Saturday, August 31, 2013

The White City

Today was the first day of the Occupy Utopia festival in Copenhagen and we had a workshop called Building With Books. I was teamed with Syrian poet Golan Haji and furniture maker Kasparov Stoltz and bookbinder Malene Lerager. Our assignment? To create a piece of furniture for the Book Cafe. The only rule was that we had to make the furniture out of old books and we had to create original text to be used in/around/on/from the furniture. After some thought we decided to work on the theme "White".

I wrote a poem for the table and so did Golan. Here's mine:

The White City

The city goes to sleep an old woman at night
And wakes up in the morning a virgin
She is a sleeping princess waiting to wake
And give birth to herself again
White swans drift down the silver ribbons of the river
And she touches the heads of all her children
With pale hands in order to make them whole again.

Light gives birth to more light
White begets white, which splits and separates
Into multiple threads, witnessed by porcelain windows
Like eyes gracefully opening and closing
Against the light of the flaxen sun.

Who is looking for what in this white city?
What purity, what redesign, what forgiveness awaits
There is no redemption, only white upon white
Light upon light 
To soothe and to heal the soul destroyed by hurt, by fear,
By anger and war.
There is something for everyone here in this white city
Once your eyes become used to the light.

In the meantime, Kaspar and Malene started to work on the furniture, which was to make a table out of he beautiful old books whose pages were all shades of white. By five o'clock it was finished and then we presented our furniture and read the poems. Other teams created stools, a chair, and a nest of books that you could sit in and read.

You can see the results of our work here.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sick of Aafia Siddiqui

Going through the news this morning I read an item that said Pakistan's about to sign the Council of Europe Convention which will enable prisoners jailed in signatories' countries to be transferred back to Pakistan. This means that the Pakistani government can request for Pakistani prisoners abroad to be returned to Pakistan.

Yet the news item was not called "Pakistan to Sign Prisoner Transfer Agreement", but "Getting Afia Home: Pakistan Cabinet Approves Signing of Council of Europe Convention". And the blurb on Facebook where I caught notice of the news had a photograph of Afia Siddiqui with the caption: "Signing of the treaty will allow repatriation of Aafia Siddiqui!"

In case you don't know who Aafia Siddiqui is, she's an MIT- and Brandeis-trained Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of terrorism charges and jailed in the United States for an 86-year term.  The official position, held by both Pakistan and the United States, is that she is guilty of being connected to Al-Qaeda and doing various operational jobs for them in the  United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. There are pages and pages of evidence about the kinds of things she was doing: obtaining and transferring information about dirty bomb-making (chemical and biological), helping to finance organizations linked with terrorism, and traveling to the US to open a PO Box to be used by terrorists, amongst other crimes.

She disappeared for a very long period - at least five years - after divorcing her first husband, a physician. She vanished with her three young children and reappeared in Ghazni jail in Afghanistan, amidst allegations that she had been kidnapped by special forces, tortured, and imprisoned illegally. The reason she was jailed for 86 years was that US soldiers claimed while she was being interrogated she picked up one of the soldier's guns and tried to shoot them. This is disputed by Siddiqui and her family (her sister has been her most vocal supporter), and she says she merely stood up to see who was behind a curtain and that the soldiers shot her for no reason.

On the other hand, many Pakistani people - as many call them, the Ghairatmand Brigade, those super-patriots whose primary obsession is Pakistan's "honor" as a nation, as opposed to how Pakistan actually behaves amongst the international community - have taken Aafia as a cause celebre. They say there were many human rights violations during her trial, the evidence against her is unclear, and that she has been framed and persecuted because the US wanted to muscle its way over the Pakistani people. And they support her as a heroine who stood up to Western imperialism, by the very fact of her being jailed and tortured, as if she were a prisoner of conscience along the lines of Nelson Mandela or Aun San Suu Kyi.

"How could a slight, tiny woman pick up such a huge gun and shoot people?" is the question I heard over and over again when she was being tried in New York City in an anti-terrorism court. And it's that patronizing question, couched in concern for this poor little good-girl-gone-bad that really symbolizes the crux of the matter of Aafia Siddiqui: the small, helpless victim (Pakistan) pitted against tough, huge soldiers (America), accused of things she can't possibly have committed. Everyone loves a David and Goliath story, and when it's a woman, well, the honor of Pakistanis is provoked and they must stand up to defend their sister, daughter, mother, or whatever other image this woman brings to their minds.

(Never mind that a woman even of small stature can certainly be strong enough to lift heavy guns - don't worry, it won't break her weak, delicate hands - and that Siddiqui in fact trained in pistol shooting in Massachusetts, so was able to handle weapons...never mind that Siddiqui dumped her first husband to marry the nephew of Khalid Shaikh Muhammed, and dragged her children through years of pain and suffering on her international adventures. Oh, and best of all, never mind that Siddiqui is an American citizen.)

