Because women bleed

FYI: I didn’t make this post “outsider friendly.” I am assuming the reader has a basic understanding of female menstruation and prayer in the Islamic tradition.

I used to be the kind of Muslim who didn’t care much for rules. Matters such as how you fold your arms when you pray seemed to be a way to divide and police people. Isn’t it the spirituality, the intention, that matters?

I have learned, however, that fiqh—the part of Islamic faith that has to do with legal rulings—IS a way of enacting spirituality. Rules are like rituals. They make the processes and methodology absolute so that one cannot be distracted, uneasy, or meek in their workship.

It was due to this newfound respect and adab for fiqh that I attended a workshop on the Fiqh of Taharah (Purity) at a mosque in Markham. It was specific to the subject of menstruation and was for females only.

What I grew up knowing about menstrual purity was based on what my mother told me and some scattered readings of religious texts. It had been over a decade since I received any formal instruction on the subject, and it turned out that there was much I hadn’t been aware of.
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Image credit: Stròlic Furlàn, flickr

Overall, I learned that Islamic legal rulings give a holistic, universal treatment of female bleeding that can be applicable to all women. For example, in the Hanafi school of thought, a period is only considered a true menstrual period if it is at least three days, and if the time that has passed since the last period is at least fifteen days. There is a specific way a woman is supposed to monitor the start and end of her period—for example, her period doesn’t start from the time she starts the bleeding, but the time she sees the blood. It may seem like common sense, but to know that this was the conclusion that legal experts sanctioned provides a strange kind of comfort and ease.

It was a revelation to me and many others that it is almost essential, religiously speaking, for women to track their periods and to know their normal cycle. The instructor (who happened to be a male using the audio system form a different room) emphasized that many of the Islamic legal implications on menstruation had to do with the women knowing her “habit,” or the usual course her cycle takes. Having this information is key for some of the conundrums that may come up when her bleeding is irregular, for she could be confused as to whether she should pray. We went on break not long after that point was made by the instructor, and I saw the room come alive with women discussing the lessons and sharing their experiences with one another. As part of this, we started talking about if/how we tracked our periods, and my sister leaned in and ended up showing me which she considers “the best app” for period tracking.
That was when everything would change.

I started using Clue right after that and have been consistent with it since. Clue has allowed me the uphold the injunction to know one’s cycle from both a fiqh and reproductive health perspective. The initiative was founded by a successful award-winning social entrepreneur who sees infinite possibilities in marrying data analytics and reproductive health.

The user experience is seamless and the app itself is a mini encyclopedia of facts related to things like menstruation, birth control and PMS. Without exaggeration, it has allowed me to get in touch with my body by observing and getting to know it.

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I am one of the more fortunate women to have learned about reproductive health and menstruation in my biology and health classes. Even so, I was not given the tools to apply the facts to how my body worked. Clue, for me, serves as that missing tool. It encourages me to pay closer attention to myself. And, best of all, it gives me the means to uphold and apply the “fiqh of Taharah” by completing its most fundamental requirement—knowing my cyle. Thanks to its graphical representations, I know at a glance the length of my “tuhr,” or time between my periods.

Should my body behave differently, I will have my reference points for knowing my habit, knowing what is natural for me, because my body is not a machine.

Rituals and rules give us certainty and knowledge gives us power. Thanks to these beautifully simultaneous occurrences: attending the course and beginning to use Clue,  I now have a growing understanding of my body I didn’t have before, both in the worldly and in the spiritual realms.

Here are some notes from the workshop. 
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On reading "The Upstairs Wife"

 22238381If I were to be an official-ish, published writer, I would be a nonfiction writer. I would hope to be the kind of writer who writes a book like this. Zakaria’s book illustrates a private, painful family story in parallel to the story of Pakistan as experienced by the swollen, violent, disturbed, distorted city that is Karachi.

Nothing is perfect—in true journalistic fashion, things are simply conveyed as they are, yet artfully so. Islamization campaigns in Pakistan are shown as no worse than the corruption and hypocrisy of secular leadership. (One exception: I couldn’t help but feel that there was a bit of sympathy on her part towards the Muhajjir Qaumi Movement—MQM, but that could be just me.)

This is also the story of how Zakaria’s paternal aunt’s husband ended up taking a second wife. This is not an Orientalist horrifying tale of how Islam allows polygamy and how it is terrible. It is an examination of the social realities of arranged marriages, women’s roles in society, love, and the tightrope a middle-class Pakistani family must walk to maintain its respectability. It is also the story of human nature, how easy it is to hate for the sake of hating, and how the most negative sentiments can become lifelong companions. It is the story of how vulnerable a woman is when her sole role is to serve her husband, when her life is built around him. This is not just Aunt Amina’s story: it is the story of millions of women, married and unmarried, whose worth is measured by their marital status, whether they are mothers, whether they work or are taught to have aspirations of their own. Aunt Amina is the chronically bereaved family member you will desperately want to avoid, to avoid all that negative energy, while fully understanding that she is the way she is because that is all she knows, and that is her reality.

