Monday, May 28, 2012

The Sexy "Islamic" Subjects....

There are a large number of mediums that are used to attack and oppress women in various societies around the world. However, one of the most powerful and effective methods of control is invoking the name and authority of God to manipulate women into a secondary position in society. However we must ask, does the actual message of God align with the message of the men who claim to speak on his behalf?
I would like to examine (within the context of Islam) the issues of obsession with virgin wives, polygamy, and the veil; three issues that too often fall out of the control of us Muslim women, and into the control of manipulative men invoking “Islam”. Furthermore, it has been a reason that adds to the critical eye around the world towards Islam, often viewed as a religion that “oppresses women”.
Though there are a large number of obvious social, economic, political and psychological arguments against these three issues regarding women; many of those who invoke Islam, consider any source outside of Islam as invalid. Thus, I have chosen to keep the argument strictly based on the Quran – in order to show how many of the social realties within the Muslim community are in direct contradiction with the Quran. I’d like to argue that we women can in fact find peace and protection against this in the Quran.
Issue #1: The Virginity Obsession & Hypocritical Men
We’ve all heard of the paranoia over “breaking hymens” in Saudi Arabia, the threats for virginity tests in Egypt, the high number of hymen reconstruction surgeries in Tunisia. So where does all this vagina madness come from? The easy answer is from the men who obsess over having a lovely virgin wife (or at least a wife whose vagina “appears” to be untouched).
From Saudi Arabia, to the MENA regions “proud example of women’s rights” Tunisia; women’s sexuality is constantly being put at the mercy of men. Women are held accountable for their sexual past, however most of the time, men are not. In a survey taken last fall of Arab-Muslim men, 87% of the men who admitted to being sexually active still insisted that their future wife be a virgin.

Before we go to the Quran, I feel that it’s important to begin with the fact that the model for Muslims; The Prophet Mohammed’s (Peace be upon him, his family and companions) first wife was a widow quite beyond his years, and most definitely NOT a virgin. He kept her as his one and only wife until her death and he loved her dearly.

If this 87% of men still feel they are beyond the example of our Prophet, what about the examples offered in the Quran referring to this exact issue:

"Let no man guilty of adultery or fornication marry any but a woman similarly guilty…such a thing is forbidden to the Believers” (Quran 24:3)

This verse quite simply states, that if a man has been sexually active outside of marriage, he should be wed with a woman who has also done the same. Thus, the man who has had sex, in Islam, has no right to demand a virgin wife. It’s quite logical - a woman who has strived to keep herself saved for marriage deserves a man who has put the same effort into abstaining. And a women who is not a virgin, does not deserve to be shoved aside by a man who has done the same, it’s simply hypocrisy. In case any men think this verse is not enough, read on in your Qurans a few more versus and you will find another verse to clarify:

“…women of purity are for men of purity, and men of purity are for women of purity” (Quran 24:26)
Furthermore, the issue of maintain virginity is almost always attributed to the woman, and not the man. But the Quran makes no distinction between the importance of one gender being held accountable over the other, though pre-marital sex is not allowed before marriage – there is no message of the necessity of a woman to be a virgin to be “wife-material”. It in facts recognizes that this isn’t reality.
If men think they have the “right” to call on women for virginity tests in the name of Islam (a procedure that any doctor with half a degree could tell you is not an accurate association with virginity), then we women should shut them up by invoking our rights to do virginity tests on the men as well. I’d love to see how many of those men would ever agree to sit down for a lie detector test to see if they still had their purity. The fact of the matter is it’s clearly ridiculous, and has no basis in the Quran.
Men & Their Wives: Polygamy

Yes world, we know you hate polygamy, we do too. But it is important to know that polygamy is not traditionally a “Muslim problem”. It was not introduced or created by Islam, polygamy was already a cultural norm for pre-Islamic societies including among the Jews, Christians and polytheists. However, common practice at the time was to have an unlimited number of wives at one time, so the one verse in the entire Quran talking about polygamy restricts it to four wives, an improvement (for back then).
There is only one verse in the Quran where polygamy is directly mentioned. The revelation was understood to be given to the prophet after the battle of Uhud where many men died leaving behind wives and children who were in the need of protection and care:

If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four, but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one… (Quran 4:3)
The verse does not command polygamy, encourage polygamy, or declare it an absolute right of men. Rather, it is permitting polygamy based on very specific circumstances. Polygamy is conditional on whether the husband can be just to his wives, however, if one cannot be just and treat his wives equally, he is only allowed to marry one. Polygamy wasn’t intended to be a social norm or right, it was merely an exception to the general rule of monogamy based on certain circumstances relevant to the population at the time.

