The thin veil of equality

I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmitted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmitted into a power that can move the world.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Sex. Religion. Money. Politics. These are the subjects which are traditionally known as taboo subjects at the dinner table. I agree that sometimes it’s far more pleasant to skirt around controversial and potentially explosive topics for the sake of a nice meal and some chit-chat. But by avoiding such issues, it creates a very superficial version of ourselves and in its own way, it can lead to censorship and oppression.

I am an admirer of Irshad Manji. She is a Muslim who considers herself a reformer of the Islam that is practised widely today, the version of Islam that we see on the news, that we see in a veiled woman, that we see under Sharia law. In her book, ‘The Trouble with Islam Today‘, she calls on Muslims to lead not in reforming the Islam that is held in the Qur’an but rather for Muslims to reform themselves. She turns to the practice of ijtihad, a commitment to critical thinking on the context, application and interpretation of the Qur’an. What should be a religion of justice, of equality, of seeking knowledge and of peace has been twisted and distorted into one of violence, of literal interpretation, blind submission and of fear. She writes:

The Trouble with Islam is an open letter from me, a Muslim voice of reform, to concerned citizens worldwide – Muslim and not. It’s about why my faith community needs to come to terms with the diversity of ideas, beliefs and people in our universe, and why non-Muslims have a pivotal role in helping us get there.” – “That doesn’t mean I refuse to be a Muslim, it simply means I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah.

Irshad Manji is Muslim. She is Canadian. She is a journalist. She is a feminist. She is gay. She is not afraid. She is awesome.

She has received death threats, her apartment windows are bullet proof, she does not carry a mobile phone. She has been called “the devil in disguise”, has been subject to vilification and vitriol, but her love for God keeps her going. She recognises and is grateful for the freedoms that are granted to her living in Canada, which are denied in many Muslim or Muslim majority countries. Would she suffer the same treatment if she were a man?

I am blessed to live in a free society, where my views can be considered and contribute to the conversation. As a woman, I am considered as an equal here; a value which is prized in the Qur’an, and promoted by the Prophet Muhammad.

Islam is often regarded as a religion which treats women as second class citizens. I have been to Muslim countries where this is indeed the case. But I’ve also been to Muslim or Muslim majority countries where this isn’t the case, my country of Malaysia, for example. So is it the religion that teaches the discrimination, or is it the culture? Take the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s view on women. He regarded a woman as an ‘unfinished man’. Women were incomplete, and secondary to men, playing a passive role. As the ‘enigmatic philosopher’ Albert Knox writes in Jostein Gaarder’s ‘Sophie’s World’: “Aristotle’s erroneous view of the sexes was doubly harmful because it was his – rather than Plato’s – view that held sway throughout the Middle Ages. The Church thus inherited a view of women that is entirely without foundation in the Bible. Jesus was certainly no woman hater!” As Lesley Hazelton acknowledges in ‘The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad’, it was the all-male clerical elite who ruled after the Prophet’s death: “These men became the gatekeepers of faith, elaborating the principles of islam (emphasis added) into the institution of Islam, often by projecting their own conservatism onto the Qur’an itself.

But as we see daily, in the media, and in our own lives, women in the West also suffer at the hands of the male elite, who aren’t clerics. They are our bosses, our peers, our neighbours, even our friends. Sexism and misogyny exists in our Western world. Women still don’t get equal pay to their male counterparts; they are still subject to sexual harassment in the workplace; women “can’t play football”; they are raped by their husbands or boyfriends; they are told to shut up because they are stupid; they get killed for speaking their views, or because they weren’t attracted to a guy, as what happened in the recent Isla Vista murders.

This week, an acquaintance labelled me an apologist for inviting him in person to discuss our religious or non-religious beliefs. It happened as a result of me posting the story of an inter-faith place of worship in Berlin on Facebook, something which I welcome and champion. He commented that the monotheist faiths are “Great lies” and criticised them for their treatment of women. Upon my response to his comment, willing him to discuss our views in person, he subsequently blocked me on Facebook and ended our acquaintance. The irony of a person speaking out against the treatment of women preventing a woman from challenging his views.

In her remarkable article, “Our Words Are Our Weapons: The Feminist Battle of the Story in the Wake of the Isla Vista massacre”, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that violence against women and abuse of power – from being cut off at the dinner table to murder – should be viewed as a slippery slope, not as incidents independent to one another: “That’s why we need to address that slope, rather than compartmentalizing the varieties of misogyny and dealing with each separately. Doing so has meant fragmenting the picture, seeing the parts, not the whole.”

