Thursday, 20 February 2020

Laia Abril: the photographer bearing witness to rape

In a devastating exhibition, the Spanish artist depicts the clothes women, girls – and some men – were raped in. She talks about how her work reveals an epidemic of sexual violence – and how she copes.

What shocks me is how none of this shocks me. It is a familiar story. Weinstein’s team attempt to destroy her in court. Why didn’t she go to the police? Why did she take so long to speak out? Why didn’t she ask a co-star such as Sylvester Stallone to protect her? Yes, she was really asked this. Weinstein denies the charges. The jury started their deliberations on Tuesday.

I am taking in Sciorra’s recent testimony on the way to Paris to meet Laia Abril, a young Spanish artist with a new exhibition – A History of Misogyny, Chapter Two: On Rape. Abril uses photographs, testimonies, framed facts and quotes, archive material and various relevant objects in a way that makes her journalistic training apparent. The boundary between art and activism dissolves as Abril digests stories and then delivers them in ways “that people would be able to relate to” – even if they’d rather not go where they lead.

Given the subject matter, I expect Abril to be sombre. She is the opposite: charming and full of energy and easy to talk to, and I begin to see how so many people have trusted her with their stories and pain. The exhibition is still being installed when I arrive. Downstairs are huge black and white photographs of clothes people were raped in. Above the pictures are their testimonies.

This is not what I was expecting. I have seen shows featuring such clothing before, but there is something about how they are presented here, as objects in their own right, that dislocates you, makes you look anew. Their owners’ testimonies then provide the gut punch. Take the beautiful wedding dress from Kyrgyzstan. It was worn by Alina, who was a victim of ala kachuu, a form of bride kidnapping that is still practised in the country. She was captured and then made to marry the man who “ravished” her.

“I was a 21-year-old student in my fourth year at Arabaev University,” her testimony relates. “I wanted to be a fashion designer.” After the attack, she feared being a cause of shame: “My grandmother asked me not to disgrace the family.” So Alina put on the dress and married the man who raped her.

A photo of a US military uniform brings me up short. Meredith says being in the army means everything is “mission first”. In such a world, a woman does not want to be seen as “weak and emotional”. Meredith knew she had to downplay any injuries – and spent a year being raped by her commander, not wanting to think of it as rape, nor of herself as a victim. I walk past a nun’s habit belonging to a mother superior who abused novices, then a burqa belonging to a woman who was raped continually in a forced marriage in Afghanistan. “It was not sex,” she says, “it was marital rape.”

It took two years for Abril to develop enough trust with these women for them to send her their clothing. “It’s a collaborative process,” she says. Sometimes she talks to them through such intermediaries as psychiatrists. She does not want to subject anyone to yet more trauma.

As we chat, she tells me about the things that motivate her, in particular the infamous “wolf pack” case in her native Spain. In 2016, an 18-year-old woman was gang-raped by five men who were later tried and found guilty only on lesser charges of sexual abuse, as the prosecution could not prove they used violence. One judge said they should all have been acquitted and their only crime was the theft of the teenager’s phone. Last year, after a public outcry, the Spanish supreme court found the men guilty of rape.

In 2018, Amnesty International looked at rape legislation in 31 countries across Europe. Only eight have consent-based definitions. In the remainng 23 countries, if the offence does not include physical violence, it is not classified as rape. What Abril pushes us to confront, then, is rape as an institution, one that is both historicised and normalised. She gives the individual stories context, detailing all the methods that are deployed to blame rape on the woman, from lawyers pointing out that a victim may have been wearing a thong (one is photographed) to “the two-finger test” still used in India, Pakistan and Morocco. This procedure is to determine if a raped woman’s vagina is “habituated to intercourse”. If two fingers can be inserted, the argument goes, it indicates that the sex was consensual.

Then there is the thriving new industry of repairing hymens – or “rebuilding honour” as it’s called in some of the images, adverts, texts and pictures collated by Abril. Not to mention the chastity belts and the strange machines invented to cure frigidity. A vagina can be brought to erotic life by, you guessed it, rape.

There are signs of resistance, though. Abril pays tribute to the wonderful Gulabi vigilante women of India, with their pink saris and huge sticks to beat rapists. There, encased in glass, is one of their wooden weapons. There are also projections from various revenge movies, including I Spit on Your Grave and Ms 45, about a mute woman who goes on a killing spree after she is raped twice.

