Give Me Something To Defend

uzma.jpgSusan notes: this guest blog was penned by one of my favourite Twitter friends Uzma Atcha (aka @LHjunkie). She’s a 21-year-old firecracker, blogger and activist living in the UAE. She writes for Mideast Youth (where this post was originally published), manages the March 18 Movement campaign, and supremely commands Mideast  Tunes, a platform for regional underground musicians. Find her on Twitter or Facebook.  (And oh yeah, she’s one of da coolest chicas I know!)

They say history is always written by its victors. I agree. It’s often one sided, as I’m sure several parts of this article will be. Similarly, I believe that the approach to Islam today is again, extremely one sided.

Mind you, I’m not going to even mention the extremist terrorists for that will only open up a larger, more complicated can of worms. I’m not talking about the portrayal of Muslims by “Western media” – I’m talking about its practice by us in the Muslim world.

I want to address the idiosyncrasies (to put it lightly) of how our religion is followed today.

Several Muslims have low thresholds for taking offense. The very mention of the word “cartoon” jump starts ones defenses and it’s easy to get sucked into the “me against the world” mindset, yet oddly enough, the same doesn’t apply the other way around.

We’re so caught up in looking for ways to prove that we’re the ones being victimised, that we often forget that we do the same to others. Just the simple use of the word “Western” typecasts a whole hemisphere to the extent that is now is used synonymously with “Arab/Muslim Hating Zionists,” or something to that effect.

With regards to being one sided, currently our religion tips the scales in the favour of men. Islam, which I shall now refer to as HISlam for the sake of differentiation, is so blatant in its demarcation of sexes – all in the name of “respect.”

What’s funny is that I’ll only find Muslim men contesting this point.

The first time I went to Madinah, which was two years ago for Hajj, I arrived at the airport excited about the spiritual journey I was about to embark on. There were two queues for passport control, one for men and one for women, with the men’s line twice the length of ours. By the time the female members of my family and I had reached the counter, the man sitting there took one look at us and shouted, “WEN MAHRAM?” (where is your male guardian?) and refused to even acknowledge our presence until our “male guardian” came to “assist” us.

I went again last week for Umrah, and was faced with the same arrogance. At passport control this time there were no separate queues (perhaps because it was not Hajj…?) and we were able to stand together as a family. That was until we reached the counter. One officer looked at our passports while another one asked in broken English, “Are you family?” “Yes, we are.” “Women, go.” “Go where?” At which point, he yelled. “GO FROM HERE,” as he pointed to baggage claim. We gesticulated towards our passports which were being screened. “GO!” Walking a few meters ahead, we were stopped by another security guard who had witnessed the incident. “Wen passport?” he asked…

I feel that mosques, particularly the Masjid-ul-Nabuwi and the Haram Sharif, are sexist too. Barring the fact that women are already at a disadvantage sartorially, what with having to wear layer upon layer for modesty reasons when temperatures in May peaking 41 degrees Celsius, men can stroll in covered from their navel to their knee. Women’s prayer areas are often considerably smaller than the men’s, which means that praying in the hot sun, barefoot on the white marble floors is the only option if you come even a few minutes after hearing the call to prayer. This wasn’t so much of a problem in Madinah as it was in Makkah, where I found HISlam to be rife.

According to Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet), women are supposed to pray behind men in the mosque for several reasons, one of the most obvious being that when you prostrate during prayer, women don’t want a dirty old man staring at their behind. That suits me fine. What irks me though, is how women’s areas are almost caged at the back of the mosque. High brass shelves form a barricade, preventing women from even seeing the Kaba’a. The areas are so small and crowded, that I often got pushed out of my own saf (row) while praying, while the men’s area remained virtually empty. Not only that, come prayer time, the security guards who handle crowds won’t even allow women to walk through an empty section if it hasn’t been barricaded, while men, on the other hand, were free to walk into our section mid-prayer, mid prostration, mid scarf adjustment – you name it. A misstep into the wrong direction would lead to a flurry of badged individuals yelling “HAJJI, SIRRI!

Makkah in itself is a paradox.

It’s impossible to believe that one of the most revered places on Earth according to all Muslims is in reality one of the most polluted areas I have visited. Mind you, my family hails from the filthy streets of Karachi, so I would like to think that my standards of all things disgusting are pretty low.

It’s strange for a religion that preaches purity (both physically and spiritually) have several of its followers ignoring basic tenets of hygiene. You can’t pray if you’re in the least bit dirty. The room in which you pray in must be clean, as well.

When I was in Mina two years ago, I was disgusted with the poor standards of cleanliness. Litter, sewage and disease plagued the area. Was this, in fact “Holy?” I get it – there are 3.3 million pilgrims all in the same area so it’s hard to keep up with the sheer volume of worshippers. On the night we spent in Muzdalifah, I remember having to sleep in a pile of other people’s trash. “Purification is half of faith”* so why was this being ignored when everything else is so stringently followed?

I understand that pilgrims from the world over congregate into the Holy City to perform their sacred rites, and that by allowing so, Makkah falls prey to opening its door to all sorts of people; good and bad. You’ll find the professional vagrants outside the doors of the Haram trying to guilt you into giving money for Sadqah (charity/blessings). All of this just highlights the inconsistencies of our religion.

I should reiterate that I am a Muslim, but it is disheartening to see people using the faith as a means to operate on double standards.

*[Note: Reported by Muslim, Ahmad and Al-Tirmidhi on the authority of Abi Malik Al-Ash’ari, Sahih Al- Jami’ Al-Saghir (No.3957)]