Tuesday, 14 October 2014

New Academic Appointment - Celtic Connections - Scotland and Ireland

Today I have accepted a position at the University College, Cork (Republic of Ireland) as Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam. I will be joining and helping shape Ireland's first secular Department of Religions within the College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences from September 2015. I left Scotland in 2009 with no idea how long I would remain in the USA. From a year at Ithaca College and now my fifth year here at the University of Miami, I am grateful to both institutions for their support during the last few years. I cannot express in words how excited I am about returning closer to home, especially in this senior capacity. Many mentors and friends have advised me in the last few days/weeks and I am grateful to them all.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Want to end sexual violence against women? Fix the men. A crisis of masculinity needs to be addressed in order to see a reduction in sexual violence against women.

Published at alJazeera - Aug 13th, 2014
All Rights Reserved, Copyright

The Global Summit to End Violence Against Women in Conflict took place in London in June 2014, with 1700 delegates from 129 countries and 79 ministers attending, drawing much-needed attention to the problem of women suffering sexual assault in war zones.
Yet as I studied the programme's fringe events and followed the coverage in the news, I wondered what exactly a conference in London could truly do, beyond the call to action, to help women in places like Syria, Iraq, or Egypt, where women have suffered systematic rape and sexual assault as a "weapon of war", as summit keynote speaker Angelina Jolie put it.

It's vital to commit to tackling sexual violence in conflict and supporting victims, as the summit's action statement outlined, as fresh conflicts erupt across the Middle East and South Asia. But while the summit stated its aim was to "end the use of rape and sexual violence in conflicts around the world", it didn't give more voice to key elements: honesty about the true origins of the violence - the skewed concept of masculinity in patriarchal societies, which operates in both war and peace - and the concomitant need to confront male perpetrators of violence against women with a prescription that goes beyond the conventional formulae of legal reform and punishment for sexual crimes.

Amanullah de Sondy, assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Miami and author of The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, identifies a type of rigid, patriarchal form of masculinity in Muslim men that acts out at times in the form of sexual violence against women. "The issue is the global crisis of Islamic masculinity," he says. "Women are finding their voice and position in society through God and this unsettles patriarchy." But De Sondy points out that "the issue is actually not with Islam or its theology". He adds that "sexual violence against women is being challenged by men and women who seek to dismantle these rigid forms through the very foundation of Islam."
This global crisis is being played out daily in Pakistan, where patriarchy has historically been deep-seated and rarely questioned, but at the same time where women are awakening to their rights and responsibilities and claiming them eagerly, using Islamic scripture to justify their choices.

In May, Farzana Parveen, 25 years old and three-months pregnant, was murdered outside a Lahore courthouse because she married out of free will, a right guaranteed to women in Islam; her husband reneged on the dowry agreement with her family, who pounced upon them and bashed her to death with bricks. Ms Parveen was only one of the hundreds of thousands of women who face similar violence because of the notion that women's lives are secondary in importance, disposable by nature to the needs and whims of men.

Hundreds of NGOs, organisations, local and foreign, work to empower ordinary Pakistani women, teaching them their legal, human, and Islamic rights; connecting them to legal aid and financial resources so that they can become empowered and independent. But not one programme or resource could save Farzana because they didn't focus on teaching her male family members that she was not their property to dispose of as they pleased - ending her life when it was of no more value to them, using "honour" as a pretext.  (The global press deemed her death an "honour killing" - a phrase I loathe because it is so deceptive about the real roots of violence against women. Honour is often simply the pretext for conflicts over money, property, family feuds, or just a backlash against the increasing empowerment of women in Pakistan society.)

Out of the 175 events at the Global Summit in London, I found two fringe events that focused on the role of men in ending sexual violence. Care International hosted two panels that highlighted how its projects in both Bosnia and Rwanda are changing the attitudes of boys and men towards women in order to reduce sexual violence against them and turn them into "allies and champions for change."

