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.

You have the right to bear children.

You have the right to bear children. No one may enter your body and alter the state of your existence with an entitled twist of cold medical instruments. If you are impoverished, you have the right to bear children. If you are disabled, you have the right to bear children. If you are of color, you have the right to bear children. If you are transgender, if you are intersex, if you are not heterosexual, if you are diaspora embodied, if you are ill, if you cannot read this, you have the right to bear children. You have the right to bear children in a country that is not yours. You have the right to bear children who may “burden” society for 18 years. You have the right to bear children of men who resemble you. You have the right to bear children of men whose hearts have been crushed by the weight of distress. You have the right to bear children of women in male bodies. You have the right to bear children you cannot afford. You have the right to bear children who are disabled, of color, transgender, like you. You have the right to bear children. You have the right to love, and you have the right to bear children.

And once they have been birthed, your children have the right to exist.


On Drawing the Prophet Muhammad

I will never defend, accept, or fail to denounce a depiction of the Prophet by a Westerner, regardless of their excuse, progressive or offensive.

Depicting the Prophet is an injustice, and it is an injustice because the West has a habit of ignoring the copyright-by-virtue-of-existing laws, those which it conveniently affords itself, when regarding the works of ‘foreigners’:

It is an injustice because Picasso is credited and celebrated for inventing ‘cubism’ while his people destroyed the African art from which cubism was inspired. Meanwhile they named it something new–‘cubism’–repackaged it as a white invention and sold it for millions among themselves, while they called the originals “primitive art.”

It is an injustice because Africans were not thought of as Christians until the presence of missionaries in the African continent, when in reality the religion had been practiced in the continent long before Jesus had light hair and blue eyes.

It is an injustice because not only can the works of a people be appropriated, but so can the people themselves, whether in whitewashed depictions of Jesus or in white men invoking the name of MLK Jr. to lecture frustrated people of color about peace.

It is an injustice because conspiracy theorists suggest that aliens built the pyramids of Egypt and Mayan temples instead of each respective native population, because that is more likely; no one would ever think question that the Greeks and Romans built anything.

It is an injustice because the Swastika, once a symbol of peace, eternity, and infinity, is now associated and can only be associated with Nazis.

It is an injustice because contemporary fashion designers derive their inspiration from traditional cultures in Africa and Asia with no mention of the names responsible for originals; the works, arts, cultures, and labor of a people of color are the property of the public as long as that public is white.

It is an injustice because only Western copyright laws when applying to Western ‘creators’ are elevated over the global economy; any culture who does not attribute rights in a way that the West can understand is subjected to the thievery of their creative work and the capital derived from it.

It is an injustice because due to the aforementioned, because Muslims refuse to engage in the depictions of their Prophets, the face of the Prophet becomes grounds for opportunist warfare.

As the West cannot accept the disengagement of Muslims, whether Western or Eastern, from visually ‘claiming’ the physique of the Prophet, the West enforces a dynamic in which Muslims feel pressured to engage in a Western-type practice of depicting religious figures, a pseudo-conversion and abandonment of self-identity, in fear that the Prophet will be caricaturized and misconceived by the interpretations of the West if these interpretations are allowed to stand alone.

It is an injustice because depictors of the Prophet Muhammad believe their approach to religious figures, to anyone or anything, to be the default approach to the world, to trump all other forms of religious or cultural practice, and to believe that the absence of depiction, of the visual, is the concession to be conquered and altered, silence as evidence of compliance.

A non-Muslim drawing the Prophet Muhammad makes the Prophet Muhammad, his image, and his legacy, immediately inaccessible to Muslims who practice Islam by not creating images of him. It successfully privileges the non-Muslim view of him, as a racist caricature, when no imagery from practicing Muslims can exist to combat this view.

On Whether We Require Religion to be Moral

I wasn’t, until rather recently, one to suggest / wonder if religion is the only way to decipher between what is moral and what is immoral. Though upon receiving inquiries as to whether I believed someone could be a moral person without religion my answer had consistently been yes, admittedly what I truly felt was far more complicated.

