Friday, February 27, 2015


This blog will be closing down on March 1. The new blog, A Season For Writers, will be at See you there! 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

On Muslim Male Privilege

Can there ever be empowerment, equality and respect for Muslim women, or Pakistani women, or any women at all, if Muslim men don't give up their Muslim male privilege?

I believe the answer is no.

Let me explain. We envision Muslim women as climbing up the rungs to get to a vaunted position on the ladder where they can stand on equal ground as men. One day, they'll achieve that lofty height. They will be empowered, they will have equality, they will be respected. Education, jobs, political representation, legal status - all these things will help Muslim women get to this place where the men are already standing, looking down on them.

What if the men actually climbed down from their place on the ladder, instead of expecting the women to do all the climbing up?

Islam gives equal status to men and women on a spiritual level as well as on the level of personhood. We are rewarded equally and punished equally for the same sins or good deeds. If there was any kind of diminished personal responsibility on the basis of gender, you'd see that reflected in the Quran, or the Hadiths, but it isn't. Men and women take responsibility fully for their actions, and no excuse of gender gets you off the hook or gives you more.

However, there are circumstances where Muslim men are given additional burdens in earthly matters. Muslim men are obligated to financially provide for their families. Muslim men are obligated to provide for widows and orphans under their care. Muslim men are expected to participate in worldly affairs if their wives are unable to do so because of child-bearing or being involved with raising very young children.

These conditions are laid out in the Quran, such as 4:34 (this is an excellent discussion by Kecia Ali which I encourage you to read). It also shows up in matters of financial inheritance, and bearing witness in a financial transaction. In fact, it's only in matters of finance that the question of one person's authority over another one arises. Kecia Ali argues that if a man is the financial maintainer of the family, he has authority. But if he doesn't, and it's the woman instead who financially maintains the family, he doesn't have authority. Simple as that.

But somehow along the way, we turned financial responsibility into moral and intellectual superiority. And we paired that up with physical strength, so that the person with financial and physical strength is seen as morally and intellectually superior to the one who doesn't match them in financial and physical ability.

Men were only too happy to point out that God made them the financial maintainers of women because of their superior physical strength - and intellect and morality had to be superior as well. Women are emotionally weak, they are not suited for the outside world, they are only able to direct matters in the home (but men have authority over them and can "beat them" if they fear "rebellion" from them - another handy misinterpretation of 4:34).

The only reason God gave men this additional responsibility of financial maintenance was because women are the ones bearing the children. And this huge task of physical endurance and strength was given to people who are physically inferior, which then renders them mentally, morally, and emotionally inferior? I don't think so.

Maybe it was our capitalistic world that made this connection happen. Or maybe it was just men who acted like little boys that didn't want girls to play with them, but there are Muslim men who have erected a giant NO GIRLZ ALLOWED sign on every aspect of life and enjoy the thrill it give them to keep the girls out. From the mosque. From the office. From universities. From everything.

So what if Muslim men took the responsibility of taking that sign down, opening the doors, and climbing down from that superiority ladder to meet the women halfway?

What if the Muslim men dismantled their male privilege instead of expecting the women to do all the hard work, while they stood on the ladder and stomped on women's feet?

What if Muslim men recognized they had the right to marry four women, but only married one, because multiple marriages are rarely undertaken with widows whose husbands have been killed in war?

What if Muslim men recognized that Islamic inheritance gave them a greater share than their sisters because men are obligated to maintain families and women aren't? And in so recognizing, then gave freely of their share to their sisters so that nobody felt treated unfairly?

What if Muslim men recognized that the idea of two women being witnesses to support one another was because women can be physically threatened or intimidated into not even appearing as witnesses at all? And in so recognizing, made sure there was no intimidation or threat to a woman witness, so that the second witness was not technically required?

These are examples of how Muslim men can begin to undo their male privilege - by being flexible, by understanding that their individual cases must match the conditions set by the Quran, that these conditions do not translate to universal circumstances that can then be twisted and justified for anything less than the great spiritual benefit and mercy that God intended them to be.

I do not believe that Islam set down rules that men could then use to their advantage, and torture women with for the rest of all eternity.

And thinking about this, even if it is never acted upon, is a way of starting to check that Muslim male privilege that so many are so fond of clinging to as if it were a life jacket saving you from drowning in a sea of equality.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

On Copenhagen: Personal Hurt, Political Grievance

I once had a French friend who had lived and worked in several Muslim countries. One day I came upon a Facebook post where he made fun of the Azaan, the Muslin call to prayer. He described waking up at four am in his hotel in Jakarta by the sound of a man screaming as he fell to his death from the top of a minaret. His French friends found this joke hilarious. I, the only Muslim, felt vaguely hurt, although I found it difficult to articulate why.  I suppose I felt embarrassed that he thought our customs were so silly, and more embarrassed at myself, for being unable to appreciate a silly joke.

