Ramadan is Here!

It’s Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic Lunar calendar around this time. Those who fast in this month abstain from food, water, sex, and involve themselves in as many good things and deeds as possible. Feeding the poor, charity,  being kind and nice, forgiving, extra acts of worship are given extra emphasis. The month is special because it was in this month that the Qur’an was revealed.

It’s the most challenging Ramadan of my life this year – it’s the first time in my life that Ramadan is in the peak of summer, when the days are hot and long. It’s the first Ramadan when I’ve had a full-time job to balance along with the demands of Ramadan – a regular 9am to 6pm job for me. After spending five consecutive Ramadans in the same community, it’s my first Ramadan in a new place after I moved. It has been a challenge, but I’m relishing every bit of it so far.
Everyone has been warmer, nicer and more loving, whether at work or my neighbors or in the community I associate myself with.

I wish all of you a blessed Ramadan! Every moment wasted in this month is the same as wasting an entire year. Time to get to work!

“Ramadan is Here” by Native Deen.

Separating the Real from the Fake – Fashion Photography

I had cultivated an interest in photography in college. I wasn’t anything exceptional, but I was getting better with each passing day and spent considerable time on it. Until my beloved camera with its lenses was stolen.
A year later, I did buy another camera and one lens, but it hasn’t been the same – I still haven’t had the chance or drive to spend time on photography again.

At work, as fate would have it, my closest co-worker happens to be a now-part-time photographer. He offered to have me work with him so I could pick it up, but this was another instance where I had to let go of this opportunity with a heavy heart because of the nature of his work – he did fashion and beauty photography. I couldn’t get myself to be present at one of his photoshoots nearby. His portfolio was supposed to be impressive. He worked along with make-up artists for magazines, big fashion houses a couple of times, and even married a make-up artist who he still works with, and to me, as much as I would have learned and grown as a photographer from this opportunity, I couldn’t have been happy with it because it was against my conscience. Reason? It was not just because most of his models were practically naked and thus going against my sense of moral code – but more because  the entire industry of fashion photography seemed fake to the core.

He spent about three hours on a single picture of a scantily clad or covered naked woman trying to make her look perfect. In reality, there was no single person with a skin, shape, body and physical appearance as perfect as the images he would create out of a real picture. But that is how things work. Why? Because that is how people want to see themselves, and that is how people want to see others – perfection, all of it. It is a reflection on the kind of society we live in. I was once complaining to my sister about projection of fake success, happiness and beauty in the media, and she said that most people live with, and live around a boring, unhappy imperfection, so they crave to see perfection, happiness for respite. It was a getaway.

I have a problem with falseness. Fake smiles, fake kindness, fake friendliness, fake complements, fake beauty. Fake love. If you like something, say it and act upon it, and if you dislike something, be civil about it. Try to ignore it.

Boona Mohammad once received flak from many Muslim women when he said something to the effect of, you use so much makeup to cover blemishes on your face and skin…if only there was some kind of makeup to cover blemishes in your character.

Given how pervasive fake beauty is everywhere around us, or taking a step backwards, given how beauty has been defined thanks to the cosmetic industry, it is painful to see how so many suffer from low self-esteem about their appearance when they find themselves less, in comparison to the images they see. Girls and guys exposed to such kind of photography have involuntarily ingrained false notions of what beauty is, and it has an effect on their own self-esteem – on girls more than guys, and on what they’re attracted to, in the opposite gender, damaging or ruining the way they go about the process of finding their significant other, or worse, damaging or ruining a marriage itself.

 

Full of Wisdom

I was studying the chapter of the Romans in the Qur’an early this morning.
You only have to pick up a Qur’an and flip through randomly, reading even the translation to realize how much it speaks to you, directly.
It addresses questions in your mind, and the concerns you deal with, with such wisdom that it always feels like an eye-opener. It leaves you with a feeling of contentment and satisfaction. It answers you.
It is as though the Qur’an was sent just for you. Understanding some of the beauty in the language from the little rudimentary Arabic that I know only served to add further pleasure.

In this context, it struck me when I recalled how this nature of the Quran is pointed out in the Qur’an itself.

