Intisar Shah is one of the most recognisable and respected members of the Philadelphia Muslim community. Born and raised in North Philadelphia, she accepted Islam in 1973. Some people have described Intisar Shah as a rock of the community, but she is more than that; she’s a gemstone who has been polished through perseverance, faith, and dedication to her community.
While small in stature, sister Intisar has a calm and commanding presence that is respected by everyone. Qasim Rashad highlights Intisar’s positive attitude, explaining, “She has an ability to make you feel the world cares about you while at the same time she is as candid and truthful as they come.” Perhaps it’s her mid-Atlantic dialect, with traces of Southern warmth, or that Philly swagger, which transcends age, that makes it so easy for people of all ages to relate to her. She acknowledges, “I work with both ends, the youth and elders, and the adults in between.”
For over 40 years, sister Intisar has worked with inner city youth. Keziah Ridgeway, educator, writer, and Philly fashionista, relates, “I still remember her work with the youth back when I was in high school and it doesn’t seem that she’s slowed down one bit as she grows older.” Intisar lives just one block from United Muslim Masjid in South Philadelphia, one of the city’s most active Muslim communities. Qasim Rashad, Amir of United Muslim Masjid, notes, “Everyone that knows sister Intisar knows she loves her community, her people and the youth.” She considers the Muslim community her family and the masajid across Philadelphia home. Intisar recounted her youth, “I came from a family of very motivated leaders. My mother fought for community rights and a clean neighbourhood. She always had an extra plate at the table for a stranger, for anyone that may drop by.” Intisar’s most meaningful work is linked to turning personal tragedy into blessings for the youth and Philadelphia Muslim community as a whole.
One of the great testaments to her faith and dedication to Islamic education is the life of her son, Qa’id Ameer Abdul-Majeed Staten. Like his mother and father, Sam Staten Sr., Qa’id devoted much of his time to volunteering in the community. Despite his youth, Qa’id inspired others around him and even began his own organisation. When I asked her what the key was to raising such a devout, thoughtful, and inspirational young man, Intisar stated that every child needs discipline and order. She said, “I am a believer in being firm, but first and foremost, I always tried to put Allah I in the front of our life.” Intisar, like her mother, opened her home to others and almost every night three to a half dozen of her son’s friends spent the night. She said, “Everything I did with our son and his friends was to always let them know the role that they played as men in our community. They should be God-fearing, make prayer, and call their families to prayer.” She also stressed the importance of her son’s Islamic education in shaping his character. Intisar highlighted how Clara Muhammad School was a safe haven compared to many public schools in Philadelphia, which are plagued by drugs and violence.
Qa’id had plans to attend Howard University on scholarship but on April 27, 2003, just a few weeks short of his graduation, he was fatally shot by a robber. During Qa’id’s funeral, a group of young adults who knew him decided to create an organisation that honoured his generosity and service to the community by also giving back to the community through a hajj fund. Intisar said, “My son and two of his friends made intention to make hajj the same year that he graduated. I went to perform the rites for my son and those two young men were the first recipients to hajj scholarship.” The youth formed The Qa’id Ameer Abdul- Majeed Staten (QAAMS) Hajj Foundation.
Sister Intisar Shah has been an integral part of QAAMS since its inception. This year, QAAMS celebrated its 10th anniversary and now has a youth council and senior council. The organisation seeks to preserve our youth through spirituality, education and recreation. Qasim Rashad says that there are over a dozen youth actively involved in the QAAMS youth council, which provides a healthy alternative to children who have outgrown the Jawaala (for boys 7 to 17) and Muslimah Scouts (for girls 6 to 16). QAAMS organises ski trips, hosts iftars during Ramadan and feeds the hungry with organisations, such as Feeding Philly. QAAMS also organises and sponsors Family Night at United Muslim Masjid and collaborates with the Muslim Students Associations in Philadelphia through events aimed at the youth, such as open mic poetry. QAAMS continues to sponsor hajj tours. About 11 members have performed hajj to this date. Many of the youth council members are currently starting college and are looking forward to performing hajj.