On a different note: I kept wondering, as I read the book, what or who emboldened Zakaria to write so many details about her aunt’s life. No one would want their life put on display this way. In the Western context of publishing and the accountability of telling stories, “consent” wouldn’t come close to describing the kind of license the subject of a story would have to provide. Nothing is more powerful than a private, true story, but shouldering the responsibility of sharing this kind of a narrative has both serious legal and (I feel) spiritual implications.

Allah knows the author’s intentions best, and is the judge in all matters.

"Half Our Deen" as described by Elizabeth Gilbert

I am doing my best to prepare for my marriage every bit as much as prepare for my wedding. As part of the former, I am reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed. I had heard about the book’s topic, but was never interested enough to read it until recently, since its relevance has increased by a hundredfold.

couple-294284_640I am glad to be reading it now. The book is a researched meditation of sorts on the subject of marriage. Gilbert writes it on the eve of her own impending marriage, weaving together history (Western history, that is), research, and insightful personal reflections on the topic. It’s good. And much, much better than her last book.

Halfway in, I read something which was glorious, but of course did not make the connection with Islam—which is why I am sharing it here. It is the perfect explanation for why Islam discourages monasticism and celibacy. It explains why the Prophet urged his followers to marry and establish households. It’s also a much beautiful and precise version of what I was trying to convey in my previous post.

With all respect to Buddha and to the early Christian celibates, I sometimes wonder if all this teaching about nonattachment and the spiritual importance of monastic solitude might be denying us something quite vital. Maybe all that renunciation of intimacy denies us the opportunity to ever experience that very earthbound, domesticated, dirt-under-the-fingernails gift of difficult, long-term, daily forgiveness…Maybe creating a big enough space within your consciousness to hold and accept someone’s contradictions—someone’s idiocies, even—is a kind of divine act. Perhaps transcendence can be found not only on solitary mountaintops or in monastic settings, but also at your own kitchen table, in the daily acceptance of your partner’s most tiresome, irritating faults.

Why I'm Getting Married

I didn’t wake up one day and decide I wanted to get married. I have always wanted it. However, my reasons for it have changed throughout the years. This is the final, honed version of all those years of reasoning. 
Married is said to be half our deen, an scholars have emphasized that that is because it involves stepping up to a significant challenge. Conversely–divorce is one of the most hated acts by God, an allowance only made for extreme situations. For giving up on a marriage means giving up on that challenge.Wedding_Rings
I am getting married because
a) I am stepping up to the challenge, and
b) It is no longer in my path to keep being single.
What being single made me realize is that relationships—whether in the context of marriage or otherwise, inevitably involves the reduction, the shrinking, of both people’s realities. Even the most spirited and adventurous spouse will reduce the degree to which one is present in the world.
This became very clear to me when, upon reflecting on my previous prospective suitors, I remembered a very peculiar factor of things not working out. As disappointing as it was, there was always a glimmer, however small, that I would no longer be living a narrowed reality. That I was free to experience the world as I chose. With nothing anchoring me, I let myself go in my inner life.
And experience it I did. I took trips at the last minute, discovered dance as a form of self affirmation, and grew to love my family in completely new ways. Every day was full of adventure and possibility.
But with this, it eventually became clear why it was no longer in my path to keep being single.
It was too much.
It became emotionally and mentally exhausting to find equal potential and joy to have to seek joy in so many places. Seeing the unique beauty in each of these experiences and being open to them all left too much shakiness in the foundation of who ‘I’ was.
Getting married, I grew to understand, would narrow my experience of the world. Just like bing vegetarian resolved the paradox of choice when ordering at a restaurant, getting married would reduce the amount of experiences I can have. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s the whole point. In a functional marriage, two people lean back from life at least enough for the space of a marriage to remain intact. In a healthy marriage, they lean back further.
Having loved my life as a single women (well, most of the time), getting married is a bittersweet experience. My fiance is everything I want in a man. I already love the life we will have, and the children, God willing, we will bring to this world. Yet, sometimes, I wake up at night to the sound of a door closing. Shaytaan smiles. “Are you sure?”, he asks. I try not to pay him any heed. I say a prayer of gratitude that I no longer have to shine my light through all those open doors. There was a time I did—a time I described as a peculiar state of being One, just as Allah is One. But constantly shining through all of those doors are His ability and right alone.

Why I Left Altmuslimah

Many months ago, I met a Muslim with a very compelling, grounded, and soulful take on sexuality. Thinking that her view needed to be aired, to be shared with the world, I asked her earnestly to write for Altmuslimah.

Without a pause, she shook her head. “There are a lot of people saying a lot of things,” she said. “But it’s the people who matter who need to say them.”

* * *

Last week, I resigned from my position as editor of Altmuslimah. As I went through knowledge transfer tasks and goodbyes, I found myself thinking of that woman’s words.

