Thursday, 23 April 2009

Caught between liberators and saviors

By Mona Eltahawy
The Jerusalem Report
April 27, 2009

I love public speaking. I used to want to be an actress when I was younger so it obviously satisfies the performer in me. I like to think that I’m pretty fast on my feet during the Q&A sessions, too, but occasionally someone asks me something that leaves me aghast.

“In London, I see these women covered from head to toe and it’s the summer and I want to ask them ‘Aren’t you hot?’” asked a woman at the end of a talk I gave in March at Sarah Lawrence College, in New York state, on gender and power in the Muslim world.

I used to wear a headscarf but the questioner wasn’t talking about the hijab. She meant the face veil, or the niqab. Full disclosure: the niqab terrifies me. It says very little about religion but a whole lot about the erasure of a woman's identity and her very existence as a human being in any society.

I fully confess my views on the niqab are thoroughly grounded as much in my own very personal struggles with the hijab, which I wore for nine years, as they are more generally with the obsessive focus of both Muslims and non-Muslims on how Muslim women dress.

And to this day I unequivocally refuse to defend the niqab, regardless of who is making the argument for or against it. But the woman in the audience who claimed to feel sorry for the women in the niqab during the height of summer displayed a disdain and condescension that annoys me as much as those arguments.

Another woman in the audience, who identified herself as Jewish, told her that when she sees ultra-Orthodox Jewish women on the New York subway in the height of summer she too wants to ask them “Aren’t you hot?” because of the way they dress. But for some reason, it's mostly Muslim women who seem to be the focus of the “Clash of Civilizations”.

Iranian photographer and writer Haleh Anvari put it beautifully during a performance in New York a couple of years ago when she said she was fed up of being fought over by Iran’s mullahs on the one side who want to protect her soul with the chador and the western media on the other which wants to rescue her from it.

When an American woman in the audience asked if she should wear a chador out of solidarity with Iranian women, the farce and beauty of being a Muslim woman today was too much bear. Like my interlocutor at Sarah Lawrence, this was a classic killer combo of condescension marinated in a deep-seated desire to liberate and rescue Muslim women and seasoned with good old ignorance.

Some might call me unkind for ripping into a well-intentioned inquiry about ways to help, but nine years of wearing a headscarf made me an expert in figuring out the saviors from the liberators. The liberators, to be fair, weren’t always from the “West.” Sometimes they were fellow Egyptian Muslims who just didn’t like the hijab.

Just as importantly, the headscarf honed my skills at figuring out the honest from the patronizing and there’s nothing like being spoken to IN A SLOW AND VERY LOUD VOICE AS IF ONE WERE DEAF to make you want to yell I MIGHT COVER MY HAIR BUT I’M NOT STUPID.

When I decided to stop wearing the hijab, my biggest fight was with myself. But the saviors and liberators were still going at it. One Muslim friend chided me for giving non-Muslims a shaky image of Islam. “I’m not the Quran in motion” I would reply. The liberators assured me I looked so much better with the headscarf off - which just added to my guilt.

The saviors and liberators don’t really care about me or my soul. The conversation for them begins and ends with how a Muslim woman looks. What she thinks, feels or wants is quite irrelevant.

So imagine my horror when I first came across the misguided desire to cover up in support of Muslim women shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Again, the path from well-intentioned to clueless was not that long or winding. As news spread that Muslims or anyone who seemed to be Muslim were being targeted, I began to read about “Wear Hijab Days,” as groups in various North American cities handed out headscarves for their members to wear in solidarity with Muslim women.

While the dangers to Muslim women wearing headscarves were real, my instinct was to tell those groups what I told the woman at Anvari’s performance and my interlocutor at Sarah Lawrence – stay out of it!

I was more captivated by the religious edicts allowing Muslim women in the West to remove their headscarves if they felt they were in danger. By that point, I no longer believed the headscarf was obligatory for Muslim women and to hear those pronouncements added a whole new layer to the cake.

But to those “Wear Hijab Days” groups, complexity, nuance and anything beyond the surface be damned! Other people’s causes are so much cuddlier, of course. What did it matter that they were offending some of us Muslims who didn’t believe hijab was a religious requirement?

Ironically, Muslim women in the United States have more freedom to wear the headscarf than they do in, say, Turkey, where the scarf is banned in government buildings and public schools. And for the polar opposite, there’s Saudi Arabia and Iran where women must cover up in public.

How absurd that some groups want to cover up to support us while others want to support us to uncover! How about leaving us alone to decide? Now that’s support.

Copyright 2009 Mona Eltahawy

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Racism and Muslims

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Wednesday 22nd April 2009
Amanullah De Sondy

There was much commotion as President Ahmednijad of Iran stood to address delegates at a UN Racism conference in Switzerland the other day. In his speech he said that Israel was “totally racist” which led to 30 country delegates staging a mass walkout, coupled with clapping by those who stayed. The conference aimed to unite nations on their common battle against racism, but - sadly - seems to have done nothing more than show the divisions between them

As I watched these scenes on a TV screen from my hotel room in Berlin, it made me wonder about the issues at stake. Racism, prejudices and stereotypes are often woven into our lives in more ways than we realise or admit. As a Muslim, I take to heart the last sermon of the prophet Muhammad in which he said that all believers in a loving God were as one, beyond colour, tribe or creed but I don’t for a second believe that racism and prejudices are void amongst Muslims. Muslims may be united in belief but they are far from this idealised ‘one’. When I spent time in Syria and Jordan I experienced first hand the way that some people looked down upon me because of my South Asian heritage, at times being reminded that Arabs were blessed with the language of the Qur’an – Arabic.

