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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Do what you can, according to who you are

“First, we must ask ourselves who we are before we know what we can do.”

– Robert Bilheimer

October 18th is the European Union Anti-Trafficking Day. On this day, I attended a screening of the film documentary, Not My Life by Robert Bilheimer. This was an evocative yet distressing film mainly showing the lives of children who have been trafficked and coerced into labour in Nepal, Senegal and Ghana; prostitution in the United States, India and Cambodia; and into combat as rebel soldiers in Uganda.

The film showed the magnitude of what constitutes modern-day slavery and what it is used for: sex work, menial work and war. It is beyond belief what people can do to one another for money or power, and particularly abhorrent what grown adults can do to children: stashing them away under the floorboards or in the roofs of brothels to evade police raids; kidnapping them from schools to train them to kill; selling them into prostitution for the services of paedophiles.

According to Robert Bilheimer and Cecilia Malmström (the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs), there is no global anti-human trafficking movement. It is hard to detect and prevent human trafficking and it is even harder to know what it is –  the film gave varied examples of trafficking which was intertwined with slavery and child grooming. Also getting tough on slavery may be bad for business. In times of austerity, consumers are lured by even cheaper prices, companies are ever-pressed to be competitive yet profitable.

At the Q&A after the film, it was asked what young people can do to help tackle the issue. Robert Bilheimer used the example of the actress Glenn Close, the narrator of the film. Faced with the magnitude of this human rights violation (it has been conservatively estimated by the International Labour Organisation that 21 million people worldwide are exploited for labour and sexual services), she humbly said that what she can do to help this cause is to lend her voice to the film. He advised young people to take a small, first step in helping the cause: share the film through social media.

Slavery has existed for thousands of years. Aristotle was of the opinion that some people are born be slaves, since it is in their nature to be so. Although he was (unfortunately) a proponent of slavery, he was not a proponent of those who were forced to be slaves: anyone who was coerced into slavery suggested an unnatural fit and it was therefore unjust.  Today, all slaves are forcibly (not to mention illegally) coerced into work which is not suited to their nature. It is unjust.

All of us can have a role to play in fighting injustice. But as Robert Bilheimer said, we first need to know ourselves so as to know what we can do. We have to figure out what our qualities, talents and limitations are so that we can make the best use of them. Our role can be large, it can be absolutely negligible, but this is beside the point.

For a long time, I had struggled to work out what I could do to make the world a better place.  I realise that doing my bit is probably not going to be particularly remarkable: it might just be in telling the story and spreading the word.

I encourage you to watch the film (password: nml123) and spread the word.