Friday 25 January 2019


 “…there are too many of our masajid that are unwelcoming to women. In some masajid, women are allocated the smelly basement or a tight boiler room. In other masajid, there is an absence of programs that can serve their needs. And then there are masjid that are plagued with belligerent attendees that receive women with harshness.

The Messenger of Allah said (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) , “Do not prevent your women from the masajid.” Preventing women from accessing masajid is not just when a husband keeps her in, it’s also when the masjid keeps her out…”

Thursday 24 January 2019

Here’s Why the Rahaf Al-Qunun Narrative Is so Terrifying

In the wake of 18-year-old Rahaf Al-Qunun’s stirring social media pleas to escape the clutches of patriarchy and a possible death sentence this week, Al-Qunun has rightly kickstarted a lot of debate surrounding her situation.

Reading her ordeal, one feels sympathetic towards her plight, as her story leaves a lot to be unpacked–of discriminative laws that leave her education, marriage, and travel at the mercy of her guardian in Saudi Arabia, her departure from the folds of Islam, her family allegedly posing a threat to her life, and the need to assess apostasy laws in practice in Islamic countries.

Likewise, it’s felt that Rahaf’s is a case of a family desperately seeking to control the life of an 18-year-old, to the extent of subjecting her to grave atrocities by using the law of the land to their advantage. tweet

As someone who understands and believes that Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, is the work of scholars and not of laymen, I wouldn’t try to interpret the aspects of Fiqh that relate to this case. Scholars have had debates on apostasy, and what lies on the other side of it–blasphemy–what Islam prescribes regarding them, how various sects view them, along with the fatwas by different scholars, and the punishments associated.

However, it’s important to question the laws drafted by humans, and its execution in various countries. Likewise, it’s felt that Rahaf’s is a case of a family desperately seeking to control the life of an 18-year-old, to the extent of subjecting her to grave atrocities by using the law of the land to their advantage.

Drawing attention to the apostasy laws through the report in The Law Library of Congress, one realizes more than 20 Muslim-majority states have laws that declare apostasy by Muslims to be a crime. As of 2014, apostasy was a capital offense in Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. What is, however, extremely important to evoke is the fact that executions for religious conversion have been infrequent in recent times, with only four cases reported since 1985. So it would be fair to assume that rarely are the apostasy laws used to punish the actual abandonment of Islam. It is imperative to note that some predominantly Islamic countries without laws specifically addressing apostasy have persecuted individuals or minorities for apostasy using broadly-defined blasphemy laws. Hence, it would also be fair to conclude that apostasy and blasphemy have often been used on the back of one another, with little precision over their definition.

Rahaf’s Saudi Arabia, besides its capital laws on apostasy, also imposes stringent guardianship laws that restrict the basic rights of women, leaving these rights at the behest of their male relatives. And this is probably what set-off her fleeing, as Saudi women are required to get written permission for marriage, passport renewal, traveling without a guardian, seeking a job, and even applying for education.

Rahaf’s is a classic case of patriarchal clasping, and a vicious cycle of power systems where the patriarchy is conflated with religion, wherein the quest to the abandonment of one would lead to manacling from the other. tweet

What this essentially translates to is that not only are women being shackled by their male relatives under the garb of religion, but they face a possible death penalty for rejecting the supposed basis of these laws–the religion. Rahaf’s is a classic case of patriarchal clasping, and a vicious cycle of power systems where the patriarchy is conflated with religion, wherein the quest to the abandonment of one would lead to manacling from the other. Therefore, we must ask if one should stop questioning the patriarchy only because it is exercised in the name of religion? That hardly seems to be in the best interests of the victims of patriarchy.

“I shared my story and my pictures on social media and my father is so angry because I did this…I can’t study and work in my country, so I want to be free and study and work as I want.” – Rahaf Al-Qunun.

Rahaf told us that she fears serious physical violence and death threats from her family, while a Thai official was quoted as insisting that they are committed to maintaining  diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, and also Rahaf’s safety as well. As this statement came in light of the Saudi embassy intervening to seek repatriation of Rahaf to her home country at the behest of her family, we must wonder, and question, if diplomatic ties must supersede Rahaf’s pleas for safety from patriarchy.