I was not, however, going to go around preaching such a thing. First of all, I don’t believe nonreligious people really give a damn whether or not I think they can be moral without religion, and I don’t believe they should give a damn. Also, telling someone they can’t understand morality without being religious is an unprecedented and super mean thing to say. And being mean is like, against my religion and stuff. Or something.

It took someone telling me first, in an equally unprecedented and totally serious manner, that religion is inherently a defective tool for justice, for me to write this post–because what the hell.

To begin, I’ve already written a couple of times about Islam’s moral structure and its intrinsic incorporation of two spheres of morality: the first being the most basic, in which all inalienable human rights must be observed, which is a requirement of both the religious and nonreligious*, and the second being the religious sphere, which is characterized by compassion and generosity, and is a requirement only of those who observe Islam.

For example, in a theoretical Islamic society, Muslim citizens must pay zakat: a percentage of their income which is given to the poor. This occupies the religious realm of generosity, which cannot be forced. Those who pay zakat are not receiving any (earthly) return, as is the definition of charity. In order to take something from someone, consent is required from them, and those who do not consent to practice Islam cannot be expected to give charity because of it.

Non-Muslims are thus exempt from zakat or any mandatory charity. Instead they pay jizya, a tax from which they do receive earthly benefits, including the protection of a Muslim army in which they are not obligated to serve, but who are religiously obligated to protect them. The consent to this exchange is derived from a social contract, not a religious one, because the latter (freedom of religion) occupies the realm of inalienable rights.

In more recognizable terms, these spheres are the two different types of rights: inalienable rights and civil rights.

The way the two spheres are distinguished is that the first does not require consent, and the second does. In other words, if you need consent to carry out an action, then that action is not an inalienable right. Whether or not you require the consent of another person is determined by whether you must involve them at all. If you wish to believe or not believe in a particular religion, that is an inalienable right, because it involves no one else. If you wish to practice a particular religion, that is not (always) an inalienable right. It often requires the consent of others whom you may affect with your practices.

Those who insist that they are practicing an inalienable right to religion when they refuse a woman contraceptives, for example, are by definition incorrect. They have the inalienable right to belief, not to practice, which is a civil right.

However, a civil right can never trump an inalienable right. If there were such a society–like in many instances, ours–in which men believe they are entitled to a woman’s autonomy via social (civil) agreement, and then can carry out actions that police women’s autonomy, that cannot possibly be a civil right, because it overturns an inalienable one: the woman’s inalienable right to bodily autonomy. Therefore, a religious practice that infers with a woman’s full control of her body (like denying her contraceptives) in the name of the civil agreement (whether derived from the right to practice religion, or simply derived from cultural consensus that men own women) in order to access that control against her will, is Morally Illegal. It violates the realm of inalienable rights in order to establish the realm of generosity, as the woman is required to generously forfeit her right against her consent so that it may serve the men–or women–who wish to control her.

When the realm of generosity is established by violating the realm of inalienable rights, systems like slavery become excusable: slavery is, after all, only forced generosity.

A nonreligious person can OF COURSE understand all this. In fact, a nonreligious person can understand all this better than a lot of religious people, who constantly violate inalienable rights in order to force-establish a sphere of generosity.

But the question of whether we need religion to be moral stems from this: how does a nonreligious person justify a belief in Inalienable Rights?

Where does the idea, the concept, of inalienable rights come from, if not from theories of a God Who Manifested them? What does a nonreligious person have that will support the argument that a woman cannot be raped because such a thing is a violation of her inalienable rights, or a violation of basic human decency, when there is nothing but the principle of compassion from which to derive that decency, and when that principle of compassion is logically unsupported? Is “don’t cause pain” enough when you cannot define what that really means? How do you logically tell someone that they are not entitled to rape a woman without depending on her Inalienable Right to bodily autonomy? From where can you get those alienable rights?

I am not saying that it is impossible to get them from anywhere but religion. But if it isn’t, if you can come up with something, I would be ecstatic and would love to hear it.

P.S. I know that by writing this post I am privileging my own model of morality as The Only One, so, if there are others, do they really work as well as this one in theory in governing a society? And how do you come to them without religion?

*The primary realm of morality, which all are required to observe, is composed of things like, “Don’t kill” or “Don’t steal” because these involve the consent of another.

