Wishing You a Blessed Ramadan!

Salaam readers,

I know it’s been a few months since I’ve updated my blog. I’ve had several ideas for blog posts, but haven’t had the time to write them yet. Insha’Allah, soon! I know we’re well into Ramadan, but I would still like to wish everyone a happy and blessed month!  May this month be a time of reflection, spiritual growth, and most of all, compassion.  May it bring communities together and guide us all closer to justice, peace, and liberation. Ameen.

Ramadan is the month in which the Holy Qur’an was revealed to our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, so one of my goals this year is to re-read the Qur’an and learn more about the life of the Prophet and his family (peace be upon them). Like for a billion Muslims around the world, Ramadan holds a special place in my heart and always reminds me about the importance of self-discipline, God-consciousness, and showing kindness to all of Allah’s creation.

Ramadan is not without its challenges. The major concern I have every year is not about abstaining from food and drinks before sunset, but rather how workplaces accommodate our religious holiday. Workplace discrimination against Muslims in the United States has been on the rise in recent years and it serves as a reminder of how deeply engrained Islamophobia and racism is. Aside from Islamophobic remarks and harassment, especially during Ramadan, it continues to amaze me how workplaces do not see the insulting double standard when they treat their employees to food baskets, greeting cards, and “holiday dinners” for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah, but won’t even acknowledge Ramadan. It also shocks me when workplaces are not prepared (e.g. not scheduling enough help) for iftar time, which prevents Muslims from opening their fast on time or not being able to have a full meal.

I have left voice mail messages and written numerous e-mails to various departments of my employer, encouraging them that recognizing Ramadan in the workplace in an appreciative and non-superficial manner would strengthen the company’s commitment to diversity (I have issues with the way “diversity” and politics of “inclusion” serve to center whiteness, but you get the point). So far, no response. Meanwhile, I anticipate ignorant and even racist remarks from co-workers when I inform them about my fasting throughout the month. It can be annoying how the usual response is, “Oh my God, don’t you get hungry?” or “That must be so hard!” The sentiment seemed to always be, “Oh, I feel so sorry for you; your religion is really strict.”  It’s interesting when I reflect on how fasting became another way for me to resist Islamophobia and racism. At a very young age, I never wanted to show my white non-Muslim friends, classmates, teachers, and bosses that Ramadan was a difficult time for me. Instead, I learned to embrace the holiday and told them that they didn’t need to feel sorry for me and that it was offensive if they did. “I choose to fast,” I told them, “Ramadan is a special and joyous month for us.”

Anyway, I know the ignorance and bigotry is part of the challenge and struggle against Islamophobia at large. I don’t believe in shaming or scolding people for being angry, so when I say that Allah teaches us to be patient and steadfast, I don’t mean it in a condescending way, but rather as a recognition of struggle. As Allah teaches us in the Qur’an, the Divine presence is always close and near to us:

(Prophet), if My servants ask you about Me, say that I am near (to them). I respond to those who call upon Me. Let them, then, respond to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may be guided. – Qur’an 2:186

I have noticed that some Muslims can be discouraging of others by monitoring the way they pray, how they open their fast, how they express themselves, etc. Judgmental attitudes from some fellow Muslims tends to ruin the spirit of Ramadan and I think invalidating a person’s feelings is cruel and un-Islamic. There are some Muslims, for example, who are unable to fast for various reasons. There are some Muslims who choose not to fast for various reasons. As a friend told me, instead of judging and ridiculing these individuals, we should focus on our sense of community by practicing compassion and understanding without any condescension, sense of “superiority,” or arrogant and self-righteous preaching. Here is a beautiful Hadith that highlights on how integral compassion is to Islam:

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would kiss his daughter Fatima (peace be upon her), talk to her, confide in her, and have her sit by his side, without paying attention to the remarks or even the criticisms that his behavior would give rise to. Once he kissed Hassan (peace be upon him), Fatima’s son, in front of a group, who were startled. One of them, Aqra ibn Habis, expressed his shock and said: ‘I have ten children and I have never kissed any one of them.’ The Prophet answered: ‘One who has no compassion for others is not entitled to compassion (from God).’ – Sahih al-Muslim (narrated by Tariq Ramadan, Qur’anic translation from Al-Islam.org)

On a similar note, Aslan Media is currently running a Ramadan “mixtape” series where Muslim writers and artists share their favorite tunes for the holy month. On today’s post, I shared Abida Parveen’s song “Assan Ishq Namaz” because of its beautiful and powerful vocals and lyrics. Here are my thoughts about the song:

Music by Pakistani living legend Abida Parveen never fails to inspire and mesmerize me. Her divinely-inspired voice passionately expresses the deeper themes of divine love, sorrow, and longing that are often found in Islamic mystical/Sufi poetry. In this song, she sings famous verses by renowned 17th century Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah. I love her ability to infuse so much pure emotion into the original poem and express how meaningful the lyrics are. The song opens with these important and relevant verses:

Parh parh ilm hazaar kitaaban
qaddi apnay aap nou parhiya naee
jaan jaan warhday mandir maseedi
qaddi mann apnay wich warhiya naee
aa-vain larda aye shaitan de naal bandeaa
qaddi nafss apnay naal lariya naee.