Another important aspect of apostasy laws, as the report points out, is how they are often passed as broad laws that bring in various aspects of religion. Of the surveyed jurisdictions that do not expressly criminalize apostasy, many have laws that include broadly-worded provisions on insulting Islam or its Prophet, and blasphemy, which could potentially be used to prosecute persons for apostasy. This category of countries includes Algeria, Bahrain, Indonesia, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, and Syria. However, of the countries surveyed, Egypt is the only country known to have prosecuted apostasy in this manner. In 2007, a person who converted to Christianity was convicted under the country’s blasphemy laws.

Blasphemy laws seek to protect religious sentiments of people. The need to have these laws in place cannot be ignored, for even the EU recently ruled that criticism of Prophet Muhammad PBUH constitutes to incitement of hatred. With the ever-growing presence of Islamophobia, bigots have often resorted to blaspheming various important aspects of Islam to further their own agenda. At the same time, implementation in Islamic countries must be viewed under a microscope too.

…we must question the use of these laws to oppress minorities–a clear retraction from our Islamic values–and the ensuing rampage by men who claim to be the guardians of religion. tweet

Pakistan, a predominantly Islamic country that has specific blasphemy laws, saw a majoritarian Muslim woman embroil a Christian woman by the name of Aasiya Noreen in a blasphemy case that resulted in a death sentence. This case saw Aasiya held in custody for 8 years on flimsy charges of blasphemy over a domestic spat between the two neighbors. What Pakistan’s judiciary managed to do eventually was to interpret the Fiqh to principles of mercy and protection of minorities, and grant freedom from impending capital punishment for Aasiya. This may not have been the case with more conservatively-governed countries, hence it is vital to reassess how Islamic concepts like blasphemy translate to laws for civil societies, and more importantly, how judiciaries interpret them.

What followed the dismissal of Aasiya’s death sentence were thousands of religious patriarchs wreaking havoc in the country in protest of the judgment. Here, we must question the use of these laws to oppress minorities–a clear retraction from our Islamic values–and the ensuing rampage by men who claim to be the guardians of religion.

Consequently, it is important to call for varied female scholarship in all Islamic countries, free from the patriarchal pleats of the lawmaking system, as well basic freedom as was often the norm in the times of Prophet and Sahabah. tweet

In both the cases, we have women who have borne the brunt of laws formulated by men who stake claims over our merciful religion, often viewing the laws from a monolithic lens. It must be stressed that these countries are just that; countries and not religious jurisdictions. They form their laws on the interpretation of religion by scholars who are more often than not, men. This is not to say that men aren’t victims of this patriarchy, as a lot of scholars seek to reserve capital punishment in such cases for men. However, the inherent patriarchy of these human systems translate to leaving women like Rahaf and Aasiya reeling. Consequently, it is important to call for varied female scholarship in all Islamic countries, free from the patriarchal pleats of the lawmaking system, as well basic freedom as was often the norm in the times of Prophet and Sahabah.

As a last thought, I urge the systems in place to reclaim religious narratives so that Muslims, men and women alike, can stop fearing the hijacking of issues for politically-driven narratives. Only then can we ensure the freedom, dignity, and safety of women like Rahaf Al-Qunun and Aasiya from the clutches of Islamophobia and patriarchy.

I remind those in power that constitutional laws are by humans, and it is important to assess them to ensure we don’t have patriarchy and majoritarianism hijacking Islam as a religion.


Tuesday 22 January 2019



Ertugrul (died c. 1280) was the father of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. According to Ottoman tradition, he was the son of Suleyman Shah, leader of the Kayi tribe of Oghuz Turks, who fled from eastern Iran to Anatolia to escape the Mongol conquests. According to this legend, after the death of his father, Ertugrul and his followers entered the service of the Seljuks of Rum, for which he was rewarded with dominion over the town of Sögüt on the frontier with the Byzantine Empire. This set off the chain of events that would ultimately lead to the founding of the Ottoman Empire (Wikipedia).

Like his son, Osman, and their descendants, Ertugrul is often referred to as a Ghazi, a heroic champion fighter for the cause of Islam. In 2014, a Turkish TV series by the name of Dirilis: Ertugrul was launched on TRT 1 which took the Muslim world by storm. Dirilis: Ertugrul is a Turkish historical adventure television series created by Mehmet Bozdag, starring Engin Altan Düzyatan and Esra Bilgiç Töre in leading roles. It is filmed in Riva, a village in Beykoz, Turkey. The show is based on the history of the Muslim Oghuz Turks and takes place in the 13th century. It centers around the life of Ertugrul, a fascinating character and inspiration to today’s Muslim youth.