As a theologian I am intrigued at the way in which the spoken and written expression of faith often contradicts and twists the lived experience. I am left confused when I see Muslims being anti-Semitic based on their pro-Palestinian stance even though Islamic traditions, especially the Qur’an, speaks highly of Judaism. Israel and Judaism cannot be generalized and labeled as racist just as my fellow Muslim shows outrage at being labeled a terrorist. For me, Islam is a religion of love and peace and such fundamentals must be central in everything. The challenge is then to consider, or re-consider, how we reconcile our beliefs with our actions.

Ghazal singer Iqbal Bano passes away (b. 1935 - d. 2009)

(taken from

One of the South Asia's most loved Ghazal, Thumri and classical singers, Iqbal Bano, died on Tuesday at a local hospital in Lahore. She was 74. Iqbal Bano is best known for her Ghazals and her renditions of poems of famous poet and revolutionary, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Born in Delhi in 1935, Iqbal Bano studied under Ustad Chaand Khan of the Delhi Gharana, an expert in all kinds of pure classical and light classical forms of vocal music. He instructed her in pure classical music and light classical music within the framework of classical forms of Thumri and Dadra. She was duly initiated Gaandaabandh shagird of her Ustad. He forwarded her to All India Radio, Delhi, where she sang on the radio.

Iqbal Bano migrated to Pakistan in the 1950's and was also associated with the country's film industry, which is why chose to settle in Lahore, considered the film capital. She was invited by Radio Pakistan for performances. Her debut public concert was in 1957, at the Lahore Arts Council.

She is remembered for singing the works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and gave musical relevance to the ghazals of Faiz. At the height of the Zia era, Iqbal Bano sang at a Faiz Festival in Lahore to a crowd of 50,000. Her rendition of Faiz's poem Hum Dekhen Gay caused quite a stir and also landed her in trouble with the military authorities. But this act also made her an immensely popular singer, breaking the boundaries that were imposed by the select audiences of classical music.

Despite her trouble with the military government which debarred her from official concerts, Iqbal Bano continued to sing for private audiences and soon after emerged on stage owing to her immense popularity in a wide section of Pakistani society. However, her failing health restricted her performances and by 2003 or so, her appearences were rare and largely restricted to a few ghazals.

Soon after she withdrew from the public eye and restricted herself to family life, content to spend time with children and grandchildren at her modest residence in Lahore.

Iqbal Bano could sing Persian ghazals with the same fluency as Urdu. She is always applauded in Iran and Afghanistan for her Persian ghazals. She once recalled how the King of Afghanistan gave her a special award for a Ghazal she sang for him in Farsi.

Her recitals stuck to the old classical style that laid more stress on the Raag purity. Basically a ghazal singer, Iqbal Bano has also sung many memorable Pakistani film songs. She had provided soundtrack songs for famous Urdu films like Gumnaam (1954), Qatil (1955), Inteqaam (1955), Sarfarosh (1956), Ishq-e-Laila (1957), and Nagin (1959).


One of my favorite Ghazals sung by Iqbal Bano...I found this translation from:

shaam-e-firaaq ab na pooch, aai aur aa ke tal gai
dil tha ke phir bahal gaya, jaaN thi ke phir sambhal gai

"Ask no more (about) the night of separation; it came, and passed
The heart got diverted again; life found its feet again"

What a huge span of time and experience seems to be captured in the (otherwise simple) words of these two lines... there is a palpable sense of sadness with which Faiz takes note of the way life inevitably finds the means to go on - almost a sense of disappointment at the failure of that much lamented, much demonised, 'shaam-e-firaaq' to inflict a lasting blow!!

And yet, there is also this delicious sense of 'falseness' that rings through his brave claim of the heart managing to find other diversions... one can feel that life never does, actually, manage to shrug off the effects of the separation from the Beloved, and 'find its feet again'...

bazm-e-Khayaal mein ter'e husn ki shama jal gai
dard ka chaaNd bujh gaya, hijr ki raat Dhall gai

"In the salon of (my) thoughts, the candle of your beauty was lighted
the moon-of-pain extinguished itself, the night of separation slipped away"

jab tujh'e yaad kar liya, subho mahak mahak uThi
jab tera Gham jaga liya, raat machal machal gai

"Whenever you were remembered, the mornings became fragrant
when your pain was awakened, the nights grew restless"

Simple, almost too simple; but it still manages to capture that something 'special' that can't be described. The dual-repetition of 'mahak' and 'machal' not only adds a magically lyrical touch, but also creates the impression of a state-of-affairs that repeats almost indefinitely!

dil se to har muamla kar ke chal'e thEy saaf humm
kahn'e mein unk'e saamn'e, baat badal badal gai

"In the heart i had sorted out all the issues before setting out
(however) while recounting before her, (my) words changed themselves"

A cute one! The poet's inability to present his heart's pain to the Beloved is lamented so beautifully here - he explains that it isn't as though he hadn't figured out beforehand what he had to tell her, but when it actually came to telling her, he found that he had ended up saying something quite different than what he intended to...

one gets this wonderful picture of a smitten lover blundering ineffectually through an appeal to a haughtily impatient Beloved, and nervously ending up saying something else!

aaKhir-e-shab ke humsafar Faiz na jaan'e kya huEy
rah gai kis jagah sabaa, subho kidhar nikal gai

"Who knows where the fellow-travelers of the end-of-the-night went, Faiz?
at which spot did the breeze get left behind? and which way did the dawn walk off?

The 'fellow-travelers' who had come together at that magical moment when night was ending, namely the morning-breeze and the flush-of-dawn, lost each other's company soon after... the breeze lingered on at some crossroad and was left behind; the dawn raced off towards the brightness of the day...

For translation of the videoed Ghazal see: