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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Why I think that Islam Needs Reform

Like most of the Muslims today, I was born to follow this religion rather than it was a personal choice which I decided upon later in life. The earliest realization of this religious identity came in the first class of "Religion" in school when I was six years old. The teacher asked couple of my other kids to go to another class when it was the time to study religion. When I asked the kid next to me why those other kids had to leave, she said because they were Christians and they didn't have to sit in the Islamic religion class. I knew then of the difference between me and those other kids. My mother explained to me that we were Muslim, and Christians were different from us because they had another prophet other than Mohammed.

I grew up to be Muslim but I could not accept my religion blindly like many others and wished to learn more about it and the more I read, the more questions I had about why and how religious laws developed. These questions were intensified and became more urgent when Quranic verses started to be linguistically clearer as I have advanced in Arabic language study in high school. Language learning and exploring linguistic structures was something I was good at and loved. Thus, when I read Quran, I couldn't escape applying the linguistic rules I had learned of Arabic on the verses I was reading. More questions started to formulate and became more urgent when the linguistic structure refuted the Islamic laws imposed by Sharia.

I couldn't escape noticing that men's taken-for-granted guardianship over women, which is claimed to be stipulated by a Quranic text, was cleared condition in the only verse cited to support this guardianship. Quran says men are guardian of women because of the latter economic and physical dependence. So if these two conditions of dependence didn't exist, would women be free of this guardianship? I wondered. Unfortunately, no sharia book explained this guardianship as conditioned and actually made it part of Sharia followed for centuries that no one question any more.

I found the polygamy verse also conditioned linguistically and with further reading it was given in a specific historic situation, and yet polygamy in Islam is part of Sharia and Islamic culture! I found covering the head is not exactly mentioned in Quran and instead we have one verse that advises decency of clothes rather than strict dress code, but still the latter is inserted as part of our Islamic Sharia. Singing, art, literature, poetry, and many other things that Sharia would label as "haram", or against true religious devotion were not dismissed as such in Quran, yet Sharia would not even reconsider their Prohibition. In two verses, in different chapters, Allah talks to Mohammed telling him that he is given these stories to entertain him in hard times, and find solace in the similar path walked by previous prophets: entertainment and instruction. Yet, authors usually are frowned upon in Islam, unless of course they write about religion!  

When these ideas started to take strong hold of my brain, my alienation from the world increased, and thought there was no one who might walk the same road and became critical of Sharia, which I believe was the first reason why Islam is hated that much today. I saw this Sharia make us miserable and turn us into hated rigid human beings who thought they were the chosen ones (which is quite ironic considering that Muslims reject Jews claim of being the chosen ones as mere human vanity!)

For years I have been nourishing these ideas on my own, but I didn't dare to breathe them out because I knew that people don't separate our faith from Sharia, between Islamic set of believes and Islamic law (the religious institution). For me, Islam as I have learned from Quran is to believe in the maker of the universe (different cultures gave the Maker different names), to believe that through human history there were men who knew that maker, who managed to land on the truth which most of us search for today, there were men who were social reformers, and there were men who were political leaders, and all sought for better life. What people made of them later, that was not their fault. Quran argues that Jesus didn't claim divinity, and didn't ask his follower to worship him as God. It is not his fault that people now called him God, as it was not the fault of Mohammed that his followers believed that all should become Muslims even if it means using force!

I have learned that there were many things in Quran or Islamic history that were bound by the culture and history of Arabia almost 1400 years ago! To judge Mohammed for having many wives, is to judge the Romans or Greeks for having slaves! It is a cultural practice which was unquestionably normal then. However, it is not today's culture, nor it is acceptable with the increase of women's self-empowerment.

Our religion doesn't need reform, but our Sharia need it badly. It is simply ridiculous to regularize the life of 21st c. by laws based on a culture that doesn't exist any more. Today's world is regularized and organized by set of rules and laws that change with every historical and political crisis. With the world as a small village and open communication, a religion that keeps its people enclosed in a world of their own is destined to perish or his followers will do. In today's world, anyone cherish their own vision of life as the only one that is right is stupid vanity. Today, the universe is open and it showed us how small and insignificant we are against the vast existence of worlds that went for thousands of years beyond man's imagination.

Death is still the unconquered territory for man. We can travel into the vast space of the universe, but death will always brings us down and end our vanity. Because of that, throughout our history of existence we may have imagined or we may not a life after death. Can anyone assure its existence? did anyone we know who died and came back to tell us what would happen after that moment when the brain cease to work? Even in the times of complicated medical sets, we can trace when exactly the brain stops to work, but we can't tell how or what is happening inside that brain at that exact moment! Heaven and Hell have always found colorful description that abide by the culture of the time. For me, heaven of leisure life and variety of foods and drinks never interested me: I don't want a heaven that will reduce me into an animal for eternity. To feel the pain of hell need fleshly existence which goes in contradiction with the later eternal life! Heaven and Hell can be something else we need to re-imagine, or we just can't take this description literally.

