Sisters in Islam

You must be responsible for what you do, as well as for what you don’t do.

– Seyran Ates, muslim feminist

During a visit to Malaysia last year, I was very fortunate to spend some time volunteering at Sisters In Islam, an NGO that advocates the rights of muslim women predominantly in Malaysia, with many networks across the muslim world.

I came across them through an article on Facebook that a friend had posted. I can’t quite remember its content but I remember feeling particularly heartened by what they were saying. They were muslim women who believed in reform in Islam, as well as the application of critical thinking and common sense when it comes to the practice of Islam. They appeared open, liberal, spiritual and erudite. I knew that I had to contact them.

It was through my voluntary work that I met and got to know Ratna Osman, the then Executive Director of SIS. My first proper occasion with her was going to Australia Day celebrations just beside the Petronas twin towers, right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. It was during the car journey that she told me a little bit about her life story, that she had gone from a path of extremism to one of reform. Those few minutes of listening to her encouraged me to later interview her for Together magazine.

If you have followed my blog over the years, you probably know that I am very much an admirer of Irshad Manji, whose work in trying to prevent Islam from being hijacked by extremists has put her life at risk. Thus through SIS, I learnt about other incredible muslim feminists, like the American Amina Wadud, who led Friday prayers of a mixed gender congregation, and the Iranian Ziba Mir-Hosseini, who writes and teaches extensively on gender equality in Islam. These women, Ratna Osman, and Sisters In Islam give me hope. Their voice, intellect and courage are much needed in this time when we are asking, what does it mean to be muslim?

Perhaps my tardiness at uploading my articles comes at an opportune time. This week I met Seyran Ates, a German lawyer of Turkish decent, at a debate on the integration of migrants. She has written books on Islamic reform, one notably called ‘Islam needs a sexual revolution‘. At 21 years of age, she was shot in the neck because of her work at a womens’ shelter. Today, she lives under police protection. Her devotion to show the moderate, tolerant, peaceful side of Islam is worth more than her own life. She believes that she has to take on the responsibility of being a role model, not only to young muslims (and in particularly female ones) but also to the rest of society. Next year, she will open a mosque in Berlin.

This week’s blog post is dedicated to the sisters in Islam: the women like Ratna, like Seyran, who despite the rise in extremism, don’t give up on their faith, and work even harder to understand it and tell us about it.

The interview with Ratna Osman is my first ever interview for the magazine. Of all my articles, it is the one I am most proud of. Read the article in full online, or it is also on p. 44 of the magazine. Below is a short extract to get you started.

Until next week, happy reading!

Sisters in Islam: In search of peace – Gemma Rose learns about Ratna Osman’s journey from extremism to reformism

The first thing I notice about Ratna Osman – the Executive Director of Sisters in Islam (SIS), a Muslim women’s NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – is her hijab, or tudung in Malay. It’s not quite a hijab in the traditional sense where only her face is left uncovered. Rather, her hair is covered in a wrap leaving her whole neck visible. Ratna has worn the headscarf since the age of 15. “I used to say that once I reach 50, I’ll take it off because then I would be considered an old woman,” she recalls to me, “but now that I’m approaching 50, I still think I’m quite young!” she giggles. Her beaming smile is the second thing I notice. It’s broad, complemented by dimples, on a face that exhibits much warmth and hospitality. “I’m not sure if I’ll ever take it off,” she reflects. “It’s become part of my identity.”

The headscarf remains a controversial issue in Muslim majority Malaysia, where it is not compulsory. In her youth, Ratna felt ostracized from her peers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, for covering her hair. “I was part of a small minority wearing it at that time,” she explained. “I was laughed at, jeered at, made uncomfortable. A teacher told me to take it off because it was an obstruction. Most of my close friends stayed away from me. It was quite a lonely world,” she says. “Now, it’s the other way around.” She refers to cases where Muslim girls at school have been harassed for exposing their hair. “And I feel for those who are not covered. They have the right to dress as they are because I believe in the freedom of choice, and that nobody needs to dictate to another human being. Only God can do that.”

Read more…

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Ratna Osman’s beaming smile. Photo from Malaysia Tatler magazine.

 

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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.

Where have all the polymaths gone?

“Knowledge is power.”

– Francis Bacon

It is of late that I have admitted to myself that I have many interests. I like writing; singing; reading; public speaking; acting. I enjoy practising languages; getting my head around psychology, reading philosophy; reflecting upon spirituality. Even within these areas, there are so many sub-categories that really engage me. Whether I am good at any of them, I hope time will tell.

My recent trip to London turned out to be a bit of a philosophy tour. It sort of started as I was walking in Gray’s Inn Gardens off Chancery Lane that I was reminded of a plaque with two quotes from the English philosopher Francis Bacon, situated at the back of the gardens. Have a read:

Inspirational quotes from Francis Bacon, situated in Gray's Inn Gardens in London.

Inspirational quotes from Francis Bacon, from his works ‘The Advancement of Learning’. They have provided much encouragement to me during some difficult times in London.

Sir Francis Bacon, as he is better known, was a polymath. As well as being a philosopher, he was a lawyer (he served as Lord Chancellor and Attorney General), a politician, a scientist, orator and author. He wrote works on science, philosophy and religion. He is reported to be the founder of  British empiricism. Empiricism holds that all the knowledge of this world derives from the senses; there is nothing in the mind that we have not already experienced through the senses. Empiricism was first put forward by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle.

Here I am with the big fella:

Sir Francis Bacon and I in Gray's Inn square.

Francis and I in Gray’s Inn Square.