In examination of the condition of being just among all wives, the Quran states later:
Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire…” (Quran 4:129)

Reading this verse with the previous verse about polygamy, may show that polygamy was discouraged by Islam. It can be put in a very simple three step understanding; First, if one can be just and fair among women, then you can marry up to four wives. Second, if one cannot be just and fair among women, then they may marry only one. Third, one is never able to be just and fair among women. Therefore, a logical and very literal conclusion based on the reading of the Quran would be that men should only marry one wife. 
Aside from the Quran, another primary source is within the examples and actions of the Prophet. Many argue that since the Prophet Mohammed lived a polygamous life, then polygamy is permissible. The simplest way to contest this argument is to go back to the Quran. Surah 33:50 states:

O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those whom thy right hand possess out of the spoils of war whom Allah has assigned to thee; and daughters of thy maternal uncles and aunts, who migrated (from Makkah) with thee; and any believing woman who dedicated her soul to the Prophet if the Prophet wishes to wed her – this is only for thee, and not for the Believers (at large).

This verse is addressing the number of wives that the prophet has, so again we are in the context of polygamy. It appears that the Prophet, though he is to be taken as an example, was an exception to the rule as well, thus the last sentence, stating that “this (referring to the marriage to many women) is only for thee (the Prophet) and not for the Believers at large”. A literal reading of this verse, can lead to a conclusion that the practice of polygamy - although done by the Prophet - was not intended for the Believers.
Furthermore The Prophet’s daughter was married to Ali ibn Abu Talib (Peace be upon him and his family). It is said that a man approached the Prophet asking the prophet if he could wed his daughter to Ali as a second wife. The Prophet refused, saying that anything that pains Fatima, would also pain him; and thus recognizing the fact that a second wife for Ali would hurt Fatima, and the Prophet himself. If the Prophet didn’t wish for his daughter to be wed to more than one man, then men should respect this wish, as the Prophet is at times called the father of believers.

Polygamy is painful for women to endure, and it’s been justified for centuries in the name of Islam from this one verse, however, further speculation in the Quran doesn’t seem to support it. The Tunisian state was the first country to ban polygamy and make it punishable by law, the legal code was in reference to these very passages stating that it was impossible to treat more than one woman equally. The new Tunisian government after the revolution has protected this law, and countries in the region who permit this practice in the name of Islam should re-evaluate their policies and move forward in the direction that Tunisia took in the mid-twentieth century.

Covering our Beauty: The Veil
I do believe that the definition of modesty varies from one person to the next, I both fully support my sisters who choose to cover in any way they choose, but I also fully support my sisters who choose not to cover.

First and foremost, the veil must not been seen as a sign of oppression by on-lookers. Though there are tragic cases of injustice where women don’t feel free to expose their hair or faces due to shame from a society; there are also a large number of women who choose in the name of modesty to cover themselves proudly. Many feel empowered by the niqab or hijab, as they feel it forces society to focus on their person rather than their sexuality. Veil bans (such as in France) are merely another way to try to control what women wear, and to revoke the veil in the name of feminism or human-rights is a back ward argument. Rather, those of us who enjoy the right not to wear the veil should be supporting those of us who choose to wear a veil. Society needs to stop telling us women how to dress – whether that be to wear more, or wear less – the power to choose should be in the hands of the women themselves. That means defending both sides – veil or no veil.

Similar to the issue of polygamy, there is only one verse in the entire Quran addressing the issue of women’s dress. Seems ironic that these two verses get so much attention in the Muslim community and around the world – yet they make such a small portion in the word of God (the majority of Quranic verses focusing on the beauty of nature and signs of God).
The verse is as follows:
Verse 24:31:

“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and orniments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms”
It should be noted that the portion “lower their gaze and guard their modesty” is also addressed right before this verse in 24:30 – to the men. The men are also told to lower their gaze and guard their modesty (and it appears before the verse telling women to do the same). Thus the Qurans message of modesty and lowering gaze is not merely a message for women but for men and women, and men before women. As much as our community would like us to believe that women must cover their entire bodies because men cannot control themselves more than women – the Quran says otherwise. Both men and women are recognized as sexual beings with desires – thus – both are told to lower their gaze and guard their modesty – implying it is something we choose. If a man believes that a woman is improperly dressed, he should “lower his gaze” or look away, as is advised by the word of God. His mind and modesty is in his own control, it is not the fault of the woman if he allows his modesty or his eyes to wander.