Most of the original members of QAAMS are now in their late 20s and have been involved with the organisation for about a decade. Intisar said that many are active in the community and restructuring the organisation. The youth who started QAAMS, she says, “ Are now married, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, Bachelors, Masters, entrepreneurs, working in a variety of fields from health to social services.”
Organisations like QAAMS are so important for our community because they nurture and empower our youth, creating safe environments for them to flourish spiritually. Both Keziah Ridgeway and Qasim Rashad highlight how many of QAAMS’ members continue to give back to the community. At the QAAMS 10th anniversary gala, they didn’t need big name speakers. Instead, members inspired attendees by speaking about how their lives have been impacted by QAAMS and hajj. Intisar related that QAAMS is working on obtaining a building. She said, with a physical location “we can create safe quarters for the Muslim youth. So people can come and be educated about Islam, have social programs and be safe.” By working through QAAMS, Intisar is committed to building the Islamic community and creating opportunities for the youth, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
This past May, Intisar received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th Annual Sister’s Recognition Luncheon and Fashion Show, which is sponsored by United Muslim Masjid. Intisar was acknowledged for her work; she has given over 40 years of service to the private and public sectors. She is the Executive Director of QAAMS Hajj Foundation, active in Jewels of Islam (a comprehensive program and support network for women 50 years and older), a Board Member of Islamic Heritage Foundation, and Committee Member for the City-Wide Eid. In addition to her work with QAAMS, she has also coordinated countless youth and adult activities for the Philadelphia Muslim community. Keziah Ridgeway highlights Intisar’s involvement and abilities as a facilitator, explaining, “When I participated in the Islamic Heritage Foundation Youth Committee and attended related events I always remember how involved Sis. Intisar was with participating and being the glue to hold it all together.”
Sister Intisar’s community building is not limited to the Muslim community; she also works in the broader public sector as an active member of Mothers In Charge (for women who lost family and loved ones due to violence), Support Community Outreach Program, and the Equal Partners in Charge, Department of Human Services Community Prevention Services. She also researches and writes with a joint effort for the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program in the Department of Health and Human Services promoting abstinence programs.
Women like Intisar are the backbone of our community. It is clear that she does her work out of love and to please her Lord. Qasim Rashad notes, “I think the most important lesson that any person can learn from Intisar is consistency. Her undying love and commitment to our community has not permitted her to waiver one bit. “Through her dedication, she has become an effective and influential leader. Keziah Ridgeway explains, “As a result of seeing her hard work and dedication, it inspired me to continue to give back to my community in whatever way that I can whether that be through the students that I teach, the girls I mentor through Alimah Scouts or online through my website and social media!”
Intisar’s community work following her son’s tragic death is a perfect example of how we can find strength through hardship. We often go to lectures and hear about how we should be steadfast and not despair. In the past, I have often asked myself ‘how?’ We have so many inspiring reminders in the Qur’an, such as the following verse where Allah I tells us: “Oh you who have believed, persevere and endure and remain stationed and fear Allah that you may be successful” (Al Imraan: 200)
Looking to Intisar’s life and hearing accounts of how she remained steadfast, I am reminded of the follow verse: “But give glad tidings to the patient. Who, when afflicted with calamity, say: “Truly, to Allah we belong and truly, to Him we shall return.” (Al-Baqarah: 155-156)
Some recounted the strength Intisar demonstrated during her son’s funeral, and she continues to have so much patience and grace when faced with hardship or struggle. Intisar says, “I am thankful to Allah I to be His servant. I am thankful that my son accepted Islam as a way of life. And I pray that Allah I is pleased with him. I really want to please Allah I. So I pray that I can meet him in Jannat al Firdous.” Sister Intisar has shown me how I can better embody the Qur’an and Sunnah in my life; how I can turn whatever hardship I face into a lifetime of meaningful work.
Margari Aziza Hill is an adjunct professor, blogger, and writer who lives just outside of Philadelphia.