Earlier this month, I sent out a mass message to a group of friends who are die-hard fans of Dirilis: Ertugrul to ask what they thought were the biggest lessons from this unique TV series. Here is the list I compiled below:

One of the most intriguing occurrences in the series is when the tribal chiefs of the Kayi tribe get together for feasts and pull their own personal spoons out from the inside of their robes. Many fans of Ertugrul have deliberated the rationale behind this and the most likely explanation is that the spoon, unlike the bowl, actually goes into the mouth of the individual. At a time when water was scarce (and detergent non-existent) it probably made most sense to bring your own spoon rather than the host having to scrub oral bacteria off a number of spoons. The lesson learned is that one should think about the ways on how not just to be a gracious host but also a gracious guest. What can we do the next time we are invited to dinner to make life easier for the host and not be a burden for our hosts?

There are many instances in the series where we see the most “insignificant” pauper personally knowing and recognizing the Chief (Bey) of the tribe Suleyman Shah and vice versa. It is clear that in the old days, the leaders of the tribe were not only well known by their subjects but also had personal relationships with them. In fact, the relationship was so close that the Bey of the tribe had to give permission for every marriage to take place. When we compare that to our institutions now, from the smallest Masjid or charity to the largest federal Governments, it is as though leaders are only supposed to deal with the second line of command and no one else. We need to slowly start changing this and change happens starts from the self. Do you have a leadership position of any kind? Whether it’s at work, a committee at the masjid or anything else – do the people from the lowest rung to the highest know who you are? Maybe it can be as simple as saying “Hello/Salam” to everyone around and introducing yourself – the results are likely to be miraculous.

Engin Altan does an amazing job of playing the part of the inspirational Ertugrul and one of his strongest characteristics is his ability to keep his mind clear of confusions and stay focused on the task at hand. At times it looks like there is a constant storm happening around Ertugrul with oppression, injustice, deceit and evil permeating every corner, but Ertugrul walks through unscathed never paying more attention to the deviants than they deserve. Especially in today’s world of constant bombardment of negative and sometimes “fake news” this is a skill which we all need to practice – ignore the noise and keep your eyes on the prize.

The victory is not ours, it belongs to Allah. As long as we follow Allah’s path, nobody can bring us to our knees. But if we start to believe victory is ours, if we forget our purpose and contaminate it with our desire for fame, then our Lord will shame us. —Ertugrul Ghazi

One of the main themes in the first 50 or so episodes is the deceit of Ertugrul’s uncle Kordoglu. Kordoglu is the textbook two-faced hypocrite, pretending to be loyal at one juncture and stabbing his brother and nephew in the back at the other. At many instances Kordoglu tries to double cross and frame Ertugrul and the people who fall into the trap are the ones who jump to conclusions. If the same people stopped for a moment and gave Ertugrul the chance to defend himself and provide his evidence much confusion could be avoided. We are also prone to this type of haste and many times it is our nafs that is probing us to fall into intrigue. It is easy to fall into sensationalism and drama, and not as easy to restrain the nafs and take a step back without judging immediately.

Like many romantic series, the love interest between Ertugrul and Halime Sultan is a major theme of the series and if you watch the show with Aunties you will often hear “Oh why don’t they just get married and get it over with.” LOL. The lesson learned reminds us of Rasool Allah’s hadith: “There is nothing better for those who love one another than marriage.” (Narrated by Ibn Maajah, 1847). Repeated experiences within our community show that where the blessings and acceptance of elders are taken, marriages tend to succeed more. As youth, we should make a concerted effort to gain the blessings of elders in marriage, while elders should make a concerted effort to expedite marriages and this is where the ultimate balance would be achieved.

Love will not bring harm to your bravery. Don’t be afraid. Love fortifies it. Protects it. — Dogan Alp

I heard this saying many years ago and the person who shared this with me attributed it to Ali ibn Abi Talib (r.a.). The saying seems to apply very well with the Ertugrul series and our personal lives in the current world. So many of us seem to be confused about world events, circumstances in the community and issues with their own families and many times it is because we haven’t taken out the time to seek the truth. Seeking and knowing the truth comprises many painstaking hours of research, taking naseeha from others, being humble and adopting a beginner’s mind. When one is equipped with a certain foundational understanding and knowledge it becomes easier to decipher honesty from deception.