Secondly, the verse says that women should “draw their veils over their bosom”. Traditions in pre-Islamic Arabia (derived from ancient poetry, statutes, and historical accounts) mention that women often wore robes that hung loosely and that the breasts were often displayed. (The verse affirms this by addressing the issue) There is even mention of an ancient tradition in Mecca where women would show their breasts to warriors before they went to battle for good luck. The only thing made clear by this verse, which is accepted by most societies in the world is that the breasts are something that should be covered in public. None of us are debating this issue, rather we focus on the face and hair – two things that just aren’t mentioned in the Quran.
There is debate over what the “veil” in the verse refers to, and how it should be worn. Some say that at the prophet’s time the “veil” was merely hung loosely around the neck (as a scarf) in case of bad weather – the veil would be used to protect the face from sandstorms, but otherwise hair wasn’t covered. This is debatable, but worth taking into consideration. It’s clear that faces weren’t covered – as this provision was made for the Prophets wives in Medina after they had faced harassment and ridicule – but again it was made clear this was a law only for the Prophets wives and not the rest of the believers.
The veil has been worn by both men and women pagans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, polytheists, etc. Though the Quran is clear that women should be modest, it doesn’t give much definition of what exactly “modest dress” is, as much as people would like us to believe. Also, these were suggestions made in the Quran using the phrase “they should”, not the phrase “they must or they will burn in Hell” like we often hear.
To My Fellow Muslim Women: Find your own definition of modesty and comfort – and wear it. Don’t let anyone force you to wear what you don’t feel right wearing (be it more or less). After all, outside appearances are not important – it’s the heart that matters.
I’ve seen prostitutes drink and dance the night away and throw on their Abaya and niqab and go out on the street the next day. I’ve also seen women swimming in Bikinis who were virtuous and modest and did amazing things in the name of God, but chose not to cover. At the end of the day, it’s not up to us to judge or decide, merely to allow people the free will to choose. We don’t do what we do for society – we do it for God, and we should be free to make that choice.
Though it’s easy to try to blame Islam for the problems in the Muslim community, the Quran just doesn’t put unfair expectations on women like many men of the Muslim community have.
To the Non-Muslims:  Don’t think we women are fighting a purposeless fight because you believe our religion is futile. Many of the problems we face are not at all rooted in the Quran or in Islam, but in corrupt clerics and powerful men who would like to control us. We need all the support we can get to weaken the argument of men who invoke Islam to oppress us, because at the end of the day, their arguments are merely man-made.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A party in the K.S.A.