[Yes, you have read thousands of books,
but you have never tried to read your own self;
you rush in, into your Temples, into your Mosques,
but you have never tried to enter your own heart;
futile are all your battles with Satan,
for you have never tried to fight your own desires.]

This message of self-reflection, humility, and holding one’s self accountable captures the compassionate heart of Islam and is conveyed so powerfully when Parveen sings it. Bulleh Shah reminds us that when we judge others or perceive ourselves as “more pious” or “superior,” we fall into arrogance, hypocrisy, and failure to see our own faults. I believe these lyrics are relevant to social justice struggles as well and how self-critique and accountability is needed so that we don’t reproduce oppressive forces in our own movements. It is respect and compassion for every human being that makes Bulleh Shah’s message so beautiful and Islamic.

May Ramadan guide us to bettering ourselves and the societies in which we live. Ameen. I end this entry by sharing another amazing song by Abida Parveen, “Soz-e-Ishq.” I listened to it one day after sehri time and fajr prayer and it was such a soulful and soothing moment. The vocals, the lyrics, the music composition and arrangement – everything about it is so incredibly beautiful and spiritually moving (click on “cc” for the English translation). Enjoy!

Eid-ul-Adha Mubarak!

Salaam everyone!

Just wanted to wish you all a very happy Eid-ul-Adha!  May this be a blessed time for you and your Loved ones.  May Allah’s infinite blessings fill your hearts on this special day and always bring you happiness!

Eid-ul-Adha, commonly translated as “Festival of the Sacrifice,” is an important Islamic holiday that commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim’s (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail (Ishmael) upon God’s command. As Ibrahim was about to cut his son’s neck, God intervened to replace Ismail with a sheep to sacrifice instead.  Muslims around the world remember Ibrahim’s act of Faith by sacrificing an animal and distributing the meat to family, neighbors, and those in need.  Eid-ul-Adha also marks the completion of the Hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

I remember watching the horribly racist, anti-Iranian propaganda movie “Not Without My Daughter” in my high school “world history” class (the genius teacher apparently thought that showing us a film that demonized Iranians and Muslims would give us an accurate understanding of Islam, Muslims, and Iran). One in scene particular involved a group of Iranians sacrificing a lamb and the reaction from the non-Muslim characters is disgust and horror. The Iranian husband/father (race-bent and played by Alfred Molina), who goes from friendly, “integrated” Iranian Muslim American to abusive, misogynistic, Iranian Muslim villain (because, you know, he’s getting in touch with his roots when he goes back to Iran), explains to his white wife (played by Sally Field) and daughter that the sacrifice is tradition, but the way in which the scene is shot and edited (along with the gloomy music), Iranian/Muslim bodies are clearly marked with Otherness. I remember feeling very uncomfortable in the room because all of my classmates knew I was Muslim and I could feel their eyes darting to me during this scene (and by the end of the movie, they looked at me like I had a raging Alfred Molina waiting to be unleashed from deep within).

The scene sets up the demonization of Iranians and Muslims that permeates throughout the rest of the film.  The point is to characterize Iranians/Muslims as backwards and uncivilized peoples with a savage culture. I remember being self-conscious of this whenever I’d have to explain to non-Muslim friends and peers about Eid-ul-Adha. Because it’s not about savagery, bloodshed, or scaring off children. As Sumbul Ali-Karamali explains in her book, “The Muslim Next Door,” meat becomes halal (permissible) when the animal is killed by “cutting the jugular vein, outside the presence of other animals, and after saying a prayer over (the animal), which evinces the intention of eating it and not killing it for any other purpose.”  All of the blood must be drained from the animal’s body as well.  According to Islamic law (Sharia), the point of sacrificing an animal in this manner is to minimize pain. As Ali-Karamali adds, “Torturing an animal renders it no longer halal.”

The holiday is about sacrifice, but also about Divine Love and Faith.  Ibrahim’s Faith in God is what leads him to make the decision to sacrifice his son, no matter how much it troubled him.  The spiritual message of Eid-ul-Adha, particularly about the relationship between Reason and Revelation, is quite significant. That is, Ibrahim was requested by God to defy his intellect, to defy reason and take the life of his own son.  It does not make sense to kill your own son and furthermore, murder is prohibited in Islam.  Yet Ibrahim made the sacrifice to express his Love for God, and in turn, God intervened to save Ismail.