Examples from the great lives of Muslim leaders and their communities show that the Muslim world was not as segmented into rigid societal roles as one might think. Women would fight when needed and men would cook when needed and this is the lifestyle displayed in Ertugrul. Nowadays it almost seems as though, even in a situation of life and death a woman in our society might not be equipped to defend herself and a man would starve if he was not served food in front of him. This might seems like an exaggerated view but the point is that we need to be much more balanced and equipped on both sides of the gender equation than we currently are. Men should not have to wait for a life and death situation to cook a meal for their families, and women should not have to wait for a moment of desperation to take on more physically strenuous tasks. 

As we all go through life we realize that everyone faces major calamities and hardships but the amazing thing about warriors, as we see in the T.V series, is that they are trained to only look forward and not allow life’s scars to distract them. This point also relates to the much larger concept of qadr (destiny) – the fact that whatever has to happen, happens and sulking over it cannot change anything. If having a medicine or dressing the wound is making it better, than alhamdulillah, but if it isn’t we just have to live with our ailments and there is likely some other good in it (bringing us closer to Allah, making us more humble etc.). There is a famous saying “If you sat around a table with a group of strangers and each person wrote down their problems passed them around the table, you would ask for yours back.” Everyone is facing difficulties of varying degrees, and there are two types of people in the world – those that accept and those that don’t – and that is what makes all the difference.


Thursday 17 January 2019


“With great power, comes great responsibility.” -Uncle Ben.

Clergy -or shayukh-  in Muslim communities hold sacred power in that their positions symbolize a representation of character and religious authority in their community.

The role of a shaykh is complex in that community members can turn to their him for financial advice, marital counseling, matchmaking, conflict resolution, religious classes, youth engagement, and pretty much anything else a community needs. You name it and a shaykh is approached for it. In most communities, the shaykh is a critical component of a healthy community, but in some cases – the great power is used to facilitate great abuse instead.

Understanding Shaykh Power©:

Shaykh Power© doesn’t mean the ability to bless or forgive,  it simply means the effect a shaykh can have on the general public for the very reason that he preaches about religion.

People subconsciously associate their spiritual growth with the shaykh, building a bond of love, respect and trust. It’s perfectly natural – someone who has helped you, taught you, or supported you through a difficult time is likely to become dear to you regardless of their position. As a result it’s natural for people to:

Look up to a shaykh
Become attached to the shaykh whose da’wah or lecture may have helped them find, or re-find Islam
Trust a shaykh and hold him in honor
Be influenced, which is a consequence of being held in honor
Giving him a place of authority in their lives
Again, it is natural for people to attach themselves to a shaykh, and it is completely okay for a shaykh to be respected and trusted to that level. It is a relationship built on faith, in which the shaykh earns trusts by demonstrating trustworthiness, fearing Allah in the relationship with his congregants, and maintaining a consciousness of his actions and consequences with God.

There is no conflict in this trust when viewed alongside human fallibility. No one is sin-free, not even a shaykh. They are humans and humans are weak. A healthy community is not one with a sin-free shaykh. However, the line is between fallibility and abuse is crossed when the shaykh’s sins or inherent weakness start hurting others, and the authority they hold is abused to give into those weaknesses.

The abuse of a shaykh’s power happens if a shaykh uses his position, authority, or religious knowledge to manipulate people into compliance or obedience to his sin.

A very simple example of a shaykh using all three – position, authority, and knowledge – to manipulate someone into compliance came from a woman who covers her face. During a Skype call related to business -and not marriage at all- a well-known shaykh diverted from the agenda to convince her to remove her face-veil as he was a “shaykh” and it was okay for him to see her face. The shaykh tried to establish a religious basis for his exception to the rule and made his female student believe that as a shaykh he had “special privileges”.

There are common patterns of “special privileges” that emerge.

Secret marriages occur where the shaykh uses his authority to wrongly legitimize a marriage without witnesses. Please be aware, there is no marriage valid without 2 witnesses, and in majority of the fiqhs, marriage is not valid without a woman’s wali (representative guardian) present.

