Thursday, January 29, 2015

Michelle Obama: Good Hair Day

I'm posting this column by Asra Nomani since the NY Daily Mag site is blocked in Pakistan. And even with a VPN I couldn't access the article.

Michelle Obama: Good Hair Day

Guest column: Michelle Obama, by unveiling her hair, stands up for human rights in Saudi Arabia
As an American Muslim feminist, I consider Michelle Obama unveiled an important symbolic moment, one rejecting the draconian Taliban Islam of Saudi Arabia that oppresses women's rights, individual freedoms and human rights, in general.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015,

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama paid their respects to King Abdullah. But some people in Saudi Arabia were upset because Michelle Obama didn't cover her hair.
When I saw the photos of First Lady Michelle Obama standing on the soil of Saudi Arabia, for paying respect to King Abdullah, her flowing mane of thick hair, cascading upon her shoulders, I thought to myself: You, go, girl.

Not all Saudis were as excited, trending hashtags of a self-styled honor brigade in our Muslim communities, like "Michelle_Obama_Unveiled."

As an American Muslim feminist, I consider Michelle Obama unveiled an important symbolic moment, one rejecting the draconian Taliban Islam of Saudi Arabia that oppresses women's rights, individual freedoms and human rights, in general.

If a political and religious revolution doesn't shatter the sexism, oppression and intolerance that is the law of the land in Saudi Arabia, then maybe a little hair diplomacy will make a difference. And we need more of it from the Obama administration, standing up to the Talibanization that the Saudis export to Muslim communities worldwide. Yet, President Obama has refused to speak up on behalf of Raif Badawi, a young blogger set to be publicly flogged over the course of 20 weeks for daring to assert the right of free speech.

Most of the world is taking note of Michelle Obama's hair, but her simple presence at memorial services for King Abdullah is significant, because in too many parts of the Muslim world, from Minnesota to Mumbai, women are banned from cemeteries and funerals, because of a largely Saudi interpretation of Islam that females are too "emotional" to participate in events of mourning.

The debate rests on a central judgment of Saudi law, and other Taliban interpretations of Islam, that Muslim women too often have to live by. While the Saudis give Michelle Obama and other diplomats a pass: a woman's voice, hair, hands, ankles, body and their presence behind the wheel of a car or in public, is too often awrah , an Arabic word for forbidden.

For too many Muslim women in too many communities, we are too sexy for ourselves.

Ani Zonneveld, the president of Muslims for Progressive Values and a Malaysian-born singer-songwriter who doesn't cover her hair, says, "Muslims indignant of Michelle Obama's bare head are shallow with fake religiosity. What they should be indignant about is the flogging of the blogger Raif Badawi, the inhumane treatment of others, and the destruction of Islamic historical sites."

As an American-Muslim woman, born in India in 1965, I came of age in the 1970s in my hometown of Morgantown, W.V., just as the Saudis started exporting their strict interpretation of Wahhabi Islam to the world. What I have heard in the decades since is a mantra that covering our hair is "Islamically required."

In fact, the Saudi translation of the "Noble Quran" adds parenthetical phrases to parts of the Quran (33:59) to cover women up: "O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed."

None of those parenthetical phrases are in the original Arabic.

There are Islamic scholars who dispute the idea that women have to cover their hair, shut their voices, refuse to shake hands with men and make themselves scarce at funerals, and it's their progressive, feminist interpretations that should be the law of the land in Saudi Arabia.

The fleeting headlines of Michelle Obama's hair diplomacy are deeply personal. My mother came from a conservative Muslim family in which she wore the black face veil, or niqab, and the flowing black gown that is its fashion accessory. When she dared to take off her veil at a women's college she was attending, she was scolded, pulled from the school and married off to my father. Ironically, my liberal paternal grandmother, a feminist, literally ripped the veil off of my mother's face.

My mother didn't cover her hair or cloak her body again until 12 years ago when we went to Saudi Arabia in January 2003 during our pilgrimage to Mecca for a book I was writing. Before we set off for the journey, my mother had to cloak herself from head to foot — as did I — because she, by then a grandmother herself, was too sexy for her hair.