You can read the full article at SISTERS magazine, along with many other fabulous and thoughtful contributions from Muslim women across the globe.
The Islamic Monthly published the preliminary findings of my research on women and mosque leadership:
How do women fair in American mosques? How do fellow worshipers treat them? Are mosques accommodating the multiple needs of the female community?
These questions have been on the minds of many in the American Muslim community for a long time. Many women have complained that they are not treated well in their houses of worship. Some concerned Muslim women have even taken to “shock and awe” tactics to change mosque culture by entering mosques, wearing hidden cameras to document their experiences, post these videos online and expose various types of discrimination.
Nearly a decade after the Islamic Social Services Association and Woman in Islam, Inc. released its pamphlet, “Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers, ” which rated the friendliness of mosques, not much has changed for Muslim women.
To better understand how the American-Muslim community has faired in its treatment of women since this report was published, I decided to survey over 100 Muslim men and women and speak with female Muslim leaders, many of whom asked to remain anonymous. A number respondents argued that women have made only marginal gains in American mosques. Female educators, scholars, activists, and community organizers are vital to the development of the American Muslim community. Yet, many mosques and community centersare not utilizing the intellectual and professional resources that Muslim American women have to offer.
Mosque attendance is optional for women, but so many women choosing to not attend raises some important issues. I spoke with a female community leader who wished to remain anonymous about women-led organizations and traditional Muslim institutions. She highlighted what is at stake explaining, “When you lose women, you lose kids, and you lose the husbands as well. This is the crisis that we are in for the growth of Islam in America.” In addition, Ameena Jandali, a founding member, Content Director, and trainer of Islamic Network Group (ING) in the Bay Area, California, points out that not only women, but “A lot of young people feel alienated by the mosque.”
Who could blame women for feeling alienated with the shabby carpet that is rolled out for them? Women’s accommodations are often cramped and poorly maintained. They enter through dirty back alleys, climb fire escape entrances, and navigate basement mazes to get to women’s sections. And many places do not prioritize women’s spiritual development or foster a healthy community life for women. “Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers” estimated that one out of five mosques do not have programs for women at all and just over a quarter have only occasional activities. An anonymous interviewee raised the issue, “How am I going to be engaged in the mosque if there is nothing for me to do there?”
Mosques that do not accommodate women often do not encourage them to take leadership positions either. Since I began my research last year, I discovered that many are dissatisfied with the lack leadership and decision-making opportunities offered to women. Several spoke about the dismissal of female voices on governing boards. One respondent put it succinctly, “Even if women are in leadership positions, male opinions tend to be dominant.” Another stated, “There is a general level of discomfort with women who are too vocal, too active, too opinionated.” While discouraging women from taking general leadership roles, many mosques encourage women to teach children at Islamic schools, sit on women’s committees, and volunteer for cooking and clean-up. One respondent wrote:
There needs to be an overhaul on how we view women in Islam. I am sick of hearing how Islam gave women their rights and how we as Muslims value women but in reality we don’t. Once we see the need for women to be more than the assistant to people in leadership positions or the people behind the scene, we will have women want to do more in our communities.
Many felt that Muslim women’s contributions were not appreciated. Lack of leadership opportunities, hostility towards female voices, and lack of appreciation is turning away many women who could make positive contributions on an organizational level.
Yet, some women have the passion, drive, and assertiveness overcome institutional barriers to contribute to their communities. Aliya Khabir, has played an active role at United Muslim Masjid (UMM) in South Philadelphia, which is under the helm of Imam Shadeed Muhammad. The imam has pushed for women’s programming and female education initiatives. While no women serve on the board at UMM, Aliya has carved out a sphere of influence in a non-official capacity. Aliya commented, “In their head, they are justifying it with ‘men are the protectors and maintainers.’ Nowhere does it [the Qur’an] say that men are better at decision-making and execution. Women possess these skills that are needed and necessary to properly operate a masjid and meet the needs of all attendees, me included.” She remarked that other professional women ask her why she invests so much time in a community that has not afforded women official roles. Aliya explained, “It is because of my passion. It’s not about titles.” UMM is not alone, a significant portion of American mosques do not allow women to serve on their governing board.