I'm not so concerned with whether or not Siddiqui is a terrorist. There's enough evidence of her activities to prove that she was certainly mixed up in the wrong kinds of activities, and running with the wrong crowd. What I am confused by is the national obsession with this woman, her elevation to the status of saint, and how she's become a legend, a figure of folklore and a symbol of resistance to Western imperialism to so many people in Pakistan when it's so clear that she has not been truly serving our country in any tangible, unequivocally positive way.

I was a student at Wellesley at the same time that Siddiqui was at MIT (we're the same age) and I used to attend the MSA meetings at MIT from time to time. It's even possible that I met or saw Siddiqui at one of the meetings, but I don't particularly remember. I stopped going to the meetings because I sensed a real resentment of women who didn't wear hijabs - I was one of those. Beyond that, I could see how the ethos was becoming extremely conservative, flavored with that peculiar brand of Wahaabiism that was starting to spread across the United States even before it truly poisoned Pakistan. And even though I was very young at the time, hardly 18 or 19, I knew that this wasn't the environment for me.

There are so many things about this case that make me think Siddiqui truly became unbalanced, as so many people do, because of the stress of living abroad and the loneliness and vulnerability that accompany you when you're far away from family. It's easy to see how a young girl could find a sense of belonging and community in a group comprised of many countrywomen and countrymen, in the name of Islam. What happened to her after our paths diverged can be seen in the lives of so many of our people in Pakistan who fall under the influence of a radical path, and go the wrong way.

And so my question to so many Pakistanis who support her, who call her "Daughter of the Nation", who curse the West (and here's the funny thing: Siddiqui had hatred for Jews and didn't want Jews on her jury, but she got her degree from Brandeis University which is one of America's major Jewish institutions of higher learning - another clue to the weakness of her mind and the parroting of the popular refrain that "the Jews" are the cause of all the Muslim world's problems) and say she was sexually tortured: what exactly did Aafia Siddiqui do for Pakistan?

All I can see is a woman who, instead of using her degree to better her nation, instead of putting in the dedicated hours of research and study to improving our country, committed herself to a controversial and amoral path because she was convinced that she was on a holy mission against "the West" and even her own country. All I can see is a woman who was blind to any sort of self-analysis about whether she was truly on the correct path. All I can see is a woman who was dedicated to death and destruction, even if it was of her perceived enemy. This is as antithetical to the tenets of Islam and to the tenets of humanism as it can get.

Aafia Siddiqui can be your heroine, but if you don't see the selfishness and the arrogance and the utter futility of her actions, then you're welcome to her. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Prophet's Vulnerability

I'm re-reading Fatima Mernissi's "Beyond the Veil" in the 2011 edition and I came across this quote about the Prophet, peace be upon him, which I truly love. 

"The Muslim Prophet's heroism does not lie in any relation of aggression, conquest, or exercise of brute force against women, but on the contrary in his vulnerability. It is because he is vulnerable, and therefore human, that his example has exerted such power over generations of believers. The Prophet was anything but macho in today's sense of behaving as a conqueror of women... The Prophet's behavior leads us to recognize the complexity of masculine reality. He achieved his colossal task on earth not because he was outstandingly aggressive and rigid, but because he was vulnerable and able to recognize his vulnerability, to acknowledge it and take it into account." 

This book by the famed Moroccan feminist is one of the seminal works on the subject of women's status in Islamic society. I highly recommend it to everyone. She's groundbreaking in her theories (and even in 2011 some of what she writes is truly revolutionary), clear-eyed in her analysis, and unsentimental in her opinions. Her scholarship is indisputable.  And her arguments about how Islam recognizes the power, especially the sexual power, of women and how that played out in Muslim society and scholarship for centuries afterwards is truly necessary to know.


On a different note, you may be interested in this well-written essay by the German Islamic scholar Lamya Kaddor, "Why I As a Muslim Woman Don't Wear a Headscarf". I found this quote particularly compelling:

...the Koranic injunction to dress in a way that is generally demure remains a religious demand, to be fulfilled by wearing 'appropriate' clothing. A woman believer sees this as signifying that all those parts of the female body which nowadays excite the idea of possible sexual contact should continue to be 'properly' concealed beneath the kind of clothing usual today. What is entailed in 'proper', 'appropriate', or 'decent' is left to the reasonableness of every mature woman citizen, since at present there are no specific directives based on Islamic sources. In prevalent practice, it is mostly older men – learned or unlearned – who assume the right to determine how a woman should appear, but there is no theological or sociological foundation for this.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Asian Women and Self-Expression in the Online World

I was contact by an Indian called Upasna Kakroo who's in university in Germany at the moment conducting research on the micro-benefits and intangibles of the online space and its impact on Asian women. She asked me to contribute my views on women and self-expression in the online world and I thought I'd share what I told her with you here on the blog...

