On praying to raise hell

I wish someone told me this when I was younger. But it’s never too late, of course:

“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.” —Nora Ephron

I can’t help but make a parallel duaa for myself, for Nora Ephron has given me the words for what I should ask for this Ramadan:

“I ask, ya Allah that, I cease to be a lady. I pray that I find ways to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I pray that I make that trouble on behalf of all women.”

Ameen.

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On Mona Eltahawy's "Painful Places" and the Power of Stories

There is something about the conversation surrounding Mona Eltahawy’s flame-stoking article “Why Do They Hate Us?” that struck a raw chord in me (besides its extremely disturbing and offensive accompanying images, mercilessly dissected by Naheed Mustafa and fittingly called “niqabface” by fellow blogger Huma Rashid).

The unwitting story caught in the storm. (Image source: openlibrary.org)

I’m writing this because Eltahawy opens her piece by recounting a work of fiction, no less. She refers to the opening of Alifa Rifaat’s Arabic short story “Distant View of a Minaret,” in which the main character, after a bout of routinely unsatisfying and mechanical sexual intercourse with her husband, washes up and “loses herself in prayer–so much more satisfying that she can’t wait until the next prayer.”

Call me a wimp, but I was too heartbroken to read on. I accepted the assumption that the Rifaat’s intention was to pit faith and female sexuality against one another and didn’t consider the possibility that this pitting happened not in the story, but in Eltahawy’s interpretation of it.

So it was to my great relief that the scholar Leila Ahmed took issue with this opening, (in her FP response here and her discussion with Eltahawy here) saying that Rifaat could not possibly share Eltahawy’s “sweepingly dismissive views of prayer and religion.” Rifaat herself identified as a woman who, like the character in the story, lived for prayer. Prayer, as described in the story, isn’t just a form of what Eltahawy calls “sublimation through religion.” Prayer is not just the distraction Eltahawy’s making it out to be: it’s an integral part of the author’s existence, in both good times and bad.

The reason the opening of Eltahawy’s piece broke my heart was that its use of a story to pit faith and liberation against one another. Fiction is a place to expand the imagination. Not to eschew reality altogether, but to chart paths into a different kind of reality, to suggest alternate possibilities. When fiction is applied so carelessly that it is employed in reinforcing prevailing stereotypes and attitudes, it becomes lethal to people’s mindsets. Who can argue what a character “really” feels when she can’t speak up for herself, when she is, quite literally, a figment of the imagination?

What Ahmed alerted readers to is something I want to expand on here: faith and a powerful spiritual inner existence does not feed off of systematic, entrenched injustice, whether it be in the form of misogyny, racism, or any other system of oppression. In light of prevailing stereotypes about Muslim women, it’s too easy to say “Well, of course she has to believe in God, she has to meditate and escape from her reality, look at what a sodden sex life she has!” Sodden sex life or not, the places where women are truimphant–whether it be affirming their individuality through prayer or marching in the streets against tyranny–deserve to be examined on their own terms, not some heinous, monolithic, patriarchal hell they have to escape. Mona Eltahawy keeps stressing how she wants to “shake people up” and “poke the painful places,” but it’s one thing to poke that place, and quite another to aggravate it.

All that said, I do want to thank her for introducing me to the woman who loves to pray so much that she cannot wait for the next one. Her soul-sucking marriage doesn’t make her damaged goods, and does not make her faith any less real. I very much want to long for prayer the way she does.

On (my lack of) Muslim Feminism

Although this blog is about faith in strange times, I somehow made it this far without talking about the looming elephant in the room: Islam and feminism.

The thing is, when it comes to Muslim feminism, I’m a bit of a coward, me. I knowingly and actively partake of the benefits feminism bestows upon me while skirting away from the feminist label itself. And here is why: while I wholeheartedly love and am thankful for feminist theory in itself, being specifically a Muslim feminist opens up a host of negative connotations that I simply do not wish to be associated with.

Yep. Told you I was a coward.

