Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Whose Peace?

Should religion be a strictly personal experience, or a community-based faith? Should state interfere, or can beliefs and practices be interpreted 7 billion different ways? "People should be guided to the path of truth"; isn’t that statement an irony, for if it is the truth, shouldn’t it be self-evident?

These are questions that are worth asking given the paradox we find ourselves living in. What recently ignites my ingrained curiosity with Islam and the Western world is a book called The Butterfly Mosque, by G. Willow Wilson. Expecting to read a story about a Muslim convert trying to live a normal life in the United States post 9/11, it was a nice surprise reading about her feeling of attachment in an Islamic country that to me resembles home.

Rather than writing my opinion on the book, let the book speak for itself through pages that spoke to me.

...the street where we were harassed on a daily basis. Cairo was crawling with unemployed, furious, infantilized men who were still sleeping in their childhood beds and taking order from their mothers. Parents of girls were demanding more and more in bridal settlements and real estate, putting marriage—and therefore adulthood—out of reach for many in this poverty-stricken generations. As the middle class shrank, marital expectations rose; by marrying well, a working-class girl could help her family climb back into a “respectable” social stratum. There was no higher goal than being an ibn i’nas or binti i’nas, the son or daughter of genteel people. The stress this put on working-class men was almost unfathomable. These were the men who hunted us and hated us. In their eyes, they had been betrayed by female social mercenaries and denied their dignity by a class-obsessed society. I was marrying into a country on the verge of a meltdown.” (page 59)

Doesn’t the paragraph above hit a bit too close to Malaysian society?

I was surprised by how often Islam, in its purely textual form, took my side. There is no religious limit on the public spaces that women can inhabit; nothing prevents them from running businesses or driving cars, there is no reason they must walk behind men or cover their faces. A woman’s role is not defined by the kitchen and the nursery.

…The Prophet’s first wife, Khadijah, one of the most beloved women in Islamic history, ran her own successful business. Muhammad spent much of his early life working as her employee; they were married after she proposed to him. She was almost fifteen years his senior. Her death plunged the Prophet into mourning so intense that it is known even today as the Year of Sorrow. The Virgin Mary, known to Muslims as Maryam, is mentioned more times in the Quran than she is in the Bible, and raises her miraculous son entirely on her own; Joseph is not present in Islamic version of her story. Asia, the wife of the Pharaoh, is revered by Muslims for having disobeyed her husband in defense of Moses. A powerful entrepreneur, a single mother, and a rebellious wife: all three women are revered as the embodiment of perfect faith.” (page 80)

The women’s car was a moveable, segregated hothouse—a determined peace prevailed there, and produced a miniature society. I began to write an essay in homage to the women’s car, picking out narrative threads that I thought might help a western reader understand its subtler implications. I sent the essay to the New York Times Magazine.

…When several furious responses were published a week later, full of blistering language about gender apartheid, I was totally unprepared.

…Japanese officials announced that a women’s car would be added to the Tokyo subway to protect female commuters from inappropriate male attention; precisely the reason the women’s car had been implemented in Cairo. The Tokyo car was hailed as a step forward for women’s right.” (page 260-263)

If that is not blatant discrimination against a religion with more than one billion adherents, I don’t know what is.

Time to re-write the narrative, perhaps?


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