The ADAMS center in Virginia, on the other hand, welcomes women in decision-making roles. Yasmin Shafiq, a board member of ADAMS, explains, “It was clear that the leadership at ADAMS values diversity in its membership and makes efforts to include the voices of young people, women, and otherwise underrepresented populations in the community.” Others have also looked to ADAMS as a model for encouraging female leadership and the community boasts an erudite female resident scholar, Dr. Zainab Alwani.
As a vibrant Islamic Center, ADAMS Center’s progressive approach indicates what Muslim communities could stand to gain from the expertise of Muslim women.
Women have led many successful Islamic organizations and initiatives outside the mosque. Yasmin acknowledged, “Unfortunately, I don’t think such traditional institutions usually have a well thought-out plan for utilizing highly educated women.” All of my conversations with female Muslim leaders emphasized women taking an active role in creating spaces for themselves, whether in the mosque or outside of it. Many people urged women to take initiative in their communities. Certainly, the success of communities that have welcomed women who are willing to step up to the plate makes a compelling case for mosques becoming a strong base for women’s empowerment. But we are not there yet, and more work needs to be done, by both men and women.
You can read the full article and other thought provoking pieces at Islamic Monthly. Please post your thoughts in the comments section below.
Living as a Muslim minority in the West, I have often felt frustrated by religious intolerance, but also from a community that does not fully honor the rights that are accorded to women in Islam or provide many outlets for women to become scholars. This was the case in late 18th century West Africa, in what is now modern day Northern Nigeria, when Uthman Dan Fodio criticized oppressive customs and encouraged female education. Nana Asma’u bint Uthman Dan Fodio was a product of her father’s commitment to quality Islamic education for women. She became a legend in her own right and through her writings and education movement, ‘Yan Taru, she has inspired countless women for generations.
As a Nigerian with dual American and British citizenship, researcher Rukayat Modupe Yakub is aware of the legacy of Nana Asma’u. Rukayat points outs, “For so many Muslims Nana Asma’u is still unknown, but for those who are familiar with her she was an educator, writer and poet who was passionate about education, For this reason you find schools in places like Nigeria named after her.” In addition to her poetry and education movement, Nana Asm’au is also considered an Islamic leader who was known for her ability to mediate political disagreements. She was fluent in Arabic, Hausa, and the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg. Like her father and brothers Muhammad Bello and Abdullahi, Nana Asma’u was a prolific writer who left a tremendous literary legacy. She wrote to keep her father’s memory alive in the minds of the people and in support of her brother Muhammad Bello’s Caliphate. At 27, she was given the task of organizing her father’s corpus of works, all while overseeing a household of several hundred people and ensuring that they were provided for.
Jean Boyd gained access to her works in 1975 and later wrote The Caliph’s Sister, which provides a detailed biography of Nana Asma’u’s life and legacy. Jean Boyd collaborated with Beverly Mack to compile her poetry and religious treatises in Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman dan Fodio (1793-1864). The book compiles her impressive body of poems and treatises in Arabic, the Fula language, and Hausa. Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd also co-wrote a book which analyzes the social and political function of many of her poems titled One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe.
Rukayat says that Nana Asma’u continues to serve as an important inspiration because “She was involved in social work and had political clout, she was a mother and wife, sister of the head of state, daughter of a legendary a political and spiritual leader, she could have had any life she wanted but she choose to be of service.” Around 1830, Nana Asma’u trained a group of women to travel around the Sokoto Caliphate to educate women. Each woman in this cadre held the title jaji (leader of the caravan) to designate their role as female leaders.