“Why do Muslims pray that way? And why toward the Kaaba?”

I received these two questions in my inbox today and figured I would answer them here. This isn’t really that type of site (so the personal email was appropriate) but I’m sure both questions are common amongst non-Muslims (and Muslims alike).

Starting with the first–I’m kind of staggered when Christians ask this question, because it is in the same tradition. Our way of praying passes through the teachings of Prophet Jesus, who fell to his knees and pressed his face to the ground showing complete submission to God, and from the Prophets who came before him too. When we pray to God, we are engaging in an eternal dialogue—everlasting, perpetual—and we do so in the same movements as all the Prophets. In other words the way that Muslims pray is not unique to Islam. Here are excerpts from previous religious texts:

And Abraham fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, “My promise is still with you.”
–Genesis 17:3

Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”
–Genesis 17:17

“Neither,” he replied, “but as a commander of God’s army I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, in reference, and said unto him, “I am at your command. What saith my God unto his servant?”
–Joshua 5:14

And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped.
–Exodus 34:8

God said to Moses and Aaron, “Separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once.” But Moses and Aaron fell facedown and cried out, “O God, the God who gives breath to all living things, will you be angry with the entire assembly when only one man sins?”
–Numbers 16:20-22

And of course as stated previously Prophet Jesus repeatedly fell on his forehead to worship God, and demonstrated this to those he taught.

And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.
–Matthew 17:6

And he (Jesus) went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, “O God, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
–Matthew 26:39

And so Prophet Muhammad taught the same way to pray, and we follow the teachings of all the Prophets of God.

On a relevant note on how to pray the required prayers and why the steps aren’t specified in the Qur’an, in my comment section Lat once asked why the hajj isn’t detailed in the Qur’an,

Thank you for highlighting a different aspect of Abraham’s stand and of patrirarchy.I like the way you said it.What I find about hajj missing in the Quranic verses is about Hagar and her plight.It makes me wonder even now if she played any critical role in the rites of pilgrimage.If she is so important why isn’t she mentioned in the Quran along with other women that the Quran recognizes as examples of good women? The Quran simply points out that every prophet/messenger were given rites of pilgrimage to do.Just find it odd and that men are often given priority during hajj even if it’s Hagar,a women’s experience,that counts the most,as told by her story.what’s your view?

and I provided my hypothesis:

Only a hypothesis, but I always figured it was because the practice lived long before Hager’s plight; because the story is not specific to her, and because the hajj is God’s command, and not Hager’s sunnah, there is an allusion and no explanation in the Qur’an. Just like the Qur’an tells us to pray, but not how.

Here’s an interesting excerpt (though I can’t locate the source):

Prostrate in prayer; it is the only time your heart is raised above your head.

A shot of the Kaaba engraved in gold script designed on the brim.

The second question inquired not only why we pray facing the qibla but suggested that to “pray toward a black box” and at the same time “denounce all idolatry” is absurd, and proposed whether this isn’t a pagan practice that Islam has adopted. While the simultaneous praying toward a black box and the denouncing of all idolatry would seem absurd on the peripheral level, this “contradiction” has never fazed me. In my perspective, in the perspective of Islam, religions are independent and reconfirming Revelations; in other words, since I believe that the Divine message has always been islam (deliberately lowercase), I likewise believe that remnants of paganism are not actually… remnants of paganism, but the restorations of pieces that have been lost or altered. Thus these commonalities are comprehensibly natural and not the least bit disconcerting.

“White atheists are the WORST!”: Discrepancies in Identifying Racism

I am writing this post despite the sense that the last three posts I wrote unrelated to Islam are about race and I am kind of eyeing how it throws off my usual variation here.

Before I introduce all the twitter drama, let me recount the incident to which it refers—infamously christened EG, or ElevatorGate.

Rebecca Watson, an atheist feminist and the well-known writer of Skepchick, delivered a lecture on hostility toward women in the atheist community. As she entered an elevator at a very late hour following the presentation a man asked her whether she’d come up to his room for coffee, an invitation Watson declined. Watson casually mentioned the incident in passing, denouncing that a man would advance right after she disclosed such behavior as a source of discomfort for her and advising guys to get a clue.

