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Entries in Islam (14)

Monday
Nov122012

Epic Battle: Ninjas vs. Burqas

 

 

This is rad. I hope that if you ever have a question like this that you ask me. I think it shows initiative and a deep sense of compassion to want to say and do the right thing. Also, four year olds are hilarious.

So, let's talk abount ninjas versus niqabis. (A niqab is the veil part that goes across the face and a niqabi is an Urdu slang term for women who cover their faces.)

With absolutely no disrespect to my face covering sisters in Islam, I can totally see the ninja-niqabi connection.The subtle differences in clothing are difficult to ascertain, especially for a four year old.

But the question isn't why does a four year old think a Muslim woman with her face covered is a ninja because that's an honest and obvious comparison. We are more concerned here with how we can make this a teachable moment.

1. This.is.SERIOUS.

Put your hand over your mouth, turn your head, pretend you're coughing and get the laughter out of your system. While this situation is hilarious (did I tell you about the time that N. thought Taye Diggs was Barack Obama?), it's important to turn this moment into an opportunity to develop compassion for the different. Laughing with your child is great, but it's important to make sure it's not distracting.

What to Say: "Other than those face coverings, what else looks like ninja clothing? Don't ninjas have swords? Aren't their clothes tighter?" My response to N.'s misperception regarding our president was something to the effect of "Are that man's shoulders as broad as the other handsome guy you saw at the DNC?"

2. Down with Shame!

There is nothing wrong with a child confusing a woman with a veiled face for a ninja, so don't make them feel bad for saying that. Ignorance is not the biggest obstacle to the elimination of bigotry. It's shame. People often feel shamed for making a mistake and then they fight that shame with anger, actual bigotry and denial. 

What to say: "You're right, what she's wearing is very similar to a ninja's mask, but she's not a ninja -- that's called a burqah and what she's wearing on her face is called a niqab." At this point, most children are going to ask another question. If they're under six and don't ask any more question, this is like the sex talk-- just answer what they've asked and don't go any further. Give them the minimum amount of information so they don't feel overwhelmed or worse bored.

3. Identify simple lessons in the opportunity.

Geography is super fun, so try explaining the disparate geography of the ninja and the niqabi. Use it to distract from topics that will likely lead to an incredibly controversial discussion on the constructed cultural concepts of modesty, patriarchy and the Western objectification of Middle Eastern women. And why they're called "Chinese stars" when ninjas originated in Japan.

What to Say: "I definitely see how that veil reminds you of a ninja mask, but did you know ninjas originated in Japan and the veil's history is in the Middle East?"

4. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another.

And also how you and I are going to save the world together. Let's bring home the point that everyone has different ways of expressing their feelings about clothing. This is a great opportunity to discuss relativism (how much should people cover) and acceptance (how much business do others have in telling people what to cover).

What You Can Say: "Would you go to the grocery store in your underwear? Why or why not? Do you think I would? Why or why not?" Okay, don't say the "why or why not" thing. Do explore with your child the different ways that we determine what is okay to wear and what is not. Move a step further by exploring the issue of how we feel about someone else bringing their determinations from another country. I know this is a tough topic, but that doesn't make it less important. Remember that while your child is their own person, you do have a right to present your beliefs within the context of a value system you've chosen to implement in your home.

5.. It's really just a piece of cloth over someone's face. Mostly.

Here is something to consider: men who ascribe to the practice of Islam which mandates face veiling are required to grow beards that are of a certain length (no longer than a clenched fist) and must wear their clothes in a certain way (for example, the cuffs of their pants must not go below their ankles). And, in my experience, the husbands of women who cover their faces generally adhere to these rules stringently. They never seem to make it as topics for debate on TV or the Internet. Why is that? Something for you (and your child depending on their age) to think about it.

What to Say: I don't know. I just felt the need to throw this last one in there. You do what you want with it!

The thing of it is that a person who wonders (worries) about approaching a cultural misunderstanding with grace has nothing to worry about in the first place. Asking ourselves questions about how we can coexist and be sensitive to difference is an important skill that you can only model by doing.

If you have any questions for me, always feel free to tweet me or post a message my Facebook Community page.

 

Tuesday
Aug142012

Covered Heads

You might have noticed photos online or seen me in person and noticed that I started covering my head about a year ago. I never announced it on the blog or went into detail about it. It's so trite. There's a gajillion posts on the Internet about Muslim women covering their heads. Posts that tell you that it's required. Posts that tell you that it's not. Posts that tell you it's incredibly liberating. Posts that tell you that it is most certainly not.