One hundred and eighty years later, Dylia bin Hamadi Camara is one such Jaji who explains, “We have the name of all the jajis before me so mine comes after a long line of the unbroken chain of scholarship and service to women, children and the Ummah at large.” Jaji Dylia explains that the methodology of learning that Nana Asma’u develop still educates men, women, and children. In the United States, the ‘Yan Taru Education Foundation and Charitable trust has chapters in Pennsylvania, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and California with 33 women in intensive training and intensive seminars and classes which are open to the public.* Teachers like Jaji Dylia travel internationally and use email, teleconferencing, and text messaging to educate their students on classical Islam. Preparing for a trip to Guinea, Dylia stated her next goal is to translate Nana Asma’u’s teachings into French because the Francophone world has largely been unaware of this rich legacy. My hope is that we begin to learn more and more about the named and unnamed women who have been responsible for educating our ummah. They have passed on a rich legacy, one that reminds me that even when faced with the greatest challenges, we as women can be brilliant and provide guiding lights for others.
You can read find other stories of inspirational Muslim women, along with this one, in the February edition SISTERS magazine .
*Jaji Dylia updated us and told us that Yan Taru trust has chapters in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland , Florida and Massachusetts. She also has some students in Toronto who are not Yan Taru. She is currently in Benin, where she also has students.
To date, Dylia translated Tanbeeh l Ghafileen and prays that Allah grants her the himma to translate even more in the future, insha’Allah.
“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.
This is a continuation of the discussion on maid. In my previous post, I compared live-in maids with other servile positions–specifically slavery. This post is about the motivations that drive the institution and the types of maids.
There are many motivating factors to getting domestic help in Kuwait. One, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to get unskilled labor in Kuwait. Kuwait to get help legally than it is in the states. There are Kuwaiti citizens on top, then Westerners, then Arabs from other countries, and then South Asians on the bottom of the social ladder. Located in the Persian Gulf, Kuwait is relatively close to Africa and South Asia. There are dozens of undeveloped nations in close proximity, making flights relatively cheap in comparison to travel to America or Canada. Cheap labor, and especially cheap domestic labor is predicated upon the economic inequality between oil rich nations and undeveloped nations. With foreigners consisting of 80% of the workforce, Kuwait is a highly stratified society. Kuwait also has a large population of immigrant male workers in skilled and unskilled positions. Maids, janitorial staff, retail clerks, hostesses, and waitresses are some of the few job opportunities that women from poor nations have in Kuwait. Kuwaitis and westerners, on the other hand enjoy a high standard of living. Part of the standard of living includes maids and domestic help.
So what motivates someone to get a live-in maid? Several factors drive the demand for maids. There is a higher premium on the home as a center of socialization in Kuwait. In addition to the burden of housework and child-rearing on women, women play a large part organizing family gatherings and diwaniyyas (gatherings of men who sit in large room and drink tea, coffee, and other manly stuff). Women’s time is often spread thin between child rearing, house-hold errands, social obligations outside the home, religious duties, and receiving guests displaying elaborate hospitality. A social visit can take hours and socializing is not just limited to week-ends. In addition, Ramadan is a month long. For the non-Muslims out there, Ramadan is like 30 days of Thanksgiving (including the hours you don’t eat so you can stuff yourself). A family may not be able to make excuses for not allowing company over or visiting friends during special holidays and special events. The husband may have impromptu guests. In addition, hospitality is very elaborate. While catering can be an option, preparing meals for guests can be overwhelming for a female head of household. This includes various time-consuming dishes, and elaborate deserts and intricate coffee and tea ceremonies. Add room set up, cooking, serving, clean up, to the normal household work and child rearing equals means that one 4 hour event can equal more than two days of preparation.
In addition, childcare for young children is often inside the home under the supervision of the mother. Women are expected to have many children and breast-feeding is encouraged. They often do not have family members living with them to help out. In addition, from what I have seen, children spend less time in front of tv or playing video or computer games. I don’t see too many walkers, playpins, or blockaded areas where infants and toddlers can sit unattended for periods of time. This means children are less zoned out and require more attention. Who watches the children while you cook? This is an especially important question in places where gas stoves explode or there are carbon monoxide leaks.
