Facts Behind The Hijab

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Maleeha Mansur, Hayes, London

The hijab is a garment that bestows its wearers wings of liberation. However, for those who fail to understand it, it is unjustly labelled a cage of oppression. In order to bring some clarity to this heavily misunderstood garment, a review of some facts is in order.

A Divine Commandment

Not uncommonly these days, one hears of the odd individual boldly announcing that the hijab is not a Divine commandment but a cultural tradition. A rather absurd notion when we observe that the hijab is universally adhered to across all cultural and geographical boundaries; from the Arabian deserts, to African villages and the suburbs of London and New York. So the hijab belongs to no-one culture, it is a practice of faith.

Let us clarify this matter with the Divine authority of the Holy Qur’an.

In chapter 24, verse 32 it states

“And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they display not their beauty and embellishments except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head covers over their bosoms…”

There is much to be learnt from this verse, Firstly, that the hijab is not just a headscarf. Certainly not; there is much greater depth and breadth to this topic. The concept of the hijab defines a standard of modesty. The eyes observe the hijab through restraint of one’s gaze. The tongue observes the hijab through use of appropriate language when speaking to the opposite gender. Indeed, every part of the body partakes in observing the hijab in its own way.

Free Choice

Over and over again, Muslim women are told their hijab has been forced upon them, that they are unable to make decisions for themselves, or that they are deprived of their freedom. In reality, the only force involved for the vast majority of Muslim women donning the hijab is the force of persuasion of a beautiful teaching. If the hijab was to be forcefully enforced on Muslim women, would not a punishment be prescribed for those who don’t wear it? However, there is none to be found, only the wonderful realisation that Islam is a religion of choice. Once one is convinced of the truth of Islam and chooses to come under its fold, naturally then such a person adheres to its teachings.

Crucial For Social Morality

Without the physical aspects of the hijab, the moral state of society enters a steep decline. Indeed, the Holy Qur’an clearly states that the physical hijab enables women to be “distinguished and not molested”[i]. Society today is testament to the need for such physical barriers. Take the music industry for example, sexual assaults have been recognised as a worldwide problem to such an extent that the Swedish Bråvalla Festival has been made female-only until, as Emma Knyckare, the Swedish comedian organising the event, tweeted, “…ALL men have learned how to behave themselves”[ii]

Certainly then, before the hijab is outlawed and brought to question attention needs to be brought to the moral training of men.

Modesty is First Prescribed for Men

Prior to the verse cited above, the Holy Qur’an instructs the following, to men.

“Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do.” (Chapter 24: Verse 31)

So in fact, the concept of hijab is first prescribed for men. A certain standard of modesty is expected of Muslim men. Islam recognises the inherent differences between men and women, hence, it prescribes an additional physical covering for women. It places women in the driving seat, letting them decide who they wish to reveal their beauty to. Indeed, modern day advertisement testifies to the power of female beauty, wherever attention needs to be drawn, it is done so with women.

A Means of Liberation – Ask those Who Don it!

Sadly, the words ‘oppression’ and ‘hijab’ are often found in the same sentence. Would the world dare to ask those who don the hijab if they are oppressed or liberated. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t make for much of a headline as it would elicit only the resounding chorus of ‘We are independent, free and liberated women. This is our choice, the wisdom of which we see and experience daily. Just as no individual should to be stripped of their clothing, we should also not be stripped to what is akin to nudity to us, under the false pretext of liberation. If there is wisdom greater than Islam’s then show it to us, persuade our hearts and minds with arguments and reasoning as Islam has done.’

[i] Chapter 33:Verse 60
[ii] Swedish music festival to be female-only ‘until all men learn how to behave themselves’, Christopher Hooton, The Independent, Wednesday 5 July 2017
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/sweden-music-festival-men-female-only-bravalla-rape-sexual-assault-emma-knyckare-a7824366.html
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Beautiful, of the Creation of Allah

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By Qudsia Ward, Cornwall, UK

Beautiful, of the creation of Allah, are diamonds.

Diamonds are carbon – carbon is in all life forms; essential!

Diamonds are transparent, crystal, bright and clear.

Diamonds are lustrous, reflecting and refracting light into a myriad colours.

