonna, or Lady Gaga–or, as much as I actually do like her–Angelina Jolie, to understand what they’re doing when they appropriate from cultures that are not theirs; in an ideal world, celebrities would have a clue and could subsequently be held accountable, and their apologies wouldn’t be seen as “giving in to the evils of the Muslim world and their horrible hatred of women’s ankles.” I do, however, expect celebrities to understand the simple concept of not being an asshole. And Selena Gomez was being an asshole. And she knows it.
The fact that Selena Gomez walked into a mosque in what I’m sure she’d call “one of those long back robe thingies” and decided to flash her ankle is demonstrative enough that she knows what she’s doing, even if she doesn’t register that it’s offensive because she’s playing off the stereotypical Western harem fantasy and not because she’s a woman flashing her ankle. You know who gets to flash her ankle at a mosque? ME. I get to do it. And when it’s a mosque that is not in a country where I live and legally affected–even that is questionable. I wouldn’t go to Saudi and start driving there just for the sake of the world being horrified when I’m categorized as a terrorist, because I can leave the country, come back to the US with my convenient US citizenship, and have pretended to have done something to “save” Saudi women while actually having no effect at all and possibly having made their lives harder, because now they have to hear sexist Saudi men rebuking this struggle for liberation with criticisms about the “influence of Western women.” It’s easy to be a rebel when you can escape, when you’re in a position in which the world is watching you, and, in the case of Selena Gomez, when you’re someone the West actually cares about.
Selena Gomez, of course, wasn’t trying to make that statement. She’s not championing the cause of freeing Muslim women; she’s not misguided into thinking it’s her place to do so. She is, however, trying to be scandalous. And she’s perpetuating the idea that all it takes to be scandalous is a little bit of ankle, and since Muslim men–and women–have reacted with the degree of outrage that white people expected, Selena’s achieved her goal while skewing the reason behind that outrage to one that fits the Western agenda. Conveniently, we can all now believe that what we thought of Muslims is confirmed–that they hate women, liberation, and ankles–while pretending we don’t understand the real reason: Gomez wasn’t looking to practice her rights; she was looking for people to offend. She relied on a context in which Muslim women are depicted as sexually enticing and rebellious with a single flash of an ankle, when that context exists no where except in the West. You know who doesn’t care if Muslim women flash their ankles? Everyone. All Muslim men. Literally, they don’t care. They don’t fetishize our ankles.
I’m sure someone could make the argument that this based solely off the context in which I live, and that maybe Muslim men in different regions do fetishize ankles. Undoubtedly, there’s someone somewhere with an ankle fetish. Good for him. What I’m saying is that although there are hadith cited in which women are advised to cover everything between their hair and their ankles (including those two things) no one actually enforces the latter. There’s a lot of hijab policing from Muslim men, but the only person who’s ever told me to cover my ankles was one of the infamous masjid aunties. What was offensive was the flashing ankle in conjunction with the abaya, in the context of Muslim women being fetishized by the West and Muslim beliefs misconstrued. Had Gomez worn only the outfit she donned beneath her abaya, which included ankle-revealing capris, she wouldn’t have been seen as being deliberately disrespectful, and there wouldn’t have been outrage. She wouldn’t have been seen as someone trying to modify a culture that isn’t hers of something it doesn’t even have. One might point out that she might have not been allowed to enter that masjid if her ankle weren’t covered–but the fact that she was not made to wear it elsewhere only proves that the ankle isn’t inherently offensive. What’s offensive is she thought it would be cute to pretend that Muslims do find ankles inherently offensive, and operated on that bizarre misconception, while simultaneously showing blatant disrespect for their actual beliefs and for the criteria for respect within a mosque. She not only misattributed the scandal to showing women’s ankles, but operated on that misattribution.
To conclude that everything there is to believe about Muslims from a non-Muslim perspective is confirmed from this incident Selena Gomez orchestrated is nothing short of unfair.
