My International Women’s Day reflection

Today on International Women’s Day, I’m asking myself if I’m okay.

I’m telling myself – a woman of multiple homes – that I’m enough; I’m not ‘too much,’ I am not ‘excessive’ or ‘not enough,’ but I am just the way my Beloved made me, aspiring to the One always. 
I am valid, I am legitimate, my voice is important. 
I’m telling myself not to let toxic people shut me down. 
I’m loved, and I’m going to be okay.

This is part of me loving my community and my sisterhood. You’ve got to love yourself if you’re going to connect with others, because we are all one.

Sisters, check on yourselves. In these tough times, when communities don’t always stand together, when we push and shove because there’s not enough to go around, we’ve got to care for our hearts.

The Prophet said that if your heart was okay, everything was okay. Keep your hearts pure, strong, and well. And don’t look too long upon the darkness. 

You are loved and you are going to be okay.

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‘Dalya’s Other Country’

Today we watched the documentary film Dayla’s Other Country in my ‘Religion in Documentary Film’ class. The story focuses on a Syrian-American teen who moved to the US during the war. During class, the film generated rich and unexpected discussion about:

  • refugees
  • cultural assimilation
  • gender roles and expectations
  • gender identities and parenting (gender fluid identities, transgender, intersex, etc. and how Muslim communities and faith engage with these realities)
  • gender and parenting (how gender shapes parenting styles)
  • hijab and body politics
  • the stigma of Muslim identity in the US (post-Trump America)
  • passing and covering (Goffman)
  • masculinity (and family politics)
  • masculinity and fatherhood (patriarchy, polygyny,
  • religious schools (she attends a Catholic school, mass, Scripture class, etc.) and questions of indoctrination
  • cultural socialization (how she would be a different person if she’d been raised in Syria)
  • the ethics of documentary film making (how it affects the people filmed)
  • intra-community and interpretive diversity
  • long-distance family relationships
  • and many more!

The night asks questions

Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi, Moonlit night on the Dnieper

In the middle of the night, I am awake.

The night asks me questions and waits, watches me, motionless, silent, as I trip over my answers in my head. What am I doing with the days? How am I spending time? What am I doing occupying space? Why am I filling lungs with air?

The night offers nothing to fill up the awkward shameful silence. No chores to escape into, no phone calls, no eyes awaiting my presence, no activities. The night sits on the couch as I sit with her, my heart thudding, wondering how to answer.

Darkness swallows me up whole and the crescent moon buries a sharp corner into my chest. I have no response. I have nothing but silence as the night watches me with the eyes of a school headmistress, a work supervisor, a senior colleague, an adolescent child. Well? Who are you and what have you done? Not much. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing at all.

Dear academics: Write for regular people

Dear academic friends:

I am in awe of your work and your minds. But I am continually frustrated by my inability to share your brilliance with ordinary people who do not have doctoral degrees (and vast numbers of people who do.)

I know many of you will sniff at my plea, turning up your noses at my possibly under-theorized work.

But at least people read it and understand my work. I speak and write to people who are educated, and I try to make my work accessible to people who aren’teducated.

Regular people read my book. Ordinary people who most need the ideas and arguments I write about.

And that’s our job.

What is the point of hyper-theoretical work if barely five of the least practical people in the world read it? What is the point of a book if the people who read it are the ones who rarely ever get out of their offices?

We must not write books and articles that are metaphorical walls dividing ordinary people from ideas, blocking people from this exclusive club of ideas.

And to make sure that this idea is brief and accessible, I will end this post here.

When assigning homework:

Dear teachers. When assigning homework:

  • Consider not assigning any at all. Can you get it done at school? It would be better to get the work done at school. This way, you can support your students and reinforce learning.
  • Less is more. Quality over quantity.
  • Avoid busy work. Students recognize busy work for what it is, and invest poor quality effort into it.
  • STATE DIRECTIONS CLEARLY. PLEASE.
  • PROOFREAD your homework. Punctuate. If you’re demanding academic language from your students, the least you can do is invest that same effort into constructing the assignment directions.
  • HAVE SOMEONE READ THE ASSIGNMENT TO CHECK IT MAKES SENSE. Just because it makes sense in your head doesn’t mean it makes sense.
  • Check: Read it in class. Do your students understand the homework? If not, why? Is it because of how you framed the assignment, or because you haven’t prepared them for it?
  • If they are behind schedule on submitting homework, check with them before penalizing them. Maybe the homework is so unclear they can’t even formulate questions to clarify it.
  • If a number of students have failed to submit homework or have failed to do it correctly, consider the possibility that your homework was constructed poorly.

