An Inspiring Muslim Man: Salah Lashin

Admittedly, much of my blog focuses on negative or quirky things I observe in the multiple worlds that I occupy. As I am going through these challenging times, I’m trying to remember all the things that inspire me. Time and time again we read about horror stories of the miskeena Muslim woman. One of the most common mantras you here in women’s gathering is how wack Muslim men can be. Even if the women aren’t implicating their own spouses, few hold up good examples that others should follow. That really raised a big question: Where are the examples of good men in general, and good Muslim men specifically? I know several who I really admire.

The other day I had a conversation with my friend where our mutual friend’s father’s name, Salah Lashin, came up. His name really set a smile on both of our faces. My friend said that she wanted to write him and tell him what deep impact he had on her life. Both my friend and I went to school with Salah’s daughters. Occassionally I’d spend the night and on the way to school or to the masjid he’d start the car and make a du’a. My friend pointed out it was a heartfelt du’a. All his bismillahs were. My friend and I were both moved by his constant dhikr. His heartfelt connection to Allah contrasted with the dry version that I was acquainted with. He was is hard working man, devout Muslim, and happily Muslim. His example showed me that you didn’t have to drop everything, perform hijrah, or join some Islamic program to be a good Muslim. Islam was about balance and the emodiment of ideals. I saw how his life was centered around Islam and it manifested itself in the love and care he expressed to his wife and three daughters. Masha’Allah, I really admire him for his role as a husband to Madeha (Allah Yarhumha) and as a father. Over the years I became convinced that this man was destined for jennah. I even have proof based upon Prophetic traditions:

The Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) said, `Whoever had three daughters and showed patience in their keeping, their pleasure and displeasure, Allah admits him to Paradise for his mercy over them.

A household of four women is not easy. Women are moody and it is easy for the lone man to get ganged up on. That’s why I especially admired Salah. He didn’t have an complexes about his manhood being attacked. He never seemed mournful that he didn’t have sons. I never saw him be mean to anyone and he supported his wife and her community work. Did I mention he loved his wife? He defied all the stereotypes we read abut in the West about Arab and Muslim men. Masha’Allah for some of us salty Muslim sisters, he was proof that there were good men out there.

Salah and Madeha inspired me because they supported three daughters through college. One of the things that makes supporting daughters through school even more laudable than supporting sons is that parents invest in their daughter’s education not for prestige nor for future investment with an expectation that their daughters will take care of them. Daughters often go to their husband’s households, their careers may stop because they have children. But Salah and Madeha educated their daughters as a way to ensure their daughter’s future and to afford them all the opportunities young women should have. And they didn’t half step. They sent them to a prestigious private school. And that was no easy feat on their salary. They sacrificed and strove and made it happen. The third daughter to attend the university applied for financial aid so it would not be such a burden.

I was definitely inspired by the value that many of the immigrant Muslims placed on their daughters’ education. It contrasted with the culture in my family where when you were 18 you were expected to hold it down on your own. My mom pointed out that from age 16, I basically took care of myself. I gave up my college aspirations in high school because I felt like I could not afford to go to school. Years later, after I transferred to Santa Clara, withdrew in 1998, and finally went back in 2001 I got more family support. It took a lot of encouragement and some solid examples–the primary one being Salah and Madeha’s hard work. In the back of my mind, I felt that the way Salah and Madeha raised their daughters was the way to go. It was also my aspiration to work in Islamic schools at the time that drove my initial academic interest at Santa clara.

It just wasn’t in our rizq to have two dedicated parents. I have been blessed to see a wonderful Muslim man embody the beauty of our Islamic values. I witnessed the inner workings of a functional American Muslim family.They worked hard contribute to the Muslim community in Silicon Valley. The family pulled together during hard times and sickness. During that time, the only thing many of us could do was make du’a. Normally I don’t do this. I try not to name names on my blog. But for years I wanted to dedicate something to this brother, for all the hardship he endured with patience and constancy. I think that we should acknowledge everyday heroes. We should remember the people who touched our lives in positive ways. Mr. Salah Lashin, you have touched many people. I will ask anyone that knows you, and even those who don’t to make du’a. May Allah reward your efforts.

Gender Segregation and Free Mixing: Where is the Equity in Reality?

My public presence is minimally disruptive, well that’s because I hardly ever go out. But when I do, I dress conservatively and go to most places that women are free to go. In Kuwait, I’m witnessing how gender segregation work in everyday life. There are prayer rooms for women in schools, in malls and stores, in parks, and restaurants. Even though I haven’t yet enjoyed the women centered amenities, I’ve heard that there are separate beaches, and tons of facilities for women like gyms and swimming pools and social clubs. There are many places where men are not allowed to go. I’ve seen gender segregation at Kuwait University and gender segregation in banks (yes a whole separate office space for women). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to equate gender segregation with Jim Crow. Our fountains are just as nice, as well as our bathrooms. We don’t sit in the back of the bus. We just don’t take the bus. I haven’t seen a sign where it says women are not allowed. I suppose that is just implied based upon context. And yes free-mixing goes on in Kuwait. But like one Kuwaiti woman told me, if you want to go to jennah don’t mix with men.