Hard and strong, diamonds mark and shape materials around them.

Diamonds are beautiful; diamonds are valuable.

Beautiful among the servants of Allah are Lajna Ima’illah.

Lajna are women – essential for all Jamaat life.

Almighty Allah, the Effacer of sins, make each one of us clear, pure, transparent as crystal.

Make each Lajna member beautiful reflecting Your light, Your Magnificence, Your Beauty.

Almighty Allah, the Fashioner, enable Lajna together shape and mark our community in the best of ways.

Omnipotent Allah, the Protector, guard and protect all Lajna Ima’illah members and enable them to enhance their value and serve Thee, fulfilling the purpose of their creation.

A Diamond Permeating the Soul

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By Rashida Nasir, Aldershot, UK

Suffragettes and Amelia Hart
What is it that sets them apart?
Pioneers of their time
Raising the status of womankind.

No right to vote?
No equal pay?
How absurd
In the modern day!

Yet 1400 years ago
Islam emerged with an eternal light
Respecting women
And honouring their rights

While the world trudged on
With its ups and downs
Rays of peace
Began to spread around

Under the spiritual guidance
Of the Promised Messiah
The rope of Khilafat
A yearning, a desire

Uniting us all
To strive and deliver
The pledge of Lajna
To grow and empower

Gain knowledge and share
The treasures we find
The physical, the mental
The spiritual entwined

A diamond in the rough
But polish and behold
The strength and the brilliance
Permeating the soul

Lajna Ima’illah
A diamond jubilee
60 years’ blessings
May we continue to succeed!

Ameen

My Veil of Confidence

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By Riyya Ahmad, age 13, Aldershot, UK

Islam has suffered from false allegations about the veiling of Muslim women for centuries. The media portrays the veil, or hijab, to be a restriction on Muslim women when it is really an act of modesty.

It is one of the most misunderstood concepts of Islam. Society believes that women who cover their heads, and wear modest clothes somehow have little freedom and are not able to express who they are. In fact, the very opposite is true. My veil actually inspires me with confidence in my day to day life.

If one looks with a deeper gaze on this subject, it will be found that the veiling of women is not something that Islam has introduced. The previous revealed scriptures also contain traces of similar teachings and Islam came only to complete and perfect them. It is a complete honour to follow in the footsteps of such a pious lady, Mother Mary (Hazrat Maryam) who is always depicted as having her head covered.

The Holy Quran says:

“O children of Adam! We have indeed sent down to you raiment to cover your shame, and to be an elegant dress;…” (7:27)

Islam provides guidance for a peaceful, harmonious and logical way of life.  You will find that the hijab is a means of protecting women, and providing them with freedom from many social ills and it is a blessing for them. The word “purdah” is also used to describe the concept and the practice of hijab. The Holy Quran has laid down that, one of the methods men and women are to use to achieve that goal is hijab. It says in the Holy Quran:

“Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts…” (24:31)

And then women are addressed:

“And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they display not their beauty and embellishments except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head covers over their bosoms…” (24:32)

Living in western society, it is inevitable to be asked why I wear my hijab and how my veil inspires me. And every time, my answer remains the same; it makes me who I am. It is a part of my identity. Without it I would not be as confident as I am today. It protects me, while still letting me do the daily tasks I desire to do. The veil is my spiritual way of gaining closeness to Allah the Almighty and my faith.

Thus the question follows: do you ever feel constrained by your veil? I reply, “If my hijab restricted me from being out and about like you, then yes my hijab would constrain me. If my hijab limited me from achieving the education we all have a right to, then yes my hijab would constrain me. But if I am out and about alongside you, and I am building an educational career to the same level as you, then you tell me, does my hijab constrain me?

My veil is not just an ordinary cloth draped around my head, it is my respect, my dignity, my honour, my faith and my blessing from Allah the Almighty, surrounding me as I go confidently in the direction I desire.

Islam Empowers Women

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Ayesha Mahmood Malik, Hampshire

Imagine it is the 7th century. Camels and horseback dot the Arabian sands that continue to sprawl endlessly into the horizon. Desert dwellers use basic oils or the friction from rubbing stones to light wood to warm themselves in the desert chill and also use these fires as stoves. Tales of lands far away abound, including China wherefrom come garments of silk to wear. Deep in the desert shrills of female infants being buried alive cloud the barren landscape. To be woman or cattle are one and the same. The society is not only starkly primitive but also the archetype of patriarchy.