At the airport in Jeddah, not far from where Michelle Obama dared to bare her locks, my mother took her tight head covering off to cool herself. My nephew, then just a boy, ran to her, worried about a lashing from the religious police, the mutaween.

For the next weeks, my mother, my 12-year-old niece and I never once felt the wind blow through our hair. In the women's tent, another female pilgrim saw my mother, emerging from the shower with wet hair and scolded her for not covering her hair - even among only women.

"Your haj is finished," the woman reprimanded her.

My mother ignored her, stunned. Our pilgrimage finally complete, we landed in Amman, Jordan, where women aren't required to cover their hair.

The first thing we did, standing on the tarmac of the Amman airport was to rip off our headscarves.

Asra Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is editor of a new project,, to codify a new school of feminist and progressive laws in Islam. She is reachable at
Many thanks to Asra and the NY Daily News for letting me post her piece here. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Inviolate Sons, Violated Daughters

I absolutely love this clip with the accompanying news item, talking about how sexual harassment is a big problem on the streets of Peru. So Everlast sponsored a PSA where they identified sexual harassers, then reached out to their mothers, who agreed to disguise themselves and walk by their sons on the street to see what kind of reaction they would evoke from their sons.

In both cases, the mothers round on their sons, shout at them, and one even hits him with her handbag. "I didn't raise you to behave this way!" both of them tell the sons, grown men who react like babies. "Why are you dressed like that?" one son says to his mother, who responds furiously, "Women can dress any way they want!"

I don't know what kind of effect this PSA will have in Peru, but I find myself wishing we could do something like this in Pakistan. Women - mothers, aunts, sisters, grandmothers - need to be more aggressive in demanding that their sons, brothers, grandsons treat all women with respect. In Pakistan, all too often women will say, "That witch, she's to blame, my son is innocent" in everything ranging from a marriage by choice, to sexual harassment on the street and at the workplace, to rape and murder.

I remember when the gang rape of the young woman on a photo shoot in India took place -- not the Nirbaya bus rape, but the one that took place when a young photojournalist went into Shakti Mills, a derelict area in Mumbai, they interviewed one of the mothers of the rapists. She said, "What was she doing there at night like that?" and other victim-blaming statements.

I don't know why we have this mindset that sons are inviolate, but daughters are blameworthy.  Or is it that women's bodies are the dumping-grounds for men's shame and lack of self-control, and it's far easier to vanish the victim than punish the perpetrator?

Whatever the case is, women have a choice. They can stand up for their daughters, or they can betray them by siding with the men who violate their dignity, their safety, and their sanctity.  Every woman will experience a moment where she has to make this choice; it's more likely that as a woman you'll make this choice every day.

Whose side are you on: your inviolate sons, or your violated daughters?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

On So-Called "Muslim Silence"

Yesterday, Friday, some protestors tried to march on the French consulate in Karachi and the police used tear gas and water cannons to push them back.

Later in the evening, there were nation-wide protests against terrorism and extremism, and in remembrance of the 141 people, mostly children, killed in Peshawar last month. Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad all saw members of civil society and political parties standing in amazing scenes of of solidarity, determination, grief and dignity at Karachi's Do Talwar, Charing Cross in Lahore, and in protests at Aabpara Chowk in Islamabad. And simultaneous protests in the US, UK, and elsewhere by Pakistani communities - London, New York, DC, Boston.

Guess which incident grabbed the international headlines?

So when they say, "Why aren't moderate Muslims
speaking out?" you know who's responsible for the impression that we're silent onlookers, or worse, in silent agreement with extremists.

At Do Talwar (Two Swords Roundabout) in Karachi yesterday. Pic is not mine. 

141 coffins at Aabpara Chowk (pic courtesy Muhammed Jibran Nasir,
the man behind the "Reclaim Our Mosques" campaign

Monday, January 12, 2015

Honor and other Muslim Hang-Ups

In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, people have been asking why Muslims have such a problem with depictions of the Prophet.

