Gender and religion. Sigh.

Today we discussed Dr. Amina Wadud’s work. It always blows my mind how otherwise critical, reflective, meta-aware, culturally ecumenical religious folks dig their in heels & resort to hadith-hurling to shut down conversations – when it comes to .

For instance, the discussion about Amina Wadud keeps returning to her female body in a state of prayer leadership, as well as the gendered bodies in the congregation. I remember a woman exclaiming: “Why is she there in front of men raising her bottom?” In one fell swoop, Wadud’s extensive scholarship is forgotten. She becomes just a woman with a bottom. This problem is not exclusive to Amina Wadud. Her reminders – that women are not just biology -are poignantly valuable when it comes to the reception of her own work.

One should ask oneself:

Is my position on gender markedly different from (& far more strict, inflexible and conservative than) my religious reflections in other areas? Do I tend to be more innovative, creative, and flexible in other areas? Do I enter a state of anxiety when it comes to the development of religious law around issues of gender? Am I anxious that any change (or diversity) in how my co-religionists approach gender will result in a total loss of identity, a complete rupture with the past, utter chaos? Because modernity and postmodernity are already here, and gender is not the only area they impact.

Modernity renders religious folks a bit anxious. And gender is the greatest stumbling block for such anxious types.

I often hear, “But we are in state of crisis! Why raise other fitnahs! Why bring up new questions that shake our certainty?” Dude, I ask: is there ever a CONVENIENT time to interrogate ? And as for certainty, uniformity, homogeneity, lack of diversity: what are you talking about? Why must gender be the one area you lack questions, diversity, complexity? Why must singular textual references shut down all discussion when it comes to gender, alone?

My daughter is not habituated to segregated and unequal spaces. She believes she can do anything she wants. She does not understand why women must always listen to khutbahs delivered by men. She does not understand why her body is the one that must be restricted and obsessively covered.

Our children will not be satisfied by our responses about “fitnah” and “crisis”. When they are told our religion is about equality and justice, they will ask, “Great. Where is all this equality though?” And then they are told men and women are equal in theory, they are equal in the possibility of salvation: that equality applies to their lives after death, not to these lives on earth.

In this life, my daughter cannot lead the prayer, cannot speak at the Friday sermon, and is told, in fact – as I was reminded today, and as is popularly believed: Don’t prevent women from attending the mosque, but it is better for them to pray at home. I will not get into the context and asnad of that hadith report, but I will say this: in the way men wield the hadith, ultimately it does call for blocking women from the mosque. The theoretical freedom to attend mosques is negated by a moral exhortation to stay away from mosques. Theoretical physical freedom is negated by a moral restriction.

In this version of theology, a woman’s body and voice are rendered invisible. Forget prayer leadership: she cannot even step out of doors without hemorrhaging piety. Theoretical equality, theoretical justice, theoretical pluralism. Show me the money, I say. Show me the justice and equality here, now. Would you accept a theoretical equality that says, I accept the equality of your soul with mine, but I do not accept you have the right to occupy public space as I do? I accept you are equal to me in who you are, but you do not have the right to equal voice in prayer spaces?

Must classical era interpretations of mobility and physicality apply to us today? The warriors of the field of ijtihad range far and wide, but when it comes to gender, they double down, they stamp their feet, and say, “What ijtihad? Remember that one hadith reported from the 7th century in tribal Arabia?”

My mind is a heart

There’s a diagnosis for that thing where your brain is just a big overstuffed heart and it won’t work like a brain anymore, right?

Because I’ve got that. I put in my requests for information processing. Instead of working like a computer, my mind is a paper shredder. Everything comes out scrambled, in long thin bits. It all looks sort of recognizable, but it isn’t.

0420_WorkSo I sit on the couch and wait. Netflix runs in the background. I can think even less than before. I think, I really need to get back on that book review. What will the editor think of me?

Then a student emails to say, hey, you didn’t post the assignment. I check. I did post the assignment. My mind is derailed from its original pursuits again. Except this time, it is reassuring. Even in this state, I am in better shape than some. Phew. Everything’s relative.

