umm Abdillah - Radio Islam Programming - 2013.04.05
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012, for allegedly promoting girls education has just signed a book deal reportedly worth $3 million. Her Nobel peace prize popularity, including conspiracy theories leads to ripple effect discourse about the archetypal creation and manipulation of everything related to ‘saving Muslim women.’ An offshoot of this discussion would also attend why Muslim women increasingly feel the need to be saved. If not saved, then being armed sentry at such insultingly homogenous and staged fights.
Malala’s activism began when she was approached to write a blog for the BBC Urdu service under a pseudonym about life in the (‘oppressive’) Swat Valley in 2009. It is unknown whether it was Malala’s own narrative or the reporter eliciting and later manicuring something to pass for a child’s narrative. Further, that her father was willing to risk her safety to fund his school have raised the eyebrows of many. Yet others have questioned the timing of the attack. It is rather opportunistic that it occurred as Imran Khan toured with internationally acclaimed journalists and human rights activists to protest against American drones that attack 1000+ Malala’s monthly. This gave Pakistani’s and the world the impression that drones are still needed against the Taliban who are ‘ruthless’ against women and innocent children. The Americans would thus placidly bully the Pakistani army against the Taliban in Waziristan.
“Do not speak of ‘gender’ until you understand the global culture which defines it.”
Abdal Hakim Murad addresses the issue of the hapless Muslim Woman: “Do not speak of ‘gender’ until you understand the global culture which defines it.” Similarly, Academic Roland Barthes’ argument for “progressive humanism” suggests that humanitarian discourse must shift framework: “not only acknowledging human suffering but also narrative authority; historical agency; and political memory,” to espouse truly progressive discourse. This is void in mass media’s rendering of the Muslim woman.
In her treatise ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?’ wherein Lila Abu-Lughod addresses the ethics of launching a war in the name of salvation, she calls for a simultaneous reevaluation of thought, in which we open our scope of discourse to allow for the idea that women in other parts of the world may have different desires or conceptions of social justice than our own. For instance, she notes, once Afghan women were “liberated” from the Taliban, they did not cast off their veils.
Translate cultural relativism into context.
The above idea – i.e. cultural relativism and that some women have different desires or conceptions of equality could easily translate into contexts (albeit lightly) where there is insistence that women must physically side and be present with men to be regarded as their equals. If Islamic logic is applied in its entirety, women have been given the privilege of ‘hudhoor’ in spirit and reward even while being ‘ghaa’ib’- absent. An argument put forward by Tabligh Jama’ah bashers for instance, especially those of the annual Ijtima that not catering for women is ‘misogynistic’ merely uses the Ijtima as a scapegoat for a platitude of personal grievances. In fact it highlights a hard-line intolerance for religious diversity and the reality that not all women may want the same thing. It also ignores non-catering for women may be merely a logistical issue. If it were to exclude women from gaining knowledge and participation, recordings and live streaming would be banned too. Blanket ‘sexist’ or ‘misogynic’ tags are serious accusations. These are easily debunked by hundreds of thousands of men who have become better humans, husbands and sons through the efforts of the Jamaat. They have also used these efforts as a stepping-stone to greater Islamic understanding.
The Tabligh Jamaat is merely one reformative finger holding on to the ball of our religious survival in the world. Its rise coincided with aggressive caste-based proselytising movements in early twentieth century India. The Tabligh Jamaat never strove to convert non-Muslims to Islam; rather it focused on making Muslims better. Members believe the reformation of society will only be effective through the education and reform of individuals. They believe that a nation and their social systems exist by the virtue of the individuals who form them; thus, reform must begin at grassroots with the individuals and not at the higher level of political structure.
By aggressively criticising the Tabligh movement, one merely discredits a range of opportunities presented to differing walks of women (worldwide). As mentioned in Barbara Metcalf’s study of women in the Jamaat, it is a common fact that the Tabligh Jamaat tends to blur the boundaries of gender roles and both genders share a common behavioral model in their commitment to tabligh. The emphasis is on common responsibilities shared by both genders. Just as men redraw gender roles when they wash and cook during the course of their da'wah tours, women undertake the traditionally male responsibility of sustaining the household. While women may not play roles in the higher echelons of the movement they do assume roles of leadership in their own gatherings. Those who insist that women must play those higher (in your face) roles overlook members of their own gender who may not be comfortable in such roles. Thus the Jamaat appeals to those who seek no reference to a hegemonic identity, political consciousness, or state-oriented ideologies that surround us. While our Deen encourages this consciousness, it most definitely doesn’t insist on it.
Yes, women must find safety and welcome within all our religious movements.
If there are women who have been forced into a cult-like mentality or only base domesticism within the movement, it is hardly the fault of the Tabligh Jama’ah. If there are men who neglect their roles as breadwinners while they pursue jamaat activities, it is for those individuals to be guided to the whole principals of Islam. We need understand contexts – yes, women must find safety and welcome within all our religious movements, but do those who blanket criticise even attend or find a home with the six points of tabligh daily, weekly, monthly? Why not appreciate what it does for some women, and turn to the other figurative four fingers holding on to the ball of religious survival for personal rejuvenation?
“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought they seldom use.” - Kierkegaard
In the last few years there have been increased efforts to root out Tablighi missionaries active in the United States as a ‘serious national security problem.’ When we open our mouths to criticise (merely because we can) while harbouring grievances against individuals rather than endorsing a fuller picture, we merely give credence to those racial profilers who wish to harm our own i.e. those who believe the Tablighi Jamaat has more to do with political sedition and terrorism than spirituality or personal reform.
By criticising instead of appreciating this diversity, we merely cement rather than chip at the monolith that requires progressive humanism.
We require an awakening and a revolution in our way of thinking. This current state of confusion wherein we attach every criticism to a Western ideal, be it about women or religion is stunted. This apologist idea of victimhood, constantly on the defensive, that ‘this is not Islam’ is indication of an individual’s own insecurities. Yes, there are women who willingly cover themselves in black burqa’s and gloves, willingly slave behind pots as a sacrifice for the jamaat. As there are men who will tour the world calling to Allah’s Deen with just the clothes on their backs. Does it make them or us any less Muslim? There is no need to be defensive and apologist of the many ways individuals find Islam and Allah, more especially when their presence is not buffered and wrapped in the way we wish to present our individual faith.
Those of us who do not find a home with an apathetic political stance, or have found ways to soar beyond this particular movement have a duty. As with the Malala case we need to present an alternate angle to the blanket homogenization that is fed through adverse media propaganda. By criticizing and labeling our own brothers and sisters instead of appreciating their personal socio-economic or spiritual-intellectual needs, we merely cement this negative agenda. We highlight our own lack of foresight in espousing truly progressive discourse that highlights “narrative authority; historical agency; and political memory.” This attitude will serve not only the Muslim community but also other communities who are deliberately misunderstood and shunted about due to deliberate negative media propaganda.