While the term “marriage” is used, what happens in secret marriage is not what Islam recognizes as marriage. Rather than entering a serious, long-term commitment in which each party agrees to honor the rights and terms decreed by Allah, a secret marriage is usually the culmination of grooming and manipulation. The victim is led to believe that the shaykh is sincere in his pursuit of their marriage and future together, but cannot go public for whatever reason. He convinces the victim that their secret marriage is valid by manipulating Islamic information is his favor, and the result is that the victim consents to what is an otherwise shady arrangement.

After the “marriage” is consummated, the women are divorced – also in secret and without due Islamic process. They have no legal recourse – since they were not legally married. They don’t even have Islamic recourse since oftentimes there are no witnesses to the secret marriage.  Some shayukh misinform the women that they don’t need witnesses because as a person of knowledge, a shaykh is sufficient as a witness to finalize his own marriage contract.

Consider the difference between marriage as a communal celebration, a public declaration, and a legal protection of the rights of both spouses – and compare it to a verbal agreement with one man in a hotel room. Consummation followed by divorce, with no intention to sign a marriage-contract or honor the woman as a wife, is not a valid marriage.

Some argue that women who are legally adults and gave their consent to the secret marriage have no claim to victimhood. It is true that secret marriage and serial marriage are not rape, but secret marriage is an abuse of the trust that our community places in a shaykh.

Women are deceived into marrying by means of the shaykh’s authority. The shaykh – a person of religious credibility with community trust – implies that something halal, lasting, and keeping with the Islamic sanctity of the family will happen. What happens instead is a woman falling victim to the shaykh’s pattern of marrying a variety of women to satisfy carnal curiosity, and then divorcing women once the desires are satisfied.

The abuse of women goes beyond just the women- the entire community is deceived when a shaykh abuses their religious credibility. They trust that the man committed to the spiritual betterment of their families will act in keeping with that trust. There is no way to legitimize the secret wooing, secret wedding, and immediate, premeditated divorcing of anyone in the community.

Divorce can happen under completely normal circumstances, just because a man is a shaykh doesn’t mean he has to stay in a bad marriage. However, when a pattern is developed to frequently marry and divorce, sometimes after a week or less, and a shaykh does so knowing that the position and reputation will help him replace the wife soon enough-  then this is not what either marriage or divorce is for. This is abuse.

A man on the podium, delivering the Message of God and helping people connect with their Lord holds enormous spiritual power over his community. Unfortunately, some shaykhs can and do use that power to satisfy their desires in religiously inexcusable ways.

Polygamy itself is not the issue here. Polygamy itself becomes abused when it is used to justify secret marriage and divorce of multiple women, without having any sincere intention or giving any marriage or divorce it’s due Islamic rights or process.

Shayukh who abuse polygamy paint a glamorous picture of polygamy, making it a special mission to “revive the sunnah”, and practicing polygamy almost a measure of a woman’s level of iman.

The delusional idea of becoming more religious under the wings of a shaykh as his wife is also used to entice women seeking closeness to Allah. A more intimate relationship to the shaykh is directly conflated with a more intimate relationship with Allah.

What the shayukh are luring women into is not a revival of polygamous marriage, as much as it is a revival of temporary marriage – without the decency of telling the women up front what they are consenting to. The woman believes she will be the shaykh’s second wife. Instead, she is third, or fourth, or fifth ex-wife.

The first step towards resolving an issue is to acknowledge that problem exists. As a community, we have tried to conceal our dirty laundry in the name of gheerah and satr, only to suppress ‘adl instead. As an ummah, we need to address the harmful behavior of shayukh who abuse their our religion and their power to manipulate and use women – leaving them emotionally and spiritually broken in the name of a religion that is mean to protect them.

Stopping sisters-only sessions with shaykhs or banning sisters from contacting shayukh for personal or Islamic questions is not a foundational solution. Women have to consult knowledgeable men for a variety of issues: spiritual and marital counseling, for Islamic rulings on life matters etc.

Stricter segregation between shayukh and women, or building physical barriers in the masajid is a suggested preventative measure but not a solution either. Frankly, many shayukh have the dignity to respect their boundaries with women without a barrier in their masjid, while many have crossed all lines despite physical barriers.