Allah swears an oath by many things in the Qur’an just before making a declaration, and we know that any declaration after an oath is very important. The things Allah swears by shows their importance or significance.
In the second verse of Surah Yaseen, Allah swore by the Qur’an itself. What was the declaration made after this oath? That it is Al-Hakeem, full of wisdom.

“By the Qur’an, full of wisdom!”

Wisdom because the Author of this book is the One who Created us and is responsible for us, and consequently,  knows better than anything else, what is best for us. It is according to human nature, or Fitrah, and what man needs for his own good.

I could attest to the wisdom as I read this chapter again.

I signed off, finishing with the chapter, nodding in agreement, with the last verse:

“So endure patiently; surely the promise of Allah is true; and do not let the ones who have no certainty make you impatient.”

Sexism and Feminism

 President Obama’s remarks about Kamala Harris (You have ..to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, …She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country ..) may have been a lighthearted comment between friends but there were enough people calling them “sexist” to have some of his supporters defend them as mere compliments, and have Obama apologize.

From the face of it, it did seem sexist.  Too often, women are judged less on their aptitude, intellect and more on their appearance.  It was sexually objectifying women, and that woman in particular.  Too often, women are judged more for their ornamental value or for their appearance than their accomplishments.  It was no wonder that women that were more sexually appealing to men have a  better chance of growth in career than their homelier counterparts.

It was like saying that the women that did achieve success did so, because their physical attractiveness had a role in it, and not only because of their talents, capabilities and skills. It was like saying they probably wouldn’t have been successful had their physical appearance not been a factor. It was like saying that Kamala Harris reached success also because she was attractive. You see, men don’t have that advantage. It was sexist, because it was this kind of mentality that prevented women from being judged on an equal footing with men.

But the problem isn’t with some men alone. There is no shortage of women who perpetuate such sexism. Many women who judge themselves as attractive  use their wares to make their men more agreeable and have their way. Women who judge themselves as attractive and have low self-esteem often put most of their self-worth on the basis of their physical appearance, and by the amount and kind of attention they receive from men, actually relishing men hitting on them to an extent. Such women are often insecure about their beauty, wondering if it was a change in their physical appearance to something less attractive the reason for any perceived drop in attention or progress.
What they don’t realize before it’s too late is that the same women who bank so much on their physicality would lose the most of what they have when they lose their physical attractiveness – which every single woman does with age and family and the first kid.

Here is where I thought the Hijab came in. Hijab as a means of modesty for both men and women, would include reasonably modest dressing and modest behavior with the opposite gender. In my opinion, Hijab for men entailing modest dressing and behavior with women, and prohibiting lustful gaze addresses the issues of sexism partly.
For Muslim women, by taking out one’s physical sexual attraction out of the equation in a significant way in their interactions with unrelated men, they are in essence asking men to deal with their mind, not their body, and theoretically addressing some of the issues women face.

It was a coincidence that around the same time that Obama apologized for his remarks, FEMEN had naked topless protesters outside of mosques championing the message that they were naked, and they were free. While they had a point that men did not have any business forcing women to dress in a particular way, they were particularly Islamophobic and blamed Islam and Muslim men for women covering up. It was ridiculous that while they were protesting Muslim men patronizing and controlling women, they failed to realize that Muslim women did not need them “liberators” to free them of the clutches of Muslim men – in the vast majority of cases, Muslim women wear the Hijab because they want to, and not because their husbands of fathers or brothers forced them to. And moreover, the unfortunate fact that women are used as objects and commodities, played around by men as ornaments was also widespread in Western societies, just as the Obama episode showed us. Women are used to sell everything under the sun, not through any of their skills and talents, but through their sexual appeal.

I personally know Muslim women who have a strong attachment with the Hijab, relish the Hijab, feet confident, comfortable and in place in it. There are others who struggle in and out of the Hijab. It is true, that a few struggle with their hijab and  wear it more out of societal pressure and fear of gossip and embarrassment than out their own conviction.
Others struggle because they don’t feel confident and beautiful in it – either because of their similarity to the women who perpetuate sexism as discussed above or out of fear of negative reactions at work or school. There are some others who don’t feel the need for any outward clothing but are strong, confident, modest nevertheless, and do not allow men to objectify them.  On the other hand, there are other women who observe the Hijab only in dressing but not so much in their interactions with men. The story of Hijab is very human.