Schools and pedagogy in science and math

When I was 15, I was preparing to sit for my O Levels. I was terrified. I was doing poorly in Math, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology.

I’d been doing badly in Math for some years before that. My parents had been paying for my schooling at an elite private school. The main subject area I excelled in was English and Urdu literature – areas I enjoyed anyway. As for Math, I recall being perpetually confused. And then, being made to stand in front of the class as a punishment for not being able to complete my work.

Because humiliation really helps learning.

I also remember my Math teacher in Class 7 shouting at us, and especially at me, because I couldn’t solve the problems: “I know your older sister. My older sister teaches the older students, and your sister is terrible at Math too.” Again, because humiliation is supposed to help.

My Chemistry teacher, bless her heart, was so terribly boring and unclear, I could never stay awake long enough to understand anything.

My parents should’ve demanded their money back.

At the age of 15, I decided I would not pursue any STEM careers – breaking my parents’ hearts, as they wanted me to be a physician.

Today, I am reminded of my private schooling and my Math teachers, and how they facilitated my aversion to Science and Math.

Because I see the same thing happening for my daughter. From an early age, I have noticed how often her teachers have focused their attention on the students who get it, not on those who do not. I have been wrestling for months with the completely unclear directions on her Science homework, and hearing her say the dreaded words I hate Science. 

I am looking at her assignments, and I see reams of space-fillers, bureaucratic paperwork to check off boxes. I see poorly-worded and barely-conceptualized work that fills up her hours. I wish I had her full attention, away from this garbage, for a few days a month so I could a bit of education in.

So you can have all the special STEM programs you want in expensive summer camps and magnet schools, but what about public K-8 schools and pedagogy?

After beating our heads against a wall for years, we have now hired a tutor. After years, our daughter has positive feelings about Math. We cannot possibly hire tutors in all the subject areas.

My daughter doesn’t have to stand in front of the class, but she frequently experiences the benign neglect of the teachers.

When she was in Grade 2, at a private school, I happened to drop by to see what was going on. And was horrified by the contrast between the learning experience of the docile, compliant, focused students vs. the students who needed some support. The main (master) teachers explained material to the smart kids, and gave them feedback as they turned work around quickly. A student-teacher produced a jar of coins for the students with autism, and spent the period picking up coins from the floor. I could barely contain my rage when I went to speak to the principal.

In private and public schools, I have been communicating about this kind of stuff for years now – specifics, pleading for support. Last year, predictably, I have heard the dreaded words that I am too demanding. Because people like me aren’t supposed to ask for support.

I am not too demanding. I just know how surely these things restrict a child’s professional and financial future. I have seen it. And I am scared.

I speak as a supporter of public schools and of teachers. I am myself a teacher. But I have to speak out about what I’ve been seeing for years.

What I am speaking of is not limited to Science and Math, but the impact of poor pedagogical support in Science and Math is especially catastrophic on kids’ futures.

Students who need support are not getting it. Teachers and schools are working for students who are already performing well.

Donate to support Native communities

In the wake of the nasty bullying of a Native Elder, Nathan Phillips, by White male private school students, this is a post that offers various ways to support Native communities, causes, orgs, and families. Thanks to friends for the suggested orgs (Nadiah Mohajir of HEART, Kelly M. Hayes for the links via her tweets at @MsKellyMHayes):

How not to rescue Muslim women

This post is from 2009, so it is almost 10 years old. It is an edited and updated version of a Religion Dispatches article.

I was visiting a coffee shop on a rare break from parenting my toddler. The barista was chatting with his associate, Tiffany, a local student.

Tiffany was unhappy with one of her professors. The professor claimed that girls in the Middle East – yes, generally, in that entire region – were being married off at early ages, with barely any education at all. But the professor went a step beyond outrage. She called upon the international and American community – via her undergraduates, if you please – to save Muslim women in the Middle East. America, the professor entreated, should penalize Middle Eastern nations. Any country that disadvantaged women to the extent that they could not easily pursue careers, and where they were married under family arrangements instead of purely personal choice, should not receive U.S. aid.