My friend says that my life reads like I’m in the middle of a participatory observatory study. But this is a real lived experience where I try to balance traditional social norms between men and women and my modern needs as a female student and traveler. In many ways I feel like I can’t win for losing. My friends says that is the only way to make sense of what I’m experiencing is to take an anthropological approach. The only thing is that the I’m not a detached observer, this is my life. I have a Muslim identity, so my so called experiment is directly tied to how I see myself. Also, the social censure has that extra bite. This is part of my social world and the social consequences can be far reaching.

My friend suggests that I write about my experiences because of its relevance to Muslims in the West. It is hard to imagine that what I have to say will really matter. In fact, it may put off a lot of people. For one, I find the rules of gender segregation are stifling. I wrote about the social isolation that I experienced during my first month in Kuwait. It is especially stifling to women who are socially punished by other women for non-conformity. I get the sense that I am a persona non grata. “Who are you?….Are you married?….Where do you live?..With who?…Ohhhhhhhhhhh…” and then awkward pause. I’ve already mentioned judgmental attitudes.

Maybe women who grow up in societies where women sit in the house all day are used to it. But for me, it makes me really unhappy (and I’m a homebody!) and I’m trying to find some way to have social outlets without seeming too desperate. Can I scream at the top of my lungs (PLEASE HANG OUT WITH ME CAUSE I’M GOING TO DIE OF BOREDOM!) I’m not saying that I do nothing all day. I spend much of my time studying. I have editing work, research, and I help out here and there. I even have a tutoring gig in the house, but we got off schedule. I have lot of busy work, I putter about in my room, and then for a few hours I may putter about the winding corridors of this flat. My social word, as well as that of my friend with children, contrasts with the buzzing social world of the male head of household.

So far, my social world is pretty spotty and the few opportunities are rather contrived. It really consists of me being a tag along or default invite to a family social function. Most of my socialization will have to be structured around classes and lectures. I go to a 2 hour Arabic class on Friday and I just started dars (lesson) on one of Ghazali’s books. So, that’s like four hours when I leave the house. But most of my lessons are in the house. For the past week a really nice Iraqi brother has offered to help me with my reading and grammar several days a week. I normally prepare for hours looking up words and translating the assigned text. We sit for an hour reading and talking about various Islamic subjects. I asked to sit in on his sessions of Arabic text incremental reading. So, for the past week, I’ve sat with two men in order to benefit from being immersed in the Arabic texts that are really for very advanced Arabic students. Since both speak English fluently, they define words I don’t know and explain difficult concepts. I hate to slow them down, but I benefit from getting a taste of texts that I might otherwise not read on my own. They are also patient as I try to articulate difficult concepts with my Arabic limitations. My friend’s husband has recruited another man to be a more formal instructor. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can have formal lessons with this teacher three days a week.

So far, it seems like I have had to transgress the boundaries of gender segregation to learn anything–especially when it comes to Arabic. I’m sitting in the highest level of Arabic offered at the Islamic Presentation Committee. There are 12 levels, this is level 6. The director said that maybe in three years she’ll see our class as graduates from the Arabic class. What that means is that the road to learning Arabic in places like IPC is real slow. I lacks the rigor that a serious student needs. And I found that outside Kuwait University (which brushed me off last minute), there are no full time Arabic programs. With all the students at the Islamic centers, no one is really invested to help fisabillah, maybe fisabalfaloos except for the gentlemen who have offered to help me get to the level of Arabic that I need to move on in my program. So, one has to ad lib. Outside of the group halaqa or dars, no women have volunteered to teach me or help me learn. Last month, I had a chance to meet a well known Syrian scholar. I asked if there were no women to study under, was it permissible to study under a man. He said yes, then hailed Syria’s female scholars. That’s nice, masha’Allah. Since I’m not in Syria, I have to make due.

I know for many Muslims sitting with a man alone is transgressive. If a man and a woman are lone than Shaitan is the third person. I even know a former graduate student who wouldn’t meet with her adviser alone because of that. This caused some problems for her non-Muslim adviser and her work wasn’t taken seriously. The lax Muslim in me just thought Muslims needed to get over it. period.But the Western me believed that we had the internal will to fight back what ever personal demons that might cause either party to objectify the other. There proggie Muslim in me believed that if the intention was pure and that if both people treated each other decently, then both parties could stay out of trouble.

When I had a private writing tutoring, I didn’ feel the same pressures as I do when I have a Muslim Arabic instructor. I’ve had Muslim instructors in the states and there was a bit of the pressure, the worry about adab. Maybe deep in my mind there was the psychological terror that I was leading someone on the path to perdition. The traditional me was convinced that a man and woman cannot be friends and something was fundamentally wrong with sitting in a busy coffee shop was somehow an illicit meeting.