On the weekend I read an article from art historian Christiane Gruber who posits that the Quran never explicitly forbade images of the Prophet. It is idol-worship that the Quran forbids, something that you will also see in Christianity - "Thou shalt not worship graven images" from the Ten Commandments. The fear being, of course, that if you draw an image of the Prophet or God, people might start worshipping that. It also ties in to the Wahaabi (my computer wants to auto-correct that to Wasabi) ideology of erasing anything physical to do with the Prophet so that people worship nothing but God.

This also relates to two schools of thought within Islam about the permissibility of things, which most Muslims are understandably obsessed by. The first: that if something is not expressly forbidden in the Quran, it is allowed. The second: if something if not expressly allowed in the Quran, it is forbidden. Relaxed interpretations of Islam follow the first, strict ones the second. The smarter thing is to let people decide for themselves which one they want to follow, but as Islam grows more orthodox and rigid in the wake of political instability, social confusion and economic uncertainty, more people turn to the more explicit way of deciding what's right and wrong.

Although Islam was never meant to have a clergy, self-seeking men realized quickly that they could very easily gain positions of power by interpreting the Quran for people who can't read or understand Arabic, or even those who can but who have been convinced that they aren't intelligent enough to understand the message of the Quran. Hence the power of the mullah in Muslim society. And the mullah loves to tell people what to do and not do, while the Sufi shaykh, for example, is more interested in the esoteric connection between humanity and divinity.

Back to the question of honour.  Many Muslims come from tribal societies which make a big deal out of "honour" and "revenge". They are raised to believe that what's dearest to you needs protecting: your family, especially the women; your children; your property; and last, your good name and reputation. If anyone does anything to besmirch any of these things, you must take action. Otherwise, you are not a man (patriarchy strikes again).

And in most of these Muslim countries, the rule of law and the justice system are still weak and ineffective. The police is often corrupt, as are courts and judges; many cases don't even come to trial for years and years; witnesses can be intimidated; judges bribed. In other words, there is little reason to put your faith in the state.  So taking the law into your own hands to "protect your honour" still makes sense, even in our modern times.

The Quran as I understand it, tells Muslims to not seek revenge, but justice, through proper channels. It also states that forgiveness is better than revenge. But many Muslims in Muslim countries still operate on their values of honour and revenge, not seeing the sense or wisdom in waiting for legal channels to take their course.

The problem arises because so many Muslims tend to think that because Islam and its Prophets are so dear to them, they need to be defended from slurs on their honour, the same way you'd defend a slur on your own honour or that of your family's. They feel this attitude justifies them to take "vengeance" on people who they feel have violated that "honour". That can include a mentally ill man who claims he is God, a cartoonist who caricatures the Prophet, or a novelist who writes a book that satirises religion in general. And mullahs whip up these people's emotions, exhorting them to "avenge the honour of Islam" or "The Prophet", resorting to the worst sort of tribalism because it is so intoxicating to command followers to kill -- it plays into our most primal bloodlust, to which nobody in the world is truly immune.

Of course the religion and prophets don't fit into this paradigm which is why it is so problematic. Islam is a religion, yes, but it is a concept, and impossible to "defend" as such. The Prophets, noble beings as they were, are dead, and defending the honour of dead people is also difficult if not impossible to do. Is it even necessary? Does our religion and do our religious figures need this kind of "defence" or are they beyond the earthly concepts of honour and revenge?  Unfortunately in our countries, the religious orthodoxy shuts down this kind of debate before it can even get started, no matter how necessary it is for the spiritual health of our communities.

My true feeling is that anyone can satirise what they like and if you feel offended, ignore it. As I said in my blog post on Charlie Hebdo, non-Muslims only know Islam and the Prophet by how we, the Muslims alive today, practice its tenets. What they draw and caricature is not the Prophet himself, but us, claiming to practice what he taught us. The results are clear to see.

Finally, in my opinion, honour is a useless concept, at least as it relates to being tied to tangibles.  True respect begins in the heart and ends with our positive actions, a stance that Muslim societies have not yet evolved into. And true honour does not equate to killing, but rather to nurturing life, in all its shades and dimensions. The Muslim man who rides his motorbike with his daughter behind him, wearing her school uniform and schoolbag, is my personal beacon of honour. He's the warrior and knight, defending the thing that's most precious to him in the world. Would that we could all see it that way, someday.