Kakroo: On a personal end, do you have a story to share on how the online space enhanced your sense of being able to 'express'. What drives you to share online?

I've been using the Internet since 1989 when I went to college in the US and academic institutions had email and BBSs and IRC. So I've grown up with the technology. When I came back to Pakistan, the World Wide Web had just been invented and arrived in Pakistan in 1996. I was fascinated by what it meant not just for me on a personal level but for Pakistani society.  Not only did I become the editor of two computer/Internet magazines, but I was inspired to write a novel about the technology, the 786 Cybercafe, about three young Sindhi men who try to set up a cybercafe in the middle of Karachi's main shopping district. 

One of the characters in that novel is a girl called Nadia who lives a typical, constricted middle class life in a family of many sisters. She's expected to have a minimal education and then get married and raise a family. But she decides that she wants to learn about the Internet, so she sneaks out of her house on the pretext of going to the beauty salon or for shopping with  her sisters. Wearing a full burqa so nobody can recognise her, she goes to the cybercafe and starts to learn how to use email, how to surf, how to chat online. In the process the boys all fall in love with her and react to her in different ways. Looking back on that novel, I realise that the story wasn't about the boys as much as it was about her expanding her world, finding her identity beyond what her family had prescribed for her, and expressing herself as a woman and a member of society. 

This is really what Pakistani women have been experiencing as they find themselves able to self-express online and that carries through to their regular lives, as they are exposed to ideas and people from different parts of the world. They are becoming more aware of their rights and of different possibilities about how to live their lives. This is the true power of the Internet and of space online. I think this is what inspires me to share my own experiences and ideas online, to be part of that conversation and to shape it in any way possible.

Kakroo: As an observer, is there some significant change that you've observed in terms of how Pakistani women express themselves over the online medium over a period of time?

Pakistani women have always been expressive and passionate about their lives and their experiences. The difference is that before, while they would share within their circles of friends and family, now they are able to share with a larger circle that may or may not be comprised of friends and family. They are in fact making friends across the world and forging connections with other women in other Muslim countries, or other women in non-Muslim countries, and exploring the differences and similarities between their lives. They bring the strength and support of these friendships into their lives and it makes them more confident and engaged in the idea of themselves as not just members of a certain family or ethnicity or citizenship but a larger global community.

Another difference I see is in how they are relating to men. The average Pakistani woman, if there is such a thing, has always been encouraged to keep their relationships with men restricted to what is considered acceptable by their family standards: men in the family first of all, perhaps (if the family is liberal or progressive enough) school and college friends, and then colleagues, but all within societal confines. And there's always the feeling that if you're befriending a man who isn't in your family, you're up to something, which stunts real friendship and bonding between two people who are really just human beings, beyond their gender.

With the Internet, you see women learning how to talk to men without worrying as much about what their family is going to think or how they'll react. They're learning to make friendships with men that range from intellectual, frivolous, friendly, fun to even romantic, flirtatious and sexual without the eyes of everyone on them. There are people who will find this terrible and threatening to social order, but I see it as a form of exploration and again, self-discovery. Pakistani women can be very sheltered and protected and so have an idealised or romantic view of what the opposite gender is like. Through the Internet, with access to information about everything, and with the ability to talk and chat and Skype with anyone, not only are Pakistani women enjoying privacy in their relationships, but choice, and perhaps getting a more realistic picture of how to interact and relate to the opposite sex. 

Upsana will be working on collecting stories, existing research and her own analysis of how the online space affects Asian women in terms of their self-expression, self-esteem, and personal opportunities. If you'd like to participate in the research or help Upasna in any way, leave a comment here and I'll help you get in touch with her.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What is A Season For Martyrs?

I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because Grammarly is like a 12-Step program for pedants and grammar Nazis, and if there's anyone addicted to pedantry on a fascistic scale, it's me.

I've just finished the final edits on my new novel, A Season For Martyrs, and sent it in to my editor at Delphinium Books, who is now going to put the novel into production at the publishing house. Hopefully the novel will be out next summer, which seems like an incredibly long time to wait for a book. But that's nothing compared to the process it takes to actually write the book, go through several drafts, show it to a few trusted readers, go through more drafts... then send it to your agent who will also edit it at least once to make sure it's submission-worthy.

Then, once the book is sold to a publisher, your editor there will really go to town on it and you'll have to edit it again (I did this three times with my editor, the amazing Joseph Olshan who is an acclaimed novelist in his own right as well as being the acquisitions editor at Delphinium. My last round of edits was done on the plane here, at 35,000 feet - that's a first for me). And once I've handed the book in, a copy editor will take a last look at it before it is turned into proofs. And then we'll edit it ONE MORE TIME in proof form.