As a young Muslim, I was criticized for free mixing too much. I even attended a study group full of enthusiastic Muslims. The more conservative MCA wouldn’t host a group like that, but we were able to go to SBIA and learn from each other. Unlike some of my non-free-mixing friends, I would have starved to death if I had no interaction with non-mahram men. I’ve always taken a pragmatic approach to free-mixing. I’m not saying that the results have all been good. I’ve had some fitnah past. But I am saying that I couldn’t follow the no free-mixing between the genders without dramatically altering my life–basically get married right away, having tons of babies, and rarely leaving the house. If I followed all the rules of gender segregation I wouldn’t have been able to get my education, let alone learn the language of the Qur’an. I’m aware there are many people who take issue with the path that I’ve chosen. I guess this is what I’d have to say to them: Before you condemn me for being some free-mixing loose Muslim woman, please consider what type of intellectual wasteland you’d banish me to.

Why you all in my grill?

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The majority of women wear hijab in Kuwait. And there is a significant portion of women who wear the face veil. I am often dazzled by hijab fashions in Kuwait. I try not to stare, but I am intrigued by the whole face veiling. I find that face veil does not preclude sexual attractiveness, since a lot of niqabis wear tons of eye make-up and are dowsed in so much perfume. Some of their abayas are form fitting and attention getting also. I’ve already mentioned the ‘ho shoes. Don’t get me started on designer bags and the cat-walking in the malls. Maybe niqab is not about modesty, but about anonymity.
I think this really hit home today. As we left the Friday Souq two stylishly dressed, and presumably young, niqabi ladies were sitting on a bench. They spotted us and broke their neck to follow us as we made our way out the market. It must have been the English, plus the group of seven brown people running amok. Normally staring people look away when you look back at them. I looked up and stared back at them. Neither one broke their gaze. I said in English, assuming a greater than 50% chance that they’d understand me. “I guess niqab allows you to stare at people.”

I have noticed that niqabis will just stare you down–hard. They had the advantage tonight. They were anonymous and we were not. I noticed that niqabis stare down men too. For me, niqab isn’t something new. I have friends who have worn niqab in the states for years. I’ve even tried it on for kicks. But I have not seen as many niqabis as I see here. Nor have I seen the levels flash that is often associated with khaliji style veiling. In my short stay in Egypt, I saw black enveloped and brightly robed niqabis, alongside the many veiled women. In Morocco, I saw the traditionally dressed women in jallabas, with their veils tucked just under their nose. During my stay in Fes, I came to dread encountering them on the street. No matter how smartly dressed, how neat their jallabas were, they’d hit us up for money. If we didn’t have that, they’d take our cokes, if we didn’t have that, they’d take our water. Nothing like a crowd of niqabis begging harrassing you. After awhile, I scoped out the street before heading down the block I saw a old school niqabi lady chillin on a stoop someqhere, I went to the next block. I’d cross the street sometimes.

As a non-niqabi, when I see a striking person, I tend to lower my gaze. I may look a few times just to gain an imprint in my mind. But as for looking at men, as a I follow the proper decorum. I tend to lower my gaze. One, I’m not trying to catch eye contact. Two, I tend to be kind of shy in public. I’ve never been one to stare down a man. Well, not on the street at least. And I won’t talk about the few times when I did try to those come hither looks. But that’s not going down in the Middle East. I lower my gaze. I know enough Arab men to know that one mistaken look and some random dude on the street may think I have the hots for him. I mean, I could have had something in my eye. Maybe his dishdash was blinded my vision in its crispy whiteness. I could have been trying to identify my surroundings or trying to judge the distance between me and him so I don’t run into a pole or something.

I was walking with a friend who wears niqab. After we passed by two Kuwaiti men, she murmured, “I see you two Kuwaiti men looking at me friend.” I told her I didn’t see them looking because I was staring at the ground. She said something like, “Hey I’m wearing niqab and I can look at them dead up in their face.” Maybe this niqab thing is not so bad after all. You can be a bit bolder in your use of public space. I might try this niqab thing. While donning it I can stare at who I want when I want. All the while I can pretend I’m the most beautiful girl in the world. Ahhhhhhhhh, next purchase Kuwait!!

Female Genital Cutting

FEMALE GENITAL CUTTING

“In the world today there are an estimated 100 million to 140 million girls and women who have been subjected to the operation. Currently, about 3 million girls, the majority under 15 years of age, undergo the procedure every year.”
–World Health Organization


Waris Dirie, supermodel and UN advocate for the abolishment of female circumcision.

When I was a teenager, I believed a number of negative stereotypes associated about Islam. One was that all Muslim women were circumcized (a euphemism for Genital cutting or mutilation that ranges from removing the outer hood of the clitoris to the cutting all external female genitalia). As I learned more and more about Islam my own pressumptions melted away. I learned that women had rights. I read Islamic legal books which detailed women’s rights to sexual gratification during intercourse with her husband. Also, I learned that Islam forbid the mutilation or alteration of the body (outside of the male circumcision). As I spoke to more and more Muslims, I learned that the vast majority of Muslims I knew considered the practice abhorrent and backwards. As I investigated it further, I learned that some Sham in bilad al-Sham and Palestine were either given the sunna symbolic circumcision or had a minor procedure splittng the hood. But it wasn’t until recently that Muslim scholars have spoken openly in the West about the practice. Yet, for years there have been Muslim scholars working against cultural traditions and practices that harmed women. These were largely grass roots campaigns and they rarely garner the same public attention that people as figures like,Alice Walker (author of the Color Purple and Possessing the Secret of Joy) and Nawal Sadawi (author of Woman at Point Zero and The Fall of the Imam).