In Bosnia, the "Young Men Initiative" has successfully changed attitudes by teaching boys and young men through the use of workshops, drama and sport that a "real man" does not have to dominate women or use violence to prove his masculinity. Now, schools in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo are adding the lessons to their curriculum in the hopes that an entire generation scarred by war and conflict will not turn to rape and sexual violence the way their forefathers did during the bloody wars.

Similarly, the Rwanda Men's Resource Center works to "engage men" in the support of women's leadership and rights, the promotion of non-violence and egalitarianism in the relations between men and women, and teach gender sensitivity to generations of young men and boys who have witnessed some of the worst brutality in recent history. And similar programmes and organisations are springing up as far afield as Brazil, Chile and India, recognising that the education and empowerment of men alongside women is the only way to ensure women's security within the greater umbrella of advacement in developing societies.

The organisers and participants of the Global Summit in London had, for the most part, good intentions. But my experience living in Pakistan, where the war on terror has soaked our society in extremism and violence, is that political and military conflicts serve only to strengthen an already strongly-entrenched patriarchy. And today's global focus on empowering women will fail utterly and completely unless it also encompasses educating and reforming the men that live beside them.
I long to see programmes focusing on men like the Care International ones in Bosnia and Rwanda enacted in Pakistan and everywhere else in the world where violence against women is endemic in both peacetime and war. As Amanullah De Sondy says, "Now more than ever before do men have to answer calls that question their masculinity and this is is the crisis to all men, globally." Stopping sexual violence against women is a battle that I believe we can win. But to do that, we're going to have to fix the men - because it's a change in their attitudes and actions that will be the turning point in this war.

Bina Shah is an award-winning Pakistani writer from Karachi. She is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times and writes a monthly column for Dawn, the biggest English-language newspaper in Pakistan.

Follow her on Twitter: @BinaShah
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

A few thoughts on the Arab/Israeli conflict

"The biggest issue is that we are being duped to believe what the Arab/Israeli conflict 'is' when infact what we see and hear are actions being taken by political systems that fight and react to each other. Politics is a vicious game on all sides of this conflict. They have very little to do with every day Muslims, Jews and Christians who are stuck under these systems. I am not a 'political system', my understanding of humanity does not come from liberal or conservative political systems, I am a human being who tries to feel the humanity of everyone, regardless of religion. I remain an optimist that every day Jews, Christians and Muslim want to co exist in the Holy land and make it flourish."

Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Department of Religious Studies
University of Miami

Thursday, 17 July 2014

No Ramadan Gloom and Doom by amina wadud By amina wadud on July 17, 2014 (published at feminismandreligion.con, all rights reserved, copyright)

The first blog I read about Ramadan this year was full of the usual self-righteous pontification that takes this occasion to remind people to do such and such at this or that level. Who is the target audience for such an approach, I wondered? It seemed to operate on the basic idea that Muslims will NOT do the right thing unless someone tells them to. Mostly, though I noticed the gloom and doom of it and I decided then to make my Ramadan focus on joy.

First a quick reminder about the basics: Throughout the 9th lunar month, Muslims are obliged to abstain from food, drink and sexual intercourse during the day. It goes on like this for 29-30 days. There are also points of difference about some details of the fast, like how we determine which day to start. Either we actually cite the new moon, go by advanced calculations of the new moon, or some combination of these two. This leads to healthy chaos at the beginning because no one knows when the first day will, be but must prepare in order to get in that pre-dawn meal, called suhur. I say, healthy chaos, not only because I’m a bit of an anarchist, but also because I like that no one has complete control about such an important decision.

Also of note this year, in the Northern hemisphere, Ramadan started just a few days after summer solstice, which means the day light goes for 16-20 hours—in the heat! Some people observe the length of the fast according to actual day light, others observe the length of the day in another sacred place, like in Makkah. Again, no single decision prevails over all others leaving room for diversity and personal conscience about which option.

There are some exemptions from the fast, with days made up at other times of the year for temporary interferences, like travel, sickness, menstruation. Fasting is not obligated upon those with long term concerns like diabetes. “Feeding the poor” is an alternative to fasting permitted by the Qur’an and practiced widely, again in different forms.