The Facebook incident has stirred in me a greater question around the treatment of women: that whether such treatment derives from religion or mainstream culture, we need to talk about it.

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Literature for life

“To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience.”

– A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things

In my latest article for Together magazine, I wrote about how literature can challenge us and teach us how to live. It is pasted in below or you can click on the link.

My love for reading is really something that has come later in life. During childhood and adolescence, I viewed reading more as a chore then a leisure activity (apart from loving Roald Dahl’s books). In secondary school, I remember once discussing Harry Potter with my Head Mistress during a formal lunch. I will never forget her stern look when I told her that I just didn’t get why Harry Potter was so amazing (I tried reading ‘Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone’ and I got bored and gave up just after Harry arrived at Hogwarts).

I’ve gotten used to not finishing books, whether it’s because I did not have the courage to carry on due to the sheer sadness of the story (Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’), the author’s neuroticism pervading through the book (Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’), a really annoying character (Jane Austen’s Mr Knightley, and Emma for that matter), or due to boredom (sorry, Harry). I have made peace with leaving books unfinished.

Saying that, reading is one of life’s pleasures. People often say that to travel broadens the mind and expands our horizons. I don’t disagree, but reading trumps this because it enables us to take the most important journey of all, the one inward.

Enjoy the article!

 Living by the book: Gemma Rose believes that literature challenges us and teaches us how to live

I am my father’s daughter. I can spend hours in a bookshop or library. I go in with the intention of getting one book but end up coming out with three or four more. I absolutely love stumbling upon hidden gems: books with catchy titles or front cover artwork, recommended books or other works by my favourite authors. These are really magical moments. I have to admit though, I still have books that I’ve bought which I haven’t got round to reading yet (but I still like showing them off on my bookshelf), paying heed to the German philosopher Schopenhauer: “One usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.”

Another magical moment is when I have let a book go and it finds its way back into my life again, sometimes years later. One such book is JK Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a set of short-stories for young wizards and witches written by Beedle the Bard, a mysterious figure from 15th-century Yorkshire, England, with an exceptionally luxuriant beard. A friend of mine had lent it to me back in 2008. I had been particularly taken by the story The Fountain of Fair Fortune, a tale of three ill-fortuned witches and a luckless knight striving to bathe in the fountain to cure their ills. One witch, Amata, had been abandoned by her lover and yearned to mend her broken heart. At the time, I, too, had been struggling with heartbreak, so I found this story particularly touching. This story stayed with me for a long time, and I would often recall it when I needed consolation. A couple of years later, I found the book in a charity shop staring right back at me. It’s been with me ever since.

Last year, there was a wave of press about how reading had been scientifically proven to make you more empathetic. The journal Science published a study by New York’s New School of Social Research, which showed that, in five experiments, persons who had read excerpts of literary fiction performed better in emotional intelligence tests than those who read nonfiction, popular fiction or nothing at all. Dan Hurley, science journalist and author of Smarter: The Science of Building Brain Power, has reported that there is a symbiotic relationship between reading and emotional intelligence, fluid intelligence (the ability to solve problems) and crystallised intelligence (knowledge that you build upon, such as vocabulary and information).

The importance, though, is not just what we read but how we read it. The study in Science used Chekhov, Don DeLillo and Téa Obreht as examples of literary fiction and Danielle Steel as an example of popular fiction. It is often acknowledged that popular fiction has the element of passivity in it, that perhaps the plot and the characters’ lives can be predictable. Rather, for reading to become an activity and for us to be thoroughly enriched by it, we ought to read books that challenge us, forcing us to reflect and to think for ourselves. The Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Canton recently wrote about the danger of treating literature as a consumer product, something easily attained and easily disposable without putting in the effort: “Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither.”

Stories – for me particularly, short stories – remind me that I am human: I make mistakes; I make assumptions; I accept life’s lemons with serenity one day; I fight against it the next. I experience unrequited love, abandonment and romantic regret. And, yet, I also feel the sensation of growing attachment and unconditional love. By reading stories, I am comforted that I am not alone and that I, too, am part of the imperfection that constitutes mankind.

Most recently, I made an assumption that could have cost me an important friendship. Before I let this assumption take hold of me, I brought myself back to the short story Painted Ocean, Painted Ship by Rebecca Makkai. The story focuses around a young woman who was becoming frustrated at her partner’s unwillingness to reassure her of her beauty and her worth. The woman realizes how her obstinate nature could have cost her the love of a good man: “The point, the moral, was how easy it was to make assumptions, how deadly your mistakes could be. How in failing to recognize something, you could harm it or kill it or at least fail to save it.”