We never talked about it, but I wish I could have. I wouldn't have told him that I was hurt. Instead, I would have told how the words of the Azaan were whispered into my ear moments after I was born, as they are for all Muslim newborns. My father said them in my ear as a way of affirming my identity as a child born into Muslim tradition. It is a deeply tender, personal moment in the lives of Muslim parents, and we children grow up to do the same for our newborns. It's a chain of faith and affirmation that links us all the way back to when Bilal ibn Rabah, the emancipated slave and companion of the Prophet who is considered the first muezzin, called the words of the prayer in Mecca.

God is great, God is great
I bear witness there is none worthy of worship but God
I bear witness Muhammed is the messenger of God
Come to prayer, come to good works
God is the greatest, God is the greatest,
There is no God but Allah.

The call to prayer is sounded out five times a day from minarets all over the world. But it is also given in a time of disaster, an earthquake or bomb blast. It is called at the Janaza, or funeral prayer, of every Muslim who is buried according to Muslim rites.

The Azaan tells us to stop what we're doing and turn our attention to our creator. Even if we don't obey its call, we are taught to listen to it attentively, to repeat its words, and to allow it to remind us of our spiritual obligations. Many women cover their heads when it begins. I was also taught to say "peace be upon him" when Muhammad's name is spoken, and to recite the Shahada after it is finished. Millions of Muslims use it as the points of their spiritual compass, and I miss it deeply when I am traveling in a country where mosques are few and far between.

My friend's teasing joke - and I know it was nothing more than that - touched a nerve in me, like a dentist exploring a tooth with a probe, uncovering a cavity I didn't even know existed. He had turned something I held close to my heart into the butt of a joke, to amuse people. It made me feel bad.  I thought about that moment of hurt for a long time afterwards as if I were sticking my tongue into the hole in my tooth. I almost relished the pain; I nursed it and felt myself morally superior for having it at the same time that I felt victimized for the pain having been exposed in the first place.

Eventually, I let it go. My friend and I drifted apart for other reasons. I never spoke of this to anyone until today.

I speak of this experience because I think something similar happens in the minds of many Muslims when they are confronted with drawings of the Prophet in a Danish newspaper, or a talk on art, blasphemy, and Islam in a Copenhagen cafe.  It hurts to have the things we treasure - for our own personal, cultural, spiritual reasons -- denigrated, made fun of, rendered meaningless by others who don't share our beliefs. Some of us accept this as a private moment of pain, but others turn personal hurt into political grievance, speaking out about how they feel disrespected as Muslims in countries that don't truly accept them.

It goes without saying that this happens a lot in secular Europe these days. Perhaps existentialism as a European tradition, where nothing has meaning so nothing matters, comes up in direct opposition to religion, where everything has meaning and so everything matters.

But then there are those that lash out, picking up guns in criminal incidents like the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, or the shooting in the cafe in Osterbro, Copenhagen (I stayed in the neighborhood for ten days in 2013, attending a literary festival. It was gracious and quiet, with cobblestone streets and preschools. My white, airy apartment overlooked an art museum. I spent hours one morning watching a truck deliver crated paintings for a new exhibition in the early Saturday morning rain). No matter how hurt they felt, how in need of defending the Prophet or the religion, what they did was categorically and undeniably wrong.

Denmark is not perfect in its treatment of Muslim immigrants. I highly recommend the Indian writer Tabish Khair's little novel, How to Fight Islamist Terror From the Missionary Position, for a witty and wise take on the issue. Khair himself lives in Aarhus, where he teaches literature at the university there, and has a unique perspective on Islam and immigration. Then there are the poems of Yayha Hassan, a 19 year old Danish son of Palestinian immigrants, whose poetry lashes out at his own family and Danish Muslims for their hypocrisy, as well as the Danish welfare state (He also grew up in Aarhus). He's become something of a sensation, his rage lighting up the rather sedate Danish literary scene.

It's this short essay by the Danish writer Janne Teller that stays with me when I think about what Denmark might be like for Muslims.

Café here, café there. Friendly, nice, thunderless. Do what you want. Feel free. If you’re a Dane. If you’re not Arab. If you’re not African. Particularly if you’re not Muslim. Feel free. Do what you want. Be friendly. Be nice. Be thunderless.

We are human and there are things that hurt, even if they aren't the same things for all of us. But when we come across those things, we have to treat them as learning experiences.  Instead of picking up guns to shoot we need to sit down and find the words to explain. Whether or not others find the time to listen or the compassion to understand is their responsibility, not ours. If we do not find ways to articulate our pain that encompass dialogue and bridge our differences instead of driving us further apart, we will all lose ourselves. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Launch for A Season For Martyrs

A Season For Martyrs was launched at the Karachi Literature Festival yesterday.