Oh my God, I've just bored myself to death, so I can't even imagine what you must be feeling like, reading this post. And if you're still with me, now I'll tell you what the book is about by showing you the synopsis of the novel. A synopsis is also an essential part of the book publishing process: you write one for your agent so she can show it to editors she's approaching with your manuscript. It had better be good because it's what will tempt them to even consider looking at the first few pages of the novel. And if the first few pages are any good, they'll read a chapter, then three, then maybe, if you're lucky, the whole book.

And then they'll have internal meetings where the initial editor has to sell your book to the rest of the editorial team, and the marketing team, and the publishers themselves. And only when they've decided that you're any good, they'll decide whether or not your book has potential, whether it will sell. These are the two most important questions they consider when deciding whether or not to buy your book: are you a good writer? and will your book sell? That's it. Nothing else matters.

So, without further ado:

A Season For Martyrs

Ali Sikandar is a young television journalist in Karachi, the son of a wealthy landowner originally from the interior of Sindh. Estranged from his father, Ali finds himself swept up in events larger than his individual struggle for identity and love when he is assigned by his producer to cover the arrival of Benazir Bhutto, the opposition leader who has returned home to Karachi after eight years of exile to take part in the presidential race.

He joins the protest movement of the People’s Resistance Movement, a civil society group that opposes the current government of President Musharraf, the benevolent dictator turned strongman. Amidst improvised parades, protest marches, rallies in favor Benazir Bhutto and deadly terrorist attacks, the life of Ali opens in a new direction and the young man discovers love, the conflict with his traditionalist father, the desire to fight and the power of forgiveness.

And above all, Ali rediscovers its roots, gaining a new awareness of Pakistan and especially of his land, Sindh. The story of his experience, which examines the last three months of Benazir Bhutto - from her arrival in Pakistan on October 18, 2007 to her untimely, violent death in a shooting-cum-suicide bombing on 27 December 2007 - is told in an intense, confessional style.

This contemporary narrative thread intertwines with flashbacks told in dramatic multiple voices and styles that chronicle the history of Ali’s own feudal family and that of the Bhutto family; the powerful Pir Pagaro, the head of the warrior-like Hurs; of colonial British and imperialist American interference; and the influence of Sufi mystics on the land of Sindh throughout the centuries.

The double narrative composes an image of extraordinary depth which illustrates the many contradictions of a country that still struggles to enter fully into modernity.  With Benazir Bhutto serving as the potent and poignant motif of this novel, A Season For Martyrs by Bina Shah is the story of a country seeking justice and democracy, seen through the eyes of Ali Sikandar, a son of tradition, who is determined to learn the meaning of freedom, no matter what the price.

A Season For Martyrs had a whole other life before it came to Delphinium. It was published in Italy in 2010 under the Italian title Il Bambino Che Credeva Nella Liberta (The Boy Who Believed in Liberty). It won a literary award at the Amalfi Coast literary festival in the same year. But the book has undergone many, many changes in the painful editing process I've described above, and so it's going to be reborn, as it were, next summer, in the United States. I hope to have it published in the UK and in other languages, too.

I'm not sure whether I will feel like sending out a press release or a birth announcement when it's here, but both feel appropriate.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Occupying Utopia

Hello from sunny cloudy London, where I am here to spend a bit of time before I head off to Copenhagen for the Occupy Utopia literary festival run by the Danish publisher Korridor. The festival is part of the larger Images festival sponsored by the Danish Center for Culture which features artists, musicians, poets and writers from both Denmark and Asia, South America and Africa.

The organizers have been in touch to tell me the plans for the festival and I have to say I'm excited, confused, and slightly fearful about what I've heard.
From 30 August to 7 September occupies leading artists from around the world Aalborg, Aarhus and Copenhagen in the IMAGES FESTIVAL 2013 this year working on the theme OCCUPY Utopia.
IMAGES FESTIVAL has invited artists from more than 40 countries in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa: "Occupy Denmark with art and realize your utopias through art," In their own ways the musicians, visual artists, writers, filmmakers, dancers and actors occupying the Danish late summer of artistic expression will challenge our worldviews and create new visions for the future.
Queen Louise Bridge is the main artery in Copenhagen designated as UTOPIA city. On the occasion there will be built two footbridges on top the bridge itself, and under them an established space that will be inhabited by various exhibits, scenes, a restaurant and a coffee shop.
Publisher Korridor & The Heterotopic Library will create a space for literature on the Queen Louise Bridge. The BRIDGING UTOPIA space will serve as a stage for various literary events, a bookshop, and an installation made of 15,000 used books. Publications from IMAGES countries will be on sale there, as well as workshops for cooperation between Danish artists and visiting international artists. 
We look forward to seeing you at Queen Louise's Bridge!

So the festival will take place on a bridge, to match the theme "Bridging Utopia". I'm not sure if the bridge will be made of books, which might present a problem when we walk across it. But books float so if we crash down into the icy waters of the river below, we will just grab on to a tome or two and kick our way to shore. Plus, I've graduated from "beginner" to "intermediate" in my Swimfit program so I think I will be all right.