I recall, those original pursuits I had from the day before mean I have Tasks to do. People to call. State offices to contact, and then to be sent off on a loop. I am sitting on a couch when Tasks need to be done.

Then someone reaches out to me, and without warning, I feel my cheeks wet. I can’t really think about being sad or upset. I just know that the clouds are congested, and the air is humid with unresolved issues. I’
m worried that if I keep doing this, and this ERROR message keeps appearing, I will lose those people. They will stop reaching out because, let’s face it, all of us have struggles and tasks, long lists of tasks. Is there a person out there whose job it is to shepherd those of us staggering out of life with no purpose and with congested hearts instead of minds.

Marginalized people need to support each other

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One of the effects of internalized racism is that marginalized people sometimes avoid the marginalized members of their own communities. “If I avoid my people and their subordination, maybe the dominant cultural powers will raise me up, and will become the Chosen One – the single token minority person who achieves success.” I say Chosen One because we’re afraid that the hegemon selects only some of our people as representatives: the idea is that marginalized communities – supposedly as monoliths – require only a small number of Representatives. They are all alike. They all look alike. They could all stand in place of each other, right? These communities are assumed to be not complex enough to require diverse representation: this is the root of the problem.

This is to be seen in many areas – how minority people patronize businesses, what their cultural consumption practices are, what they read, and – in the case of academics, scholars, and activists – whom they cite.

I have observed with sorrow and disappointment that even Muslim American scholars have a tendency to cite and support their claims relying primarily on White, non-Muslim scholars and cultural workers. Even in egregious cases, where their work intersects with the work of fellow-Muslims and non-Whites, they sometimes take great pains to avoid reliance on these community members. I will call such people DTPs (Dissers of Their People). There is apparently a feeling among DTPs that to cite and acknowledge their people somehow reduces them, and somehow deprives them of credibility. The manifestation of such internalized racism and internalized Islamophobia is often a source of sadness for me, and I have been wrestling with it for some years now. I want my Muslim American DTP colleagues (especially those who are critical scholars) to realize that by avoiding and dissing their fellow Muslim American colleagues they damage the cause of community uplift to which they claim to subscribe.

Such is the terror of being called “ghettoized” or “balkanized”, such is the desire to be embraced as the almost-White de-raced liberal subject, that minority persons frequently – without even realizing it – avoid standing too close to their people.

In the individualistic climate of tokenistic diversity and this economic recession, by elbowing aside their Muslim colleagues, DTPs may indeed nab that one award, that one job, that one speaking engagement, that one grant available to a Muslim. But when they are being elbowed aside by other minoritized persons, it’s going to hurt.

As with unions, ultimately, we all benefit from standing together and not selling each other out for a piece of the pie. We all benefit from demanding a different pie. A bigger pie that everyone can share.

Most days, I cannot cry

Most days, I cannot cry.
Most days, I am too busy presenting The Strong Face, the Tough Face, The I Can Handle It Face, The You Don’t Mess With Me Face,
The Lean On Me Face, The Go On Throw It At Me Face, The I Am Your Therapist Face.
Most days, I am too busy over-being to simply be.
Most days, I’ve forgotten how to be.

It’s like how most weekends, I slip quickly into what I’m expected to do for others.
The smiles on other faces make me think:
Yes, another day!
I’ve done my job, I’ve done what makes “me” happy.
Who is this me.
And who is that me that is trapped in a box, trapped under the secret floorboards, hammering, screaming,
Let Me OUT! I need to get OUT!
Until one day, that other me stops screaming, her fists fall by her side, and she murmurs, barely audible:
I’ll do anything, please, just let me lie here quietly, under the floorboards, and I’ll be okay.

So, most days, I just keep going, propelled by the electrical power of expectations, congratulations, Facebook Comments, Likes, Twitter hearts, eyes seeking me out, emails saying thank you for doing your job, pay stubs, homework sheets, frenetic cartoons on the TV that shout BAD MOMMA loud and clear.