There is a common Sufi theme that joy comes after sorrow.  I always saw this as a reference to the Qur’anic verses, “After hardship, there is ease.” This is evident in Ibrahim’s story.  Today, there is so much struggle in the world and it’s important to recognize all of the different experiences people have based upon the oppressive forces that exist in our societies.  By no means do I ever want to appropriate the experiences of people who have or are enduring pain and suffering that I cannot even begin to imagine. I think understanding our privileges and building social justice movements based on mutual accountability and reciprocity are not just important, but also very integral to the message of Islam. The Qur’an’s message of diversity, for example, emphasizes on getting to know one another, which includes understanding our differences.  As the verse reads: “People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognize one another.” (49:13)

It’s easy for us to feel overwhelmed by the injustices in the world.  For a while now, I have been turned off by privileged people constantly saying, “Come on, think positively!” or “Why do you have to be so negative?!” as if you’ve committed a heinous crime in being human.  I don’t believe in silencing voices or making judgment calls on people who are sharing real and serious experiences with injustice.  Because we are human, we need to be there for each other. We need to be supportive, we need to make efforts to understand, we need to let go our egos and practice humility.  This is a Love that is conscious, compassionate, reciprocal and non-judgmental.  And this kind of Love is needed because to Love others is to Love God.  When Ibrahim was commanded to sacrifice his son, he consulted his son for consent first.  This act alone shows how much Ibrahim Loved his son, and in turn, Ismail shows his Love for Ibrahim and God by agreeing to it.  What we see here is the relationship between Ishq-e-Majazi (earthly Love, or Love for creation) and Ishq-e-Haqiqi (Divine Love, or Love for God).  As many Sufis have taught, one of the ways in which Love is expressed for God is through Love of others. Within the context of Ibrahim and Ismail, their Love for each other was also tied to their Love for God, which led them to witnessing the beauty and blessings of Divine Love.

Amidst the struggles all of us have here, there are efforts being made for justice, for healing,  for peace.  For Love. These efforts will always be there, no matter what the odds are.  It is the reminder of the Divine promise that, yes, “after hardship, there is ease,” that keeps the spirit of resistance strong.

Eid Mubarak. :)

Update: Be sure to read The Fatal Feminist’s post on “Eid al-Adha: Commemorating a Dismantling of Patriarchy.”  I especially like the point she makes about Ibrahim asking Ismail for consent and how that was an anti-patriarchal act.

Platonic Friendships and the “Man Box”

A recent online discussion sparked a heated debate over the idea of platonic friendships. A video was shared about Steve Harvey, author of “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” (I don’t blame you if you want to headdesk after reading that title), who told CNN that women and men cannot be friends. His argument was that platonic friendships could not exist because men are always seeking an opportunity to make it more than just friendship. He backed up this claim by simply saying, “Because we’re guys.” In other words, all men are the same and biologically programmed to be attracted to every woman they meet.

I explained to my friends that my problem with Harvey’s comments is that they are sexist and homogenizing. In the heterosexual context, arguing that women and men cannot be friends reinforces a lot of rigid and sexist norms about gender. It perpetuates the popular stereotype that men are innately sexual predators who “cannot control” their “desires” or “urges,” while implying that women cannot be sexual and are “delusional” for believing that they can have male friends. I do not deny that there are challenges in platonic friendships, especially when one person is interested in something more than friendship, and I do not deny the possibility of physical and/or emotional attraction. Certainly, there are people who have struggled in maintaining friendships with the opposite sex, but it doesn’t mean that true platonic friendships cannot exist, or that women and men must be completely segregated. It doesn’t mean women and men are wired to exclusively view each other in a sexual and/or romantic context. A brilliant blogger at “Oh, You’re a FEMINIST?!” criticizes the way Good Morning America once cited a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found opposite sex friendships have a 15% chance of ending in an affair.  The show emphasized on the 15%, but never asked about what happens 85% of the time.

In many ways, dichotomous conceptions of gender service patriarchy because they assign sexist gender patterns to both women and men. Consider, for instance, how sexually promiscuous men can justify their behavior by merely saying, “Hey, I can’t help myself. I’m a guy!” This “excuse” not only equates male sexuality with sexual promiscuity, but also standardizes such behavior to make it socially acceptable (as is evident in how men are judged in positive ways with words like “stud,” “pimp,” “player,” “Casanova,” and so on). Of course, if a woman behaved in the same or similar manner, she would be called a “slut,” “whore,” and other degrading insults. What is often overlooked is how dangerous this sexual double-standard is and how it’s another way to control women through shame, humiliation, and judgment.