It is women’s religious right to have access to a religious scholarship for knowledge and seeking verdicts, and the mistakes of few cannot outweigh the virtues of many.

1400 years ago, we– Muslim women — were given protection from a society that sold their daughters in exchange of money and loaned out their wives to other men.  Our Prophet ?allallahu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) taught and showed us how to treat women with honor, and he then entrusted the knowledge of Islam to his inheritors– the shayukh.

Consider the gravity of that abuse, when our scholars are trusted to carry forward the Prophet’s legacy, and instead weaponize the Prophet’s words to abuse us instead.

Needless to say, not every shaykh is abusive of his congregants. Alhamdulillah, the abuse is the exception and trust fulfilled is the norm. However, that doesn’t mean that silence should be the norm as well. As a community, we are responsible for each other, in standing up to our oppressors and standing up for our oppressed.


Tuesday 15 January 2019

Did my children die because I married my cousin?

"The doctors in York were trying to do 100% to keep her alive, I did have that hope but I could see she was in pain. She was sedated until she passed away. I had her in my arms for most of the time, then I lay down beside her. My husband realised she was taking her last breaths."

Ruba says she has no idea how they have all endured the pain of losing three children and of suffering six miscarriages, the last just weeks after Inara's death. "I didn't even know I was pregnant at that time and I miscarried after the funeral," she says.

She says it was Inara's death that made her accept a link between her children's misfortunes and cousin marriage.

For a long time she just did not believe it, in part because she saw other ill and disabled children at the hospice and it was clear that not all of them were conceived by married cousins. Some were from the white community.

"My husband still doesn't believe it," she says. "I believe it now because it's happened three times, so there must be something in what they're saying. It must be true."

After Inara's death, some of Ruba and Saqib's relatives, both in the UK and in Pakistan, came to the conclusion that they were unlikely to have a healthy child - and argued that the marriage should therefore end in a "happy separation". This would allow both partners to remarry and have healthy children with someone else.

"We both said no," Ruba says.

"My husband says: 'If God is going to give me kids, then he can give me them from you. He's given me kids from you and he can give me healthy kids from you. If it's written, it's written for you. I'm not going to get married again and neither can you get married again, we are both going to try together.'"

And although Ruba was reluctant to marry in 2007, after 10 years of married life she doesn't want to part.

"Relatives wanted us to be happily separated for the kids, so that I can have healthy kids with someone else and so could he. But what if I do have healthy kids with someone, they might not make me feel like he makes me feel? I might have kids but not a happy marriage. It might not be successful marriage, and I don't want to bring kids up as a single parent. I have heard about people doing this but it's not for us."

But what options does this leave them?

The couple's experiences have led others in the family, including Ruba's brother, to reject cousin marriage.

"We never use to think about the risks - up to my children we've never thought it was wrong to marry in the family, but because I've been through it my other relatives do think twice about going in the family," Ruba says.

"Ten years ago I just accepted what my parents said, but now our cousins have been given a choice and they're saying no to that. Our younger generation have been given a choice and if they don't like it they can speak up about it."

As well as losing three children, Ruba has also suffered six miscarriages, the last just weeks after Inara's death. She hadn't realised she was pregnant at the time, but miscarried after the funeral, when Inara was buried alongside her brother and sister.

She is sustained by her religion and supported by her parents.

"God only burdens a person with how much they can take. Sometimes I think people are so lucky, they don't have to try hard and they get a healthy child, but sometimes those children bring trouble when grow up and so those tests placed on them are different," Ruba says.

"In this life I'm the unluckiest person, but in the next life I will be the luckiest because they were innocent children. And those children help you in the next life, because you will be with them."


Monday 14 January 2019

Criminalising forced marriage: The risk of symbolic gestures

 A young woman sits in front of the bank manager, her distress is palpable with tears streaming down her face; her voice comes out in desperate gasps.

“Please don’t call the police; I can’t explain how awful things will get.”
“They have broken the law, I have no choice.” He responds.
“Please, please, please, don’t.” She is almost incoherent with distress.

The bank manager appraises her. She had come in this morning to relay to him that her bank cards had been fraudulently reported stolen by her family. The young woman had fled a forced marriage and her family in their rage had retaliated. He agrees to not report them and the young woman looks visibly relieved.

This young woman was me ten years ago. I recount this experience to give a glimmer into what it is like when you are fighting for survival. When all you want is your safety and the thought of police intervention fills you with horror.

