Thursday, July 28, 2011

Heather Mallick - Speaking Up for Shy Young Girls, or Talking Down to Bright Young Women?

Heather Mallick (of the Toronto Star) attempts to champion young Muslim girls (especially menstruating ones) but completely misses the mark - here.

I wrote this letter to her in response:

Hi Heather,
I just read your piece in the Star, titled “Someone has to speak up for young girls.”
In it, you used the current brouhaha about young Muslims offering Friday prayers at school to focus your criticism on Islam’s alleged “stigmatization” of menstruating girls. Unfortunately, you made many ignorant statements that will only fuel the continued anger against Islam and Muslims, and which frustrate people like myself who work hard daily to educate others about the truth about Islam.
First of all, I am a young Canadian Muslim woman. I am proud of my religion, and I’m proud of being a woman. Let me explain just how and where you went wrong in your indignant article, for the claims you make hurt me both as a Muslim and as a woman.
To start with, the Islamic Friday prayers are a special event: a gathering of brothers and sisters in faith, a special taking-time-away from our chaotic lives for spiritual reminders and uplifting. It is a weekly occasion that we look forward to, purifying ourselves physically and dressing up in our best to worship God communally.
These Friday prayers, called “Jumu’ah” in Arabic, are obligatory upon men but not upon women, although it is highly encouraged for us. Now, before you jump to the conclusion that this is the first example of “sexism” in Islam, let me explain why this is. Men are forcibly enjoined to attend because their daily responsibility is usually of a financial turn, something which they can leave easily enough. However, it is understood that most women have children to look after, a duty that cannot be put aside as easily as men can leave work. (Before you also try to point out the “backwards gender stereotyping” this may imply, please look at statistics in the West that prove that women continue to be the main guardians and caregivers for children.) Menstruating women have the option of attending the Friday prayers or not, to listen to the sermon and feel the spiritual connection of brotherhood and sisterhood. They are not forbidden from sitting with everyone else at all, but rather are welcomed in the midst. Rather, it is only the formal prayers that they are exempted from (reasons will be explained below).
Secondly, as for men and women praying separately, this is not in any way a suggestion that Islam denigrates women or relegates them to second-class status. Rather, the arrangement of group prayer takes into consideration the positions that are observed during Islamic prayer, and consideration for human nature itself. For example, there is a period of time during prayer where one will be bowing down, and then go into prostration on the ground. Basically, this means that you’ll be on the ground with your butt in the air. And really, are you going to tell me that when you’re trying to communicate with God, but in a somewhat awkward position, you wouldn’t be more comfortable knowing that you’re surrounded by other women than by men? I know for a fact that women’s yoga classes are usually filled up because of the fact that it’s so much less embarrassing to twist yourself into a pretzel when there isn’t a guy checking out your butt.
Also, as a Muslim woman, I savour this precious time during which I feel a deep connection with my fellow women. I love sitting with my sisters in faith, listening to the same words, performing the same actions (without any distracting thoughts of “does my butt look big in this abayah?”), and knowing that in the Sight of God, all of us present – men and women – are equal before Him.
Thirdly, menstruating women are not “singled out” or “stigmatized” because of their menses. Islam places great emphasis on physical purity; before any Muslim may offer formal prayers, they must offer the ablutions called “wudhu.” In some cases, such as the one who has just had sex, they must take a full shower (the “ghusl”) before they may pray. This doesn’t mean that they are considered “dirty” or “unclean,” but is rather of the etiquettes that Islam calls for when one is engaging in direct communication and worship of God.
Menstruating women and women experiencing post-partum bleeding are exempted from formal prayers for the duration of their bleeding. Again, this is not a way of putting us down, but rather is a mercy and blessing from God. Rather than feeling excluded from prayer, it is actually both an opportunity and a challenge. When one is jerked out of a regular cycle of praying five times a day at appointed times to worship God, you strive to look deeper into ways of connecting with Him. Indeed, menstruation is neither “mysterious” nor “shameful”; in Islam, it is accepted as a part of life, a blessing from God, a sign of health and fertility.
Finally, in your article you’re portraying yourself as some kind of spokeswoman for Muslim girls. Please don’t. To be honest, there were so many offensive and insulting statements in your piece that I don’t know where to start. Suffice it to say that as a young Muslim woman, who has spent my entire life – including those tough teen years – in Canada, almost everything you said that was aimed at the Muslim girls you’re trying to champion, was in fact humiliating.
From implying that we don’t know how to use tampons (really? Do you actually think we live in the Middle Ages or something?), to insinuating that Muslim girls are just a bunch of shy helpless damsels in distress, you are displaying your own ignorance and qualities of a misogynist, not a feminist.
If you really want to hear the voices of Muslim girls, if you want to know what we really think and what we have to say, then why don’t you actually ask us instead? By assuming that only you can speak up for us, you are in fact guilty of what you accuse our fellow Muslims of doing: silencing us, dumbing us down, and rejecting our intellect.
We are Muslim women, and we have a voice. Let it be heard!
Zainab bint Younus Kathrada
Victoria, B.C., Canada