On the same thread, a couple of people supported Harvey’s statements by bringing up John Gray’s “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” book. I mentioned a feminist critique of the book and explained how extremely problematic Gray’s presentation of the sexes is. Aside from the fact that Gray writes from “his own observations” and doesn’t include a single footnote in the book, he treats all men as alike, and all women as alike. He states that when men are troubled, they will “retreat” to “their cave” (which he defines as their television room, basement, workshop, etc.) because they need “alone time” to “sort things out.” Gray suggests that there is nothing a woman can do or change about her male partner’s refusal to speak or express himself. She is supposed to leave him alone because that’s how all men are: we’d rather just sit in front of the TV than seek help and communicate with our partner.  In actuality, credible research shows that men tend to resort to bullying and abusive behavior when they are troubled (source cited in Julia T. Wood’s critique, “A Critical Response to John Gray’s Mars and Venus Portrayals of Men and Women”).  It is true that women and men have differences, but to treat them as if they’re from different planets essentially creates an unnecessary barrier and completely shuts down room for healthy dialogue. After exposing Gray’s sexist and totalizing portrayals of gender, a male Muslim defender of the book called my analysis “militant” and “tainted by an aggressive feminist flare.”

What I found discouraging was how antagonistic a couple of the Muslim men were towards feminism (and, for the record, I know plenty of non-Muslim men who would vilify feminism as well). Although there was a Muslim man who agreed with me on the thread, he was quickly pushed out of the conversation when the debate became about feminism.  Consider bell hooks’ definition of feminism, which she describes as a movement that seeks to eradicate sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression. It is a movement that recognizes the interlocking nature of sexism, racism, classism, and other forms of oppression, and how these injustices must be confronted in order to radically restructure society and bring about revolutionary, transformative change. I argue that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a feminist because his elimination of female infanticide in 7th century Arabia, along with other revolutionary acts, sought to end sexism, sexual violence, and other oppressions.

Despite sharing this definition of feminist philosophy and politics, I was told by one of the Muslim men that feminist classes are “full of rubbish” and “nonsense.” He also said, “You need to learn about manliness in Islam.” The other Muslim man said that women and men cannot be friends because a man is “weak” and can “succumb” to his “desires” at “any moment” and at “any time.” In other words, regardless of how deeply in Love a man is with his life companion, being alone with a female friend would cause him to cheat on his wife/partner. After all, men simply cannot control themselves!

From an Islamic perspective, I’m sure most Muslims have heard the Hadith that says the devil is the third person when a woman and man are alone together.  Aside from the fact that Hadiths are disputed (and that there are Muslims who will only follow the Qur’an), there is a Qur’anic verse that may shed some light on an individual’s responsibilities and personal relationship with the self:

When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves.’ (Qur’an 14:22)

What stands out to me is how Satan says he has no power over a person and that he can only call the person.  The choice to respond to his call is yours alone.  So, if the argument is that women and men cannot be friends because men are “weak” and “succumb” to their desires, then why bother teaching self-discipline and self-control at all in Islam?  Why teach about mutual respect and that we are individually responsible for our sins?  Why treat men as exclusively sexual creatures who will want to sleep with every woman they meet?  Islamic teachings, particularly from the Sufi tradition, emphasize immensely on cleansing the self, building a personal relationship with the self, as well as with God, because there are conscious choices and decisions that we all make.  I want to clarify that I’m not saying every heterosexual person should have friends of the opposite sex, nor am I suggesting that I look down upon people who refuse to have such friendships.  I completely respect a person’s decision to abstain from opposite sex friendships (for whatever reason, spiritual or otherwise), but what I find problematic and offensive is how segregation of the sexes is often used to display one’s “religious superiority” over another person.  In other words, respectful dialogue is not encouraged when someone argues against platonic friendships while declaring that it is “un-Islamic,” “sinful,” and “against the Sunnah,” or way of the Prophet.

The comment about me needing to “learn about manliness in Islam” made me not only consider the way feminism is often stereotyped as being about “women dominating over men,” but also how strict and suppressive male social norms are.  In December, a couple of months after I wrote my post, “Eradicate Masculinity,” I saw an incredibly moving and inspiring TED video featuring activist and lecturer Tony Porter, who encouraged men to break free of the “man box” (the video is posted below, so please check it out whenever you can!).

The “man box” is a social construction; it contains the ingredients that are required for a man to be considered a “real man.”  Similar to Jackson Katz’s documentary, “Tough Guise,” Porter describes how men are constantly taught and socialized to be “tough,” “strong,” “dominating,” sexually promiscuous, etc.  Even in times of weakness and emotional distress, men will conceal their pain and sorrow by projecting a false image of themselves.  Porter tells a moving story about the loss of his teenage brother and how his father would not cry in front of him.  It was only until they were in the presence of women did his father eventually break into tears.  Later, Porter’s father apologized to him for crying, while commending Porter for not crying.  Why is it so shameful for men to express their emotions, their weaknesses, their doubts, their need for Love and compassion?  We think the “man box” actually protects us from looking “weak,” or “sissy” (which is really code for “being a girl”), but what it actually does is lock us up in a tight, suffocating prison that sucks the humanity out of us.