Governments like symbolic gestures: a big summit to end sexual violence in war zones with a Hollywood star at the helm or the passing of a law to criminalise forced marriage. Sometimes symbols matter, other times, symbols are a lot easier than tackling the complexities of a problem. I was reminded of this as news came through this week that forced marriage had been criminalised by the coalition government; it is a law that fills me with dread.

Dread because I have serious concerns as to whether it will protect victims at risk. A person fleeing a forced marriage has been under extreme emotional pressure to comply and the prospect of taking their family to court, where the maximum custodial penalty is seven years, can be an overwhelming prospect. So much so, that it could prove to be a deterrent in asking for help. The cultural context in which these situations arise, where misogynistic notions of honour prevail, make leaving that much harder.

A law would not have helped me get out sooner and nor would it have been a deterrent to my family. Kidnap, false imprisonment and rape are all criminal acts but if they have not stopped women and boys being forced to marry against their will, then what is the rationale for a new law now? Symbols only work if there has been work on the ground to provide the necessary support to victims and survivors.

It is not sexy to provide funding to women’s services. It doesn’t get you the headline of sharing the platform with a Hollywood star. It is not sexy to teach relationship and consent in schools or to train teachers, GP’s, UKBA to spot the signs of a forced marriage. It is these things that will make a tangible difference and even save lives.

Passing a law is a quick win but at what price? There is a real chance that this may force the issue underground. Forced marriage is already hugely under reported; the Forced Marriage Unit reported that they gave advice or support related to a possible forced marriage in 1302 cases between January to December 2013. I suspect this is a tiny snapshot of the real picture. There are many boys and girls that flee and sleep on friend’s floors, they learn to survive and work and carry on. I know I did. All I wanted was my life back and a bed without a stranger, a room to call my own again.

So my message to Theresa May and David Cameron is: I really hope you will be backing your symbolic gestures with the effort needed on the ground to protect those people most at risk.


Friday 11 January 2019

As a Muslim man, I am sick of our obsession with the hijab

When it comes to the hijab, everybody seems to be obsessed with it. More than an article of modesty, it serves as a symbol of oppression to some and a symbol of liberation to others. But, more peculiarly, the hijab is often used as a benchmark by conservative Muslims to judge the morality of a Muslim woman and her “Muslimness”.

Indeed, judging by the Islamic discourse that concerns Muslim women, one would assume that the primary religious duty of Muslim women is wearing the hijab.

The restriction of religion from an ethical guide to appearances (dress-codes, rituals) is a curious phenomenon; a virus that seems to have seeped its way into mainstream Muslim consciousness. Partly due to the spread of Wahhabism, a deeply conservative sect of Islam, our religious priorities seem to have shifted from spiritual transformation to pedantic details about rituals and dress codes. Thus, the fixation with the hijab, I believe, reflects the very cursory manner in which we approach Islam.

From certain imams insisting that earthquakes are caused by women not wearing a hijab to muftis excommunicating Muslim women who do not consider wearing the hijab as a religious duty, the intellectual level of discourse that surrounds Muslim women is excruciating, and is more or less concerned only with notions of modesty.

This gives a gloomy insight – the obsession with the hijab is, in fact, a form of sexual objectification. Objectification, after all, involves the lowering of a person to the status of an object. By reducing Muslim women to their bodies and pretending that modesty is their primary religious duty, we strip them off their personhood and rob them off their agency as human beings.

Take, for example, the analogies that are employed to convince Muslim women of the benefits of the hijab. The lollipop analogy is particularly popular among conservative Muslims on social media. Two lollipops are shown: a bare lollipop with a swarm of flies on it and a wrapped lollipop with flies moving away from it. The caption reads: “You cannot avoid them, but you can protect yourself. Your Creator knows what is better for you.”

Apart from the blatant objectification, this analogy has at its core a very troubling assumption. It is that Muslim women who do not wear a hijab deserve cat-calling and sexual harassment, as some sort of retributive divine law, taking away all responsibility from men to behave morally and guard their gaze (as mentioned in the Quran). Such attitudes contribute to a culture of victim-blaming with devastating consequences for the victims involved.