I want to clearly state from the outset that I am not trying to impose a Western view of feminity on the African and Muslim women who have undergone the procedure (whether forcibly or with consent). I do not believe that a woman’s wholeness rests on her clitoris. Nor do I think that Muslim and African women are helpless victims. I have argued elsewhere that women take active part in this practice and promote the norms and standards that not only condone the practice, but bake it desirable. As a writer, I try to write thought provoking and well informed pieces. For over a decade I have been passionate about this issue, but am increasingly aware of the complexities that surround the controversy of Female Genital cutting. This essay is not an exhaustive exploration of the subject. Nor do I a comprehensive list of resources on the subject. But what I intend to do is to raise this issue in support of the grass roots activists who are trying to curb a practice that is harmful to the minds and bodies of underage Muslim women. As an issue piece, I will first describe FGM (without showing any pictures that may offend my readers) using selections from the World Health Organization and UNICEF. I will also include some facts about the procedure in order to bring to light how widespread it is. I will then provide a few recent cases that have gained media attention. Finally, I will explore some of the controversies surrounding Western women’s focus on FGM and the negative outcome. This may be a choppy ride. But please read the block quotes because they detail very important information.

FGM comprises a range of procedures. The World Health Organizationstates:

Female genital mutilation (FGM), often referred to as ‘female circumcision’, comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons. There are different types of female genital mutilation known to be practised today. They include:

Type I – excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or all of the clitoris;
Type II – excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora;
Type III – excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation);
Type IV – pricking, piercing or incising of the clitoris and/or labia; stretching of the clitoris and/or labia; cauterization by burning of the clitoris and surrounding tissue;
scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice (angurya cuts) or cutting of the vagina (gishiri cuts);
introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to cause bleeding or for the purpose of tightening or narrowing it; and any other procedure that falls under the definition given above.
The most common type of female genital mutilation is excision of the clitoris and the labia minora, accounting for up to 80% of all cases; the most extreme form is infibulation, which constitutes about 15% of all procedures.


Depending on the severity of the operation and health precautions taken during the procedure, there can be serious health consequences. Some studies have shown that women who have been genitally cut are more vulnerable to getting HIV. This is opposite of the effect of circumcision reducing HIV transmission for men. WHO goes on to list the negative effects of FGM:

Health consequences of FGM

The immediate and long-term health consequences of female genital mutilation vary according to the type and severity of the procedure performed.

Immediate complications include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region and injury to adjacent tissue. Haemorrhage and infection can cause death.

More recently, concern has arisen about possible transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) due to the use of one instrument in multiple operations, but this has not been the subject of detailed research.

Long-term consequences include cysts and abscesses, keloid scar formation, damage to the urethra resulting in urinary incontinence, dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse) and sexual dysfunction and difficulties with childbirth.

Psychosexual and psychological health: Genital mutilation may leave a lasting mark on the life and mind of the woman who has undergone it. In the longer term, women may suffer feelings of incompleteness, anxiety and depression.

Proponents of the procedure claim that it increases sexual pleasure for their partners, reduces promiscuity and is cleaner. In Africa is is a right of passage and a tradition that cannot be broken. New Study on Female Genital Mutilation Dismisses Proponents’ Justifications Two claims about circumcision were proven incorrect in this study that compared circumcised and uncircumcized women. One, it did not reduce sexual pleasure. Two, circumcized women were more likely to have urinary tract infections.

Outside of accounts in books, documentaries, and internet. I have not had a conversation about this subject with a woman who has undergone this procedure. But I have spoken with people who have known women who have struggled after undergoing the procedure. I have heard accounts of Muslim convert men who married East African women only to find them infibulated. In one case it lead to a divorce. I have also spoken with a mixed Arab/West African who has known women who have undergone the procedure. He stated that the woman had no sensation during sexual encounters. One of my friends recounted stories about an East African woman who suffers from bouts of depression, continually bleaches her skin and wears foundation shades lighter than her actually tone, and has rejected Islam because the religion as a primary source of their gender oppression..

FGM is farely widespread in Africa and in Southwest Asia. UNICEF Reports:

Estimates of the total number of women living today who have been subjected to FGM/C in Africa, range between 100 and 140 million. Given current birth rates this means that some 3 million girls are at risk of some form of female genital mutilation every year. Most of the girls and women who have undergone FGM/C live in 30 African countries, although some live in Asia. They are also increasingly found in Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA, primarily among immigrants from Africa and southwestern Asia.