Until then, I'm occupying a small garret in West London, recovering from jet lag and the insult that international travel is on the body and soul. Sometimes you feel like your body has traveled but your soul hasn't quite caught up and the disorientation can be harsh. At other times it feels like a strange dream being controlled by circadian rhythms and Atlantic weather conditions.

Right outside my window is a block of council flats that looks like it was built some time in the 1960s.

The council flat is something new to me as a recent traveller to the UK. My only real exposure to Britain as a kid and teenager, besides the odd family holiday to London, was reading books. It wasn't Jane Eyre or Oliver Twist that helped me to understand contemporary Britain, though, but The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue Townshend. Her helpful glossary at the back of the book for Adrian's American penpal made me understand all sorts of things about British culture in the 1980s, including "the dole" and "giros", "the never-never", ASDA, and "the council".

This was Thatcher's Britain, after all, and the UK was stuck in dire economic straits that working class British people detested their government for getting them stuck with a high unemployment rate and its attendant woes. I had no understanding of what benefits were, what a council estate was (to my mind, an estate was where Scarlett O'Hara lived before the Civil War), and other things that you could really only know if you grew up in Britain, working class and poor.

So overlooking these council flats, occupied by primarily Afro-Carribbean and Bengali families - ladies in saris, men in skullcaps, angelic looking six year old girls wearing hijabs - is very surreal, like watching Brick Lane or "East is East" come to life in front of my eyes. What utopias were the Bangladeshis imagining when they came to Britain? Did they imagine Britain would look like this before they got here? What fears and hopes do they have for their futures, for their children's futures? They expected, I suppose, a golden land, and instead came to a grey and rainy place of benefits, NHS hospitals, social workers, council tax. They came for health and safety and got Health and Safety.

Maybe I should walk across the bridge from my utopia to theirs and talk to them about whether the dream is coming true or whether it's someone else's dream, controlled by Atlantic weather patterns and the class system and political machinations.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Using a Foot Ruler to Measure God

I was amused to see this comment piece on the Independent Voices page: Atheists are more intelligent than religious people? That's ‘sciencism’ at its worst. It comes a few days after the Richard Dawkins "Trinity College has produced more Nobel Prize winners than all Muslism combined" debacle on Twitter, and throws into relief the age-old debate about whether or not you're stupid if you believe in God. 

I used to be stung by this atheistic assertion that my intelligence was lacking because I am a practicing Muslim, but I'm learning how to let it go and laugh about it. In fact, the scientific evidence for my intelligence all points to the conclusion that I am no less stupid than the rest of the knuckledraggers walking around on this planet.

Perhaps atheists are getting their own back on religious people who, for millennia now, have brandished the threat of hellfire and eternal damnation over them for their lack of belief. It's like watching two rugby teams beat each other senseless on the field over a small pigskin ball and wondering why they bother. 

It also amuses me to see how some evangelical atheists act as if they've "seen the light" or "found Jesus" when they talk about their atheism. Using the language of religion to describe their attitude is a mean trick on my part, I know, but it just goes to show that we can never really escape our cultural conditioning.

I can't help but wonder, sometimes, if all the brouhaha is really about mortality? The need to see everything through the lens of science can be a result of one's academic training, one's dislike of organized religion - but I sense a real fear of mortality in those who follow "sciencism" as opposed to any religion. The turning to science to explain what happens after we die, the firm conviction that there is nothing because it can't be scientifically observed, recorded, explained, the pooh-poohing of any possibility of an afterlife, the forlorn hope that science will one day help us to live forever sometimes seems posturing to hide the existential fear that we all have about our mortality. But that's just my own supposition...

(I'm not trying to be smug about this aspect of faith versus lack of. I've long said that none of us can really know what happens after we die until we get there, but that the hope there is something after we take our last breath is what faith really means to me.)

This book - The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis Collins - might interest those of you who are looking to reconcile science and faith. Collins refers to the sequencing of the human genome, which only happened very recently in scientific history, as the language God uses to encode all of life's properties on the planet. According to Collins, "the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship." He uses this as a starting point to discuss how a person of science can be comfortable with faith and religious belief, and vice versa, using his own life as the example from which he draws his conclusions. 

Here's an interesting extract from the review of the book in Scientific American:
"In my view," Collins goes on to say, "DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God." Evolutionary explanations have been proffered for both these phenomena. Whether they are right or wrong is not a matter of belief but a question to be approached scientifically. The idea of an apartheid of two separate but equal metaphysics may work as a psychological coping mechanism, a way for a believer to get through a day at the lab. But theism and materialism don’t stand on equal footings. The assumption of materialism is fundamental to science.