The reaction of my family to my various head covering exploits is a great case study. Back in 2001, I visited Saudi Arabia and completed my first Umrah in Mecca. Umrah is like a mini-hajj. Unlike Hajj, Umrah can be done any time. My visit to Saudi was beautiful and spiritually complex. 

In Saudi, women are required to wear abayas in public, which is long, black cloak accompanied by a black head scarf. Yes, all women. Even non-Muslims. I often find that people who are unfamiliar with Saudi or have never been there have a similar reaction, "God, don't you get hot?"

My response is that you do get hot, but I bet a bare chested Himba tribeswoman in Namibia is thinking the same thing about you in your summer tank top and denim shorts. Weather is only one part of the equation when it comes to fashion.

And, yes, abayas can be fashionable. 

 

 

From Dubai Fashion Week Fall 2010, Designer Amal Murad, Images from Style By Amara

Back in August of 2001, there was something about the abaya that was incredibly appealing to me. When I was growing up, my parents were very strict about my wardrobe. No sleeveless tops, bathing suits, shorts, skirts, tight jeans, shirts above the waist, and, God have mercy, no middriffs. I didn't have to cover my head, but I did have to follow what these stipulations or suffer dire consequences. Even though I adhered to it, my father would at least once a week comment on how he didn't think my shirt was appropriately modest or something to that effect. That was less about the clothes and more about my dad. More on that another time.

For some people, getting married and moving away from their parents is a clean break. I'm not a clean break kind of person. Breaking with anyone is more like a badly done Civil War amputation for me. It would involve a lot of whiskey, a dull saw and several tendrils of tendon and flesh that just… won't… rip…dammit.

The abaya in Saudi Arabia, then, offered me potential respite from feeling like my clothes were too wrong, too tight, too colorful… too American, I guess. The last day we were in Riyadh, I made Tariq and his brother take me to a higher end abaya shop and we bought a lovely abaya that costs the equivalent of about a hundred dollars. My intention was to wear this on the flight home.

And for the rest of my life... in public. 

I did that, and, truth be told, it was awesome because, hi, I wore pajamas on the plane and nobody knew. I also noticed that people both noticed me more in some ways and noticed me less in others. I started wearing a hijab, too, which is the traditional head covering of the more colorful variety that most Americans are familiar with. Once again, I basked in the liberation of not having to blow dry my hair everyday. 

I have to interject to any Muslims that might be reading this that I understand that it may feel like I'm making light of the the traditional coverings of Muslim women, and, well, I am. I respect the right of women to cover for religious reasons and that most do it because they feel it's requisite, but I don't feel any more pious when I have a hijab on my head. To me, it really is a cultural statement. It's an outward symbol to identify myself to others and to my own. 

I flew into Orlando International Airport wearing a black abaya on September 2, 2001 and nobody blinked. I went grocery shopping, to the mall and to parties wearing it. People did do double takes, but everyone was still very nice. I like to think this is because I'm nice and people have a very hard time being mean to someone who says hello and smiles at them.

Nine days later, on September 11, 2001, though, things got super awkward.

"You have to take it off, bete," my mom said in the tone she reserves for commands that leave no room for negotiation.

"Come on, mom, it's fine… I'm not a terrorist or anything."

"I'm your mother. You don't need this to be a good Muslim. I'm your mother, and you have to listen to me because good Muslims listen to their mothers."

Yeah. She totally said that. Verbatim. Because it's true, they do. As a matter of fact, one of the stipulations of Muslim going to fight a battle is that it has to be alright with their mother. I always giggle at this a little. "Where's the note from your mom, soldier?!"

After many conversations with this, one of which was conducted intervention style by my mother and her friends, I stopped wearing the hijab and the abaya. I have a terrible habit of assuming that certain things are obvious, so forgive me if you've already picked up on what I'm about to say… I just want to be clear.

My entire childhood, my parents had dictated the parameters of my wardrobe. Nothing too short, nothing too long, even my hair ("bangs out of the face -- you look like druggie hippie!") and definitely no eyeliner, shadow or bright lipstick. I rebelled against that as much as I could, but, mostly, I complied. Fast forward to twenty three, when I am literally shrouded in a black cloth, and my parents still have a problem with what I'm wearing. 