I found these alarming statistics on the prevalence of FGM from the State Department:

Guinea 98.6 percent
Somalia 90-98 percent
Djibouti 90-98 percent
Mali 93.7 percent
Sierra Leone 80-90 percent
Eritrea 90 percent
Sudan (northern) 89 percent
Egypt 78-97 percent
Ethiopia 72.7 percent
Burkina Faso 71.6 percent
Gambia 60-90 percent
Chad 60 percent
Guinea-Bissau 50 percent
Benin 30-50 percent
Cote d’Ivoire 44.5 percent
Central African Rep 43.4 percent
Kenya 37.6 percent
Nigeria 25.1 percent
Mauritania 25 percent
Yemen 23 percent
Senegal 20 percent
Liberia 10-50 percent
Ghana 9-15 percent

The State Department goes on to say that inn Indonesia there are no national figures that reveal the extent of the practice. But I have heard of cases in Anatolia, Pakistan, and Central Asia. But I have not learned of information on Malaysia, Syria, Lebanon, or Palestine/Israel. World health reports state that there are almost no cases of women undergoing the practice Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Iran. But African immigrants to the gulf may or may not practice the procedure. However, with growing immigration from AFrica and the Middle East, the practice has spared to United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. With the growing number of cases in the West, legislators seek to ban the practice. For example, UK passed Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003making it illegal to perform the procedure, assist a girl perform the procedure on herself, or go abroad to perform the procedure.

As we can tell from the statistics, FGM is not some dying practice. In fact, the debates surrounding FGM have become prominent in the news. I wanted to briefly discuss two cases, one in Burkina Faso and one in the center of the Arabo-Islamic World–Egypt. Before we take a brief look at these cases. I wanted to point out that FGM is often practiced secretly in the Muslim world. The procedure done contrasts markedly from the male circumcision ceremonies in the Muslim world.

In counries like Turkey boys are circumcised between 2 and 14. They dress up and are given gifts in celebration of this major step in the transition from boy into manhood. Female cutting on the other hand in Muslim countries is secretive. It does not have the same right of passage ceremonies as in Africa.

So, with the cultural differences in mind. I wanted to reflect on two recent deaths.

Last month 15 FGM procedures were done in a village of Burkina Faso, which resulted in the death of one girl and several hospitalized for infections and hemorrhaging. Many African countries have stepped up efforts to eliminate the practice. One article explained that the rate of FGM in Burkina Faso had been reduced by half. The government is hoping to step up cammpaigns to reduce resistance to the measures.

Years ago when I was in Morocco there was a Moroccan author who was criticizing Tahar Ben Jelloun. One of the things that bothered me about the novel was that it promoted negative stereotypes about Islam, plus it seemed as if he got things wrong (having not lived in a Muslim society for years or practiced. In Sand Child he wrote that a woman living as a man prostrated during janaza prayers. But no one prostrates during janaza. The other mistake was that the main character wondered if his wife was circumcised. FGM is not known to be practised in Morocco. It is considered abhorrent by Muslims in Saudi Arabia and man reform minded Muslims. For many of us Muslims in the West, nothing is more troubling than the continual prevelance of FGM in Egypt.

(AP Photo/Al-Masry Al-Youm)
Badour Shaker, the 10 year old whose death at the hands of a doctor performing female circumcision at an illegal clinic has sparked a national outcry. Health and religious authorities banned teh practice June 28, 2007, a ban on the practice. In July Egypt’s Muslim religious authorities issued a fatwa decreeing that female circumcision was un-Islamic.
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance’s article, “Debates about FGM in Africa, the Middle East & Far East” lists the various decrees given by Egypt’s top clerics on FGM over the years:

1949-MAY-28: They decided that it is not a sin to reject female circumcision.
1951-JUN-23: They stated that female circumcision is desirable because it curbs “nature” (i.e. sexual drive among women). It stated that medical concerns over the practice are irrelevant.
1981-JAN-29: The Great Sheikh of Al-Azhar (the most famous University of the Islamic World) stated that parents must follow the lessons of Mohammed and not listen to medical authorities because the latter often change their minds. Parents must do their duty and have their daughters circumcised.
2007-JUN-24: the Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gum’s announced that: “… this custom is prohibited.”


Alhumdulillah, Egypt’s top religious scholars are taking a stand. But the outright ban on FGM has given rise to a backlash. A recent New York Times article,
“Voices Rise in Egypt to Shield Girls From an Old Tradition”, reports:

Circumcision, as supporters call it, or female genital mutilation, as opponents refer to it, was suddenly a ferocious focus of debate in Egypt this summer. A nationwide campaign to stop the practice has become one of the most powerful social movements in Egypt in decades, uniting an unlikely alliance of government forces, official religious leaders and street-level activists.

The Times article points out that there are many who don’t see the ruling as legitimate. In addition state aligned ‘ulema are discredited (well unless they are ruling in support of commonly held beliefs and practices).