Saturday, January 10, 2015


This is not a post I will advertise. This is not a piece I will tweet repeatedly throughout the day. This is a private lamentation, an outpouring of emotions that are twisted inside me like the branches of a blighted tree.

I want to talk about the rage and the despair that I feel in knowing what I now know. I didn't know this five years ago, or ten. I know it today.

I know now that there are so many people in the world who are firmly convinced that I am inferior to them because of my beliefs. That because I am Muslim, to them I am worthless. That because I call God by an Arabic name, it means I am irrational, prone to violence, in favour of extremism. That because I bow to Mecca, I reject science and rationalism and humanism.  That because I read the Quran, my humanity is less than theirs. That because I revere the Prophet, there is something wrong with my mental health or my intelligence.

Something happens inside you when you are subjected to this kind of bigotry. Something changes. Self-confidence wavers as doubt assails you. Your boundaries, so well-defined, begin to blur. Am I? you start to think to yourself. Am I what they say I am? Am I wrong about all the things that I hold dear?

You hold on to the rope of your faith, not just in God, but in yourself, but you hold it knowing that you might still drown, when before, you had no doubt you'd be pulled out of the water.

The sad thing is that take away the word Muslim and replace it with another adjective. Brown, for example. The colour of my skin. There are so many people in the world who are firmly convinced I am inferior to them because of the colour of my skin.

Let's do that again. There are so many people in the world who are firmly convinced I am inferior to them because I am a woman.

The wheel keeps spinning and landing on more and more things that I never knew were disabilities.  I could go to the moon, I could win the Nobel prize, I could win the lottery and there would still be so many people who think I am inferior because of being Muslim, or brown, or a woman, or a Pakistani, or ...

And now I start to understand why a human being might grow weary of life. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

On the attack at Charlie Hebdo

I was saddened by the attack at Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris yesterday. Both as a Muslim, and as a writer.

When you feel justified in killing people over cartoons, you have clearly lost your mind.

No matter how offensive or racist the cartoons were, or how they may have contributed to the alienation of France's Muslim population, or how strongly the attackers felt about the honour of Islam or the Prophet, answering them with guns instead of pens is the wrong thing to do.

I was fifteen when The Satanic Verses was published. Everyone in my high school English class was shouting about how Salman Rushdie deserved to die for it. My English teacher asked me, later, whether I agreed with them.

"Of course!" I said brightly.

I was all of fifteen, I was not a writer, I was barely aware of Islam except that it was the religion we all followed in Pakistan. Nearly thirty years later, I understand why my English teacher's eyes filled with tears when I answered him the way I did. How I wish I could go back in time and answer him differently. I would tell him that no matter how deeply offended I was, I would not resort to violence to make my point. A pen, a voice, an opinion and a clear heart can do that much better than a bullet ever could. And I lack for none of these things today, by the grace of God.

As for those of you who are in doubt as to whether a cartoon can be blasphemous, I urge you to realise that the cartoons of "the Prophet" are not really true depictions of the Prophet. They are projections of the cartoonist's mind, reflections of his or her fears, prejudices, and societal conditioning.  If you feel offended by them, you are admitting that their interpretation is the last word. It's like the parable of the wise men in a darkened room feeling his way around an elephant and describing only what they perceive.

As Muslims, we know and respect this personage in a way that they never will, so we need to drop our expectations that they will "respect" our beliefs as if they were Muslims too.

In fact, I would completely drop our demand that the Western press, or non-Muslims, or anyone really should "respect" our religion, its prophets, or our beliefs and feelings. Instead, we are the ones who need to respect our religion, act in peace and dignity and non-violence, and follow Islam's tenets so beautifully that nobody can find any cause for ridicule. Because the cartoonists and the others can only know the Prophet through how we, the Muslims alive today, exemplify his teachings.