It occurred to me a few years after the Great Abaya Removal of 2001 that clothing is so much more than color and fabric. It is identity. It's a statement of who you are, who you want to be, how you want the world to see you and, as illustrated above, it is also a statement of who others expect you to be and how much importance you give that. For my parents, they wanted a daughter who was modest, but assimilated enough to be accepted by her society. And, let's face it, after 9/11, they wanted a daughter who people didn't harass.

Clothing was control and I gave it to them completely and unabashedly. Better or worse, it was who I was at the time. Let's be honest, it's still a part of who I am in the smallest of ways.

Nine years later, I have my head covered again, but, this time, I'm in control. I know why I cover my head… exactly why. My appearance is mine to control. Even in covering my head, I assert my rebellion to notions of what is the proper way to cover one's head. Ear lobes! Bare neck! Uncovered in front of select people who are not my husband, brother or father! What can I say, I'm a rebel with a cause.

The reason I cover my head is probably different than why the majority of women cover their head. In Islam, we often say that when you do something, you should do it for the sake of Allah. This prevents arrogance and self righteousness from seeping into what would otherwise be considered pious behavior. 

I do cover my head for the sake of God, but not because I believe that God has commanded that I should hide my hair from people or suffer hellfire or, worse, an eternal loop playing in my head of that Call Me Maybe song. I do it because I'm proud to know God the way that I do and I want people to know that about me. Adopting this cultural symbol is the most efficient way of doing this.

My hair is not shameful and nor is my body. Every article of clothing I wear, from head covering to shoes is a choice that I'm comfortable with. Yes, these choices have been made as a result of strong influence, but not due to the power of others over me. I mean, not any more power than Vogue or InStyle exert over hundreds and thousands of people.

Thirty six has not vaccinated me from attempts by well meaning people who care for me to exert their power over my appearance. My dad said something again when I was in Daytona about people in Tennessee potentially lynching us. Some of my non-Muslim friends have said they're not totally sure why I insist on doing it. Other people close to me are awkwardly silent about it.

But this? Is not about them, about you, about the world or what it thinks of how liberated, oppressed, modest or pious I am. This is about me and God and what He/She/It has compelled me to do. 

My wardrobe today is a consideration of things that I find beautiful. It is long sleeves that convey the thin veneer of the formality of my personality coupled with ethnically inspired prints and flowing fabrics that suggest that I am so much more underneath than what you see on the surface. The scarves are block colored or perhaps a Sudanese inspired print, and are carefully chosen and wrapped with delicate intention. I wrap in a way that pays tribute to my African and Caribbean sisters.Finally, I almost always wear a pin or brooch in the hijab that I make sure is in a distinctly American style -- because it's not me if there isn't any American in it. 

My clothes are a tribute to the seamless beauty of our earth's varied, elegant and powerful aesthetic. And here's something that I will divulge that will be surprising but I'm entirely comfortable with. Sometimes, I don't feel like covering my head in public, so I don't. This is a rare thing, but it happens. 

I wear these clothes not because I must be modest and what to hide from the world, but because modesty is my aesthetic. I find it beautiful and special. Like most Muslim women, I do dress for the sake of God…in that I think God really wants me to be my true, authentic self.

Monday
May282012

One Day A Warrior 

 

What have we done to you, death,

That you treat us so,

With always another catch

One day a warrior,

The next a head of state; 

Charmed by the loyal, 

You choose the best.

- Al-Khansa, Poet, Arabia (600 - 670 C.E.)

Photo Credit

 

Monday
Apr162012

Rewriting the Headlines: The Murder of Shaima AlAwadi 

An uncharacteristic apathy washed over me when I heard the news of an American Muslim woman murdered in El Cajon, California last month. Thirty two year old Shaima AlAwadi was found bludgeoned to death in her home as a note calling her a terrorist lay next to her. Recently discovered court documents indicating that AlAwadi was filing for divorce are now leading the media to suggest that her assailant may have been a family member thus rendering her another casualty in a phenomenon that is on the rise in North America called "honor killings" that supposedly emanates from the higher numbers of immigrant Muslim communities into the continent.