One of the things Western scholars are challenged with is the desire to respect the culture of the subjects we are studying and the desire to end practices that we see as impeding upon the freedoms and well being of weaker members of society. Before I go any further, I wanted to make a point that there are people in the West who are neither Muslim nor Africa, or even traditional in any time of way who do Female Genital Cutting. There are some women who have liposuction and labia reductions . Outside of the women who have enlarged labias that may cause pain during intercourse, there are women who want in order to make their vaginas more attractive. Part of this growing trend is due to the prevalence of pornography where regular women compare themselves negatively air brushed images and plastic surgery enhanced nude models and porn actresses. I found this one website for Clitoral Reduction and Clitoral Hood Removal at a Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery Clinic. Some proponents of FGM have argued that type I, removal of the clitoris head increases sexual pleasure. This plastic surgeon also supports that claim. If that is the case, then I would argue that only adult women who are willing to take medical risks should undergo the procedure–and not little girls.


There are several controversies about FGM. One, the intense scrutiny Western women place on non-Western women’s sexual organs. Two, the backlash against Western efforts at eradicating FGM. And Three, the comparison of FGM to male circumcision. I am only going to focus on the first two. Caroline Scherf writes in British Medical Journal“Female genital mutilation must be seen as one of many harmful practices affecting women in traditional societies, and the planning of programmes for its abolition must involve the women concerned and their own perception of wellbeing and improvement… Women in developing countries are facing a multitude of suffering; we need a more wholesome approach in order to reach the ultimate goal of a dignified and healthy life for all women, everywhere.”
A review for Ellen Gruenbaum’s book states, ” Western outrage and Western efforts to stop genital mutilation often provoke a strong backlash from people in the countries where the practice is common…Gruenbaum finds that the criticisms of outsiders are frequently simplistic and fail to appreciate the diversity of cultural contexts, the complex meanings, and the conflicting responses to change.” I suppose this is why I differ from Alice Walker’s accounts of FGM and Nawal Sadaawi (who had undergone infibulation). If we truly want to help women eliminate the procedure we have to shed some of our western assumptions about FGM. We have to let the women who are subject to these procedures speak for themselves.

But I do not believe in a cultural relativist approach, especially when we have women who have spoken about the harm it has caused them. But instead of just supporting international NGOs, we should also find ways to support local grass roots movements. This is where us Muslims in the West can help. We are part of international networks. Many of us have roots in these countries where it is practiced. We should find ways to support local organizations that have little funding but do the real work supporting society’s most vulnerable members.

On Single Muslim Women Traveling and Working

I have written before about forbidding wrong and judgmental people. I have found some of the social pressures and moral judgments from our community quite oppressive. Things many people in the West may consider quite normal become bastions of inequity. Things like two couples going out for dinner ((gasp!)) or hosting a female language student in your home ((gasp!)). I am aware that there are a wide range of social practices and mores. I try not to judge those who are more rigid or fluid in their interpretations of Islam, but that favor is rarely returned in kind. This is especially the case when it comes to sociological and cultural practices, as opposed to religious and spiritual practices. Gender segregation is a sociological practice that has a cultural basis. For some Muslims who practice gender segregation, the free mixing between the sexes is tantamount to an all and out orgy. As a single woman living in the Muslim world (both in America and the Middle East), I have been on the receiving end of a lot of negative judgments.

I know that there are many Muslims who do not believe that women should live on their own, let alone travel without a close male relative or husband. There are Muslims who won’t have a conversation with an unrelated man or even have a business related meeting alone with an unrelated man. I know for one graduate student, this caused serious problems. I’ve been Muslim for 14 years and for all but 2 ½ years, I’ve had to navigate things on my own. I guess I have a more pragmatic take. I’ve preferred to live as a “loose woman,” working outside the home, traveling by myself , choosing a career as a western trained scholar rather than choose a circumscribed life. I have seen too many vulnerable women who are abused by their spouses and feel helpless to change their situation. I know relatively happy women, who in their youth had ambitious career plans but decided to live conservative lives. A number of my college friends are now stay at home mothers who are deeply involved in their children’s education and community life. I am proud of them and admire their efforts. I have a lot of respect for women’s work. But, I could not limit myself to being only a wife and mother, but also a scholar in order to make a contribution to my community. Finding that balance is difficult, but I think it is possible.
But women who have not given up their career paths in order to get married are looked down upon. I don’t think I’m taken as seriously as a man in my position. I guess in their mind they are like, “How cute, she can write papers!” Perhaps that is the reason why I have gotten little support from my community.

I experienced my first major dose of judgment when I was 18. It had to do with my living situation and the fact that I didn’t live with my parents. People would tell me that I should move back home without understanding my family situation. Nor did they understand how much the family I stayed with helped me stay in school and pursue my education aspirations. At that time, there were few Muslim women living on their own or even renting rooms together. And there is no real community support for convert women. No aid for finding housing, few jobs in the community that offered competitive pay, and definitely no social services for any sisters who had a hard time finding work because she wore hijab. Instead, they encourage new convert women to get married right away. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that our Ummah has really not created a space for women like me.

