Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Movie Review: Layla M.

There are very few movies that evoke an intense emotional reaction from me, and Layla M. is one of them. A Dutch-made film that follows the journey of a young Moroccan-Dutch woman, Layla M. feels disconcertingly realistic - and does, in fact, reflect the reality of many young Muslim men and women in today's world of political Islamophobia, jihadi Internet propaganda, and complex human emotions.

We meet the title character first as the disenchanted daughter of immigrants in Denmark, struggling to learn more about Islam and practice it overtly, even as she enjoys kicking around a soccer ball and deals with her not-quite-so-conservative family members.
Drawn into a social circle of other young Muslims who resent the increasing Islamophobia in Europe, Layla goes against her family's wishes. She dons the niqab - not so much as a symbol of inner spirituality as much as a gesture of political defiance disguised as Islamism - and then elopes with an overly zealous, equally young jihadi man.

As they flee across Europe to Jordan (making a pit stop where Layla is kept sitting in the car while her husband goes off to create a jihadi boy band nasheed video), we begin to see her realize the enormity of what she has done. The idealism of her beliefs slowly evaporates, her dreams of a marital partnership based on respect and equality increasingly crushed by every new limitation imposed upon her, and the horrifying recognition of what, exactly, her new life entails.

But what made Layla M. so painful for me to watch - and yet impossible to stop watching - was how it was akin to watching an alternate reality version of myself.
As a young teenager, I gloried in jihadi anasheed (not going to lie, my playlist is still full of the classics); I daydreamed of a grand hijrah, of marrying a brave, earnest mujaahid, of engaging in a glorious mission of social work and sacrifice and battle for the sake of the Muslim Ummah. (Spoiler: none of that happened IRL.) If not for the right set of circumstances (and a solid set of parents), it would have been all too easy for me to become Layla M.

Layla M. is not just some horror story of a young woman kidnapped by some crazed jihadi man and then held prisoner. No, Layla M. is about a smart young woman, someone who is acutely aware of the politics of Islamophobia, not just in a theoretical in-the-Muslim-world kind of way, but in a right-here-at-home kind of way. Layla feels the impact of the virulent hate spread against Muslims, and she chooses to join a certain social circle of individuals; she chooses to run away from home and marry a man with whom she already knew she could never have a 'normal' happily-ever-after with. Her inner sense of justice and what is right - what should be right - burns too strongly for her to be content with being a good girl, a quiet girl, an immigrant girl who assimilates silently.

Indeed, it is the lack of outright villainy which makes Layla M's story so disconcerting. Her husband Abdel is not an evil, abusive monster. He is young, like her, brash, overly confident, utterly clueless. Their wedding night is painfully awkward in the way of most Muslim virgins - and one almost sighs with relief on their behalf when she mumbles, "I'm on my period," and they settle down together with only slightly less awkwardness.
And yet, romance does grow - in a sense. Abdel takes himself too seriously, but in a scene that is both utterly heartbreaking as well as intensely cringeworthy, Layla pulls him into a dance with her, and they share a sweetness that every teenage jihadi fangirl dreams of (or maybe that was just me. I don't know. Don't judge, okay? I had a lot going on in my head at the time. Hormones, mostly.).

Layla M. is jarringly real in a way that the phrase "Instagram ISIS wives" could never feel real (despite being an actual thing). It cuts to the core of so many realities, of the harshness of growing up Muslim in an environment that despises the very essence of your identity, of the sexism that women face no matter how much equality and empowerment we seek in any community, of the severity of one's youthful decisions, played out not in one's neighborhood or at school, but in the context of international intrigue, national security, and political prisoners.

For some Muslims in the West - the privileged ones - Layla M. might feel overdone, overly dramatic, and completely ridiculous. For others amongst us, it might feel far too much like taking a look into what-might-have-been if we too had acted upon our own brash desires and convictions of universal truths. But for all viewers, Layla M. is a brilliantly crafted movie, one which is a meaningful contribution to the sparse selection of Muslim-relevant films.

In truth, nothing I say in this review can actually encapsulate what an emotional rollercoaster this movie was for me. Waking up from delusions of grandiose saving-the-Ummah daydreams is brutal, and while my own awakening was very different (marriage to someone who was decidedly not jihadi, promptly isolated and impregnated, and then eventually getting the hell out before finally living my own real life), there is always a part of me that remembers all too well what it was like to be a teenaged girl with such fantasies. And that part of me needed to see Layla M., as the closure that I never knew I needed.