If the “man box” teaches us that being a man is about not being a girl, then, as Porter asks, what does that say about what we teach about girls?  Doesn’t that uphold the Mars and Venus mythology that women and men are like different species that cannot transcend socialized gender norms?  What does it say about male and female relationships, be they platonic, romantic, father-daughter, or mother-son relationships?  What does the “man box” tell us about masculinity and how it operates in terms of who gets to exert power, who gets to dominate, and who gets to control?

In heteronormative societies, to criticize masculinity is to challenge something that is celebrated in the mainstream. Deconstructing the way masculinity has been and continues to be defined is to criticize social norms that are glamorized and rewarded.  bell hooks contends that all men must “begin to criticize the sexist notions of masculinity… that equate manhood with ability to exert power over others, especially use of coercive force.”  She also adds that this violent and sexist construction of masculinity is celebrated in mainstream media:

Most men who are violent against women are not seeking help or change.  They do not feel that their acceptance and perpetration of violence against women is wrong.  How can it be wrong if society rewards them for it?  Television screens are literally flooded daily with tales of male violence, especially male violence against women.  It is glamorized, made entertaining and sexually titillating.  The more violent a male character is, whether he be hero or villain, the more attention he receives.  Often a male hero has to exert harsher violence to subdue a villain.  This violence is affirmed and rewarded.  The more violent the male hero is (usually in his quest to save or protect a woman/victim), the more he receives Love and affirmation from women.  His acts of violence in the interest of protection are seen as gestures of care, of his “Love” for women and his concern for humanity.

This image of the violent male hero/protector is  undoubtedly a dangerous standard that continues to perpetuate in most societies.  It not only normalizes male violence against both women and men, it also reemphasizes on the “innate differences” between women and men that completely close off dialogue and understanding.  The “man box” teaches us to suppress our emotions, and it can be challenging for many Muslim men because, for most of us, we feel pressure to establish careers for ourselves before we can even think about getting serious with a woman, falling in Love, and getting married.  We don’t feel worthy enough, and how can we when the “man box” tells us we need to prove our “manliness” by constantly displaying our “toughness” and “masculinity,” while hiding the things that make us human?

This isn’t to say men are exploited or oppressed by patriarchy, but rather that they do suffer from it.  To break free of the “man box” is to redefine ourselves, to liberate ourselves, to shake off the stereotypes that have been assigned to us from sexist and patriarchal ideals. My position is that male supremacy needs to be challenged, deconstructed, and eradicated to assist feminist movement in ending sexist oppression.  In order to do this, more men need to join feminist movement and challenge the way male supremacy operates in our lives.  I think one of the most common misconceptions about feminism is that it doesn’t help men, but it does and in a very meaningful way.  It liberates us from the restrictive “man box,” it teaches us to embrace our emotions and humanity; it tells us we can find Love, that we can receive and give it; it opens our hearts to understand that we are not confined to social constructions that say “boys will be boys”; it encourages us to see ourselves beyond the sexist notion that we are “only sex-minded” and that, yes, we can have meaningful friendships with women and men, whether they be heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, etc.  Tony Porter closes his talk with these beautiful words:

I need you on board. I need you with me. I need you working with me and me working with you on how we raise our sons and teach them to be men — that it’s okay to not be dominating, that it’s okay to have feelings and emotions, that it’s okay to promote equality, that it’s okay to have women who are just friends, that it’s okay to be whole, that my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.

“My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.” How beautiful would it be if we all recognized this interconnectedness?

I am on board, Tony.

Ramadan Mubarak

This post is a couple of days late, but I wanted to take the time to wish everyone a happy Ramadan.  May Allah fill this month with blessings for you and your families.  For those who are unfamiliar with the Muslim holiday, the month of Ramadan is when Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) received the revelations of the Qur’an.  For thirty days, Muslims who are able will fast and refrain from food and drink, among other things.  Ramadan is the month of kindness, generosity, and humility.  Fasting teaches Muslims self-control, patience, and empathy for the lesser privileged people in the world.

Ramadan comes at a tragic and challenging time for many Muslims this year.  In Pakistan, over 1600 people have been killed in the recent flooding, while over 14 million people are affected by the tragedy.  The international community’s weak and sluggish response to the floods compared with previous disasters serves as a harsh and cruel reminder of how human beings are not valued equally in our world.  I remember during the Haiti earthquake, websites like Facebook, Yahoo, Google, YouTube, and even Facebook applications like Cafe World had donation tabs and buttons to provide relief to the victims of Haiti.  In almost every grocery store I went to, customers were asked to donate to Haiti at the check-out counter.  Such awareness is shamefully missing for floods in Pakistan.

According to BBC news, aid agencies in Pakistan “have warned that many more people will die as floods inundate southern areas unless more international help comes.”  I was informed by a relative of mine in Lahore that 10% of Pakistan’s population is directly affected by the flood, while the rest of the country is indirectly affected.   It is admirable and heartbreaking at the same time to hear that Muslim flood survivors in Pakistan are fasting despite the devastation that has struck their homes, villages and cities.