A triptych of hundreds of blurred faces stops me dead. All of these men, found guilty of abuse, were priests in the Catholic church – not all of the victims in this show are female. How does Abril cope with these stories? “Don’t worry,” she says. “I have two therapists now. When I was working on abortion, for Chapter One, the issue seemed fixable by law, by decriminalisation. But this – rape – is global.” She gestures around the room at all the evidence of horrific acts. “This is an epidemic.”

It is also a war crime, something Abril is well aware of, having visited Bosnia and heard how rape was used as a weapon of war during the 1992-95 conflict. Under the title Rape Camps, she has placed the words: “Serb troops violated between 12,000 to 30,000 Bosnian women.” She also heard stories about Serbs forcing brothers to rape their sisters in front of their parents. “The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia,” she records, “declared that ‘systemic rape’ during wartime was a crime against humanity.”

What Abril sees – and makes us see so clearly – is the institutionalisation of rape through such things as marriage, the military and the church. I am not sure I like the phrase “rape culture” but she does. Rape is the culture, it seems. There are quotes on the wall from Donald Trump (“Grab ’em by the pussy”) and US congressman Steve King, who last year asked if there would be any population of the world left if it wasn’t for rape and incest.

All of this arouses emotion – and it’s meant to. I return to a picture I had avoided earlier. It’s a tiny dress belonging to a five-year-old who was sexually abused by a teacher at her school in Colombia. The other parents turned against the girl’s mother when she complained. Abril describes opening the parcel when it arrived. “The dress was so small,” she says. “I went into meltdown.” It was a while before she could photograph it. Yet, she says, something happens as the work goes up on the walls. All of these stories, all of this information changes her. “ I begin to feel lighter,” she says, and I can sense that.

Education is part of the answer, we agree, but the focus on individuals is not enough: rape happens because it is embedded in the culture. The #MeToo movement may have alerted us to this, but Abril’s work carries a terrifying message: that rape is normal, that it is a system, a way of controlling women across time and culture. You can look away, and I wouldn’t blame you, but Abril refuses to. “I want to understand,” she says. “I want people to understand.”

Some letters have fallen off a wall and she goes over to pick them up. I can’t help noticing that it’s almost all the letters from the word “rapist”. “Isn’t it strange that those are the letters that are falling?” says Abril. We both laugh uneasily.


The Muslim on the airplane | Amal Kassir | TEDxMileHighWomen

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Is Coronavirus in China a punishment from Allah?

We do hear people mention that coronovirus in China is a punishment from Allah for the things the communist party has been doing to Uyghurs Muslims. We do not agree with that. Here is a statement from Shaykh Dr. Yasir Qadhi that we came across regarding this issue.

A lot of people are forwarding messages from scholars (or others) who are claiming that the coronavirus spreading in the city of Wuhan is a Divine Punishment upon the Chinese people for what is happening to the Uighurs.

This type of categorical declaration is not only unbefitting from a theological perspective, it is also unbecoming from a humanitarian perspective.

No one amongst us is qualified to speak on behalf of Allah. We are not in a position to declare why something is happening, or to link a general tragedy to a specific evil. And we are not demonstrating mercy when we claim all the people being subjugated to this are being punished for a crime most of them have nothing to do with. Imagine if (may Allah protect all of us!) something happened in your city and to your family, and others said this was because of something your government did!

Rather, we say as the Prophet (salla Allah alayhi wa sallam) said, when our mother Aisha (ra) asked him about plagues: "This is a punishment that Allah sends upon whoever He wishes, but Allah has also made it a mercy for the believer. So whoever is afflicted with a plague in his town, and he remains in it, patient, expecting Allah to reward him, knowing that nothing shall happen to him except what Allah has decreed, shall be rewarded the rewards of a martyr!" [al-Bukhari].

So we learn that yes, every single disaster, personal or communal, can be a result of sins, and has the potential to be a punishment, but we don't link it to any one sin or crime. And we also give hope to those who are in such places: turn to Allah, seek His help, be patient, and know that nothing happens except with the Decree of Allah. We do not cause them to feel bad or claim they are all being punished or - God forbid - gloat over their tragedy as some seem to be doing.

Every single disaster, personal or national, has the potential to be a punishment, or a means of mercy. It is how we respond that dictates which of the two it falls into.

And Allah knows best.

Note: It's actually sad that I need to make this disclaimer but some people always read in the worst: my support for the Uighurs has been loud and vocal, and I have given khutbahs, raised awareness, and made qunut for them. Of course we are enraged by what the government is doing, but we do not gloat over any communal disaster as a response to our anger.