Rating: 5/5 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Book Review: The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman

The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman: Paths to Conversion - written by Dr. Anabel Inge

"The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman" began as a thesis and ended up as a fully-fledged book. This book is unique in that it takes a long, detailed look at the daily reality of Salafi Muslim women in the UK, not from the informal perspective of a Muslim experiencing complicated intra-community politics, but as a non-Muslim woman included in the private confidences of the women whose stories are being told.

Dr. Inge's approach is refreshing, not least because she does not seek to push forth a particular agenda or perpetuate a deliberately negative image of the Salafi community (which does enough to give itself a bad reputation). Rather, as she states in the very beginning of her book: "I assumed that... Salafi women have agency and power over their lives like anybody else."

Reading this book as a self-identifying Salafi woman, this statement gave me the reassurance that the stories of the women would not be twisted and used to suit a certain agenda or to fear-monger. Instead, there was a sense of genuine sincerity regarding the author's choice to study this particular demographic.

The Introduction lays the foundation for all readers - Muslim and nonMuslim alike - to understand the context of discussing Salafiyyah as both an ideological movement and a Muslim sub-culture of sorts operating within a post 9/11 political environment. There is a clear distinguishing between Salafiyyah and those whom they are often lumped with, such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other Khawaarij groups that many feel no hesitance in conflating with one another.

The first chapter of the book acts as a mini history lesson in the development and rise of Salafiyyah in the UK;  as a Muslim reader from Canada, where Salafiyyah's history and current existence is far different from that of our cousins in the UK, I found this particularly interesting. It is rare to find a semi-academic account of inter-Muslim-community histories, which we as Muslims tend to neglect in our pursuit of keeping up with the times.

Am LOLing at her first exposure to "inshaAllah means no" and women cancelling plans bc "my husband said no" (aka most convenient excuse ever). Even more LOLing at her first cowife proposal hahaha (I'm sorry I am so not being an academic reviewer, I'm enjoying this too much!)

Speaking of academia, I am very appreciative of her detailed introduction where she discusses how she gathered the material for her book and the challenge of being a researcher on a specialized topic with a community that is rightly suspicious and protective of their spaces. I always find it interesting when "outsiders" share their observations/experiences with our communities - how they view our quirks & habits.

Random tidbit: educated young Somali women make up a significant portion of UK's (female) Salafiyyah.

I love her brief history of Salafiyyah in the UK - ya3ni Umar Lee's Rise and Fall series gave us an insider view of Salafiyyah in the States but for young un's like me who only know what the Muslim blogosphere imparted to us, this stuff is great.

Back to the book: I find it fascinating that "being Muslim" (or at least looking the part) was (is?) a legit trend in certain areas. The part where London gangsters were trying to use Islam as some kind of branding makes me want to read some Muslim gangsta urban fiction. What's interesting to note is the factors that led many women to choose Salafiyyah in spite of its own bad rep: akhlaaq, knowledge of Deen, and persistence in da'wah without fixating on Salafiyyah's labels or PDF reputations or other cliched silliness.
It's definitely not rocket science - it's the basic principles of da'wah, the Sunnah of RasulAllah himself - but it's an excellent reminder that those of us who would purport to be Salafi should be keeping in mind and which, unfortunately, many do not - and then bitterly wonder why folks would rather go join other groups instead. Ukhuwwah is a vital ingredient of da'wah, and not in a clique-ish, cult-ish manner.

Of note is that for some women, it made all the difference to be welcomed by fellow Muslims who didn't look down at them for their pasts. Piercings or pregnancies out of wedlock, so long as one was choosing to return to the Deen, there was no issue.

The most important part of these women's choice to turn to Salafiyyah, however, was intellectual conviction. And *that* is what I also identify with: the clear, fitrah-centric approach to Tawheed and emaan. Kitab atTawheed aside, it's honestly the basic facts abt Tawheed that are most reassuring; the freedom from depending on wazifas and peer saabs and worrying that one's relationship with Allah isn't good enough to count, or to matter.

Still making my way through @Anabel_Inge's book, and what I feel it has done most for me is give me a greater appreciation for what and how Salafiyyah comes off as to an outside, objective observer who doesn't share our emotional baggage. Whether it's things like trying a little too hard to be "Salafi enough" - particularly with regards to outward markers - to the emphasis on Tawheed and purifying oneself of bid'ah, it's refreshing to recognize those aspects of ourselves that are both praiseworthy and otherwise.