The session was moderated by Victoria Schofield, journalist and author of Afghanistan Revealed and Bhutto: Trial and Execution. I was lucky enough to get an endorsement for the novel from Victoria, who was Benazir Bhutto's best friend at Oxford. We had tea at her house in London last summer where we talked about the novel and she promised to moderate the launch if she was coming to Pakistan for the literature festival. Victoria is a woman who keeps her promises, and we had a lively and spirited conversation that touched on both the literary and historical/political aspects of the novel.

After the conversation, Nasir Soomro sang a kalam of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai for the audience. I'd heard Nasir sing at the Alliance Francaise poetic tribute to Benazir Bhutto in December '14, and so I asked him impromptu if he'd sing the same kalam about Sassui and Pannu at the launch, five minutes before it started. Nasir is a good sport and accepted immediately.

I was so proud to feature the beautiful poetry of Shah Abdul Latif at the launch. As far as I know, there's never been a session on his poetry, even though he is known as the Shakespeare of Sindh.  The poetry is so beloved by the people of Sindh that when Nasir sang, I looked out into the audience and could see people singing along with him.

Then there was the Q&A session which I was half-dreading, because what I'd feared from Sindhi readers happened. "Why didn't you write about Allah Baksh Soomro?" asked one. "Why didn't you write about the urban Sindhis and the communists?" asked another. And the inevitable, "Why didn't you write in Urdu? Only five percent of Pakistanis will be able to read your book."

In response to the last, I did something I've never done before: I started speaking Urdu at a public forum. "Now that I've started speaking in Urdu, you'll see why I didn't write the book in Urdu. My Urdu is bad and my Sindhi is even worse. But that's what translators are for and if you're willing to help translate the book into Urdu I'd be more than grateful." When I finished this speech I looked in the front row to see my mother groaning and holding her head in her hands. But at least the rest of the audience was laughing.

Thank you to everyone who attended and everyone who's supported me throughout the festival.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

School's Over

School's Over

A little girl in a school uniform with a scarf on her head and a Pakistan cricket team shirt pulled on top of her tunic. A young woman teacher in a black burqa and niqab holding a bag that says, THIS BAG WAS MADE FROM RECYLED BOTTLES. 

A man selling fruit from a cart, rows upon rows of oranges gleaming brilliantly in the February sunshine, brighter than the gleaming ATM that's just been constructed in front of the medical college, and the children burst out of the government school nearby, piling into broken down minibuses and Suzuki vans and onto the handlebars of their fathers' motorcycles to make the beautiful, ugly way home again.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Pakistan, The Broken Country?

The bomb blast in Shikarpur yesterday that killed over fifty Shias worshipping at their imambargah in the heart of Sindh has dealt a stinging blow to the country's morale, in the wake of the Peshawar attack last month. Last month's firm determination to deal with terrorists has given way to bewildered helplessness, anger and desperation.

We are drifting, like a ship cut from its moorings. Any current, any eddy can swirl us around in the shark-infested waters - Saudi Arabia one day, China the next, America the third. We keep our eyes fixed on India, a fading North Star. Anger at our neighbours keeps us afloat, even as the water begins to pour through the cracks in the hull of this nation.

On the street, everyone's face wears the same look of dejection and depression. Three days of mourning have been declared. Already amid power shortages, petrol shortages, water shortages, gas shortages, the people's nerves are stretching to breaking point.

The bombing in Shikarpur will prompt column after column, analysis after analysis about the failure of the state to protect its citizens.  But more than that, it will raise questions, like spectres, in our hearts: is Pakistan done for? Is this the time to get out? Is it too late for this country?  We are haunted by these questions. They whisper in our hearts, the waswasa we're warned about, a mental agony to add to the physical agony of our fallen brothers and sisters.

When is it time to abandon the patient on the operating table? At what point do the doctors give up, and declare a time of death? At what stage do we look at a broken body and say that we can do no more?

Pakistan is in the ICU, that's for sure. The clock is ticking. The cancer has spread to lymph nodes, it's approaching the bloodstream, metastasising to vital organs. The radiation and the chemotherapy that we're trying to use -- halfheartedly, some say -- is taking its toll on this body.

But I'm reminded of a doctor I once met who told me, Do you think it's that easy to die?

And I'm reminded of stories where patients were clinically dead for minutes, only to somehow regain breath and pulse and blood pressure after they had been declared gone.

There are some bodies that just refuse to die. Pakistan is one of those. And it's my duty to keep massaging its heart until the signs of life reappear.

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.