During this month of inner reflection, let us be conscious of our privileges and mindful of those who suffer.  Let us reach out and help in any way we can.  Please donate if you are able to and please raise awareness about what’s happening in Pakistan.  Here are a couple of useful links for those who are interested in helping out.  Please share them with whoever you can.  May Allah give strength and healing to all.  Ameen.

1.  ATP Gives:  What are Good Ways to Help Flood Victims in Pakistan?

2.  Pakistan Flood Victims Need Your Help.

3.  Be a Relief to Pakistan.

Question: Why Do Muslim Men Talk About Hijaab?

You can think of this as a sequel to my post on “Stop Telling Muslim Women How to Dress,” and maybe it sounds a little redundant, but I want to zero in on why Muslim men, whether they are scholars or not, feel entitled to speak about the hijaab.  Moreover, why do we often hold their stance and opinion on the topic in such high regard?

I’m asking because Muslim male authority on the hijaab and “modest dress” (whatever that means) is something I’ve always noticed in the Muslim community. I remember noticing once that one of my Islamic books, brilliantly titled “Hijaab,” was written not by a woman, but a man! There were several times during my first years of college when I felt the necessity to defend hijaab, not only because of the way Islamophobes stereotyped hijaab-wearing Muslim women as “oppressed” and “submissive,” but also because I believed my opinion was highly valued by Muslim women.

I am not going to conclude that all Muslim men believe it is their “religious obligation” to encourage women to wear the hijaab, but from my experiences in mainstream Sunni mosques, Muslim Student Association (MSA) events, and interacting with Muslim men, the emphasis on “modest dress” is primarily directed at women, implying that they should wear hijaab. Also strongly present in this discourse is that Muslim women should dress “modestly” because it protects them from lustful gazes and a man’s uncontrollable sexual desires.

It is difficult not to see how Muslim men are (1) holding women responsible for their sexual thoughts, desires, and/or behaviors, (2) dictating how women should dress, and (3) reinforcing their authority and control over women. If the Muslim men who prefer their spouses or relatives to wear hijaab cannot impose it, they will preach it in a way that makes non-hijaab-wearing women feel guilty and like “bad Muslims.” More on this later.

The problem with Muslim men constantly preaching about hijaab and feeling a sense of urgency to talk about it is that it implies Muslim women cannot speak for themselves and that their opinions are not as important or credible. I find it quite awkward and irrational when a Muslim man, especially a scholar, shares his thoughts on hijaab for several reasons. For one, Muslim men do not and cannot fully understand the lived experiences of Muslim women, both those who wear hijaab and don’t. Second, it would be like asking a White non-Muslim man to discuss how people of color “should feel” about whatever experiences they may have had with racism in their lives. It doesn’t make sense when one could be talking to the affected people directly. What does a Muslim man know about being a Muslim woman and wearing or not wearing hijaab? Nothing. So, why not talk to Muslim women themselves? Why not let Muslim women scholars address and discuss this topic? Wouldn’t that generate a richer discussion instead of listening to Muslim men simply sharing their “thoughts” and “scholarly knowledge” about something that will never affect them?

When we allow male heterosexual interpretations dominate the discourse, it leads to pushing fellow Muslims out of our community. In particular, Muslim women who don’t wear hijaab are far too often stigmatized, marginalized, and excluded by other Muslims. At Islamic conventions, banquets, or even art festivals, the absence of non-hijaab wearing Muslim speakers, activists and artists is extremely shameful. At a time when Islamophobia is rampantly growing and hating on Muslims is defended as “free speech,” our community works very hard to break stereotypes, but at the same time, we ignore the oppression existing within our community – and I’m not even talking about what happens in Muslim majority-countries either, I’m talking about how we treat each other here in North America.

Let me quickly share a true story to illustrate what I’m getting at: the other day, I was waiting at the traffic light when I noticed a White police officer in the car next to me. He kept staring at me and shooting me dirty looks. I considered the possibility that the music I had playing reminded him of the sad and lonely time when he missed the “Niyaz” concert earlier this year, hence the angry look. Or, I considered the possibility that he was simply racist scum. Anyway, it is one thing for me to anticipate these kinds of encounters with ignorant White non-Muslims, but I believe it is worse when people of color do it to each other, or more specifically, when Muslims do it to other Muslims. This is why it upsets me when I hear Muslim women share their experiences of discrimination and judgment from within our community just because they don’t wear the hijaab. I cannot speak for them, but no one should have to feel that way in their own community (or anywhere, really). The fact that they feel this way and the rest of the community overlooks it – along with other problems like the way non-Arab Muslims are treated – represents a large and serious problem that we need to resolve.