While there are many hardworking mothers who really need extra support to fulfill all the household work, there is also the laziness factor. Some children are closer to the maids than they are their own mothers. Some women may need maids to clean and babysit while they shop to they drop at one of the high end malls. Maids may take over the messy work of child rearing, feeding the baby, burping the baby, getting the baby throw up all over their maid uniform. That way, the mother can keep her nice rhinestone embellished black abaya looking really sharp. Some people want to be served hand and foot. I have heard of a family that has three children and three maids, one for each child. For some women, live-in maids free them from mundane domestic work, the kind that makes your hands hard or ruins your manicure. There is also a prestige to being able to afford maids, while the servile position is looked down upon.
For the maids not only is there a stigma to being in a servile position, but also domestic work does not offer upward mobility or career growth. What would motivate someone to come to a Kuwait without speaking a lick of Arabic and put themselves at the mercy of an agency and some random family? Women in developing countries have limited opportunities to join the work force in their own communities. This limitation is especially for women without education backgrounds. For numerous women, work in places like Kuwait is an opportunity to send money to support their families and children. There are some maids who are well educated and join a maid placement agency but are really looking for other opportunities. They figure that by getting to Kuwait, they can pursue better opportunities. Rarer cases seem to involve single women hoping that they can find a well-to-do husband in Kuwait. There are cases where maids do get married and become heads of households themselves. I personally don’t have the statistics.
There are live-in maids and part time maids. Part time maids are actually more expensive. Some households require maids to work long hours. The longest I’ve heard shift for a live in maid was from 5 am to 3 am the next day. Others allow their maids the evening off. Some households don’t give their maids a day off. But many give their maids Friday off. Some maids are given separate sleeping quarters or their own rooms outside the home. Other maids are given only a mat to roll out and roll up (later in this article I will talk about why do families not allow separate sleeping quarters or give their maids a day off). From what I know, starting salaries for live-in maids is around 45 Kuwaiti Dinars (KD = 3.5 dollars). But a part time maid is 120 KD. Part time maids come to your home for set shifts and leave by evening. Most of these maids have husbands who are working in Kuwait. One of my friends noted that part time maids are efficient and have professional attitudes and demeanors. Part time maids often have ambitions and demand a certain amount of respect. She pointed out that many of the live-in maids on the other hand, are often not trained and often act slavishly. They often have emotional baggage (suffering from fits, fainting spells, endless crying, weeping when told how to do a job correctly). Part of the baggage comes from the culture shock arriving in Kuwait, or from a negative experience with a former boss. Part time maids may take the job because they can use the extra cash.
Maids can fulfill a range of jobs, from cook, servant, housekeeper, launderer, to babysitter. The jobs can range from labor intensive to relatively light. Some families can have several maids, each with set duties. There may be a maid assigned to cook, a maid who focuses on laundry, and a maid whose only job is to care for children. Some families travel with their maids because they need extra help with children. Despite the multiple duties they fulfill, maids are given little training such as language training, customer service, kitchen safety, janitorial and housekeeping skills, child development, or CPR. I have also heard that some agencies train maids in rudimentary Kuwaiti Arabic and housekeeping skills. These agencies charge a lot more than the ones I have visited so far Maids can range in various levels of efficiency in performing household duties.
People often talk about maids like their countries are brand names. It is not uncommon to go to an agency and say, “I’m looking for an Indian maid.”Formerly, Filipino maids were popular until their country demanded salaries that reached close to a teachers salary. Now Kuwait is boycotting the Philipines. But there are still many Filipino maids whose visa have not expired and want to continue to work in Kuwait. In addition to Filipino maids, there are Indonesian, Indian, Nepalese, and Ethiopian maids. Filipino maids often speak English, so that is a benefit for American families. Often people will argue the merits of the maids from a particular country. Sometimes there are different fads. I have heard that right now, Ethiopian maids are in. Some countries have reputations, for example an Ethiopian maid said that Indonesian maids eat wiiiiiiiiiide (Kuwaiti for a lot). Other countries have reputations for being promiscuous. Filipino maids get that honor. I heard that after getting a few accounts of Filipino maids sneaking men into the house or running off with the KFC delivery guy from Egypt. Basically, maids are essentialized in their ethnic categories.