That would clearly be the better jihad.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

On the marriage of Imran Khan

The New Year has begun, and by all indications, Pakistan is going to be as messed up in 2015 as it was in 2014, 2013, 2012... you get the idea. Things don't look good for this beloved banana republic of ours, with terrorists breathing down our neck, military courts and death penalties, economic woes, and foreign policy Gordian knots that just keep tying themselves up again the moment someone brings a sword this way.

Yet the one matter of greatest importance on everyone's minds (and tongues) is the marriage of Imran Khan. "Did he or didn't he?" has surpassed "To be or not to be" in the ranking of soliloquies, drawing room chatter is all about the PTI leader's relationship with the lovely Reham Khan, and news anchors are throwing all manner of coy hints that they knew about it before it happened, and that they still know more about it than we do but aren't going to tell us exactly what they know (shades of Donald Rumsfeld).

There's something very childish in all of this speculation. In many countries, people believe that a politician's private life is his own matter. Not so Pakistan, where we have no sense of boundaries, privacy, or personal space. Here, we tend to think that a politician's religious status and relationship status are one and the same, in that both are matters for public consumption. And especially in the case of Imran Khan, people think that his personal life is their public property.

I'm not saying Imran Khan is completely innocent in this state of affairs. He's lived and loved wildly, and it's common knowledge, which is part of the territory of being a celebrity. He announced from the top of his container towards the end of the dharnas that he wanted to get married, which some claim makes the matter of his marriage part of the public domain. Fair enough. Khan also capitalises on his own reputation as a sex god and ladies' man, using it in not so subtle ways to gain the loyalty of his many admirers and turn that sexual capital into political capital. Whatever it takes -- and any politician who's lucky enough to be good-looking would do the same.

But here's where it gets tricky: the double standards in Pakistan towards the sexual freedom of men versus the sexual repression of women have complicated things needlessly for the Kaptaan. And he's finding that the freedom he enjoyed as a man doesn't extend to the woman he supposedly wants to make his wife.

By all accounts Reham Khan is a woman who has also lived fully. She's been married before, just like Khan, and has three grown sons. She was a presenter and meteorologist for the BBC in the UK (I refuse to demean her with the sexist term "weather girl"), and was on her way to being a minor celebrity in that media-obsessed culture. Then she moved to Pakistan, where she got a job anchoring for ARY.

She is a good-looking, vibrant and educated woman, and is the very opposite of the village virgin that most Imran Khan supporters think is the only kind of person "good enough" for a man who's hardly lived a monk's life. And good for him, if he found this kind of woman more appealing than a young woman not much older than a child. A man who isn't threatened by a woman's desire to live life on her own terms is a man who is more secure in his masculinity than an insecure man who needs to have a blank canvas as a partner.

All well and good, until the minute her name was linked with Imran Khan. And then she was dragged through the mud. Detractors of the politician dug up old photos of Reham wearing dresses and a video showing her dancing the tango at some sort of charity event. The worst kind of slander flew about her character and what she had to do to get into the BBC (baseless, without proof, and extremely sexist).  Some of this came from his detractors, but much of the anger came from PTI supporters who felt betrayed that this might be Khan's choice of life partner. "We want what's best for him and she isn't it!" was the refrain.

It was like listening to an angry mother in law claiming that a wicked woman had "phassa-oed" her innocent son.

Kudos to her for having handled this pretty gracefully; many people would crack under the strain. Imran Khan's been the one showing the pressure, as he refuses to confirm or deny the rumours that they got married somewhere back in the later part of 2014. We keep being told there will be a "big announcement" soon and in the meantime all sorts of ridiculous speculation is going on that he flew to London to get ex Jemima's "blessings", that his family is angry with him, so on and so forth.

All of this is really pretty pathetic when you see it for what it is: a nation stupidly obsessed with one man's private life. Is it because we really care so much for Kaptaan's well-being and want to choose his partner for him because we know better who's right for him? Is it because we might be jealous that he didn't choose one of us instead?

Or is it because speculating about his marriage is a lot more fun than actually having to face the hard truths about where this nation is really going?

I'll let you be the judge. Heaven forbid I should actually tell you what to think, or do.