Visiting Francis spurred me on to visit another great English philosopher, Jeremy Benthamthe founder of the ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’, otherwise known as utilitarianism. In short, this principle states that the morally right act is one which maximises the total amount of pleasure to all who are affected by the act (“the greatest good for the greatest number”). He qualified as a barrister but decided that his calling was in leading social and legal reform, rather than in practising the law. Thus he was a lawyer, a reformer and a philosopher: a polymath.

I went to visit him at University College London:

I felt honoured to meet the great man himself. That's him: the skeleton, the clothes, the hair. His head is a wax model since the embalming of his head did not turn out so well so it's a bit gruesome.

I felt honoured to meet the great man himself. That is really him: the skeleton, the clothes, the hair. His head is a wax model since the embalming of it did not turn out so well, so it’s a bit gruesome to look at.

My next stop was King’s College London, where I stood beside Confucius. Confucius was a teacher, politician, editor and philosopher. I am not so familiar yet with his teachings, but he is arguably a polymath.

Like me, Confucius likes his tea. Just my luck to stumble on a great quote of his about tea at the Twinnings shop nearby: “Tea tempers the spirits and harmonises the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thought and prevents drowsiness, lightens or refreshes the body, and clears the perceptive faculties.”

The sage and I

Finally, I stopped at Parliament Square in Westminster, where I stood by two inspirational leaders, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela. As well as being a courageous war-time Prime Minister, in his lifetime Churchill was an artist, historian and writer.

Alas, Nelson Mandela would probably not have been considered a polymath; not that it matters in his case since he has lead such an extraordinary life.

Us in Parliament Square. One of my favourite quotes from Churchill: "Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense."

Us in Parliament Square. One of my favourite quotes from Churchill: “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

Nelson and I. I would like to attribute this quote by the Canadian author Robertson Davies to him: "Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it."

Nelson and I. I would like to attribute this quote by the Canadian author Robertson Davies to him: “Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.”

Just before my London trip, I read a book about early Islamic civilisation: that during the Middle Ages, Islamic science and philosophy in the East was thriving whilst Western civilisation had appeared to come to a standstill. What amazed me about this book was how many Islamic innovators, scientists, mathematicians and philosophers were polymaths.  As the book’s author Ehsan Masood notes, they switched effortlessly from science to philosophy to poetry. The original polymath was Al Kindi – known as the ‘Philosopher of the Arabs’ – who was a mathematician, physician, musician and of course, a philosopher.

Learning about all these polymaths lead me to this conclusion: that being one is a good thing. However, where are they in today’s world? We have been primed to such an extent to be specialists that we forget that the greatest pioneers of Western and Eastern civilisations were those that loved doing different things, and not just doing things differently.

Why don’t we seek knowledge in different areas, enjoy the variety and complexity this world has to offer and see what we can create out of it? Being or trying to be a polymath opens the mind; the senses; and the faculties to the endless perspectives of this world and undoubtedly, it extends our creativity.

My London trip assured me that my varied interests are invaluable and that I should never stop seeking knowledge. As Prophet Muhammed once said, “Even if you must go all the way to China, seek knowledge.” On this trip I didn’t quite go that far, but I feel like I am on my way.

I would love to hear your thoughts – are you a polymath? Do you think they are becoming extinct? Do you think it’s good for society to be one?

Generous Ramadan

One of my favourite articles about Ramadan first appeared in The Jerusalem Post back in July 2011 and later in his blog, the Chronikler. It is written by a Belgian-Egyptian journalist named Khaled Diab. I love this article because he writes about the wonderful events that happen during Ramadan: the feasting; the celebrating; the entertainment. He also writes about the similarities of fasting in the Abrahamic faiths and accounts a story of the Jewish man that does Ramadan. What I love most about this article is that it makes me think about what Ramadan means to me.

I began fasting in my early teens. I am pretty good at observing the fast but to this day I am yet to fast the full month. I found some years easier than others, and usually this was when Ramadan fell in the winter months! Now Ramadan falls during the long, lazy days of summer, to my dismay. When I was younger, Ramadan was more was about the excitement of eating delicious food before sunrise (suhoor) and during break-fast at sun-down (iftar).

Each morning, my Dad would get my brother and I up. We would come down bleary-eyed and lethargic. But as soon as I saw the food on the table: the cakes, the rice and curry, I instantly became alert with excitement at the thought of devouring everything. I often left the table with a rotund belly, feeling like lead. Iftar was pretty much the same. No wonder I didn’t lose any weight!

In more recent years, I have used the abundance of free time (it is amazing how much time we spend eating or dreaming about what we are going to eat) reflecting on the significance of Ramadan. It is a time for giving up: not just the food, but the ill-thoughts; the material things; the small things. It is a time for thinking about those less fortunate than us, and a time for taking action: serving others; treating people well; spending time with one-another.

When it came to eating at suhoor and breaking fast, the food had lost some of its charm. I discovered that I could live very well on much less, and I don’t just mean food-wise, but materially too. I seemed to have more energy and I had this very strong feeling of well-being. It is a strange feeling: like a warm glow engulfs your body from the inside. I felt pure.

I find doing Ramadan hard on my own. One of the reasons why I enjoyed it with my brother and my Dad was that we were doing it together. At suhoor, we would talk about different things, and Dad would usually teach us something new about the Qur’an or the teachings of Prophet Muhammed. During the day, we would encourage one another to keep going. Iftar was always really special because Dad would have the dates out on the table, Mum the cups of tea, whilst I would be counting down the time. Taking the first sip of tea or the first bite of a date was absolutely glorious.

When Ramadan was over, I tried my best to maintain the good examples that had been set during it. Unfortunately, I could never sustain them to the same degree. Fortunately, doing Ramadan has taught me one last lesson: that these wonderful actions and moments of sharing and giving should not just be confined to one month, and not just confined to one faith; but to all, and every day.

I wish you all a “Ramadan kareem”.