I would be loath to get into the debate about how evolution can explain most of our human behaviours. But survival of the fittest falls far short for me in explaining altrusim or sacrifice: a healthy, full-grown parent sacrificing her life, for example, for a weak baby that cannot survive on its own is not behavior you will see in the animal kingdom. Nor can it explain why a dog would want to adopt an orphaned rabbit rather than eat it. Or why some people turn into psychopaths and murder other human beings. Sure, science can measure the outcomes of all of these actions, provide a theory for why this or that action was to the benefit or detriment of the species, but it cannot tell us everything about life as we understand it.

For me, science cannot always explain that pervading spirit that runs through all living beings, and possibly non-living ones. It can tell me about the composition, functioning, and chemistry and biology of the human brain, but it cannot identify or measure the human mind. It can tell me why my heart is not working to full capacity and that I might have a heart attack based on the readings on an EKG. But it cannot explain the workings of the metaphysical heart, the seat of conscience, emotion, motivation. Certainly it can explain to me the physical rewards of certain behaviours and how those fit into the model of evolution. But it cannot explain to me the creation of art, the mysteries of the intellect, or the source of the life force that animates us all.

I'm friends with an eminent cardiac surgeon in the United States who has saved countless lives on the operating table, bringing people "back to life" as it were. One time a child died for forty-five minutes but because of the efforts of my friend and his team, the child lived in what was reported through the news as a "miracle" (I don't like that kind of language, to be honest - it sensationalises too much). This surgeon also believes in God and life after death. He once told me why: "I've looked into the eyes of countless people as they've died on my table. They change when a person dies: what was once alive and vital is now vacant. The moment between life and death - it's so obvious that there is something more, once it is gone."

I'm not going to argue with a man who's had fifteen years of scientific training from the best institutions in the world. His day job consists of opening people's chests, stopping and then taking out their hearts, holding them in his hands, and then putting them back in and restarting them again. If there's anyone who understands physicality and materialism, it is him. If there's anyone who understands mortality, it is also him.

As I've said before, using science to prove the existence of God is a lot like using a foot ruler to measure Mount Everest. No doubt I'll offend many atheists with this observation, but it's my personal belief and as such is protected by the Constitution and the UN agenda of Human Rights and ... you get the picture.

At any rate, this post is not meant to stir up any more debate about faith versus science, religion versus belief. I don't really believe that people who have taken years to form their positions will suddenly abandon them from browbeating on any side. Faith, or the absence of, or the adoption of, or the lack of, is a deeply personal experience - which is why it can never be quantified by science. At some point in our adult lives we all leave our childhood conditioning behind. Then we either choose to abandon faith, or engage deeply with it, or maintain an ambivalent relationship with it, or turn our back on it.

What you do about faith is entirely up to you. But not even science can explain why you choose what you choose. For that, we'd have to turn to philosophy, psychology (neither of them "hard sciences"), and even then, we'd never come close to understanding what makes a human choose to engage with or ignore divinity.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Troublesome Topic of Gender in the Quran

Today I followed a Twitter seminar on the topic “Reading for Gender from the Quran” based on the teachings of the Islamic Scholar Amina Wadud. This was a lecture delivered by Tweets – you followed the hashtag #femquran -- onIslamic feminism, reading for gender in the Qur'an and other valuable lessons. The lecture was based on a workshop on the same topic held in May 2013 in Kuala Lumpur.

I’ve always been fascinated with studying the Quran in terms of how the original verses compare with the translations and interpretations that have emerged, most of them with a distinctly chauvinist flavor. There are several prominent female scholars of the Quran who are taking the Quran back, as it were, and reinterpreting those verses truer to the original intent of the Quran to give men and women equal status. One of those women is Professor Wadud; another is Laleh Bakhtiar, whose “Sublime Quran” I have ordered from Amazon and can’t wait to read.

I'm also particularly excited about the field of Islamic feminism: women interpreting the Quran for a more balanced perspective about how the Quran applies to us. I think reclaiming the Quran in this manner is the only way for Muslim women to truly achieve the equality we have been denied for so long by men who do not want us to step out of our second-class standing because it suits them to have a slave class sanctioned by religious text.

Professor Wadud is a Muslim scholar of long standing, and has addressed mixed-sex congregations in Cape Town and led prayers in 2005 at a US mosque – something women traditionally are never allowed to do; her brand of Islamic feminism argues that women can be imams. For Pakistanis, it’s good to know that the Pakistani scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi supports her stance, as well as other progressive Islamic scholars around the world.

She was most recently the source of controversy because when she went to India, fundamentalist Muslims in Tamil Nadu protested her presence and her lecture there was canceled. She posted a short essay called “Why I Try to Stay Away From The Media” saying that the media had made a huge deal about the protest in Tamil Nadu, ignoring the entire year of work she’d done without problem all over India.