Heck, under that principle, I thought, we should go in and save Pakistani men too because plenty of them marry spouses selected by their parents. My brother married a wonderful woman that my parents found for him, while I (the daughter) traveled to the United States and married an American.

Naturally, that afternoon, I gave up every attempt to jot notes for the public lecture I was preparing. I dedicated myself to studiously being the weird woman eavesdropping on the baristas’ conversation.

I had mixed feelings as I listened to the two young people disagree with the professor. “So she says that American authorities should publicly criticize countries where women are married off early, and don’t have rights to choose their own husbands, and have to get arranged marriages,” Tiffany said. Peter chuckled rather unenthusiastically. Tiffany threw her hands in the air. “You know?” she said. “She thinks we should go in and change what people in other countries do, and how they treat women there.”

“Why should we go in to change what they do?” Peter said. “Who died and made us president of the whole world?” “Exactly,” Tiffany said. “And it just doesn’t make sense for us to try to change how they feel. Why should they accept our point of view, when we think they’re wrong? Maybe they think we’re wrong because we meet people and marry whoever we like.”

“What they’re doing might be relevant to where they live, and their culture,” Peter said. “Maybe women in the Middle East don’t need as much education. Why should we force them to get more education and to marry late?” “Well, don’t we have enough problems of our own right here?” Tiffany said. “Women don’t get paid as much as men do, and women get turned down for jobs because they’re going to get married and pregnant, and women don’t get treated equally to men at work here either.”

“There’s another side to the problem,” Peter said reflectively. “I wish the whole world could agree on basic moral values today, so we could all enforce them collectively. The UN was supposed to help us achieve that dream of universal human rights. But we’re far away from agreeing on any moral and universal values today. Least of all on women’s rights. Other cultures and other religions will just do things differently, whether we like it or not. What we can do is live up to our own principles of equality and leave the rest of the world alone.”

“People in different cultures will never agree on certain things,” Tiffany argued. “It’s just something we have to live with, and stay out of people’s business. Would we like them to interfere with our values and our lifestyle? Of course we wouldn’t. So why do we expect them to welcome us with open arms and say, ‘Oh, please come and turn our societies upside down. Please change the way we work. Please make us do things the opposite from how we do them. We love America and we love equality. We love feminism. Come and teach us how to do it.’”

As the two baristas chatted, agreeing on culturally relativistic values on gender, I struggled on my private darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of discomfort and delight.

When a young American calls for non-interference in “their” business because “they” are different, I am relieved and disturbed. I contrast the non-interfering liberal Peter with a former student, a large young Midwestern former GI. “Saddam is the Antichrist, and we’ve got to go in and fight him,” that student told me solemnly.

So yes, I like the tune of non-interference. A little. In relative terms. But the background harmony assumed total difference. People in the Middle East were different. They treated their women differently. They treated their women unequally. That’s the way “they” like it. Let “them” be. We, here, we like it different. We’re all feminists around here. We like our human rights and our nightclubs. They like their arranged marriages and their veils.

The combination was sort of Samuel-Huntington-with-Edward-Said.

My feelings reminded me of the fall of 1996. Just as I felt in the café – stimulated, troubled, confused about my feelings – I had felt in my graduate classes.

I had just arrived in the U.S. that summer, and was very unsure of myself. I had much to say, but I struggled to find my thoughts and words in the conversation. I felt like I wanted to speak a different language.

For me, the struggle became an issue of how to insert myself into the conversation. How was I to reexamine the very bases of the discourse and then to re-examine the conclusions? How could I bring the incisive debate to a grinding halt and deconstruct the binaries – binaries that were foundational to the discourse? How could I challenge the very basis of the debate? And how, then, could I offer the same conclusion, but with a different emphasis? Or how could I offer a new perspective on the whole debate and face the blank surprised faces?

My baristas happily ranted about their professor and I agreed with them against the professor but I was struggling with the very basis of their opinions.

Neither one of my baristas, for all their liberal, distant, hands-off respect for “other cultures,” had even vaguely entertained the notion that norms of gender equality could possibly be shared by strange, brown, Muslim folks in distant lands.

As a Muslim feminist from Pakistan – where feminism is local, and has many colors, and isn’t always called “feminism” because “feminism” is owned and run by White women who bring White men in fighter planes – I felt wracked with discomfort.