One of the things that makes it difficult to understand a live-in maid’s human experience is that there is a language barrier. As I stated earlier, there are many maids who cannot speak Arabic or English. Even if they do, few speak it well enough. But some Kuwaiti families prefer their maids to not speak an Arabic. I have heard accounts that say it is best to get a maid who had no previous experience, or worse, a returned maid. One Lebanese family living in Kuwait had an Ethiopian maid who didn’t speak Arabic when she started but within a year she was fluent, plus she learned to cook and clean just like, “madam.” But this is rarely the case. If a multi-lingual woman who has a smidgen of education comes to Kuwait as a maid, it is likely she has higher aspirations.
In the next section I will talk about the ways in which maids are in vulnerable positions and how people have abused maids. I will draw from stories I have heard and from news reports.
Back in May, I posted a blog entry titled Housewives Should Go On Strike. It highlighted a recent study which calculated the value of a stay at home mother’s work to be $138,095 a year.
In one of my responses to Umar Lee’s April 2007 Blog entry, “In the Kitchen, Masha Allah,” I wrote:
I have a problem with ahistorical views of women’s work and gender divided labor. Technological advances has made women’s work seem a lot easier, but technology has a costs. The difference is between informal economies and formal economies. Before women contributed to mainly in informal economies. Western women are no longer washing clothes by hand, fetching water, making cookware, cooking by scratch, weaving baskets, spinning thread, weaving cloth, sewing garments, mending, producing foodstuffs for times of shortage, pounding or grinding grain, wetnursing, and childrearing. All of these things were productive labor that contributed to the household, but were not part of the monied economy. Women’s work, has therefore gone under the radar of many scholars. It is also devalued by Western feminists who overlook that non-Western women continue to be vital to informal economies that support households. Modernity, in many ways, has undermined women’s traditional values. Women’s productive labor has always been considered valuable, which is the reason why dowries were often paid in traditional societies (a man was paying his wive’s family for the loss of her productive labor). Women’s work has always been hard, and it has often taken her out of the house to perform rigorous tasks. It is interesting, because the only that purdah was fully implemented in societies with strict gender divided labor is when there was a class of slave women. Slave women performed the work (i.e. fetch water, firewood, work in fields) secluded women were unable to do. The end of slavery in many Muslim societies altered family relations, meaning more work for the wives. In Northern Nigeria, young girls perform many of these duties for their mothers. I guess my point is that the secluded woman whose sole duty is to look pretty and throw together a meal is an elite ideal.
So, continuing that theme, I found a UPAC (UN Platform for Action Committee) website called Women & the Economy
Measuring Unpaid Work
Because women’s unpaid work has no dollar value attached to it, it took many years for governments to even measure the hours dedicated to unpaid work. Because of this, much of women’s activities were not taken into account in the development of laws and policies. This omission exacerbated existing inequalities. Measuring unpaid work was one of the major challenges to governments that came out of the UN Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985 as well as the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. The Platform for Action that developed out of Beijing calls for national and international statistical organizations to measure unpaid work and reflect its value in satellite accounts to the GDP.1
Here is one typical woman’s work day:
Consider Tendai, a young girl in the Lowveld, in Zimbabwe. Her day starts at 4 a.m. when, to fetch water, she carriers a thirty litre tin to a borehole about eleven kilometres from her home. She walks barefoot and is home by 9 a.m. She eats a little and proceeds to fetch firewood until midday. She cleans the utensils from the family’s morning meal and sits preparing a lunch of sadza for the family. After lunch and the cleaning of the dishes, she wanders in the hot sun until early evening, fetching wild vegetables for supper before making the evening trip for water. Her day ends at 9 p.m., after she has prepared supper and put her younger brothers and sisters to sleep. Tendai is considered unproductive, unoccupied, and economically inactive. According to the international economic system, Tendai does not work and is not part of the labour force.
Just some food for thought as many of us enjoy an iftar prepared by the labors of amazing women (many of whom were fasting themselves).