Most days, I barely look in the mirror.
And then I put my head down on the prayer-rug and say:
I’m so tired I can barely feel my hurt.

And I raise my head and the cat’s eyes are upon me.
The cat is reclining in front of the prayer-rug, staring at me.
He’s not hungry. He’s just watching me.
Does he know how I feel? Is he sad for me? Does he hear my heart flagging?
Does he want to absorb my tears in his fur?
Does he want to lick my tears up with his sandpaper tongue?
Does he want to creep up to me and softly put his paws on my chest and crouch there, purring, resting his paws, claws drawn in, on my heart, turning his face, eyes half-open, watching me?
Does he know how I feel?
Do You know how I feel?
Do You feel it?
Do You care? Do You cry with me? Do You feel the hurt, the weariness?

And then, that day, I can let the tears loose. I can hear her under the floorboards.
Like in a crime thriller, I can rap on the floorboards, hear them hollow, and rip them out, splinters in my flesh, so she can crawl out, and sob:
Wait. What does she say? I can barely hear her now.

 

-February 21st, 2016. If you’re wondering if this is a poem, and if so, why it’s so bad, it’s not a poem. Or whatever.

Gender activism: within the system or without?

wadudAt times, I hear some Muslim women scholars sniff at activism. I hear people say that the activists who educate young women in conservative seminaries and teach them wifely obedience are superior to such scholarly activists who rock the boat, jettison baggage, and demand new gendered frameworks. I hear people say that such activists could have continued to be highly regarded scholars in “mainstream” religious circles, and that it was their own fault that they demanded too much, made too many big statements, and demanded – for instance – prayer leadership, the right to divorce, and so on.

This is an age-old debate of course: work within the system and slowly accomplish some goals, impact a large number of stakeholders, and slowly achieve change? Or demand more, and turn large numbers of mainstream community members against yourself – and potentially get them to dig in their heels even further?

I disagree with such claims – that working within the status quo is the only true path to reform. With all respect to warriors on the path, quiet, patient work within the system is one of the paths. We need all our warriors on this path. Scholar-activists like Amina Wadud have blazed a path for all of us. Whether you agree with her or disagree, she helped raise everyone’s expectations. For my part, whether you find your spiritual home within the status quo or not, if you work toward egalitarian ideals, we are all sisters & brothers.

But even if I love your community service, be warned, some of us wage war against the status quo.

Mortality

Maybe it was Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass – death as a presence that accompanies you watchfully from birth onward – or just an increasing sense of impending age. Yesterday, after the ‘isha prayer, it occurred to me that, as I turn 48, I’m practically 50. I’ve never been especially quantitatively inclined, so maybe I’ve been slow on the uptake. But it hits me like a lightning bolt.  Statistically, I have fewer years left ahead of me than behind me.

This isn’t to say that death can’t happen anytime, of course. In infancy, in your teens, your blossoming 20s, your proud 30s, your steely 40s, your flagging 50s, and so on. It’s just that the statistics that gave comfort when I was in my 20’s, no longer do so. People died in old age. I wasn’t old. I now approach middle age. I’m going to be old, and approach death steadily.

It feels like one of those epiphanies pot-heads talk about. Dude, I’m gonna die. People have died for centuries. What’s the big deal? No splash when I depart (except of course for immediate family and some friends). We’ve all seen the tears, the Facebook condolences, that last a few minutes – if you’re lucky – and then life literally goes on. Not that that’s the point either, in the manner of a self-indulgent Bollywood movie character who reflects on his own insignificance while staring out to sea. The point is, all this, all this noise, this is clutter.

It’s time to cut down on the noise and the clutter, and really prepare to meet my Friend, to give more freely of myself, because so much less time is left to give.

Flashbacks and reflections on immigrant grief

Several of my friends have traveled to Pakistan this winter, and I have not. I have missed the bus. As someone who left behind most of who I was in the homeland, I struggle with the pieces that are left with me, and I find myself on hands and knees, searching frantically for missing shards and bits and pieces. And then there is mortality, mine and that of others.