If we Muslims truly care about the unity of the Ummah – something that we always seem to groan and complain about – then critical self-reflection is required. Rather than focusing on how Muslim women dress, Muslim men should turn inward and address serious issues like the misogynistic interpretations of the Qur’an, the way we’re conditioned to perceive and treat women, and how patriarchy is counter-productive to Islam’s message of gender equality. Muslim men need to trust that Muslim women are smart enough to discuss hijaab and dress code on their own. We also need to become allies for the Muslim women who seek equal prayer space, equal opportunities, and equal rights in our community.

These sermons on hijaab or how women dress are getting old and nauseating. It’s time we take some responsibility and examine what needs to be improved if we really care about preserving the Prophet’s message (peace be upon him).


O’ Prophet,

Tonight, I feel the fullness of your soul,
the miracle of your blessed existence
from so many centuries past,
it transcends all barriers of space and time
and like a sudden, mystic fire that I cannot name,
I feel your eternal memory
burn this heart of mine.

I want to find you somewhere
maybe in a dream, an alternate reality,
perhaps in those secret places
that mystics often pen about
in their impassioned poetry,
or sing in ecstasy about
in whirling dances.

I want to hold your gaze
and imitate your expressions;
I want to watch the way you walk,
I want to emulate your smile,
I want to talk the way you talk,
I want to give the way you give,
forgive the way you forgive,
kneel as you kneel,
bow as you bow,
mimic every detail.

I want to kiss your hands
and listen to those sweet words
that descend from the Heavens
and flow through your spoken lips;
I want to hear those words sing
and put ease to all of my fears;
I want to feel their light
like hot breath
blowing into
my ears.

I want to live in your presence
and that of your family’s;
teach me friendship, companionship,
guide my longings to patience,
show me the vastness of your soul,
the universe that is inside you,
let me see the infinite beauty
that makes you the beautiful Lover and Friend
to all of humanity
and to the Supreme Being
that brought us here.

O’ Prophet,
You change the whole world
and then say you are an ordinary man.
You spark this burning in my heart
and cause tears to stream down my face
even though so much time keeps us apart
and still, you say you are ordinary.

No, beloved.
You are not like the rest of us,
you are Chosen,
the veil through which starlight shines
Zeb-un-Nissa said,
‘You are the very torch Divine.’

I believe her.
Because someone like you
is too humble to speak so highly of himself.

But we know, ya Muhammad, we know
how special you truly are.

Peace be upon you.

~ Jehanzeb

Stop Telling Muslim Women How to Dress

A lot of people need to calm down about this subject. Whether it’s among non-Muslims, Muslims, or fascist Islamophobes in Europe and North America, there seems to be a growing obsession with Muslim women and the way they dress.

A few weeks ago, I attended an event as part of “Islamic Awareness Week” hosted by a local university where a panel of three Muslim women shared their personal experiences and views on Islam and modesty. Two of the women wore hijaab (headscarf) and one didn’t, which apparently, I’m sorry to say, seemed enough to draw controversy.

In the Q&A discussion, a young Muslim man said something that made me take pause and then realize how utterly offensive and repulsive his comment was. He argued that the Qur’an is “not spiritual,” but rather “practical,” especially in regards to hijaab because, according to him, “the hijaab is supposed to cover a woman’s neck and I admit, when I see a woman’s neck, I get attracted.” I smiled and looked at one of the panelists, a friend of mine, who also smiled at the absurdity of his comment. I followed up by tossing the panel a question that was set up for my friend to spike the young man’s comment: “I am sick and tired of men telling Muslim women how to dress,” she said boldly. She included both the Muslim men who impose hijaab/niqaab/burqa on Muslim women and the Islamophobes who are hell-bent on banning these styles of dress.

I am familiar with the young man’s views on hijaab and modesty. I used to say similar things myself. I would see Muslim women wearing tight shirts, jeans, and no hijaab, and I would judge them in my thoughts: “Look at how she’s dressed and she calls herself ‘Muslim’?” Then I would gripe to my Muslim friends, both female and male, about how “westernized” Muslim women are becoming. I remember coming across Muslim women wearing hijaab and tight jeans and thinking how hypocritical she must be. And the reason why my Muslim friends and I were so upset about this was because such manner of dress drew lustful and sexual gazes from men. In other words, I believed that, for the most part, Muslim women were responsible for the “uncontrollable” sexual urges of men.

It was always a Muslim woman’s fault. If some ignorant non-Muslim playfully tugged her hijaab in the computer lab, it was her fault because she gave him the liberty to be that free with her. If a man was checking her out, it was her fault because she didn’t choose to wear a long shirt. Unfortunately, I find this sexist mentality to be very prevalent in Sunni orthodoxies, especially among Muslim men. The disturbing thing, in my opinion, is how I thought that everything I believed about Muslim women, how they should dress, and how they should behave was not sexist, but actually liberating because it taught Muslim women how to be “real,” “respectable” women.