Furthermore, the analogy assumes that Muslim women who wear the hijab are not going to be sexually harassed. This naïve assumption shatters to pieces when confronted with evidence. According to a study carried out in Egypt, 72.5 per cent of the women who reported being sexually harassed were, in fact, wearing the hijab. And let’s not pretend that sexual harassment does not occur in countries like Iran where wearing the hijab is required by law.

“Growing up in a Muslim country where the hijab is not mandatory, I have always been told: the hijab is there to protect women from men’s desire, because our body is awra (intimate parts of the body that should be covered) that can spread fitna (chaos) among men,” says Sahar, a 26-year-old non-Iranian who has been studying in Tehran for a year. “But then I came to Iran, where hijab is mandatory, and I am still harassed in the streets. Men aggressively stare at me, talk to me, call me names. I feel naked, and worthless.

Today’s world is in a state of emergency. With gnawing problems such as superstition, bigotry, sectarianism, and patriarchy in Muslim-majority states, we simply cannot afford to divert all our attention to the hijab and pedantic details of how to worship God “correctly”. If we are at all serious about preventing the so-called fitna, we must start addressing the real issue that has long been glaring at us: attitudes towards women.

Education, as always, is the key here. Not the hijab. Let’s start getting offended by expressions like “men are going to be men” because men are not monolithic sexual beasts who have no autonomy over their desires. Let’s not tie down a woman’s morality to her decision to wear the hijab. And let’s stop objectifying women and seeing them primarily as avenues for sex.


Shaykh Noreen Mohammed || SURAH YASEEN

Monday 7 January 2019

Abulhawa: For 36 hours I was detained on a dirty bed in my homeland, then deported

In 2015, I traveled to Palestine to build playgrounds in several villages and to hold opening ceremonies at playgrounds we had already built in the months previous. Another member of our organization was traveling with me. She happened to be Jewish and they allowed her in. Several Israeli interrogators asked me the same questions in different ways over the course of approximately 7.5 hours. I answered them all, as Palestinians must if we are to stand a chance of going home, even as visitors. But I was not sufficiently deferential, nor was I capable of that in the moment. But I was certainly composed and – the requirement for all violated people – “civil.” Finally, I was accused of not cooperating because I did not know how many cousins I have and what are all their names and the names of their spouses. It was only after being told that I was denied entry that I raised my voice and refused to leave quietly. I did yell, and I stand by everything I yelled. According to Haaretz, Israel said I “behaved angrily, crudely and vulgarly” in 2015 at the Allenby Bridge.

What I said in 2015 to my interrogators, and which was also reported in Haaretz at the time, is that they should be the ones to leave, not me; that I am a daughter of this land and nothing will change that; that my own direct history is steeped in the land and there’s no way they can extricate it; that as much as they invoke Zionist mythological fairy tales, they can never claim such personal familial lineage, much as they wish they could.

I suppose that must sound vulgar to Zionist ears. To be confronted with authenticity of Palestinian indigeneity despite exile, and face their apocryphal, ever-shifting colonial narratives.

My lack of deference in 2015 and choice not to quietly accept the arbitrary decision of an illegitimate gatekeeper to my country apparently got appended to my name and, upon my arrival this time on November 1st, signaled for my immediate deportation.

The true vulgarity is that several million Europeans and other foreigners live in Palestine now while the indigenous population lives either in exile or under the cruel boots of Israeli occupation; the true vulgarity is in the rows of snipers surrounding Gaza, taking careful aim and shooting human beings with no real way to defend themselves, who dare to protest their collective imprisonment and imposed misery; the true vulgarity is in seeing our youth bleed on the ground, waste in Israeli jails, starve for an education, travel, learning, or some opportunity to fully be in the world; the true vulgarity is the way they have taken and continue to take everything from us, how they have carved out our hearts, stolen our everything, occupied our history, and tamp our voices and our art.

In total, Israel detained me for approximately 36 hours. We were not allowed any electronics, pens or pencils in the jail cells, but I found a way to take both – because we Palestinians are resourceful, smart, and we find our way to freedom and dignity by any means we can. I have photos and video from inside that terrible detention center, which I took with a second phone hidden on my body, and I left for them a few messages on the walls by the dirty bed I had to lay on. I suppose they will find it vulgar to read: “Free Palestine,” “Israel is an Apartheid State,” or “susan abulhawa was here and smuggled this pencil into her prison cell”.