I know what that person was trying to do in that blog. Really, I do. You see, Ramadan is like an annual tune up of faith and devotion. More (of the 1.3 billion) Muslims observe fasting in Ramadan than any other prescribed Islamic ritual. There are also additional acts of devotion associated with the month: personally reading through the entire Qur’an, praying up to 20 units of prayer each night, usually in congregation, called tarawih, and putting your own ego in check over anger and other bad habits.

This year, I thought a lot about what I’d like to call “a culture of fasting”. For although this culture is diverse, it is clear that Muslims are conscious that their fellow Muslims will be fasting, even if they do not observe by choice or necessity. In this culture, even a non-faster wouldn’t invite another faster to lunch! Meanwhile to share the fast-breaking meal, iftar, with family, friends, neighbors, and strangers, even at public and commercial places, is one of the most anticipated pleasures of the observance.

I began my fast awaiting the birth of my grandson in a house with several other adults who were not fasting. So I felt the pang of not having this culture of fasting, except with my daughter who was too pregnant to fast. In my isolation, it didn’t take me long to lose my good sense of humor about making my way to the kitchen at 3 a.m. using a flash light. I missed not having control over my kitchen. It was worse than fasting while traveling, because then it is usually only for a day or two.

A week into the fast a new groove is reached. For me this means greater mental clarity, new insights even to some of the same intellectual concerns. Not being bogged down with much food must make a radical change in the body and the mind. For sure, fasting in Ramadan emphasizes the critical connection between body and ritual. It’s not just about how one feels in the heart, the entire body participates so that whatever is recognized, is intensified. The Qur’an says, the fast teaches self-constraint. A solid month-long readjustment in basic habits brings not only awareness, but appreciation.

In my quest for the joy this year, I met a person who made the best affirmation of gratitude I think I have heard in a long time. It showed me up for the complaining I had been doing about fasting away from my comfort center and with no culture of fasting around me. I saw how I had found fault with being alone, wandering around the house at 3 a.m. with a flashlight.

Then an interesting thing happened. A medical emergency in my family led me to a hospital in another city where I had no recourse except to sleep in my car. At 3 a.m. I got a bag of chips and a bottle of water at the 7-11 and began to chuckle: Had I previously been complaining about a flashlight in a dark house while fasting alone?!

Yes, Ramadan can teach us gratitude; but first we might need to learn humility.

I’m thankful for the lesson.

I am grateful, for a lifetime of work towards Muslim women’s freedom, agency and upliftment. I’m grateful for amazing friends in all parts of the world and the means to keep in touch with them. I am grateful for my family, especially my adult children; all kind, decent, and responsible with a spiritual dedication of their own. I’m grateful they are now parents with generosity and compassion.

This month we welcomed a new member to our family. I am grateful for the opportunity to see him come into the world. I wish him and my family, and you and yours a long and healthy life of prosperity, justice, peace and love abundant.

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.

This Ramadan: Valuing and Welcoming Women in Mosques by Sarah Sayeed, published At Huffington Post (17/7/2014)

Ramadan is a month of gratitude, embracing community, of togetherness. Fasting promotes self-reflection and a reaffirmation of compassion and justice. It seems an opportune moment to look inward at Muslim communities and speak about the imperative to restore Prophet Muhammad's legacy, peace be upon him, of valuing and welcoming women in mosques.

Across Muslim-majority countries, North America and Europe, we are quite far from the Prophet's example of welcoming women in mosques. In many parts of the world, women do not attend mosque for congregational prayers. Surprisingly, many people seem unaware that the Prophet did not institute curtains or walls between women's and men's rows. And when it is mentioned, there is resistance. It seems that Muslims, both women and men, encourage the following of the Prophet's teachings in virtually every arena except this one. When it comes to women's inclusion in mosques, they make excuses to differ from the Prophet's practice, suggesting that barriers are "necessary" as a preventive measure against distraction during prayer. But such actions and arguments contradict the Quran's requirement to "obey the Messenger" (Surah 4:80) and to follow his footsteps.