Friday, 14 February 2020

The actual date of birth of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

I intentionally did not want to write about this in Rabi-ul-Awwal because I did not want to hurt anyones feeling. The fact is that it has to be said. A lot of Muslims celebrate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). First, there is no Islamic basis for this celebration. The second is that the data it's celebrated on is the 12th Rabi-ul-Awwal. There is a lot of controversy around this date.

The only mention of this date is in the book of Ibn Ishaq but it is mentioned without any chain of narrators. There are other dates like 2nd, 8th, 10th, 17th & 22nd that have a lot more backing.

So why is this date so popular. Below is a talk by Saikh Yasir Qadhi on this topic. Here is an article on this topic.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Be charitable in your actions

The Messenger of Allah (SAW) has said: “Every single Muslim must give charity every single day.” When asked who would be capable of doing such a thing, he replied, “your removal of an obstacle in the road is a charitable act; your guiding someone is a charitable act; your visit to the sick is a charitable act; your enjoinment of good to others is a charitable act; your forbidding of others from wrongdoing is a charitable act, and your returning the greeting of peace is a charitable act.” (Biharul Anwar: Volume 75, Page 50)

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Muslim Languages and Kuffar Languages

I heard a story recently of a small boy whose first language wasn't Arabic but he picked up Arabic and now insists on speaking it. He mentions that Arabic is the language of Islam while other languages are Kafir languages. This reminded me of Surah Rahman (55). A tafseer by brother Nouman Ali Khan here explains the Ayah 4 I was thinking about nicely.

Ayah 1:
The Abundantly Merciful

Ayah 2:
عَلَّمَ الْقُرْآنَ
'Al-lama al Qur'an -
He taught the Qur'an.

Ayah 3:
خَلَقَ الْإِنسَانَ
Khalaq al Insaan -
Created the Human being.

Ayah 4:
عَلَّمَهُ الْبَيَانَ
'Al-lama hu al Bayaan -
Taught him the Beautiful Conveyance of Speech.

To make the human capable of understanding the Qur'an, Allah gave us the ability to speak in eloquence and to understand such speech.

For teaching the Qur'an, Allah said; 'Al-lama (Taught).

For teaching Bayaan/Eloquent speech - Allah also said; 'Al-lama (Taught).

This shows us that Allah taught us both the Qur'an, and also all Languages.

Allah taught Adam the name of all things:
وَعَلَّمَ آدَمَ الْأَسْمَاءَ كُلَّهَا
And taught Adam the names of all [things].. [alBaqarah 2:31]

Which shows that the honour of humans speaking -while knowing what they are saying- is an honour which belongs to Allah. So humans should be thankful to ar-Rahman (the Abundantly Merciful) because He has given us humans what no other animal has the ability to achieve [- to speak/communicate eloquently with understanding of what we are saying].

This shows that this honour of speech should be used for good and beautiful speech, and for reciting the Qur'an. Not for insults, swears and dirty language - since that is a sign of being ungrateful of Allah's favours.

Of all of the languages Allah taught; Allah honored the language in which He sent His final message; the Qur'an in Arabic speech.

إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ
We have surely revealed it in an Arabic Qur'an that perhaps you might understand. [surah Yusuf 12:2]

We see a Recurring Theme in these aayaat of Extreme and Magnificent Blessings of Allah;

Ayah 1: the Abundantly Merciful.
Ayah 2: the greatest manifestation of that Mercy = the Qur'an.
Ayah 3: the Greatest creation of Allah = Insaan (humankind).
Ayah 4: The Ability for us to Speak and Communicate with each other in Language.

Even Modern Philosophers are saying; the Root of all knowledge is language - that is the key. Just as Allah already told us.

One of the signs of being the best is to have speech, then to reach the best of the best is to become a student of the best speech - the Qur'an.

All languages are taught by Allah عزّ وجلّ and we should respect them whether it is English, French, Swahili, Afrikaans, Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, Punjabi, Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, etc. There are no Kuffar languages.

In Surah 49 Verse 13, Allah عزّ وجلّ says:

يا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْناكُمْ مِنْ ذَكَرٍ وَ أُنْثى‏ وَ جَعَلْناكُمْ شُعُوباً وَ قَبائِلَ لِتَعارَفُوا إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَتْقاكُمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَليمٌ خَبير

"O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted."

Here again, Allah عزّ وجلّ says that he not only gave us different languages but also made us different races, different tribes, etc. In the end, we are all children of Adam (peace be upon him)

A very old video from Ustadh explaining Ayah 4 from Surah Ar-Rahman.