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!!

Eid Mubarak and Why I still Get Excited about Turkey Day and Christmas

In some ways Ramadan passed by quickly and in other ways it seemed like it would never end (or at least I would not be able to make it to the end). I guess I try to be festive, but I have to make a painful confession as a proud Muslim. My Eids have sucked in comparison to Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family. Don’t get me wrong. My family does not celebrate it for nationalistic reasons or religious. But it is a time when my mom cooks special foods and a time when we eat and catch up. There are lots of Muslims who are against celebrating the Pilgrims getting saved by Native Americans and then turning around decimating Native American populations. But even more than that, many Muslims are against celebrating a holiday that has pagan roots. But believe me, it is not like I’m going around praying to a Christmas tree. I’m just happy to be home and see my family and eat some soul food.

Last year, in my blog entry, Ramadan Around the Corner, I wrote this:

The Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan is by no doubt a relief. But I hate the anti-climatic end to my month long process of food and sleep deprivation. Usually I have to go back to work. Everything goes to normal, nothing changes, no visiting friends and family. It is about as much fanfare as, secretary’s day sometimes. I know, no one in my family celebrates Eid. I think I received an Eid gift maybe once in like 13 years. It is a struggle to feel part of a community during that time. In the large crowds I’m usually grateful to find a familiar face and give quick salaams. My Muslim friends are off doing their family thing. If I go hang out with them, I’m sort of like a fifth wheel. So, I just go home and dream of a time when I could have my own Muslim family and we can make up some traditions of our own.

l think either Eid al-Adha or Eid al-Fitr for single converts can have the same effect as Christmas and Thanksgiving on single people who live far from their family. I remember having a conversation about the loneliness converts experiences with someone who was born into a Muslim family. She stated she doesn’t fit in and has felt lonely sometimes, especially when she went to grad school. But the simple fact is that she now lives near her parents, siblings, and in-laws, has a growing family of her own, and everybody seems pretty close-knit. She has people she can visit during Eid, and they’d be happy to see her, or visiting is an obligation, a duty. I remember a few years ago I asked a Desi friend what did they do after the Eid prayers. They got a little uncomfortable. I wasn’t supposed to know this. Like I didn’t have the secret handshake or password. After some prying they said their families had a function, normally with other Desi families. I don’t recall being invited to one of the Eid parties, or even the hajj welcome back parties. However, I’m invited to weddings and the parties where everyone from the entire Muslim universe is invited. But often I feel awkward as that one weird Black chick that people see around occassionally.

This Eid was better than my previous Eids. I’m not going to go into detail about why my Eids on the East Coast, with my now ex and now former in-laws. But they those three Eids sucked just as much as my miskeena Eids in California.
For years Eid traditions were a mystery. I mean, I know what you’re supposed to do before Eid prayers eat some sweets, (wear perfume if you’re a guy, but not if you’re a woman cause the pleasant odor of a woman will cause disorder and disruption), drive different routes there and back. But every culture has something different that they do in celebration of Eid. They have special sweets, traditions to delight children, clothing, and customs of visiting grandparents and family members. One of my friend noted that even though she would like to experience a Kuwaiti Eid, she has never been invited to a Kuwaiti Eid gathering. Normally they say, “See you after Eid!” So, we still don’t know what Arab, South Asian, or what ther Muslims really do for Eid, outside of what we hear on radio specials. Perhaps the imprenetable nature of the eid private family gathering over the past 14 years represented my outsider status. Many of the international students experience this when they study in the states. So, organizaitons like the ISSU at Stanford organize specially events to bring people to together. They are nice, but I’m like wow after 14 years I am still transient. Every year I feel like that poor undergrad who doesn’t have any money to buy a plane ticket home for Thanksgiving break. You know those undergrads who don’t have anywhere to go off campus, there’s nothing like cafeteria turkey to warm the heart.

I just gave up going to Eid prayer. But I still go to Eid functions with the other long-way-from-home Muslims. I still felt a bit dissapointed one Eid because I signed up for the secret Sheikh/a (kinda like secret Santa). So I was all excited that I’d get an Eid gift for the first time in like 9 years. But my secret Sheikha forgot me. It wasn’t about the gift, but just about the thought. Then, another Eid, I missed a funny presentation because of a 20 minute long argument that I had with an international student who insisted that Black people didn’t give a damn about Darfur and how that was so hypocritical considering what African Americans been through. I mean, Eid Mubarak! Nothing like other Africans in the Diaspora making you feel like crap during Eid. Maybe some of us grad students are so analytical and outraged by injustices we see, that we can’t find a way to be festive. I dunno. I’m trying to not let the festive holidays depress me or let crowded gatherings make me for lonely. I think that’s why I became excited when I found out that I didn’t have to attend Eid prayers as long as there were enough people to fulfill the obligation. But this time in Kuwait, I did want to go to Eid prayer. But I fell asleep late and didn’t wake up in time. I guess I have to catch the sea of black abayas and chadors next during the next Eid (that’s the big Eid al-Adha). There were several kid centric things going on for Eid. But I have always wondered if there were special bazaars, performances, and street food that people eat during Eid. And not all the time is Eid about children. Eids were also the big mixed gatherings that medieval Muslim scholars in Andalusia condemned because the young single people of opposite sexes could see each other. Gosh, the threat of social collapse due to young men and women intermixing and possibly flirting. Watch out now!