But the belief in heaven and hell is not related to the essence of Mohammed's or any prophet's messages of social reform: all called for better life, social justice, and more humane conduct. All wanted their people to be kind to each other and don't persecute each other. Yet, their followers, in vanity of being the chosen ones, ruined the teachings of their masters and decided that God is helpless divine entity that needs their worldly help to have his word preside over earth!

Time to re-read our holy books, time to look up and down and place Sharia in its cultural and historical contexts. If someone says "reform your religion", ask them to elaborate and learn to listen to what they have to say. If they made a good point, maybe this would be for the best interest of our faith, if they missed it, explain to them why. Dismissing other's opinions is just vanity which will alienate us further from the world. In the so-called Islamic world people are not happy, not because some conspiracy theory made them so, but because they are now opened to a world that goes beyond them, a world of different cultures and beliefs with people variously happier than they are, the ones who believe they are the best nation. God's chosen ones!

N. F. M.      

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Who I am

I was reading on Arab-American women writers as part of my research and for the first time I find a lot that defines me and speaks for my experience. For the first time I felt inspired, and found my true voice. I could find myself in the words of Lisa Suhair Majaj who yearns for a recognition of her identity, not as the stereotyped "harem" girl, nor as the "Americanized" female. But I know that I am not eligible to dream that dream, nor to aspire that one day to free myself from the burden of people's expectations of my identity. Like Majaj, and many other Arab -Americans I wish to "walk into the forest empty handed, /climb up a mountain and down again,/ carrying no more than what any human needs to live". Like them, I want "to stand alone in a high place,/send [my] voice echoing across wild rivers"

These writers always struggled to define an identity that is denied by both: the Americans who always considered them "foreign", and framed them in an orientalist stereotype of exotic harem, and the Arabs, the other half of what they are, who considered them "Americanized" or "westernized" women who rebelled against their cultural traditions.

For an Iraqi girl who spent the time passing from teenage to adulthood reading Jane Austen, Emile Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, who loved poetry because of Emile Dickinson, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove, and took "Still I Rise " as her motto in life, this girl was not less confused about who she is, and didn't struggle less with stereotyping and positioning as much as her favorite writers.

I lived most of my life in Iraq. My first travel happened late when I was already above thirty-five, but my mind traveled way before that, when I first read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and learned that in faraway land, miles and century and half away from Baghdad 1998, there was a girl names Elizabeth Bennett who refused to abide by the surrounding conviction of marriage, and sought someone who could win her mind and heart before winning her body. My mind took me to a room of my own, where an isolated 19th American girl, who might have lived unrecognized in her family's house, with suppressed screams for freedom and spiritual release, but loud enough to reach a girl of 22 in Baghdad. My traveling mind took me everywhere, to all the magical places my books offered, and brought me back to Baghdad, to my family house, different adult who can't live by the rules of her restricted culture.

By the time I finished my PhD, I could no longer identify myself with world around; it just seemed to me so small and so limited. I felt that I had the energy to reach to the stars, but my world was putting my down. At that time, I knew I don't belong to this world. I was so different from my sisters, for I never shared their interests, I was a disappointment to my mother, who suffered a lot with me for not being what she wanted me to be, and I know that I wanted more from my world that it could really offer. I developed a yearning to travel and live abroad, maybe in that world I have read so much about in literature, where I can be free, and only the sky can be my limits.

After years, the dream came true and now I am in London, where I can be whoever I want to be. However, only after settling in London. I realized the liminality of my position, that I have carried with me two cultures whose struggles against each other is still unresolved. In Baghdad, I failed to play the "good girl" part, and has been always my mother's worse headache, and my sisters' worry for not dreaming similar dreams. They all seemed to play in one team, playing one symphony, while I always felt like the black sheep, the one with uncanny voice.

The same sense of alienation seems to follow me in London, where I always wanted to be, because I wasn't as "westerner" as a European woman could be, nor I was the "wild" girl who can now set herself free after years of suppression. In London, I was "conservative" and "up-tight" girl who is "foreigner" to all other girls of her age! The same feeling of "I don't belong here" still overwhelms me, and I still couldn't find "my kind of people", till I started reading these Arab-American women writers. They speak to me, they know what I have been through, they were caught between two worlds neither seemed to be "home" enough for them.

Like them, I long for a status of being human, and nothing else need to follow in an identity card: I don't want to be defined as woman, as Muslim. or as Iraqi. I don't want people to build expectations, and characterize me once they see my head-scarf. I don't want an identity built on features I didn't choose for myself: for a biological reason I became a woman, and because my family was Muslim I was raised as one, and I didn't choose to be born in Iraq. But I choose to be everything else: I chose to be educated, to have a career, to sing a different song! I chose to survive and rise again from every fall I had to suffer in my adult years. I chose to be simply a human being.