I was sitting in a living room in Taif, but couldn’t help but feel like I was in a club.  I was half asleep at 4am, while Khaleeji music blasted and Saudi girls dressed in diva short dresses and obnoxious high heels swayed their hips back and fourth with glasses of vodka in their left hands and cigarettes in the other. The men would jump in and out on the dance floor, sometimes dancing with each other, and other times grabbing a girl and playfully spinning her around. Although 'mixing' of the sexes was forbidden, they cast what Saudi considered socially acceptable far aside for that evening.
My friend Mohammed tapped me on the shoulder and laughed as he pointed out a couple making out passionately on the couch. I looked at them with sleepy eyes, but enough to make out that it was the police officer we met from earlier that day, who now had a beautiful Saudi girl sitting on his lap in his arms. We knew he had a wife and children, and this woman was definitely not his wife or the mother of his children.
They ran out of alcohol, my friend Mohammed came up to me, “the dealer is coming, you wont get in trouble, can you go out and grab the vodka for us”. I laughed, I was the only one in the room who didn’t drink but I understood why they were afraid. I supposed it was better for me to get deported than them be jailed for god knows how long. “He’s coming in a black suburban, when you go outside to the car just reach out your hand with this money, but DO NOT look at him. He handed me a wad of riyals. It’s super important that you don’t look at him ya azizity.” I giggled to myself, I felt like I was walking out to do some major drug deal, all for a little bottle of alcohol, something that could be bought in most of the world by 18 year olds. I followed his instructions, walked out to the black suburban, turned my head away and reached out my arm with the equivalent of 100$ in my hand. I was fighting myself back from laughing out loud as the whole process just seemed so silly to me, and I suddenly felt the money pulled away and a bottle slide into my hand. Right as my fingers gripped around the bottle, the car quickly sped off.
I sat for a moment in the middle of the street. I looked at the bottle wrapped in a shopping bag in my hand, and I giggled to myself, I couldn’t believe the trouble they went through to get this little bottle, and it was only 15$ in America. I heard Mohammed shout a whisper to me, “ya bint! Get in here”. I looked up and snapped back into Saudi reality, and I walked into the house.
It stunk of cigarettes and dancing, they had disco lights and an excellent sound system.  The girls were flirting and dancing up on the men, and as the house was empty they were to stay the night. I told Mohammed I would go to sleep. I jokingly asked him which girl he liked. And although he had danced and laughed with all of them he said “Ohhh, I don’t like these kind of girls, they are sluts”. Typical, I thought, though all these men were participating and doing the exact thing the girls were, only the women got the negative label. I shook my head, and was too tired to make a comment, though I usually wouldn’t miss such an opportunity.
I retired to the bedroom alone and locked the door to my room. I slept in peace, except a few knocks and bangs on the door which I ignored.  I slept through the booming of the music in the living room down the hall. I woke up once, I heard the call to prayer and an argument going on outside my room with the booming music still continuing. It cut out in silence while the rest of the fujr call to prayer continued. One guy made them turn off the music while the Athan was on, I knew they stopped music during the Athan out of respect for God, but I had to giggle to myself, despite all the things they were doing that they believed to be “haram”, they still managed to keep some degree of religious tradition – while drunk at a mixed party. Oh Saudi, I thought to myself, and fell back asleep.
I woke up early the next morning. To my surprise, the sun was up and the music was still going. I unlocked my room and walked out down the hallway, I heard giggles and turned and saw two of the girls I saw the night before in bed moving under the sheets, as they heard me walk by they turned around and giggled and yelled “good morning”! I saw the police officers head pop up and he gave me a guilty (but very happy) smile. I faked a smile back, and said “asshole” under my breath. I moved on. I walked into the living room to say my goodbyes, a few people were still dancing in the middle of the living room with drinks in hand and a few others were passed  out on the couches. I walked by the door, and a few of the girls who were wearing short tight dresses with their breasts popping out, were changing their heels to flats and putting on their abayas and adjusting their niqabs to properly cover their face. I giggled again. One girl looked at me, she still had one sparkly high heel on, and her abaya was open to reveal a dress that more looked like a tight t-shirt that had to constantly be tugged on so her underwear wouldn’t be seen, she was tying the niqab around her head, and as I looked at her she smiled back with an understanding smile, as if to acknowledge that she knew it was odd to be covering up after last night. “We’re not hypocrites Habibity” she said, “in order to be a Hypocrite, you have to have the ability to make a choice.” I smiled, “Don’t feel you need to justify anything to me.” I replied. She smiled, and hugged me and kissed me on the cheeks.
Her and her friends were now covered from head to toe in black, I escorted them out. The other two girls walked out with their boyfriends who were in their boxers with messy hair and they kissed their girlfriends goodbye. I walked out with them onto the driveway, I saw one of the girls walk up to the Indian driver who was parked safely within the gates of the house so nobody could see women coming out in the morning. She put her pointer finger in his face and said with a scold, “if you tell baba where you had to come to pick us up, Wallahi I will get you in so much trouble!” He backed up frightened, “no, no madam, don’t worry it is not my business. I am saying nothing, nothing.” She jumped into the back of the car satisfied and they waved goodbye. I had lost track of which one was which, as they all looked the same covered in black. I looked at the guys waving goodbye, they looked back at me. “Did you guys have a good night” I asked. They gave me a huge smile, and I laughed with them.  “Well, your girlfriends are nice”, I said to them. “laaaa ya binty”, they said with shocked sarcastic voices “these are not nice girls, they are like prostitutes.” “Well,” I replied, “more innocent is the sinner who is victim of the system then the oppressor who keeps the system alive.” Ahmed looked at me with a smile that showed he got what I meant, then he gave me a friendly pat on the head – as if he found my remark cute yet insignificant.
“This is Saudi ya bint, this is Saudi.” He finally said.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

You, Me, and the Ben Ali's

Shit, I thought. The cops are pulling us over.