When Sadhana died this week, taking with her the movies my mother used to watch; the songs my mother used to sing – in her beautiful, untrained yet melodious voice – all through my childhood, I felt again like I had been robbed.

This week, I am at my cousin’s place, and I am overcome by grief. Maybe I feel loved enough to stop and nurse the long festering wounds. I remember how when I first arrived in this country, found community with Muslim Americans, and became enmeshed in these new communities. Yet there is a web of love I left behind, the quality of which has not been replaced, and cannot ever be.

بےدردی بالما تجھ کو میرا من یاد کرتا ہے
O heartless beloved, my heart remembers you always

I keep trying to remind myself that having clean water, a perpetual supply of electricity, no real emotional demands (except those I struggle to nurture myself), freedom from many of the old social gendered expectations (those have been replaced by others though) – all of these gifts make the new life in the new homeland worth the loss of the old.

Today my mamujan (my cousin’s father) is coming to stay, and I am delighted as well as overwhelmed by the past that threatens to tear me in two, reminding me of all the promises I have broken, the homeland I abandoned, the waiting hearts I have disappointed:

پلکوں کے جھولے سے سپنوں کی ڈوری
پیار نے باندھی جو تو نے وہ توڑی
Love fastened a hammock of dreams to our eyelashes
And you broke it

Maybe mamujan and I will sit and watch the old songs he used to sing, and my mother (his sister) used to sing.

رہیں نہ رہیں ہم  مہکا کرینگے
بن کے کلی، بن کے صبا
باغ وفا میں
Whether I live on or not, forever I will be fragrant 
like a bud, like the morning breeze 
in the garden of faithful love

Ammi doesn’t sing so much anymore. I think that the Islamicizing in Pakistan as well as age have both taken some of the artistic joy she took in the singing. Far away from her, where I have missed the transitions she has undergone through the years, and she has missed mine – I struggle to find those moments again.

لگ جا گلے کہ پھر یہ حسیں رات ہو نہ ہو
Fall into my arms, for who knows, this beautiful night may never return again 

I try to find her again, I try to find me, I try to find that old Pakistan that I left behind – and all of those things are gone, lost forever.

رہتے تھے کبھی جن کے دل میں
ہم جان سے بھی پیاروں کی طرح
بیٹھے ہیں انہی کے کوچے میں
ہم آج گنہگاروں کی طرح
The beloved whose heart I lived in like one more beloved than life itself
I sit today in his street like a sinful outcast

I refuse to be one of those immigrants who go back and lambast the changed homeland for not being the old one. How can I, when in the 1980s and 1990s, in my over-enthusiastic religious youth, I myself lambasted Pakistan for not being something else? We all keep trying to re-make it in some other image.

Still, wherever I go, whatever new paths I create, I take my yesterdays with me, moldy, abandoned, overgrown. My yesterdays call to me; sometimes they hammer on my door and demand I open up at the most inopportune moments, summoning me to them.

اجی روٹھ کر اب کہاں جایے گا
جہاں جایے گا
ہمیں پایے گا
Where will you go, darling, turning away from me in a huff
No matter, wherever you go
you will find me there

And more than anything else, there is a wellspring of love; painful, grieving love, that I can only access through my yesterdays, my immigrant past.

اک پیار کا نغمہ ہے
موجوں کی روانی ہے
زندگی اور کچھ بھی نہیں
تیری میری کہانی ہے

It is a song of love, the flow of waves
life is nothing but the love story of you and I

It is with a powerful intense angry desire that I wish for stability in our homelands. I wish external interference in our homelands would quit, so that we can rebuild, and become such homes that the transnational among us can revisit and love again. For immigration as a narrative of triumph and renewal is only part of the story; immigration is in equal parts a story of loss, of populations who were robbed of their roots and yesterdays; who had to reconstruct lives out of puzzle pieces that didn’t always fit easily.

او جانے والے دامن چھڑا کے
مشکل ہے جینا تجھ کو بھلا کے

O you who broke away from me
it is difficult to forget you, and then to live on