I'm not an apathetic person. To the contrary, I often find myself in the embarrassing situation of explaining why I've suddenly become passionate, angry, or upset about issues that affect "other" communities besides my own. Shaima AlAwadi was an immigrant from a Muslim nation, and my parents immigrated from a Muslim Republic. I'm a wife and mother living in America in my thirties, and Alawadi was also a thirty something mother and wife living in America. AlAwadi was a woman who because of her head scarf was visibly Muslim, and I, too, am visibly Muslim in the same way.

Despite our many intersections, however, I find myself in new territory, engaged in an awkward, guilt ridden internal struggle that of which the major undercurrent suggests that I'm not angry or upset enough about this event. Fundamentally, my guilt lies in rejecting an  idea that most people seem to take for granted: I should be very, very upset because AlAwadi was a Muslim woman and somehow this death should matter more to me because of that. It does not. In fact, the continuous focus on her Muslim status detracts from the broader, more universal context of her murder. It also seems to confuse people when they try to extract actionable meaning from the tragedy.

In an age where news stories are broken in seconds not minutes, it's easy to fall into the trap of having the wrong conversations about important events. Opinions and scholarship are no longer methodically laid out for careful consideration but are quickly packaged and produced for immediate consumption by an audience that's time constrained and seems more concerned with quantity of information rather than quality. The rhetoric surrounding Al Awadi's murder is no exception.

At the peril of being misinterpreted as being opposed to hate crime legislation, I will express that I find the hate crime paradigm of understanding AlAwadi's murder both divisive and distracting. Hate crime legislation exists to protect those that would be victimized by violence that is rooted in a political or social cause. The problem with this terminology seeping into public discourse is that it automatically pits communities unfamiliar with the nuance of defining hate crimes against one another. Conversation then ultimately moves away from the central issue, that of one individual being murdered by another individual mercilessly, and then becomes a conversation about whether bias is real, whether the minority in question is being oversensitive or not and most unfortunately whether or not the victim's inability to be perceived as a member of the broader society at large is not at the heart of their demise.

Calling AlAwadi's murder a potential "honor killing" proves even more distracting. I spoke with Dr. Nancy Stockdale, a Middle Eastern Studies profesor at University of North Texas and author of Colonial Encounters Among English and Palestinian Women, 1800-1948 (2007), about this terminology and its impact on discussions about Shaima AlAwadi. Dr. Stockdale brought up the idea that honor is not an ideology that is exclusive to the Muslim world. "If someone cheats on their spouse here, don't they feel disrespected in front of their community?" The professor also mentioned a point I had not considered previously, that nearly one third of women murdered in the United States die at the hands of someone with whom they're intimate. Is it a huge leap to assume that many of those murders could have been committed by partners who felt betrayed, undermined, disrespected and, yes, even dishonored?

Just a few days ago, Kevin Allen fatally shot his wife, Katherina, and his daughter in an Ohio Cracker Barrel restaurant after his wife told him she was leaving him. Is it ridiculous to guess that Kevin Allen may have been motivated by a sense of honor or shame? What is the criteria that holds him exempt from having participated in an honor killing? Katherina Allen was shot and killed because her husband was mentally unstable, but Shaima AlAwadi may have been murdered by her husband because she's foreign and a Muslim? What religion was Katherina Allen? Was she born in this country or not? Why is it important to know those details about the late Mrs. AlAwadi but not about the late Mrs. Allen?

As an American Muslim, this untenable distinction between the two women cuts deeply in my psyche and lays at the core of my shutting down when it comes to discussions about AlAwadi's death. I cannot discuss her on the terms that both the general population and the media want to discuss her. The nomenclature used crowds out the sense of connection I have with women who are non-Muslims. It makes me feel othered and misunderstood. I imagine for many non-Muslim American women in the United States, it also causes them to view this crime as something that happens to "those people" from "over there" and thus offers a safe, yet intellectually questionable degree of distance from this type of violence.

The overemphasis on ethnic and religious identifiers obfuscates more important and central issues. While it would be remiss of anyone considering the merits of the case to dismiss entirely that she was an immigrant, a Muslim, or leaving her husband, I believe we can do better in terms of how we as women and a community of informed citizenry frame the discussion. As I researched this story, almost all of the headlines included terms such as "hijab", "honor killing", and "hate crime", and I can't help but feeling that these buzz words detracted from conversations we should be having about violence in general as it applies to women or anyone, for that matter.