Seeing how scandal follows a single Muslim woman like doo doo draws flies, I decided to pass on the kid-centric picnick on an Island on Friday. After the kids came back from picnicking and spending money at an amusement park, they returned home. I sat with them to exchange gifts and unwrap Eid presents. I realized that this was the first time I ever really saw kids excited about Eid and doing Eid-like things. It was one of the more pleasurable moments. Since Thursday morning, several members of the family I’m staying with have come down with some stomach bug. So, no big celebratory feasts. Who has the energy for all that? But in order to alleviate my cabin fever, I I went to an Eid open house at the AWARE Center (Advocacy for Western Arab Relations). I was nice getting out, I ran into some students from Kuwait University. But still, more of an open house than the warm feeling of a holiday. Don’t get me wrong some people have fun during Eid. I think especially when you part of a family or have strong bonds with people who share the day with you, it can be really nice. Eid is less materialistic than Christmas, there is all the stress similar to Christians–the crowds, the rush to buy presents, clothes, and food. It is not the material things about Christmas or the feast of Thanksgiving that draws me to it. But it is the sense that I am sharing precious time with loved one. It is a sense that belong somewhere, as opposed to being a lost person in the crowds of communalism, that makes me want to make my Eids like Christmas.

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.

Driving in Kuwait


I don’t know if I have the guts to drive in Morocco, and surely I lack the patience to drive through the chaos that is called the streets of Cairo. But I have driven in Kuwait. And even though the streets are clean and everything is well organized, it doesn’t take too long to realize you are driving in the Middle East. Even walking can be a hazard. There are rules, speed limits, fatalistic cautionary signs like, “Speed Leads to Death!” The US Department of state reports:

Driving in Kuwait is hazardous. Although Kuwait has an extensive and modern system of well-lit roads, excessive speeding on both primary and secondary roads, coupled with lax enforcement of traffic regulations and a high density of vehicles (one vehicle for every 2.8 residents), leads to frequent and often fatal accidents. In 2005, reported vehicular accidents rose again over the previous year to 56,253. In 2005, there were 451 traffic-accident-related deaths, also an increase over the previous year. The average age of death was between 21 and 30 years. There are now over one million motor vehicles registered in Kuwait. Incidents of road rage, inattention and distraction on the part of drivers, poor driving skills, and highway brinkmanship are common in Kuwait, and can be unsettling to Western drivers in Kuwait who are accustomed to more rigid adherence to traffic laws.


This website, Life in Kuwait faithfully depicts the hazards of Kuwaiti driving. But the scariest thing are the roundabouts. The first time I encountered one, my friend told me to go straight. I didn’t know what that meant, there was only left and right. I almost drove into the center divide. Whew, but she meant follow the road to the left, then turn off right. So recently I found this guide to roundabouts. One piece of advice goes:

Never come to a full stop while waiting for your turn; stopping is a sign of weakness. When attempting to enter you must be fearless. If the other cars detect that you are not confident in your attempts, they will make sure you never get by.

The advice helps. You have to have courage to drive in Kuwait. The first time I drove my friend had her entire family make du’a. The kids were suprisingly silent so that I could focus. We all breathed a sigh of relief when I made it to our destination. Just like airplane take offs and landings, driving in the Middle East makes me  especially religious (conscious that the end may be near) and my prayers more fervent.

Along with all the women driving in Kuwait, when I’m out running errands or heading to school, I’m spreading untold corruption and eroding social mores as I navigate Kuwaiti roads. That’s the argument that the opponents to women driving in Saudi Arabia make. Here’s what the latest report from New York Times has to say

Some Saudi officials and religious men agree with the women that Islam does not forbid women to drive. In the past, Saudi women were able to move freely on camel and horseback, and Bedouin women in the desert openly drive pickup trucks far from the public eye.

Clerics and religious conservatives maintain that allowing women to drive would open Saudi society to untold corruption. Women alone in a car, they say, would be more open to abuse, to going wayward, and to getting into trouble if they had an accident or were stopped by the police. The net result would be an erosion of social mores, they say.

See the rest of the article here, Saudis Rethink Taboo on Women Behind the Wheel