Sunday, 18 March 2012

Islamic Culture Or. Cultural Islam ?

The past few weeks in the UK have given me a lot to think about. Living here in a different culture, going to a mostly western classroom...I really have been forced to step outside my comfort zone! Another reason I have been thinking so much is because I have A LOT to read these days. I am doing two literature classes and one Cultural Politics module so naturally, there's a ton to read. But for the first time, I don't mind the reading. I LOVE the library here. It's so huge and has so many books! I know, Duh. But it is amazing. I love reading about cultural politics as every week we have seminars on our reading where we discuss our individual readings. And since I like anything that involves talking, I'm lovin' it! We have interesting discussions on identity, cultures, youth, sexuality... and a good thing about being in an international classroom is that you get to hear multiple perspectives. (Our class has a smattering of Australians, French, Chinese and British people.)
Something I realized over the past few weeks is that keeping an open mind is not about just listening to what other people have to say, it's about taking what they said and thinking about it and comparing it to what you believe in. It's difficult at first to look at what you have grown up believing in and practising with a critical eye. But I think it's something we have to routinely engage in. Re evaluation is necessary if we want to avoid intellectual stagnation. 
Cultural Politics involves looking into a lot of Western Critical theories and at first, I must admit, I was a little worried about it clashing with what I believe in (in terms of faith). However, what has happened is that studying a lot of them has only reinforced my faith and even cleared some doubts I had about it! I know you maybe a lil' sceptical about it, but it really did something to the way I think. So many concepts of faith that I was grappling with, were put into perspective! Especially while studying Feminism! Though I do not agree with some of their arguments and the way they set about addressing gender inequality, I do get the essence of it and understand where they are coming from. And as a muslim woman from India, who chooses to add an extra piece of clothing to her wardrobe, I feel have something different to offer to the ongoing discussion. 
Another reason I want to add something to the discussion is because there aren't really many muslim women's voices talking about these issues. It's usually a western, non-muslim woman who talks about the headscarf or the veil. Very few people turn to muslim women to know why they really wear it. And if there are muslim women out there who say something about it, their voices aren't pushed into the public eye with the same enthusiasm as someone who criticises the hijab. .
I've been wearing the headscarf for some years now and over the years it's come to be one of the things that defines me. It's a public declaration of my faith and something which arises out of my desire to place God as my guiding point rather than the culture or society
Even though I've been wearing it for some time now, I really understood the wisdom behind dressing modestly only when I read about the objectification of women in the past (even now). The hypersexualization of woman's body to sell things to the male audience, it disgusts me. Why do shaving cream adverts require a half naked woman to prance around the man? Why does a sleek sports car need a bikini clad woman to lie on top of it, in order to sell it? 

Aren't they catering to the male gaze? The camera is looking at the female body from a male eye. That's why in movies we have the extra focus on the woman's curves and the man's eyes eroticising them. I can't even count the number of times I have seen the camera lingering on the woman's cleavage. Laura Mulvey, when talking about the male gaze in cinema, says he representation of women in cinema has been through projection of male desire on her body. "The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly." By herself, she doesn't stand for anything, her character is usually that of a seductress, someone who through her sensuality toys with the  male lead's emotions.Her body has become the plane where she interacts with the society.

It's at this juncture I fully appreciate my hijab. It shields me from this objectification. I am not instigating that the entire male population is out there fantasising over the female body, but what guarantee do I have that when I walk out, wearing whatever I want, none of them would do it? I am in no way justifying the whole notion that 'she asked for it'. She never did. No woman in her right mind ever does. But what Islam has given me is an option guard myself against the gaze. Doesn't the requirement of modest clothing, in effect, repel the current patriarchal system which makes women feel they have to dress a certain way(sometimes even at the risk of discomfort, eg: high heels, tight tube tops) to feel attractive and admired?


And the woman is not the only one responsible for avoiding the 'gaze'. The Quran, in the verse before the one which asks women to cover, says "Tell the believing men to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things) and to protect their private parts from illegal sexual acts, etc.) That is purer for them. Verily, Allah is All Aware of what they do.” (24:30)
Hence, the primary obligation is on the MAN to avoid looking at the woman in an inappropriate manner (No matter how she's dressed).So it’s not as though the burden lies on the woman’s shoulders alone the man is also accountable for the gaze.  As a ‘believing man’ HAS to lower it. And only then comes the verse about the believing women covering themselves. And I understand why we have to be particular about the way we dress because no matter how civilized, modern and progressed the society is there will be people out there who will still objectify women with their gaze. 
Now, coming to the problem at hand. What has happened is that the majority of the muslim community places more emphasis on the part about the woman covering herself than the man lowering his gaze. Which is why most people end up believing that Islam asks too much of women. In muslim majority areas, a woman not wearing hijab faces more criticism than a man who does not control his gaze. This maybe because by its nature the hijab is a very physical act, the gaze, on the other hand, is more capable of escaping the public eye. Again, can we hold religion accountable for something which man is accountable for. So the focus should be on reformation of cultural notions which cause people to twist religion rather than the religion itself. In order to get the essence of the any religion we have to look at it in isolation of the cultural baggage it has come to accumulate. So to understand Islam we don’t look at Afghans, Pakistanis, Malaysians or Arabs. We look at the scripture. We then hold up what it says against the wider social context and see how and where religion and the present day practises deviate.  So we look at Honour Killings-  Culture. Female Genital Mutilation- Culture. Female infanticide- Culture. Racism-  Human idiocy. More often than  not, it's these deviations which the media have been pushing as ‘Religious backwardness’.

Islam asks people to think, to reason, to ponder. It tells us not to blindly follow everything our fore fathers did. So even those of us who are born muslims, we have to ask questions. We need to know the difference between what our book says and what our people practise We need to question whether what we have grown up believing in is cultural or religious. We have to open our critical eye.

Marx said religion is the opium of the people. I think not. I think religion in general and Islam in particular was very counter cultural when it came to the mankind. 
It opposed most of what culture dictated. Example? In pre-islamic arabia, female infanticide was a common practise. But Islam strongly condemned this and questioned the idiocy of the practise.  
“And when the girl [who was ] buried alive is asked. For what sin she was killed.” (Quran, 81: 8-9)
During those times there were also clashes between tribes and there existed this feeling of Arab superiority over the others. What does Islam say about this? O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is knowing and Acquainted. (Quran, 49:13)
What did the Prophet say about racism? “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a nonArab over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”

The rich are obligated to look after the poor. Neighbours have to look after each other. The society has to take care of its orphans and widows. The husband has to treat his wife kindly. The environment has rights over the people. We have to fight for the oppressed. Justice inspite of class or familial superiority...

Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous. (Quran, 2:177)

Replacing the million little things in this world which enslave us (Family, friends, peers, culture, society, career, fashion...) with submission to just One Master. 
This is what religion is about. 
And if this is still opium for you then yes, I am an addict. 

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