I suppose the dilemma for a Muslim woman traveling in the Middle East is to pick which scandalous living arrangement she’ll have. If you live by yourself, you’re a loose woman (without a mahram) with no one moderating your behavior, if you live with a family you are inviting scandal (living with a non-mahram man). Perhaps if you live in a commune of ultra-religious women you might escape stigma. But then again, who knows? You can still draw controversy. Basically, you have no business having any ambitions outside of being married.

I am aware that people are often well intentioned in their judgmental behavior. But I do think that it is important that they be aware of how their imposing views can be seriously detrimental to the emotional and spiritual well being of others. There’s nothing more lonely than being part of a community. Just to get by, I have had to make a lot of fluid interpretations of my religion. I would never have been a doctoral student if I followed the Fiqh books like a manual for life. And because of that, I am judged. But getting the same message—“you are not in line”—pounded down my throat turns me off from wanting to engage with this community. I guess we should be reminded that it is easy to judge whether someone is in line with some social norm or cultural practice that may or may not reinforce spirituality. But we cannot judge what is in someone’s heart or know their spiritual station. And because of that, we should be humble and reflect on our own intentions when we tell someone what they are doing wrong and why they should change some aspect of their lives.

Death and Dishonor

Our religion says not to kill,” and then after another moment: “But our tradition says to kill.”

Abu Moghaseb, 2007

In a my previous post, Cultural Matters, Bridging Worlds, I wrote, “There are all sorts of ways that culture can play a dynamic role in keeping the tradition alive. Culture is important, it is dynamic… There are many cultures that are disappearing under globalization, but at the same time new ones forming out of hybrid identities and close encounters of the humankind.” This is the upside of tradition. But as with anything there is a shadow to the preservation of traditions. Some traditions are more about power and control. Some traditions are counterproductive to a society. Some traditions contradict the very moral and ethical basis that the society claims to stand on. Clearly, I am not a cultural relativist. I believe there is truth (even if we can only have a limited understanding of it) and that there are such things as right and wrong. I find some tradtitions repugnant and unacceptable. For me, this is especially the case when it condones, reinforces, or encourages violence against a society’s most vulnerable members. I believe one of our duties is to protect those who cannot defend themselves. However, I find that in Muslim communities we are falling short of this.

Years ago I attended a talk by a Jordanian activist who worked towards ending honor killings. She shows statistics that demostrated that few conservative Muslim scholars and lawmakers were willing to impose the mandatory hudud sentence for murder when comes to murdering women. Crimes against women go unpunished. Especially when it comes to “honor killings.” Husbands, brothers, fathers, and even uncles brutally murder their loved ones, all to wash away the shame of a scandal, or even suspicion of unchaste behavior. There have been a few cases reported in the West. Many Muslims in the West try to distance themselves by explaining it is a cultural thing. But as an American Muslim convert, this act was inconceivable. For me it was unthinkable that this could be accepted by any Muslim (Aren’t we supposed to believe in justice and mercy?). I still have a hard time knowing that there are men who are able to kill female family members with impunity.

I was reminded about our sad state affairs in an email discussion group. The New York Times recently published a story, Dishonorable Affiar, which really saddened me. I don’t know how anyone can read this story without crying:

Zahra was most likely still sleeping when her older brother, Fayyez, entered the apartment a short time later, using a stolen key and carrying a dagger. His sister lay on the carpeted floor, on the thin, foam mattress she shared with her husband, so Fayyez must have had to kneel next to Zahra as he raised the dagger and stabbed her five times in the head and back: brutal, tearing thrusts that shattered the base of her skull and nearly severed her spinal column. Leaving the door open, Fayyez walked downstairs and out to the local police station. There, he reportedly turned himself in, telling the officers on duty that he had killed his sister in order to remove the dishonor she had brought on the family by losing her virginity out of wedlock nearly 10 months earlier.

Zahra died from her wounds at the hospital the following morning, one of about 300 girls and women who die each year in Syria in so-called honor killings, according to estimates by women’s rights advocates there. In Syria and other Arab countries, many men are brought up to believe in an idea of personal honor that regards defending the chastity of their sisters, their daughters and other women in the family as a primary social obligation.

….

Yet the notion that Islam condones honor killing is a misconception, according to some lawyers and a few prominent Islamic scholars. Daad Mousa, a Syrian women’s rights advocate and lawyer, told me that though beliefs about cleansing a man’s honor derive from Bedouin tradition, the three Syrian laws used to pardon men who commit honor crimes can be traced back not to Islamic law but to the law codes, based on the Napoleonic code, that were imposed in the Levant during the French mandate. “Article 192 states that if a man commits a crime with an ‘honorable motive,’ he will go free,” Mousa said. “In Western countries this law usually applies in cases where doctors kill their patients accidentally, intending to save them, but here the idea of ‘honorable motive’ is often expanded to include men who are seen as acting in defense of their honor.

“Article 242 refers to crimes of passion,” Mousa continued. “But it’s Article 548 that we’re really up against. Article 548 states precisely that if a man witnesses a female relative in an immoral act and kills her, he will go free.” Judges frequently interpret these laws so loosely that a premeditated killing — like the one Fayyez is accused of — is often judged a “crime of passion”; “witnessing” a female relative’s behavior is sometimes defined as hearing neighborhood gossip about it; and for a woman, merely speaking to a man may be ruled an “immoral act.”