For this Watson was accused of hating men and received a number of death threats.

Then Richard Dawkins took it upon himself to criticize her—since she is a Western woman—for complaining about misogyny, because there are Muslim women in the world who are having their genitals cut dammit. Thus the old tactic of silencing a woman by telling her she should be grateful she isn’t being stoned to death was employed. Not only was Watson accused of misandry, but of cultural insensitivity and racism—for talking about how she didn’t go out with some schmuck. Insert gif that reads, “I turned down someone for coffee–therefore I hate Muslims” here.

That is Dawkins’s logic. Of course, Dawkins and his supporters, as racially sensitive and globally aware as they are, failed to notice that the only people making this claim were white. They also failed to notice how extremely offensive this comment was to the Muslim women (some of whom are also Western women) that these men supposedly care so much about, women who can save our damn selves and don’t need white knights like Richard Dawkins conveniently using our oppression to silence white women thank you very much.

Yesterday on twitter, as I was speaking to Ozy, one of my awesomeful friends, some douchebag decided to introduce himself to the conversation, and this happened: (he parades in at the 5th tweet)

“Primitive.” Your language isn’t suggestive of racism at all. (I take it though that he was referring to religiosity.) Opening with condescendingly informing me Islam and feminism are incompatible (thanks XY)* and that believing in God is like believing in mermaids is totally logic and not proselytizing. Geez, you’d think calling Dawkins a racist ass is equivalent to criticizing a religious leader.

Then, unable to resist, he unblocked me to tell me

in reference to my telling Ozy that I don’t need a man to lecture me about my feminism. And then he blocked me again. Because he is so in control. The best part is when he re-tweeted my tweet denouncing white atheists to his followers as an example of hypocrisy. Dude thought he struck gold. He must have pissed himself in excitement when I said that. In fact not only did he re-tweet it, he then linked it.

Awwwe, he wants to marry my tweeeeet!

The guy has class:

Oh the virgins. Yay. No Islamophobia here–move along!

Let me stop here to say that I acknowledge atheists, who are at an immense systematic disadvantage, have a lot to be pissed off about. I know I disparaged the strong reaction to my criticizing Dawkins and likened him to a religious leader, but religious leaders who mock other religions in an equally belittling manner as Dawkins aren’t met with nearly the same level of hatred as atheists who mock religions. Unlike the presumptions of this jackass, this is not about atheism. This is about racism and people not knowing what the hell that is—and not understanding the underpinnings that classify something as racist and thus perpetuate racism. And how these people are usually white. Another atheist had taken the time to ask me to clarify this allegation against Dawkins—and he had been of color; naturally the concern was understood.

It annoys me to no end when people can’t identify racism unless it’s overt. Dawkins doesn’t even know he’s racist because he’s “obscured” the essential message of inferiority behind the sentiment that Muslim women need to be saved from the heinous crimes of Muslim men, which has a thousand different oppressive implications–and this guy was doing the same racist thing. Then I blatantly state “white atheists are the WORST” and there’s outrage because that’s the only thing they can recognize as a generalization! Even when Dawkins’s and others’ wordy prejudice actively illustrates racism as a contextualized function rather than being a simple declarative. They don’t register it until it’s made frank for them and put in the simplest terms–which means they don’t understand racism at all. They just look for a formulaic sentence.

It reminds me of advice I read on tumblr. “One of the worst ways to stop someone from telling sexist jokes is to tell him the joke isn’t funny. He’ll assume that you’re humorless and that he needs to save the good stuff for the right audience. If you really want someone to stop telling sexist jokes, you need to tell him, ‘I don’t get it’ and then step back as he tries not to say, ‘It’s funny because women are stupid.’ ”

That’s just it. They can’t tell unless it’s in the simpest terms. Because they don’t really understand racism or sexism, don’t understand the dynamics of the systematic functions of oppression. They just know a formula of a sentence. They don’t understand racism is systematic, not a sentence, and therefore something like a sentence is racist when it contributes to that racist system.

I don’t know how long I’ll leave this up–it feels lowly like gossip, but I’ll keep it for at least a while to get the point across. Or edit it somehow to take out that stuff… somehow, since that’s the reference.