Some who disfavor women in mosques emphasize a Hadith, or saying of the Prophet, that a woman's prayer is better offered at home. Others who support women's inclusion in the mosque give weight to his teachings not to forbid women from worshiping in the mosque. Each "side" puts forward its argument in a binary, as if it could invalidate the other. Yet these teachings are not mutually contradictory, since the Prophet's wisdom led him to tailor his advice to the needs of each person. In addition, it's important to know what the Prophet said, as well as what he actually did in practice, which was to fully include women. His compassion and magnanimity are mirrored in the lack of physical barriers in his mosque.

Reflecting on the misogyny that was prevalent during his time, including routine infanticide of baby girls, it is remarkable that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was forward thinking, included women fully in his house of worship and gave women an independent choice as to attending the congregational prayer, depending on their circumstances. Recognizing that they may not always be able to attend, he reassured them that prayer in the privacy of their homes was equally beloved to God as prayer in a mosque. He also easily folded them into the congregation when they did attend. Women also had easy access to his instruction.

The American mosque has a unique opportunity and necessity to embrace the Prophetic practice of unreservedly receiving women in mosques. Muslims living as a religious minority rely on the mosque to serve not only as a place for worship but also as a religious school, and a community center -- a multi-purpose space much like the Prophet's mosque. Families connect at the mosque, through prayers, full-time or weekend schools, or other social and community activities. These relationships help weave the fabric of Muslim communities. Thus, mosques bear a burden as well as a responsibility to meet the religious, educational, and communitarian needs of Muslims. They must be open to diverse segments of society, a challenge that American mosques have embraced but need to work harder to fulfill the Prophetic vision of inclusion.

According to a national study of mosques in the United States, 66 percent use partitions, and have been doing so over the past decade. Many mosques with dividers have predominantly immigrant populations, with imams who are not American born, suggesting the influence of cultural practices. But predominantly African American mosques also use partitions, though less frequently. While many may be comfortable with dividers, it is important to note that they are not part of the Prophet's practice.

Women In Islam, Inc. is committed to spreading knowledge on the issue of women's inclusion in the mosque and to nurturing a cultural shift that enables women, men, and youth to experience mosques in the way that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, encouraged us to do. Beginning the last 10 days of Ramadan, it will initiate a blog to share women's mosque experiences and welcomes submissions on an ongoing basis. This public sharing is not an airing of dirty laundry but rather an opportunity for collective reflection and strategizing, giving women an avenue to contribute concrete ideas about what can and needs to be improved in mosques.

Creating a spiritually whole and welcoming community requires us to work together. When Muslim women ask for their due right to have full access to the main prayer area of a mosque, it is not only consistent with the Prophetic practice, but an act of obedience to the Messenger of God. As noted in the Quran, "the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong, and they establish worship and they pay the poor-due, and they obey Allah and His messenger. As for these, Allah will have mercy on them. Lo! Allah is Mighty, Wise" (Surah 9:71). Once when Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was asked, "What person can be the best friend?" "His reply: "who helps you remember Allah, and reminds you when you forget Him." Insha Allah (God willing) we will hear women as friends who remind us to emulate the Prophet's practice of valuing and welcoming women in mosques.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Most Scots believe prayer can change the world by SHÂN ROSS, Published in The Scotsman (10th July 2014, Copyright, All Rights Reserved)

The majority of Scots believe prayer can change the world, that there is life after death, and that not everything can be explained by ­science.

A report of attitudes towards faith and belief in Scotland also warns of a potential “new ­sectarianism” with a gap appearing to be opening between religious and non-religious people.
Experts recommend setting up a national advisory board to address areas of concern, such as people with no religious belief feeling excluded from public consultations.

The Faith and Belief in Scotland report by the University of Edinburgh was commissioned by the Scottish Government to help councils provide services for people of religion and ­belief. Those described as “people of belief” in the report are those who do not belong to an organised religion.
More than 1,400 people were asked 38 questions relating to current ethical issues.
The major faith groups and the philosophical belief systems of secularism and humanism were represented.