Because I don’t adhere to either essentialist notions of Muslim femininity or the idea of female imams or praying when one is menstruating, I wonder if there’s a place for me somewhere in between. I realize I’m posing my own framework by denoting extremes and thinking that there’s a “middle,” but that’s how I see it.

Muslim feminists have tirelessly repeated themselves in saying that their stance is based on the premise that the Quran addresses men and women equally. I, of course hold that stance. And I also greatly admire the conscious efforts undertaken to talk about prolific Muslim women in a way that has not been done earlier due to prevailing patriarchal structures. I even acknowledge that historically and culturally-entrenched male privilege is something very real, and a serious force to be contended with in the realm of the Muslim community.

What I have a problem with is the notion that Islam needs to be redefined and the Quran needs to be reinterpreted in light of feminist ideals. I am very skeptical of apologetic tendencies about the parts of faith that are unpopular. I find feminism liberating in terms of negotiating with my South Asian cultural baggage (Now, why on earth can’t I dance at my brother’s wedding?) but I just don’t see it working in terms of my internal faith. I am more in favor of conversations that confront the unpleasant realities of Muslim practice and their legal bases.

The extent to which “Muslim feminism” doesn’t compute for me recently became profoundly clear when I noticed how glad I was to read a piece in favor of the motion that Islam is incompatible with feminism. Although reading responses to the piece (especially those at Muslimah Media Watch here and here) made me rethink some of the nuances of Taabba’s argument, a part of me was still glad that someone managed to take the unpopular stance and at least attempt to address what is unsound about reconciling the two in any way. The part that resonated with me the most was the idea that

Islam is not feminism, just as feminism is not Islam. . . Each has its own foundations, epistemologies, methodologies, worldviews, discourses and paradigms. This means that, while they have the potential to overlap at times, they cannot be coherently merged into one another without fundamentally compromising one or radically expanding the other.* The push to merge Islam into feminism is akin to trying to squeeze an elephant into a birdcage; either the elephant will be killed by being forced into such a narrow entrance, or the birdcage will have to expand so significantly that it would no longer be recognised as a birdcage.

*(my emphasis)

Tabbaa’s finer points about feminism being based on a “Godless” postmodernist discourse were much better handled in the MMW responses, and my philosophical theory is too rusty to be able to comprehensively respond to their arguments. What he says in the above paragraph, however, gave me the disembodied feeling of seeing an idea that I before had never been able to put words to.

It’s like how belief in God operates as a light switch: it’s either there, or it isn’t. No amount of scientific rhetoric about evolution and the origin of the universe can make a believer stop believing. Similarly, no amount of exposure to feminist approaches to Islam is doing anything to change my core belief and uneasy feeling that the two schemas are not fitting nicely in my way of thinking. I wish I could do a better job of explaining why, a way that builds on the paragraph above, but the task proves just as difficult as explaining why I believe in God.

So this is me coming out as a pseudo-feminist who–at least for now–is eschewing the “Muslim” label. I have a deep respect for the profoundly intelligent women at MMW and my personal Muslim feminist idol, Wood Turtle, and that respect comes from the fact that they are doing what I am not made to do. They give me a much-needed way of seeing the Muslim community. They provide tools for thinking that are direly needed in order for Muslim women to actualize themselves as meaningful members of the Ummah.

But for me, that is where it ends. I take what they offer and run. I don’t agree with the complete version of the way some Muslim feminist scholars envision the roles of women and, by extension, Muslim community to operate, but I do think that their critiques can result in much-needed changes in our ummah: the expansion of prayer spaces and including women in the same hall as men, having more women deliver lectures (not sermons, but lectures) and talks in the mosques, having more women like Ingrid Mattson who are leaders in our communities.

I am more than open to–and even love–reading Muslim feminist discourses while knowing that I don’t subscribe to the entirety of what they purport in terms of affirmative action. So perhaps Muslim feminists operate for me the way Taqwacores did: I can’t create or even entirely endorse their idealized universes, but I can laud the spirit of what they do. Just like I’m glad Taqwacores exists, I’m glad that Muslim feminism exists.