I heard the baristas’ assumptions about Middle Easterners and Muslims. I thought of Pakistani activists, scholars, lawyers, theologians, politicians, and laypeople that habitually allied themselves with egalitarian causes. I thought of women who stand up for equality and gender justice and, for their commitment to those ideals, deal with much harsher realities on the street and at home than middle-class American women do. It hadn’t occurred to my baristas that “those people” had already come up with ideas, strategies, and jihads to try to change patriarchal norms and oppressive customs. It hadn’t occurred to them that brown and black folks who spoke funny languages were sometimes engaged in a life-and-death struggle to change societal practices. Weren’t they all swarthy, bearded males featured shouting furiously about America on the cover of Newsweek?

And then there was the professor. She was so filled with outrage over oppressive practices that limited women’s choices that she wanted the United States to engage in a political war with those countries to change what they did. So little did she know about the local contexts, and so little credit did she give them, that the only hope for them lay in marines from Alabama, Mavis Leno, or President George W. Bush (whose mythical CV features only one entry under “feminist activism,” and that entry is labeled “Afghanistan”).

When the white knight knows so little about his damsel in distress, how does he expect to rescue her? When she turns around and tells him to call her “Ms.” and to stop telling her what to do, will he be outraged at her ingratitude? When she says she’s quite happy wearing a traditional outfit, thank you, but could she please get maternity leave, will he snort in disgust at his charge? When she wraps her head in a veil and stands up for her Islamic prayer, will he throw up his hands at her inability to throw off Islamic slavery? When she says why thank you for your help, but I need my husband out of Guantanamo and my son needs asylum, and then I’d like to open a Qur’an school for girls—what will he say then? When she says she’s got her own ways of effecting the revolution, and it doesn’t involve selling out brown men to America, will he decide against trying to rescue her after all?

Fearfully apprehensive

This verse struck me to my core this morning at fajr.

That state of looking about fearfully seems to be constant for me. As a woman. As a salaried person in a difficult job market. As a parent. As a Muslim person of color in the US.

I am so sick of being خائفا یترقب

Dear Marie Kondo

Dear Marie:

Let me start by saying that I did try to read your book, but failed to get past the first chapter due to an intense desire to smash something. I also tried to watch your show, and our entire family collapsed in snorts of laughter. But I did try.

I have questions.

I could hug all my clothes, and feel for the spark of joy, which you characterized as “ching!” I have a wardrobe full of vanilla, okay clothes that do me just fine, yet do not bring me sparks of joy. There are a few pieces that “ching!” softly but for some of those, the “ching!” is barely audible. What about my non-spark clothes? Do they remain in my wardrobe, or do they occupy a limbo space in a bottom dresser drawer? Do I put them on probation and meditate over them?

Also, if I throw away all my non-spark clothes, what happens when I need to get spark clothes? Will you set up a joy-go-fund-me?

For example, several of my non-ching! items are clothes specific to work and formal situations. I do not love stiff blazers and non-stretch work pants. I bought $500 academic regalia when my then-employer insisted on me wearing regalia to graduations (and then laid me off). I hate my academic regalia. It’s a ridiculous, enormous gown and does nothing for my height and body type. In my present work situation, I do not need too many of these items on a regular basis, so the ching! is faded. But you know how it is under capitalism. You are after all a product of said capitalism. You know jobs are unreliable, and people are forced to be mobile. What happens when I need to wear clothes I do not love for the purpose of making a professional appearance? Do I shop for them again? Do I go back to Josteen’s and buy another non-joy gown?

I am 50. I have been through several sizes, after cancer treatment, and I have no idea what size I’ll be in the next couple of years. Should I dump all my not-quite-fit clothes, hoping I will never need them again?

We can’t shop over and over again, when we change jobs, sizes, tastes, life situations, lifestyles.

Poor people have lots of stuff because they have crappy stuff. Rich people have the luxury of having a small quantity of excellent clothing. They also have the luxury of long and short term storage, so their ching! and non-ching! clothes can escape your judgemental gaze.

So quit telling me it’s my fault I have too much stuff or non-joy stuff, or I’m not folding it right, or not thanking my house enough. We are doing our f***ing best.

Instead, go visit Bezos, Gates, the Kochs, Murdoch, and Musk and tell them they’ve robbed us of our joy. They’re holding our ching! hostage.