The above text is translated as: "I am driving a Ricksha, not a bullet!"

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"Maa Kia Dua, Jannat Ki Huwa" (Translated as: Mother's Prayer is Heaven's Breeze)

Do you remember the bee that annoyingly buzzes in front of your eyes, that you try to hush away with a slap in the wind, but it comes back buzzing more loudly? Such is the frustration that has begged me to write on this topic.

As soon as I stepped out of an environment where the primary discourse on religion is centered upon the notion of heaven and hell and actions that are evaluated for their religiosity at all, are measured only through perceptions of these polar opposite extreme implications, I faced what I would like to call a "Feminist Muslima Dilemma". In countless conversations with practicing Muslim females in America, particularly those belonging to South Asia, where one or other of the cultural taboos have found supporting evidence in religious doctrines, I have often heard that most conservative proponents of Islam back home, those who limit the rights, mobility and equality of women, have it wrong. That the reason many Muslim females are actually feminists, is because Islam teaches feminist values.

Now, for a girl who has, for 18 years of her budding adulthood, been decried for her feminist ambitions (the pursuit of a higher education to name one) only because of the countless ways in which such ambitions lead to acts that are "displeasing to Allah," Islam appears to be anything but feminist. This does not mean that such a person would always necessarily become averse to religious practice, which happens in many cases. But what this means is that for me, after 18 yeas of a struggle to accept my position in the middle class Muslim society as a girl who is not equal to her brother, does not have the power to make decisions and certainly cannot justify traveling abroad to get a bachelors degree as Islamic, I was trying to understand how a God who I knew loved me, was, out of this love, testing me by demanding adherence to these restrictions. I did not imagine that these restrictions do not exist, for you only have to go to a Maulvi in a nearby madrassa who would use Quran and Hadith to tear any such doubts apart, but what I did imagine was that there were misread nuances in these restrictions, that, frustratingly enough, did not change these restrictions but definitely did allow a little more leverage in accepting and obeying them. For all super-feminist practicing Muslim liberals out there, this might just be a case of being taught about Islam the wrong way. However, I would argue that while such an assumption might be true, this matter cannot be reduced to just that. After all, most of the conservative groups that I have had the chance to interact in close quarters with, say the same about such Muslims liberals, precisely that they have it all wrong.

But it is not these conservative groups that I choose to focus on right now. Even though much needs to be said about them, they, many times rightly so, have gotten enough of their share of criticism. Instead, I want to talk about the other end of the spectrum, the liberal feminist Muslim enthusiasts.

Those of us, who have grown up in 90s and are the first products of this global village, have unconsciously developed an inherent disposition to accepting progress and liberalism as all things good and conservatism and orthodoxy as all things bad. So much so, that at times, things like religion that we were born in and conditioned to embrace, is not enough as a faith and belief system in itself. Rather, we  feel the need to associate it with our perceptions of good and hence, try to find in that religion an inherent evidence for other worldly inclinations that appeal to our common senses, be it the object of revelation or not. So even in my attempts to understand my identity as a Muslim female, first in Pakistan and then in America, I saw people struggling profusely to prove that Islam preaches feminism and is the reason why they are feminists. But must Islam preach feminism, for Muslims to be feminists?

As someone who has continuously taken a problem with people trying to support their conservative and often radical biases through Islam, I want to draw attention to a subject seldom discussed before. For those of us who aspire to be practicing Muslims, why is it that we try to use Islam to serve our ends as opposed to using ourselves to serve its ends? Why is it that religion for us is not merely religion anymore but rather, overwhelmed by the need to validate it with every ounce of our existence, we try to find in it ways to justify all else that makes sense to us? This is not to say that Islam does not preach feminist values at all. In the context of Arabia where Islam arrived, it did have revolutionary features that empowered women. Positive features like these are the reason why it appeals to some of our intellects in the first place. But the way people use Islam to support their own feminist biases today is really not a holistic representation of the religion itself. Most problematic is the fact that such feminists do not adopt an approach that is any different from the approach adopted by some hardliners and conservatives, who also use Islam as fitting to their proclivities.

This is absolutely not a judgement on the value of feminism. But rather, it is an attempt to raise a voice of caution at all those who try to justify feminism through Islam. Is it the case that one makes Islam their strength when it comes to feminism or is it that Islam really preaches feminism? The former is what many Muslims do all the time. But to say that the latter is true too, one would need to disqualify the experiences of all those females who have been oppressed under the banner of Islam, in societies like Pakistan, by people well versed in what Marshall Hodgson refers to as the "religion proper".

In my opinion, while there is something fundamentally problematic about the way in which most of us are taught about Islam in Pakistan, which is through a discourse of fear, my first exposure to Islam in America also raised a whole host of new questions. It does not make sense for a religious doctrine to change so drastically with geography, but its meaning and context changes with the collective human intellect and experiences of groups in different societies. What maybe makes Islam universal in certain respects is not that it preaches feminist values, but rather that the values it preaches can be both feminist and oppressive as befitting to different societies.

So as the rickshaw driver picks up the gear at the yellow light, a note to self: know that Islam is not all that you see in the rearview mirror, but it also cannot be all that appears to be pleasant in this “land of opportunity”. Never stop to question yourself, but also, never fail to question those who pass sweeping statements about Islam premised upon certain moral judgments about the world. While that view and understanding might have helped them fulfill their own need to validate a belief system in a multitude of other belief systems, if one wants to understand and accept Islam for what it is, such judgments and biases must be put aside in an objective study of religion.

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