Right now, I’m kind of speechless. I’d rather the stories speak for themselves:Jordan Honor Killing Turns out Daughter was a Virgin
Who killed the Juha sisters? Jordan Charges six over “honor” killings
The Horror of Honor Killings in Turkey.

Just a sidebar note: Muslims are not the only people who do honor killings, as this article indicates. Violence against women is a worldwide phenomena. I address the Muslim world because I am part of that community and if I don’t speak against this particular evil act, then I am complicit in my silence. I think we should all remember the many nameless victims and pray that they receive justice. We should pressure our lawmakers and scholars to condemn these actions.

Two Arab Beaches

The other night it was a cool 96 degrees. The temperature is dropping and soon we’ll be able to do outdoor activities in the daytime without feeling like we’re about to drop dead from heat exhaustion. We went to the Beach at night. I put my feet in the Persian/Arabian Gulf for the first time. Too bad people think sandy beaches are one big ash tray. Despite the litter, an evening on the beach was really nice after iftar. Big ships passed by and from a distance they looked like constellations drifting farther and farther away. My experience contrasted with my daytime experience in Casablanca two years ago (I fell in love with Morocco during my first trip three years ago. But like any healthy relationship you recognize your love’s merits and postive traits, as well as their flaws and shortcomings).

Me and my friend Maria took a four hour train ride to Casablanca in order to escape the heat of Fez. There was a pool in our hotel. But I really wanted to find a nice beach. The beaches were packed with men and highschool age boys. It was really around 20 men per woman. There were a few girls in bikinis, but they were clearly with male relatives. We didn’t plan on swimming. So, we walked fully dressed, me in an ankle legnth long skirt and t-shirt and Maria in loose jeans and tunic, to the water.
All I wanted to do was put my feet in the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. As a child, I swam and body surfed the waves of Atlantic city and I even have vague memories of Chesapeake Bay. So, stepping into the Atlantic on the Coast of Africa had a special meaning to me. Mind you, Morocco as much nicer beaches in the South, but for that time Casablanca had to do. But, the beaches were dominated by men hanging out soaking up the sun. Men laying out walking. And there were of course a few families. But through the whole length of the beach, there were impromptu soccer games that stood in our way to the water. It was scary dodging soccer balls launching across the beaches and men running back and forth. Plus, I had to spend the whole time looking either at the sky or ground and avoiding eye contact.

Both me and Maria got a lot of cat calls. Although Maria is from Bahia Brazil (with all Brazilian flair to go with it), we look like sisters. A couple of times, a few guys sang, “Tamainunil asmarani…” Sometimes the guys would call out, “Soooooooooooosie!” or the standard “Pssspsssspspspspspspspssss! (that cat calling sound)” or “Zwaina!” Sometimes they would ask us questions as we passed by, “Where are you from? Are you Moroccan? Can I just talk to you?…” You learn early on that it is better to ignore an unwanted admirer. Even responded “No.” encourages them. Normally they will follow you, but I never really felt physically threatened in Morocco. This contrasts with the harrassment in I experienced in East San Jose, San Francisco, and East Oakland. I would get called all sorts of B***es and ‘hos. But one time we did get freaked out. A guy started following us. He kept speaking in rapid fire Moroccan, “Where are you from? What’s your name? Please I just want to talk to you? Can I just talk to you?…etc.” We kept walking away, trying to ignore him. Then he grabbed my arm. We both freaked out because this was the first time and only time someone invaded my personal space. We had no place to go but in the water to get away from him. Maria’s pants got soaked to the knees. I don’t know how I didn’t get soaked. After we escaped the over-enthusiastic guy, I tried to spend a few moments experiencing the Atlantic from the other side. That meant blocking out that recent close call, the learing eyes, the soccer games, and the male dominated public space. There are beaches and swimming places dedicated to women. But that day we didn’t make it. For the rest of our trip, me and Maria didn’t attempt to visit the beach again. That was enough for us. We went swimming in the hotel pool and got stared at by random guys on the third and seventh floor.

So, that account of my time on the public beach in Casablanca differed greatly from my experience on a Kuwaiti beach. First, women just don’t walk alone at night in places like Fez. But in Kuwait, it is common to see a woman get her jog on, speed walk, or hustle and bustle to one place or another in the evening. In a way, it made me hopeful that the Muslim societies can allow space for women to move freely without fear and intimidation. I saw a few couples relaxing on the beach. Women were out too. Sometimes in pairs or small groups. Numerous women walked along the path for evening exercise. A few times I saw a woman walk alone. I saw a fully veiled woman with chador flowing from her head to toes and niqab. I also saw regular girls and young women wearing abaya and the loosely wrapped head scarf walking in pairs. I saw Western women walking and an Asian woman in tight jeans and baby-t speed walking. All the women walked unharrassed, even as they passed by small groups of men.