Particularly poignant is the chapter highlighting the practical inconsistencies of Salafi socio-religious standards/ expectations for women. Seeking knowledge is fardh 3ayn, but the ever-present insistence on a woman's domestic duties presents a challenge that Muslim women still face - esp when it is drummed into our heads that even preparing a husband's meal is waajib and more of a priority than anything else.

*Extremely* well-written, thoughtful, well-researched. To me, being completely unfamiliar with Salafiyyah in the UK, it was a fascinating insight into how the culture of Salafiyyah is both same anddifferent in various geographical regions.

The chapter on the history of Salafiyyah in the UK was particularly appreciated, as well as the observations regarding the ethnic demographics of Salafiyyah in certain regions (she focuses on more Somali/ other African populations).
I deeply appreciated the recognition that for many Salafi women, the pull to Salafiyyah was/ is very much both an intellectual and spiritual journey. It reminded me that while the culture of Salafiyyah can often be obnoxious and unreasonable, there is something deeper that does call to and attract those who search for something deeper - for those who genuinely want the Haqq, who look for something more.

Yes, it is very idealistic and Salafiyyah as it is doesn't always fulfill this - but there is a reason it has developed.
And yes, Salafis are pretty obnoxious judgmental fluffs when it comes to being a social group and this is probably the main reason behind people dropping the label. I don't blame them at all.

What this book highlighted, and what I thought was so important about it, is that it focused on the lived experiences of Salafi women... which are very, very different from those of Salafi men.

Whether in terms of the culture of the community, or how Islam is taught and internalized, to the challenges of finding a spouse and contending with things not working out, to struggling with both family tensions and challenges in the academic world/ work force... what women go through is so, so different, and so often ignored and underappreciated.

Obviously, the book is not exhaustive of *all* aspects of being a Salafi woman, nor does it necessarily touch on how the culture of Salafiyyah has evolved, esp recently.

Nonetheless, I highly recommend it. UK peeps will probably understand certain nuances better or identify possible inaccuracies, but overall I very much enjoyed the research shared and feel that it is a valuable first insight for those who might never have considered learning about Salafiyyah in outside of a cliche Muslim-men-and-politics-and-oppressed-veiled-women perspective.

The mus'haf that I've had since I was 12, that my father brought back for me from one of his many Hajj trips, has finally fallen apart. The binding has loosened, pages falling out, and after years of insisting that it's "just fine," I finally conceded defeat.
I have a new one to replace it - a classic green-and-gold, the type that I've always liked best - but I already miss my old one.
That one has sticky notes all over the last 5 ajzaa', reminders of when I was a teenager and still had a real tajweed teacher to correct me; underlined aayaat to help me memorize the supplications of the Prophets and the pious ones - those like Aasiyah (as) and Maryam (as); little marks that make my heart twinge with nostalgia as I remember the two years I had spent dedicated to reviewing my hifdh and memorizing more.
This mus'haf accompanied me across the world, staying with me during my many lows and slowly increasing highs.
There were times when, I am ashamed to admit, I barely opened it; but every time I picked it up, it fit between my hands smoothly and lovingly, a steady comfort.
I can't bring myself to send it off to get recycled with other aged, fallen-apart masaahif. It's perched atop my bookshelf now, and I can see it even as I curl up on the couch with my crisp new mus'haf, and I can't help but feel an odd sense of loss.
I can only hope that I will soon develop an equally intimate relationship with my new mus'haf; that it, too, will have small stickies tucked inside to remind me how to pronounce a particularly tricky word, or underlining an especially meaningful du'a.
Just as my old mus'haf was my companion and witness to the ups and downs of life, and my relationship with the Qur'an, I hope that this one, too, will testify for me on the Day of Judgment - that I opened to its pages often, that I memorized the Divine Words contained within it.
I hope that years from now, whenever I touch it, I will remember the days that I sat in patches of sunlight with it on my lap, the glow of the sun's rays no match for Allah's Light; that I will summon its pages easily in my mind's eye, no longer struggling so hard to remember the verses that a younger me had once found so easy to recall; that in times of sorrow, its scent will bring me comfort; that in times of joy, I will turn to it and recite the Words of Allah in gratitude.
I pray that this Ramadan, we all find our hearts growing more attached to the Qur'an, opening to its guidance and blessings, acting upon it in our everyday lives.
May Allah make us amongst Ahlul Qur'an, those who will be raised on the Day of Judgment reciting His Words.