Of the respondents, 66 per cent said there were things in life that science cannot explain.
Some 58 per cent said prayer can have a real effect on the world. Fifty-four per cent believed in life after death, with more people believing in heaven (45 per cent) than hell (37 per cent).
Professor Mona Siddiqui, from the university’s school of divinity, and Dr Anthony Allison, the project’s lead researcher, said the results demonstrated the diversity of perspective and opinion that exists. An example of the diversity was revealed over the issue of same-sex couples with opinion strongly divided within both ­religious and belief groups.

Almost half said that same-sex couples with no religious affiliations should not be allowed to marry in a religious place of worship. Less than a quarter believed they should.
However, if same-sex couples had a religious ­belief, half thought they should be ­allowed to marry in a place of worship. Only 29 per cent ­objected.

Most Scots (59 per cent) felt that their own beliefs were misunderstood by the wider community, with three-quarters saying it was important people learn more about their world view. The report’s authors said Scottish society was becoming more ethnically and ­religiously diverse.

The 2011 Scottish census ­results on religion revealed 54 per cent of people identify with Christianity and 37 per cent with no religion. Those identifying with no religion were also the group seeing the largest growth from the 2001 to 2011 census – an increase of 9 per cent.

In the same period, by contrast, those identifying with Christianity saw a decrease of 11 per cent and most other minority religions either remained the same or showed small percentage increases. However, the report said the short and long-term impact of such demographic changes remained to be seen and it was not known if the trends would continue.

Prof Siddiqui said action needed to be taken to make Scottish society less divisive.
She added: “The issues around religion in public life are creating a new tension and dynamic in Scotland, and it is important that we minimise unnecessary division for the sake of a more inclusive Scotland.”

Dr Allison said the next challenge was getting people to understand each other and talk “to” one another rather than “at” each other.

He added: “I think the findings confirm what a number of people suspect. Spirituality is alive and well in Scotland and takes various forms cutting across the religious and not religious divide.”

Can Islam and Buddhism coexist peacefully in SE Asia?

Postcolonial states from Turkey to China are witnessing a contest for power between political liberals and religious nationalists.

In India new Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in a religious ceremony before taking office; in Indonesia Islamist parties supported presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, a general with tainted human rights record; in Ukraine Jews are fleeing resurgent anti-Semitism; in Britain Prime Minister David Cameron has asserted that the UK is a Christian country; in Brunei Sharia law is being imposed; Nigeria is witnessing the rise of Islamist Boko Haram; and Syria and Iraq are home to the newly established ISIL Caliphate. All are evidence that religion is increasingly being employed in the public sphere.

In many countries, the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion is being challenged by religious nationalists promoting religious "majoritarianism". Such challenges are coming from the Buddhist majority in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, while in Malaysia Muslims are demanding the exclusive right to use the word "Allah". The resurgence of religion is global and it's not limited merely to Islam. Politicians are using religions for political objectives, rather than merely balancing politics with religious ethics - the fundamental rule of political philosophies.

The current critical state of Muslim-Buddhist relations calls for the development of civil relations between the two religious communities. Positive communication would help Buddhists and Muslims discover their rich shared resources and embark on a dialogical journey to build peace and overcome religious nationalism and fundamentalism. Aside from Hindu India, most of Asia is Buddhist. Thailand has the largest Buddhist population in the world. Southeast Asian Muslims should recognise that while they may call the region "Serambi Mekkah" - the veranda of Mecca, for Buddhists it is the "Mecca", or centre, itself. Myanmar, Sri Lanka, China and Japan are the "al-Azhar" and "Medina" - the intellectual centres - of Buddhism. Hence the importance of Muslim-Buddhist understanding and dialogue for the future of Islam in Asia.