N. F. Mohammed

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Our Culture is Medieval

While the world is still in trauma from Paris attacks, probably some searching for answers for terrorism and how to fight it back: I would say, regardless who finance terrorism, and what political purposes it serves, religious terrorism takes its raw material from a medieval culture that refuse to evolve and prefer the stagnancy of death to the fresh springs of life.

My education in English literature made me read history, sociology and many other subjects to understand better the literature I was studying. It helped me think outside of the box of the stagnant culture I always refused. When I started my job as university professor in Al-Mustansiriyah University, Baghdad, I tried to have my students think outside the box as well, and develop the individuality our collective culture denies. It lashed back at me when most appeared resistant to be different and preferred the march of the herd, than the dance of the individual. I tried to teach free expression on social networks, and found attackers shooting me with accusations of treason and apostasy and atheism.
Honestly I didn't expect this hostility; I expected indifference but not that. They found me a traitor who turned her back to the country that gave her everything she has: education, social status and job. For some reason, my constant reference to the head-scarf , which they failed to get its symbolism, was understood as expression of desire to take it off! Because I passed few arguments that undermine the validity of the head-scarf or neqab as part of Islamic rules, and took a feminist stand against man's religiously imposed guardianship over woman, they attacked me as defying God's words. 

Regardless of the fact that those who attacked me actually misunderstood what I post because of their weak grasp of English, as it show in the broken English of their comments, their attitude was not to be taken as personal. They simply expressed deep rooted culture of monolithic views, and exclusive attitude toward different ones.

They blamed me for "trashing" the country instead of showing gratitude! In Iraq, during the 1980s, 90s and till now education is free and available to all its citizens. But I don't see all having PhDs, so it must be something more than being an Iraqi that helped me come so far in education: family support and faith in me, personal choices that preferred being a career woman rather than a housewife and above all a defying spirit that challenged social convictions which tried to hold me back. These three have nothing to do with being Iraqi, actually being born in Iraq, under the tent of Middle Eastern culture that pushes women to be second rate citizens, just made it harder for me. I remember when I was nominated for PhD program, many of my senior colleagues told me while congratulating me that now I wouldn't have the chance to find a husband as men fear women with PhDs! I had my family at my back supporting me and believing in me. My father, after feeling the sting of letting one daughter marrying young, decided to have all his other daughters pursue their education and have guarantees against the hardships of uncertain future and against prevalent male domination. Now four of six daughters hold higher degrees and work as university professors, while the fifth and youngest is MA candidate in Physics. None of us could have done it without the support of our father, and without the hard experience of the eldest daughter who was the escape goat of a medieval culture that believed in male domination and a woman's need for male guardianship. 

They blamed me for arguing against hijab (wearing the head-scarf) or neqab (covering all the body). Unfortunately, if it is the word of God or the word of someone else, the arguments that support hijab spring from the idea of protecting men from the seductive beauty of women. They project women as sexual beings, created for the pleasure of man, and thus they need to cover up whatever in their bodies that is considered "seductive" to men! In other words, if I felt uncomfortable with heavy clothes and covering up, I need to hold it up and bear it, so I won't seduce men, and drag them to sin, or probably provoke them to hurt me (many would attribute harassment against women to the latter indecent clothing, always blaming the woman for provoking that animal behavior in man). Ironically such arguments don't insult women as much as they insult men, and carry an implied acknowledgement that men are like wild animals who can't help but drool over naked flesh! If I was a man, I would never accept such insult to my humanity and self-esteem and would be ashamed of such arguments, and instead of repeating blindly these views, I would raise my sons to be respectful of women, ask my friends and every male I know to be "human"! 

My personal attitude toward the head scarf is well known in previous article I published, in which I said I wear the scarf since I was 13 and even when I was given the choice, I don't take it off because it became part of who I am. Do I support it? Do I recommend it? Would I ask my daughter, sister, niece, or anyone to wear it? Definitely no! For me, it doesn't make a difference in one's personality and it won't prevent a girl from being what she is. 

The attackers wanted me to express patriotic gratitude and feel proud for being Iraqi, Muslim and voice out the bravery of my country. I am sorry I can't lie! I am not happy in a culture that support male domination even when the woman is the bread winner, even when she is the one who holds the family together, the decision maker would be always the male, even if he was quite useless! I don't believe in a culture that sees me a tempting meat that needs covering while wild animals drool over it! I don't feel proud of  a culture that makes me the property of family, husband, and tribe! I don't feel proud of a culture that make me an outcast and social alien because I am different! I am not proud of a culture that failed to see through my humanity and disregarded my individuality, a culture that wants me to be part of a blind herd. 

Finally, I am not proud of a culture which can admit its hypocrisy, division, and can stop all wars, but when it comes to me, a woman, it retreats back to a stone age, and lashes me as a shrew.       

N. F, M