She laughed, "don't worry", she said to me. And reached for her ID card. I had seen cops in Tunis before, and nobody in a Porche would normally be left peacfully without a serious bribe, the cop must have thought he was in for a good chunk of money.

She didn't look upset about the cops, but repulsed by the mere fact that he dare to stop us on our way to Sindbad - a new restaurant/lounge club in Tunis.

The cop was confident as he approached us, he asked for ID, and she handed it over and simply said - "I'm a Ben Ali girl".

The cop returned her ID in the most panicked and polite manner possible. The power had shifted from the Middle aged police officer, to the twenty-something Ben Ali girl. "My sincerest apologies" he said, "enjoy your evening". It was clear what caused him to leave so quickly - fear. Fear of what would happen to him if he challenge one of the close members of the Ben Ali family, there was no justice back then when that was your family name, just free passes.

We went to the lounge, it was opening night. There was a long line and my students had been complaining that day about how it would be impossible to get in Sindbad. She grabbed my hand, passed the people waiting and led me to the front of the line with her, the bouncers cleared the people and allowed us to pass. There were unapproving grunts and groans from the people who had been waiting in line. "Hey! We're here too, we've been in line for hours!" One guy in line called, the bouncer glared at him, and let us pass.

I went to her house in Menzah a number of times. They were the only family in Tunis I knew of that had English speaking maids from the Phillippines. I felt like I was back in a house in Saudi Arabia. Her mother didn't work, and her father was a pilot for TunisAir. TunisAir pilots do make a decent salary, but not enough for an extravagent home with a pool overlooking Tunis and a garage full of luxury cars. But thats what you got for being the Presidents brother, I suppose.

They gave me fresh imported meals from Italy, took me out to eat at expensive retaurants, took me to the best clubs, gave me a car, and brought me to their private oriental dancing lessons.

Meanwhile, Tunisians were struggling. Walking down the street, getting into a taxi, taking the bus, going to work - all these simple tasks were so frustrating in Tunisia at the time. It was apparent that people were frustrated and tired and needed an out. But nobody could talk about those difficulties, everyone was trained to just talk about Football.

But oh, how the tables turned.

On a trip I took to Paris, I bought a book that was banned in Tunisia at the time about Leila Ben Ali (Trabelsi), I found it funny that the "First Lady" was an ex-hair-dresser. I was in class in mid-December, we had just heard the news about Mohammed Bouazizi, and it was the main topic of discussion everywhere you went in Tunis. I asked my class that day - "Is it true that Leila Ben Ali was a hairdresser?" They froze, shocked that I had asked and afraid of how to respond. It was the most akward moment of teaching I had had. One girl finally told me - "look you can't say things like that here - we wont get you in trouble - but people get arrested and tortured for saying things like that." They all agreed, and it was so apparent what was consuming them in that moment - Fear. The same fear that the police officer felt when he pulled us over.

I remember the night that the protests reached Tunis. I was in another class when one young man in my class was wearing a purple shirt. We were watching the movie Crash and having discussions about treating people with respect. One student made fun of him for wearing purple - it was "Ben Ali's color", it was the first time I heard students mocking Ben Ali. We had NEVER talked politics in class, and we were strictly trained to avoid the subject. The students were getting calls from their parents and friends worried about the protests spreading and telling everyone to go home immediately. But I loved this class, and they loved it too - we all decided to stay together discussing human rights while the rest of the Institute closed down and people went home in fear of protests spreading.

For the first time, students in my class started complaining about Ben Ali, and at this point I too wasn't afriad of losing my job or getting in trouble - this issue was heart felt and some of my students seemed to be on the verge of tears. This was the first week of January and just before everything started in Tunis, and it was the last class I taught in Tunisia before the revolution closed down the school for a month. They told me about people who they loved and respected who were arrested and tortured, and how they just wanted to be able to criticise and talk freely, they felt trapped, frustrated and tired of the injustice. The enitre class was in agreement, they wanted change, but there were two students who were afraid and upset that this issue had been touched - they stood up and left class.

We remained in the classroom for another hour, they opened up their hearts to me, trusting me because I was an outsider who they knew wouldn't get them in trouble . My boss finally called me and sternly told me we needed to get out of the building because protests were coming to us.

Mohammed Bouazizi got Tunisians talking about the problems in their country, and I remember the fear in December just after it had happened - my students didn't want to talk, but two weeks later that fear had been broken. And the rest, as they say, is history.