The liberal Catholic theologian Hans Kung once remarked, "There will be no peace among the nations without peace among religions." The ongoing Buddhist-Muslim conflicts in Asia have to be approached with a method of historical critique at the religious and socio-political levels and addressed with pedagogical strategies and strong political will on both sides - otherwise their will be no end to obstructions for constructive Buddhist-Muslim relations.

In my view, the majority-minority model of citizenship - a colonial construct - has run its course. There is a need to address the issue of conflicts from the perspective of multicultural citizenship, not multiculturalism only, for globalisation has brought with it the challenge of acceptance of diversities. Building a positive future requires transcending the past through the development of relations between Buddhism and Islam as civilisations, not as provincialisms. Whether in Myanmar with the Rohingya, in Sri Lanka, Thailand, or wherever, this will help transcend local, regional and international tensions between the two largest religious communities in the Asean region. To realise this, Southeast Asia's Muslims need to take this initiative on their own. They cannot wait for the lead from their Middle Eastern co-religionists, for they live alongside Buddhists in Asia and not the Muslims of the Middle East. Asean Muslims and Buddhists also need to transcend attitudes that equate ethnicity with religion, for the former is local while the latter is universal and diverse.

The history of Muslim-Buddhist interaction is old as Islam and has its positive and negatives aspects. In the case of their 900 years of coexistence in Southeast Asia, though their early relations were syncretic, identities later became "ethnicised". As far as I know, today there is no Southeast Asian Muslim scholar of Buddhism and no Buddhist counterpart who is versed in their respective communities' religious-cultural and lingual exchange, leave alone enjoying an understanding of shared words such as agama/sasana - religion; puasa - fast; hari raya - day of celebration, and even shared personal names, etc. In the face of rising religious nationalism and fundamentalism in both the faiths, there is need to build Muslim-Buddhist understanding through pedagogical and socio-cultural projects that are more than mere tourist symbols.

Otherwise, Asean Muslims from Yangon to Tokyo will soon be faced with the rise of Asian Islamophobia (in fact, it could be here already). Real efforts to build interfaith understanding will also help in the construction of the Asean Socio-Cultural Community, which is an integral part of the region's coming Economic Community. The building blocks are all around us, in the messages of compassion, mercy and love at the heart of all religions.

Asst Professor Imtiyaz Yusuf is a lecturer and director of the Centre for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding, College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Islamophobia in the Media?

"You want to talk about terrorism, let's talk about terrorism and let's be prepared. But let's not prepare the American people that all terrorism that happens around the world comes from the Muslim community. I was in New York during 9/11, I could have been in those towers. If you want to combat terrorism you need to work within the Muslim community which includes moderate Muslims which is nearly every Muslim in this country. But to create them as the other and make over exaggerations about these potential attacks that haven't happened is not the way you combat terrorism." Linda Sarsour

Friday, 20 June 2014

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day - Friday 20th June 2014
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
University of Miami ~ Department of Religious Studies

World Cup fever continues to strike. I’ve been following some of the matches, including last night’s, and watching how significant this event is globally. Just the other day an American news piece asked - what is the most important city to the world cup? Rio? Sau Paulo? The city was in fact Sialkot in Pakistan which has produced all the footballs for the World Cup. The city was also home to my parents before they moved to Scotland in the 1950s.

I sat watching in amazement as Sialkoti women, most of whom were fully veiled, were seen hard at work making and testing footballs. I wondered how many stereotypes this short news piece would have crushed in the minds of those watching. But the story is not all positive, a few years back there were accusations against the Sialkoti manufacturers of child labour. This seems to have been rectified but there is now discussion about how little the workers are paid in relation to how expensive the footballs are.

We are all connected to the aspirations of a good life that children and women in Sialkot have. A colleague wrote a book a few years ago that I, as a Muslim, could also identify with. It was about shopping and Christianity and how buying and selling in our connected world required careful thought on helping those less well off.