Over the years, I learned that it wasn’t about liberating women. It was about controlling them and molding them the way *I* wanted them to be. The way a lot Muslim *men* want them to be: obedient, passive, soft-spoken, sensitive, reserved, etc. In my mind, it was improper and sacrilegious for Muslim women to even flirt with a man, to even make a mentioning of sex, to even have male friends. Why? Because with this sexist, over-controlling, and uber-conservative mindset, it is always about sex.


Why can’t Muslim women be friends with men? Because there is a chance of sex. Why can’t Muslim women laugh or smile at a man? Because one of them might be thinking about sex. Why can’t Muslim women and Muslim men shake hands? Because they might get so turned on that they’ll rip each other’s clothes off and start having sex. Oh my God, if I hear a woman give the azaan (call to prayer), I’ll start thinking about sex because a woman’s voice is attractive and alluring. Oh no, we can’t take the partition out of the Mosques, the women and men won’t be able to keep their hands off each other. As if there’s a high risk of a giant orgy or something. That sounds practical.

And it’s not that sex is a bad thing — it’s not — but when it’s used in this hyper-sexual context to control the way women think, behave, and dress, it becomes something very dirty. Extremely dirty (see the paragraph above). Over time, this made me very uncomfortable because on one hand, Muslims would stress so much on “modesty” and not seeing each other as sex objects, but ironically, that is exactly what we were doing: sexually objectifying each other. The young Muslim man at the event who said he gets attracted by a woman’s neck is talking about her as a sex object, as if her body is so tempting that he cannot resist it, hence she must cover up. It also made me wonder if he had any idea how disgusting and sexual his comment was, considering that the majority of women (Muslim and non-Muslim) in the room had their necks visible? What is he saying, that he is thinking about each and every one of them sexually? And that if his mind is flooded with sexual thoughts, it is their fault?

This needs to stop. Muslim men need to stop examining Muslim women like lab specimens and instead, turn inward and look at themselves. It’s like blaming a rape victim and saying “she was just asking for it” because of the way she was dressed. Too often, I’ve heard Muslim men tell me, “Oh brother, look at the way Muslim women dress these days. They have no dignity, they don’t care about the Sunnah or Islam.” Too often, I’ve heard Muslim men point out a Muslim woman and say, “Look at how she’s wearing tight jeans” or a “t-shirt” or “not even wearing hijaab.”

My response is: So? Let them dress however they want. Look at you, I say sometimes to certain Muslim men, you’re wearing a muscle shirt, you don’t think you’re showing off your skin or that women can’t get attracted? How can you look into a person’s soul and judge them based on what they are wearing? The Qur’an talks so much about humility, yet so many of us are quick to make judgments about a person’s faith, as if we have some authority to do so. I have known Muslim women who don’t wear hijaab and are more religious/spiritual than I am. I have known Muslim women who wear hijaab, but hardly know anything about the Prophet’s life (peace be upon him). This doesn’t mean one is better than the other. The way a Muslim woman dresses should not be seen as reflective of her faith.

As a Muslim man, I tend to stay away from this topic of how Muslim women dress only because I see so many other Muslim men arrogantly giving lectures, writing books, and dictating in Mosques about how Muslim women *should* dress. Where are the lectures, books, and sermons that tell men to keep themselves in check? Why is there this sexist double-standard and attitude that Muslim women cannot be attracted to Muslim men either? Where are the imams and religious leaders who say, “If you’re getting turned on by a woman’s neck, that is your problem because *you* are seeing her as a sex object?” The truth is that Muslim men can have sexual thoughts about Muslim women regardless if they’re wearing hijaab or not, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. If a man feels distracted by sexual thoughts, it is not because of the way Muslim women are dressed, it is because his mind has wandered off in that direction. He should not blame a Muslim woman for his issues, he should turn inward and deal with it himself.

There is nothing wrong with desire and attraction. We are naturally attracted to each other as human beings. It is the way God made us and Islam does not teach celibacy, but rather to fulfill our desires in responsible ways. I am not saying we should see each other as sex objects, I am saying we should be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that yes, you may see someone in the Mosque or at an MSA event that you are attracted to, but that doesn’t mean your thoughts are “evil” and “impure.” How can we talk so much about marriage in Muslim communities without also talking about attraction, physical and non-physical? There is such a thing as Love and marriage where people find their partners beautiful and attractive, and don’t view/treat one another as sex objects.

We need to stop obsessing over the way Muslim women dress because it continues to lead to many problems that exists in our communities today: awkward and often hypersexualized gender interactions/relations, stigmatization of non-hijaab Muslim women, sexism and misogyny, and even problems in relationships/marriage, among many other things. If we really care about God’s Love and Compassion, then why make others in our community — people we are supposed to consider our spiritual sisters and brothers — feel like “bad” or “deviant” Muslims just because they don’t dress the way *we* want them to?

Why not express our compassion by accepting each other for who they are, treat everyone equally and refrain from making judgments? Isn’t that what humility is about?