My Altmuslimah career began when they picked up a post of mine and I became an on-call writer for them. In December 2012, I joined their editorial team. I found myself in an epicentre of a fascinating discourse on being Muslim today. I reviewed books, got acquainted with talented writers, and interviewed amazing women such as Tayyibah Taylor. I even flew to D.C. last year for our annual retreat, hosted graciously by the Editor-in-Chief, and spent two incredible days with my highly intelligent, talented, and insightful colleagues.

Recently, however, I started to realize that this role didn’t mean to me anything it itself; rather, I wanted it to mean something for me. I started to think a lot about the limits of what I can offer and of certain mediums themselves. This tweet is a perfect illustration of the kinds of issues I pondered:

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The “more than a hashtag” part is tough for me, both theoretically and practically. There is a world of people out there–most depressingly, community elders –who see online platforms like these as just a group of subversive women chattering amongst ourselves. Whatever their reasons are, the reality is: they will keep calling the shots for generations to come. Part of my wake-up call was realizing that such individuals and the communities they influence will never take endeavours like Altmuslimah seriously. If I ever thought they would, it was because I had socialized myself, through my work there, into being around people who talk and think like I do.

I’m ready to be de-socialized now, whatever that means in cybersphere. I want to join the land of the living, of Muslim friends who have never heard of the Mipsterz video or the storm around the Abu Eesa controversy, or don’t make such a fuss about every hijabi athlete or the Muslim marriage crisis. For a while, it was cool to be hearing about everything Islam and gender in its glory and ugliness. But exposing myself so much to that discourse was draining. I don’t doubt that there are hundreds or thousands of seeds being planted via Altmuslimah’s work. I just don’t think I’m meant to do the planting anymore.

I think back to the woman that I talked to, how she, just like me, struggled to have her faith to align with her lived reality to what she knew to be true in her deen and spirit.

There are indeed a lot of people saying a lot of things, and maybe I should not worry about helping everyone say those things. Maybe it’s time for me to just be, and to embrace whatever fills up the space where Altmuslimah used to be.

It’s a delayed farewell, but one I deliver with relief.

On Spoken Silence

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A period of silence from verbal speech is one of the greatest gifts a person can give to themselves. I have found that people are very intimidated by this notion and say that I am introducing a bidah–innovation. I’m not sure where they are coming from. This practice is not without precedent in the Islamic tradition, as you will see in the following:

  • The practice of Itikaaf–designating a time and space to focus on remembrance of Allah–includes refraining from frivolous speech and arguments. If one is especially prone to such manners of speech (thanks to information overload and engagement in online communities, which can make us very reactionary), the way for them to uphold Itikaaf is not to speak at all.
  • Many know that Istikharah–the prayer for guidance–is supposed to be made after Isha (the night prayer) and before sleeping. In some traditions, however, it is emphasized that the supplicator not speak to anyone after this prayer and before bedtime. (I wasn’t able to find a decent source for this claim.)
  • There are several times in the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace and blessings me upon him) life when he consciously disengaged from everyone and either took the company of very selected people, or worshipped Allah in solitude.

If the idea of a designated period of silence is still too difficult for you to digest, perhaps you can start by watching the film A Thousand Words. It’s a light and entertaining watch that will give you an understanding of how excessive use of words can be toxic.

I pray that we cultivate a culture in which vows of silence are as understood and respected as voluntary fasting, memorization of the Quran, philanthropy, and Itikaaf.

On Writerly Silence

I am now conscious of words the way I started becoming conscious of animal products about a year ago. They feel heavy on my system. I’m sensitive to excess. They make me feel uneasy, the way something might feel if it’s makruh.

At first I thought the solution was silence from speaking*, and I tried it for a few days. It was not without its benefits. I realized how much I talk over my sister. I slept better. My prayers and meditation deepened.

However, I also realized that my spoken words do not hold a candle to my internal dialogue. When I talk over people, I feel as though my head is going to explode from everything I have to convey. I have over twenty unfinished blogposts. I write long, detailed emails that don’t necessarily meander, but they delve into so much detail that writing them exhausts me. In my spoken speech, on the other hand, I suddenly go on tangents, causing others to look at me quizzically. Every conversation is a matter of trying to catch the slippery fish of my thoughts. And then there are the worst symptoms: I haven’t finished a book in months. I would start a thread of supplications, and then forget I was doing it halfway.

To sum it up: I am constantly in a state of writerly rehearsal, thinking of thing after thing to write about, to say.

There was a time when I would have loved to have this problem. But this immense gift of Rumi-Quotebarakah in writing goes hand-in-hand with the necessity to keep listening, keep reading. If I don’t uphold the latter two, I am no longer fit to receive this barakah. Hence all the symptoms. 

And so I declare my writerly vow of silence for the next forty days, so that I may to purge myself of internal writing oriented dialogue. There will be no drafting and publishing of blogposts. No journaling. No long emails. A conscious restraint in spoken speech. I may check into Facebook from time to time for reading purposes, but I won’t engage. 

Ya Allah, let a space open within me, so I may absorb more of Your Wisdom.

*In two days’ time, I will publish a short (pre-drafted) post that discusses vows of silence in light of Islam.