Beginning her lecture, Dr. Wadud said, “Part of taking agency with our own belief is engaging with Qur'an. This is an eternal relationship with the Divine.” And she assured those of us following her lecture that nobody would be able to use the words of the Quran against us (as women). In fact, she said, women need to claim their own authority in order to add to the understanding of our tradition, and of Allah.

She recommended the book 'Ulum Al-Quran' as a very good introduction to Quranic exegisis, then noted that the Quran continuously chastises 7th century Arabia, the time and place that the Prophet, an ordinary person with extraordinary experience, lived. “Might it not be possible that Quran addresses that culture?” she asked.

She went on to give some background into the history of the Quran: “Within one year of the Prophet's death, the revelations were compiled into one large manuscript with the leadership of Abu Bakr. The manuscript went to Umar, next Caliph, and on to Hafsa bint Umar (Hafsa the daughter of Umar), and then to Uthman, the next Caliph after Umar. And what we have today is the perfect revealed text - the original text is as it is. It is the primary source of Islam”

Dr. Wadud warned her listeners: “Just because you grew up speaking Arabic does not mean you can give an authentic interpretation of the Quran. Just because you are a 'Quran specialist' does not mean you are the only one who has the understanding.” (These are the usual excuses many male Islamic scholars give when excluding women from the discourse on religion and the Quran). Arabic is a prerequisite science to understanding the Quran, said Dr. Wadud. “But it is a classical Arabic that nobody speaks.”

She also explained Sunnah as the normative behaviour of Prophet is related to the 7th century context, not just in his relationship with Allah. Therefore we can consider Sunnah as the living embodiment of Islam.

Then came more explication about how the Quran’s language works: “God speaks in meta language, through the stories in the Quran. Metaphors are used to communicate the revelatory experience.”

Earlier verses of Makkah period are emphatic about the Oneness of God, of the Divine (the concept of Tawhid that all Muslims are familiar with), while the later verses of Madinah period are more practical, and meant for 7th century Arabia. According to Dr. Wadud the idea that Madinah verses have more authority than Makkah verses has been refuted. In fact, the earlier verses are more universal – and this adds weight to their importance and timelessness, whereas the Madini verses are more practical, and addressed Arabs living in the 7th century.

(And the major mistake we make as Muslims today is taking those verses out of context and trying to apply them to our lives today – slaves and concubines, for example, do not exist in modern life, but in 7th century Arabia they were a reality, and so had to be addressed. This does not mean that Muslims today can take slaves and concubines, though - and you'd be amazed how many people come to my blog with the keyword search "Can I have a concubine in Islam?")

Dr. Wadud then turned to the issue of gender in the Quran. “In the Quran, the use of gender-neutral language is virtually impossible because the Arabic language has gender markers.” Moving from these gender markers is a real challenge. Amazingly, in the Quran, Allah refers to Himself, Herself and in the plural (that blew me away when I read it!). And according to Dr. Wadud, “Grammar is literal, not an ideology.” In other words, if Allah refers to Himself, or in the plural, it is not meant to be taken literally – as Allah has no gender and is only One.

Addressing the issue of how women have been squeezed out of the religious conversation, Dr. Wadud asked, “Doesn't the female have a relationship with God? There are consequences to leaving the female out. We need to interrogate this.” She added that nowhere in Quran nor does the Prophet say that the leader of prayer has to be male. “Where does that come from? We have been duped.”

The Quran, said Wadud, mentioned 35 prophets by name but there were thousands of other prophets. “The thousands of other prophets could have included women. Why can't we imagine this to be a possibility?”

Dr. Wadud said that Quranic language ascribes the masculine form neutrality, and called this a matter of linguistic convenience, not gender privilege. “When someone says this is what the text means, you have to ask how they came to know that. It is your job to question.”

Here is one of Dr. Wadud’s most important points: All gender inequalities in the text refer to 7th century Arabia and what Quran was trying to achieve at that time. Justice is relative. And when it comes to resolving contradictions between verses, Dr. Wadud recommends that we resolve on the side of justice – “then you’ll be an active participant in meaning-making.”

According to Dr. Wadud, “Accept contradictions in the Text. They are context-specific. They are not universal, not intra-Quranic, and not Divine.”

Dr. Wadud exhorted us to “Be dynamic, be passionate. Be an active participant in meaning-making. Consider all angles, all nuances. You are relating with the Divine.” The Quran is a revolutionary text. There's more text about social justice and women than any other. But “We let it fall behind, to dis-use.” A living, dynamic eternal text, the Quran's trajectory is towards greater and greater social justice, said Dr. Wadud.

The Quran is not a conditional text. It does not give conditions. It is jurists that imposed conditions through law. (No prize for guessing which gender those jurists have been throughout time).

Turning to some of the more troublesome aspects of gender in the Quran, Dr. Wadud addressed the issue of whether or not the Quran sanctioned wife-beating (as so many use 4:34 to argue that it does). “Men don't hit women because there is a verse in Quran,” said Dr. Wadud. “Men hit women because they have issues with self-control and violence.”  The problems begin when men who hit women go back to Quran to justify their actions. Whither the intrinsic spirit of justice in Quran?