Thinking about upholding goodness is an ethical duty obligated on every Muslim, in work and play. The pomp and glory of big events often hide a behind-the-scenes reality that I think many of us don’t want to delve into. There is competition and the chance to connect across borders but there are also real lives, harsh realities and sometimes challenges to our stereotypes. Balancing our fun and play with values-added is the challenge in a world that connects us all.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Tuesday 10th June 2014
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy

The weeks of speculation are finally over, and we all now know France’s Amelie Mauresmo is Andy Murray’s new tennis coach. Reading the commentaries, it’s interesting to see the reaction to the news of a woman coaching a man. In response Murray has clearly and quite brilliantly stated that he was coached by his own Mother, Judy Murray, till the age of 17, and that he’s always felt that he’s had a female influence on his tennis career.

I have just returned back from Miami to visit my own Mum for a few weeks, and reflecting on Murray’s decision made me think about how influential my Mum, as well as other women teachers have been in my life.  ‘Paradise lies at the feet of your Mother’ according to one prophetic tradition in Islam -  and in another story from that time, the prophet Muhammad is asked, ‘who merits their finest treatment’, to which the prophet states, ‘your mother’. He repeats this three times and only then does he say, ‘your father’.

Our closest biological bond from birth is with our Mothers – and for many of us, that’s also where we learn our earliest lessons–whether it’s sharing toys, tying our shoelaces, or playing tennis. Yet, the older we get and the more of society we’re exposed to, we start getting hemmed into categories based on our gender. This can be quite restrictive – the usual macho verses feminine stereotypes don’t quite allow us to be everything we can be. As an academic and teacher, I can see how damaging it is for young people, or in fact a person of any age, to place such limitations on themselves. I find Andy’s attitude refreshing – he’s chosen the best person he can learn from at this stage in his career – to be the best player be can be. And whatever our jobs or hopes, we all deserve to be the best we can be.  

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

U.S. Diplomat Becoming Something Of A Celebrity In Pakistan

WASHINGTON — In a first for American diplomacy, a U.S. diplomat performed on the inaugural season of Pakistan Idol in April. 

Phillip Assis, the Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. consulate in Karachi, sang on stage on national television during the Pakistan Idol semifinals last month, performing alongside the semifinalists.
“They had never had a foreigner on,” Assis, who goes by the stage name Phillip Nelson when he’s performing, said in a phone interview from Pakistan. “It was exciting to be on an authentic Idol show.”

Pakistan had its first official version of the Idol franchise this year. The embassy reached out and said, “We have a real live singer here if you’re interested in having an American on the show,” Assis said. A few months after the initial contact, Assis was booked to perform.

Assis, 48, a native of Portland, Oregon, has been singing and playing the piano all his life and “always had a passion for bringing people together culturally and forming bridges between cultures,” he said. He was diagnosed with cancer after graduating from Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in 1996, an experience he credits with making him realize that “tomorrow’s never guaranteed, and I always dreamed of doing more with my music, and that spurred me on.”
Assis previously did tours in Guyana and in the Vatican before coming to Karachi. His next tour will be back in Washington, where he has been invited to perform at a celebration for Pakistan’s independence day.

In Pakistan, Assis has been involved in other musical projects, including recording a song in Pashto, the video for which became a hit locally. Though he doesn’t speak the local languages, Assis has learned to sing in them phonetically.

“I’m lucky that I have Pakistani colleagues plugged into the cultural field here, so that’s how the connections were made,” Assis said.

The embassy’s press secretary Andrew Armstrong said that Pakistan Idol faced “all kinds of skepticism that they could even pull it off,” since auditions were held all over the country, even in remote or dangerous areas.

“It was a cool thing for us to have Phillip be a part of because it builds a different narrative,” Armstrong said.

Assis said he does encounter Pakistanis who recognize him from the performance and the song he did previously.

“People have seen the clip, they’ve seen the song, and people are very excited about it,” he said. “They mostly are very excited to — happy to see that I’m here and mostly astonished.”
“People do want their picture taken with me all the time but they want that with all foreigners,” Assis said with a laugh.

A former U.S. diplomat in Pakistan, Shayna Cram, also had some musical success in Pakistan before Assis’ arrival. She recorded a song in Pashto about Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban and who has become an advocate for girls’ education.