When I was an undergrad about a year and a half ago, I had a professor whose class was such a frustrating experience that even the memory of it is discomforting. Aside from the horrifying discussion she entertained in the classroom about whether a student in a novel we were reading had actually been raped by her professor or whether the student in fact was the one taking advantage of him, I found myself tirelessly called over and over to explain the simplest things.
One of the assigned weekly readings happened to be about conservation. I can’t remember the author now—it might have been Aldo Leopold. The article, I recall clearly, cites Native American philosophies pertaining to the land and to land ethic, with specific mention of the Pueblo Indians. And yet, although the author cites indigenous approaches to land throughout the piece, he makes bizarre claims like “we have no land ethic yet.” The excerpt was published, I noted then, after the formation of the United States; it might have been as late as the 1950s. By then citizenship of marginalized races had been recognized, and Native Americans had certainly been forcibly assimilated.
To say that “we” have no land ethic while citing the very land ethic of a people who are forced to become “us” does a number of things: (1) it remarks on the lethal dynamics of a dual identity in which Native Americans are either assimilated or Othered depending on the convenience of what befits the author’s argument (2) it erases the contributions of indigenous tribes to ethics by implying that what the writer explains is unprecedented since “we” don’t have it yet and (3) it addresses one audience, a white audience, in a nation under the pretense that Native Americans are now seen as one of us and all has been made right, when the claim “we don’t have this yet” demonstrably excludes them from “us.”
Responding to the article, I wrote that it was clear who Leopold’s—or whoever this was—audience is. To my amazement, the professor returned the response with a comment along the lines of, “You mean he shouldn’t have been addressing people? He can’t talk to the environment.”
Really? She thought I wanted him to talk to plants? She needed me to explain this to her? How did this woman ever—
No. I mean his audience was white people during a time when the United States was supposed to include Native Americans, and he’s pretending his audience isn’t just white people. He’s pretending—like you—that it’s just “people.” I mean why the hell should I care what white people say to each other, especially when they’re just regurgitating things that’ve already been invented? Why aren’t we reading about land ethics from the Pueblos, whom he even admits were the source? This is so second-hand—and second rate. Don’t even try to tell me we can’t read land ethics from the Pueblos because the work isn’t in English ‘cause ya’ll went out of your way to translate the Greeks and feed me the bullshit that is the Odyssey.
This guy even had the audacity to write something like, “Their civilization ended, but it wasn’t because their land expired.” No shit, it’s because you killed them. Did he go on to expand on this bizarre way of clarifying-but-not-really-clarifying how their civilization expired? Of course not. He just left it at that.
Perhaps white people should concern themselves with preserving people. I don’t think they’re quite advanced enough for land ethics yet.
This is one example of an aggravating phenomenon I’ve noticed throughout my entire academic career. Every professor is quick to say that a good writer is aware of her audience, and if her audience doesn’t understand her writing, it’s probably because she’s explained it poorly, or needs to explain further. But sometimes it’s because your audience is composed entirely of idiots. Or of white people. Who are also idiots. One of my classmates submitted an excerpt of her thesis for workshop once, and despite the fact that she referred to her cousin with the feminine pronoun about 50 times in the piece, people in the class (guess which race of people) were still confused as to whether the cousin was male or female, because the name was too ethnic for them to discern a gender. Consequently, this writer received terrible advice, like “All your names start with B, and that’s confusing in foreign names. I can’t tell who’s who so you need to change the names.”
No she doesn’t. You read the feminine pronoun over and over. You wouldn’t be confused if you actually knew how to read English. Your own language.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to explain what “hijab” means and its cultural and religious context. I can’t stop and do this every time. It distracts from the larger point of what I’m actually writing. I don’t have time to explain things to those who refuse to crawl outside the rocks they’re living under. If you don’t know what a word means, put down the book and look it up.
At this extent, “keep your audience in mind” becomes nothing short of racist advice. When directed at people of color, it means they should always remember the majority of their audience is white, and should therefore not only explain simple, “foreign” concepts until the writer is blue in the face, but cater to that whiteness with a tone it finds acceptable.