“We need to look at not just Quranic tafsir but also at fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) to understand what certain terms in the Text mean. Fiqh is man-made."

There are many meanings to the term 'darab', Dr. Wadud pointed out. “Laleh Bakhtiar found over 30 meanings to 'darab'. Who actually decides what meaning, what impact?” (‘Darab’ is the word in 4:34 which has been traditionally translated as ‘beat’ but Islamic feminist scholars translate it as ‘separate’).

Instead of going with what’s been traditionally told is the correct way to interpret the Quran, Wadud exhorted us to “take a 'conscientious pause' (first coined by Khaled Abu El Fadl). It is a requirement of true faith, a moral responsibility.” 

“If you hear or see anything and cannot in your heart keep faith in Allah, you must observe a conscientious pause. If you feel you are not comfortable with something in your faith, observe a conscientious pause. It is not lazy, not an excuse. You don't get to say 'I don't like that!'. An emotional response is not what is being sought, but a moral response.” And Wadud said that a conscientious pause was a moral phase because “you are going to actively seek a greater, fuller understanding.”

On feminism, Dr. Wadud had this to say: “Feminism may be historically rooted in the West, but it had its limits. It faced many challenges inevitably. Diverse global cultural contexts required a redefinition, even debunking of accepted version of feminism introduced by the West. So we see this historical trajectory, and that is Islamism --> secularism --> Islamic feminism.”

There are many people who say there is no such thing as Islamic feminism, or that Islam and feminism are contradictory terms, but Dr. Wadud believes otherwise. “Islamic feminism is a modern innovation. It came to us in late 1990s. It is modern, it is now because we are living in the now.” According to her, Islamic feminism uses gender as a category of thought, as a tool to interrogate ideas, concepts, goals, etc to decipher truth.

Dr. Wadud went on to question how we define 'the human being', saying that it must be true for all human beings. “To define 'the human being' as 'male' is problematic. To define the human being as male is to exclude women or make them somehow deficient, be an 'other', be deviant. To define the human being as male is to make women out to be other than fully human.”

The process of including everybody when making a definition becomes problematic. There are inevitable consequences, said Dr. Wadud. For example, “If you understand the Prophet to be receiver of knowledge and therefore the parameter, how to deal with issues of menstruation?”

Whether conscious or unconscious, blanket definitions are problematic, exclude, divide, have consequences that are dangerous. Such definitions should say something to you about the speaker. Such definitions are not ultimate human reality/realities.

Dr. Wadud addressed women specifically when she said, “Your life is an ultimate source of reality. Your biology is an ultimate source of reality. Nature is an ultimate source of reality.”  And that what the Quran says about the Creator is unique, not gendered. “What Quran says about the ultimate human being - all levels of existence occur in duality, i.e. yin yang. There is no [gender] hierarchy. “ She repeated: “What our Sacred Text says about the Ultimate Human Being: there is no [gender][hierarchy.”

Instead, the ultimate human being is both male and female (min kulli shay'in khalaqnaa zawjayn). “As a man or a woman, we are trustees of the Divine Will. As a human being, you become a moral agent on earth.” 

Addressing the question of whether or not Islam is a fair religion, she stated: "Islam is about upholding ethics, justice. And that consciousness (taqwa) leads to a certain type of behaviour judged only by Allah."

According to Dr. Wadud, the Quran is explicitly gender-inclusive in all stages of life, death and the afterlife. The umbrella term to encompass all this is Tawhid.

“Tawhid therefore includes elements of oneness, unity, uniqueness. Tawhid is not a method. It is the foundation of social justice. If Tawhid is the theological basis, then a system of ethics (Maqasid of Shari'ah) becomes the methodological basis.

“Islam is emphatic that there is NO intermediary between Allah and you (woman or man). Islam is emphatic about the fact that there is horizontal reciprocity between woman and man,” said Dr. Wadud. And she claims that “It is strategic, it is wise to decide on a case by case, issue by issue, nation by nation, etc basis.”

All citizens have same rights with respect to implementation of any law.  All citizens have same rights with respect to the reform of any policy that denies, prohibits or limits equality. And the "Buddhist principle of transcendence will also help understand Tawhid. We can understand this through other faiths."

Today, reasoned Dr. Wadud, there are many who claim women's roles at home (private sphere) are equally important as men's as leaders (public sphere) But if women's roles in the home are so important, why isn't everyone clamoring for that role? Why isn't there more competitiveness? Dr. Wadud rejects this "complementary" model of gender roles, saying, "The complementarity model is unequal. It is vertical, cannot be exchanged, people's roles become fixed."

"Equality isn't about sameness," continued Dr. Wadud. And the last word?  Islam does not advocate gender hierarchy.