I'm struggling with how to frame this death and the discussions about it so that each of us are moved by it in a way that we consider how to pull a more productive and meaningful course of action from it other than making it yet another line of distinction between us. A woman in El Cajo, California was beaten to death in her home. First, investigators thought it may have been someone who didn't like the way she dressed or looked, but now they think it might have been her husband.

Does the absence of AlAwadi's faith and ethnicity change how you would frame this discussion?

What would be your headline?

Photo Credit
Monday
Jan232012

Mujahideen Plunder

Afghanistan


It was 1996.

My father had recently returned from a trip that allowed him the unusual opportunity of venturing beyond Lahore. He and my cousin went on a road trip and wandered through Peshawar and areas bordering Afghanistan. During that excursion, my father met and conversed with some Afghani "mujahideen."

The word mujahideen has become synonymous with "Islamist" and “terrorist.” For Americans knowledgeable on the topic in 1996, though, a mujahideen was something different. Mujahideen means "one who fights in the way of jihad," and this is not the post 9/11 "jihad" that Muslims in the United States are quick to point out as a spiritual struggle. It's am actual reference to battle.

In 1979, the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and Afghanis fought back. The defense of Afghanistan proved significant to Pakistan and the United States by virtue of a enemy that was perceived to be shared. Many of the young men who battled tanks  with hand held weaponry strongly felt that God had contributed to their victory. The most famous mujahideen we all know was a Yemeni man named Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden never directly fought the Soviets in combat, but instead funded and supported training facilities and medical camps during the war. In this way, he seems less representative of Afghani mujahideen than most conservative talking heads are willing to admit.

By the time the Soviets were defeated, over 2 million Afghanis had died. That was the beginning of the death toll, though. In the next ten years, a complex series of battles, both physical and ideological, within Afghanistan would create circumstances that would lead to the rise of a Taliban government. Ultra-orthodox interpretations of Islam of this religio-political faction would lead to repeated violations of basic human rights to education, justice and even mobility. It also provided fertile soil for the development of an ideological movement that has contributed to the deaths of over one million people all over the world.

But back to 1996.

My nineteen year old self's sense of awe at the mujahideen victory claimed against the USSR with little more than borrowed training and ammunition from its neighboring nation of Pakistan and funding from the United States was likely naive.  I was just a kid and couldn't have foreseen how the stories of these victorious underdogs would contribute significantly to an ideology that would change us all forever.

I knew at the time that these were people who had fought to save their homeland, and that both of the countries I called home, America and Pakistan, had helped them do that.  It was childlike on my part, but when I listened to those stories in 1996, I felt whole.

One story my father told me of his visit had to do with shopping in makeshift markets that former mujahideen had set up.  Many of the goods weren't the usual fare.  When my father inquired about the origin of certain items that looked more eastern European in nature than south Asian, the sellers gave mysterious smiles and assured him that he was lucky to have the ability to acquire such quality merchandise at such a low cost.

I don't know if it was my dad's addiction to getting a good bargain or that he felt sorry for the guys, but he bought some stuff and brought it home. When he presented my mother with some of the things he had bought, my brother and I laughed at how gaudy it was, made jokes about it belonging to the Romanovs and feigned horror at my dad's purchase of what was essentially "war plunder."

After getting married, though, I took a few of the things with me. Maybe I wanted to hold on to the innocence that led me to believe that Pakistan and the U.S. had worked together to make something good happen.  Or maybe it was just that no matter how gaudy those things were, they reminded me of my parents and I wanted to take that with me to my new home.

The item deemed "most gaudy" in 1996 sits at the entrance of my home today. I don't find it tacky anymore, but tremendously beautiful and significant. On dusting days, when it’s given more attention than usual, I pass my hands over its delicately beaded surfaces and wonder how far this item has journeyed. I imagine the places and the homes that it once occupied.

I worry for the people who first owned it and I wonder what it might have meant to them. I also worry for the people who sold it (stole it?) and wonder if they are even in this world now.  I think of countless yet imagined hands that have touched this odd item and wonder about the hopefulness of the hearts to which those hands belonged.

As I wipe the dust, I think of how best laid plans and intentions often end in despair. I remember that small moment when I thought all was right in the world and then I'm suddenly shoved back into the present reality of being a grown up where nothing is ever simple and things seldom make perfect sense.

Life is tragic, fleeting, unpredictable, and yet it is, like this item, extraordinarily beautiful in the most complex of ways.