I agree that the remark that Obama made was a friendly one between friends that didn’t deserve controversy, but it served to highlight the underlying issues that are true, nevertheless.

“Mommy, why were they shouting at me?” When Islamophobic Terrorism came home.

“I don’t know why they were staring at me”. I can almost see my little niece say that as she adjusts her cute little scarf with her tender little hands. She loves ponies – pink ponies and almost everything pink. She loves the fairies in the cartoons and in her animated story books.  She made me play the  me-buying-her-dolls-she -the shopkeeper game.  I’ve also played pony-rides with her. I’ve been embarrassed as I played  twister with her the last time I saw her.  She is much more childish and innocent than children her age usually are.  We call her a pink princess. She’s beautiful,  and gets a pink complexion.  She’s an angel.

When my sister in England called to let me know that her family was attacked by drunk, racist Islamophobes (The EDL) , I had to put the phone aside while she was still talking. I could no longer hold back my tears and I didn’t want her to know I was crying. She assumed a bad reception and hung up.

But I could not bear the thought of my angelic, innocent nieces having faced the barrage of  extremely foul, vulgar words that were thrown at them. Wine bottles and cans were thrown at them and at the car they were in by the drunk, white supremacists. They mostly missed their target, but one of the bottles thrown managed to drench my brother-in-law’s pants with wine when he was at the scene. The first, older niece, a little girl herself,  is an absolute gem; she later said she kept reciting specific verses from the Quran  when all of this was going on. This stunned my sister and brother in law who said they were frozen with shock and couldn’t think of anything themselves.

My sister’s family had stopped at a service station by a motorway in England on the 3rd of September, 2011 in the middle of a long drive, for their sunset prayers and to have dinner. When they got out of the car, members of the English Defense League got out of a bus that was parked behind and started hurling cans and foul abuses, while asking the “Pakis” to go back to Pakistan.

My sister and her family are  British citizens. They did not go to Britain from Pakistan, they were never Pakistanis, and it wouldn’t have mattered even if they were. My sister and her husband are both doctors, and made a good life for themselves with sheer hard work and talent. They pay their taxes and have never broken the law, not even the driving rules.
They are deeply religious and practice their faith openly. My sister observes the Hijab and my brother in law has a beard. They say their prayers outside when they have to. They are not White Caucasian.
The people asking them to get out of the country say that’s not being British. It’s funny they say that because it is as if they’re saying getting drunk, being jobless and on government benefits, living in government subsidized housing, being a drain on the economy using up the very tax money my sister was paying,  rioting, bloodshed, TERRORIZING innocent children and Muslim families, fire-bombing places of worship, ANTISEMITISM, using vulgar language and so on is being British. The vast majority of the EDL are all of this and more. The more intellectual ones’ among them happen to be real terrorists or inciters towards terrorism. Anders Behring Breivik in Norway was one of their terrorist co-ideologues who massacred innocent youngsters. He was a big fan of the EDL.

The amount of hate is just unbelievable. I would never be able to sleep at night if I had as

EDL Protest in Newcastle

Image via Wikipedia

much hatred against anyone as they had in their hearts. A life of sadness, hatred, spite, enmity, bad blood, vengeance, rancor, heartburn. A dark world with no happiness. Compare that with a bright world of happiness, joy and merriment, with no ill-feelings. A world without hate, where all of God’s creation, some white, some brown, some black, some yellow,  people with different ways of life, all live in harmony in the world God gave us all.

My sister’s family did not report the ordeal to the police. They fear for the safety of the children and wanted to avoid court appearances.

My little niece still doesn’t understand why anyone would hate her. Someday in the coming years, she will understand why, but for now, she has had her first brush with the filth the world has to offer.

Journey Through a Thank You

thank you note for every language

Image by woodleywonderworks via Flickr

Our desi parents brought us up teaching us to thank people a lot.  If we weren’t saying “I’m sorry”,  A Thank You and a Shukriya (in Urdu/Hindi) would be thrown around a lot with people outside the family.  It was a big thing to not apologize- as a nine year old, I had an epic tiff with my older sister when I refused to say sorry after I shouted at her, which I did because she didn’t say sorry when she brushed my feet with the floor mop. By mistake!  These were times when our parents were our heroes and everything they did was always the right thing.

Then came my rebellious teenage years when I wanted to do things differently, different from my friends and family.  I thought it was cool to not conform.  I started using the Arabic phrase “JazakAllah Khair” (Arabic for “May God reward you in goodness” ) instead of the Thank Yous with Muslims because it was new and different. It was used by someone my aunt  didn’t really like very much,  but it sounded cool and exotic to me.

I  now have a more mature head over my shoulders as a twenty-something year old.  I frequently use both a Thank You and a JazakAllahKhair, but the former is the one that comes naturally, while I use the latter more when I am not being myself.

But despite these changes over a Thank You over time,  there was and is a catch – one thing has remained unchanged. We don’t want to be thanked for things that we think we were absolutely obligated to do.  A Thank You for something, to me at least, would mean we were being thanked for doing something extra that we didn’t have to do, or something we weren’t expected to do, or that we were outsiders.

Over the past several months, as I have consciously been trying to get out of my shell and shyness(some of it hypocritical), I try to talk to just about every person I can and be friendly- on the bus, with the taxi driver, with my co-passengers, my neighbors, the people I cross paths with on pavements and so on. This has also meant I help people out much more often, and that I volunteer more. Recently, a set of Thank Yous came home to trouble me when on one such volunteering program, the lead volunteer kept thanking me profusely over three weeks. I now realize it may  have been  to encourage me to volunteer more but back then,  I was slightly annoyed even if I retained my smile.  I really wanted to volunteer, and wanted to be part of the group that was simply doing its duty and wasn’t after any recognition or compliments, but the Thank Yous somehow gave me an outsider feeling, that I was going over  and above what I was duty-bound to do or what was expected of me.  It gave me the impression that I was doing this, or wanted to do this or that people may think I’m doing this for the compliments and the Thank Yous. Well, the truth was I was volunteering because I wanted to volunteer, because of the intrinsic goodness of the volunteering activity and not anything else.

I am now at peace with this issue- I did not have to prove anything to anyone. I know my intention when I am doing something good. I know God knows what is in my heart, and He will reward me and He will reward me by my intentions. Isn’t that what we were looking for, after all?

“My awkward moments in Muslim prayer”

When it’s time for one of those five ritual prayers in a day that we Muslims have to offer,  and we are at a place far  from the safe comfort zones of homes and/or mosques -out shopping, or at work or school, it becomes a challenge to have to pray at a place where others might see you praying and prostrating and may not understand what you are up to.

The hesitation may just have more to do with our own thought process , of fear and of shame, embarrassment etc., and of being judged. Some do not want to express their Muslim identity in public and keep it under wraps, while others find it awkward to do anything that would appear weird in public and attract attention.  Most others are just too scared to pray in public – wondering how the authorities and/or owners of the place they want to pray in  might react.
It is also true in a few cases, the establishment frowns upon public prayers on their premises- my own niece gathered enough courage to start praying the afternoon prayer at her school  and after a few days, she was asked to stop.

Most ritual prayers, called Salaah, prayed at five different times of the day last from five to fifteen minutes at most depending on the devotion to God felt at each time and the time we have on our hands.  But some of those five minutes of prayer have been real anxious ones for me many a times, with a heart beating fast and hope that  no one enters my lab when I’m praying, no one comes to where I’m praying at the library or that corner of the shopping store.

An article on salon.com linked below has a hilarious account of the author trying to pray in a Gap store’s trials room in a hurry when there are just fifteen more minutes remaining before the time ends.  When people see your head on the floor from outside the fitting room, it could spell problems – you know, like, they may think you’re having a heart attack or something ?

My awkward moments in Muslim prayer.