Thus, for the 21st century scholar and thinker, it is an era that both captures the imagination with its mystic scents of Arabian ouds but also one that sends one gasping in so far as it belies any affiliation to modernity, human rights and importantly, women’s rights. Into this beleaguered state, dawns the advent of a man who brings the revolution of monotheism and women’s rights. Into this primeval and crude infrastructure, he introduces the notions of government, rules of war and principles of equality and non-discrimination. And into the incessant history of the persecution of Arabian women, he brings for women the right to marry freely, the right to seek education and the right to inherit and initiate divorce.

This radical new faith is called Islam. Its rules are universal, thereby bringing within its ambit all peoples’ who choose to take the oath of allegiance to its founder, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Its rules are also revolutionary in so far as they grant women the right to seek education, the right to initiate divorce and the right to inherit property. It also grants women full control over their own earnings. In other parts of the world, these rights remain largely unheard of, until many hundreds of years later. Paradoxically, when these rights begin to dawn in what is considered the modern world, Islam is castigated as being regressive, illiberal and oppressive to women.

In Britain, the right to divorce for example was up until 1857 largely open to men and required an Act of Parliament to be decreed. This being an onerous and expensive process, it also meant divorce was open largely to the wealthy. The 1857 Matrimonial Clauses Act granted ordinary people the right to divorce for the first time. Even then, women seeking divorce on grounds of adultery had to prove their husbands had been unfaithful along with proving additional faults such as rape and incest. In contrast, women were able to seek divorce without the burden of fulfilling arduous conditions by placing the merits of their case before a qadi (judge).

Similarly, it was not as late as 1870 when the Married Women’s Property Act was passed in England that women became legal owners of their income and were given the right to inherit. John Stuart Mill in his “The Subjection of Women” describes the predicament of women in the 19th century in these words, he writes:

“[T]he wife is the actual bond servant of her husband… She can acquire no property for herself: the instant something becomes hers, even if by inheritance, it automatically becomes his. In this respect the wife’s position under the common law of England is worse than that of slaves in the laws of many countries.”

Under Islamic law on the other hand, women enjoyed the right to inherit 1200 years before Mill put ink to paper. Even today, a Muslim woman is the sole master of her own earnings and is not obliged to spend any of her personal income towards the upkeep of her household, the entire responsibility whereof rests on the man.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the empowerment of women in Islam is the emphasis it places on their right to seek education. This commandment encouraging the pursuit of knowledge is 1400 years old and entirely gender neutral. It was a Muslim woman, Fatimah al-Fihri, who founded one of the world’s oldest universities in 859 CE. In contrast, British universities opened their doors to women as late as 1876. Women have played key roles in various capacities throughout Islamic history, from the women who partook in battle in the 7th century by tending to wounded soldiers to the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s wife Hazrat Khadija who was a successful tradeswoman.

Today, the question of empowerment of Muslim women is largely seen as an oxymoron owing to the misplaced practices in the Muslim-majority world that have chosen to use the Islamic faith as a political tool and fashioned their own virulent interpretation of the religion that has no bearing to its original form. As a hijab-wearing Muslim woman I find no contradiction between the question of my empowerment and my identity as a Muslim. By recognising and appreciating the differences between men and women as unique, women are not measured against men as standard bearers but rather celebrated for their own inimitable contributions to society. This distinctive point of view provides the single most powerful means of making a woman feel empowered and is exclusive to the Islamic faith.

 

Women In Islam: A Twenty-first Century Perspective

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 Munazzah Chou, Farnham

With the advent of Islam, the status of women in Arabia was raised from that of objects deserving of live burial, or as commodity to be treated or even traded as desired. Their rightful status was restored to the religious equal to their male counterparts and Islamic law made the education of girls a sacred duty and gave women amongst other rights the right to own and inherit property and wealth.

The status of Muslim women in the 21st century has not changed since the advent of Islam in the 7th century. God has pronounced in the Holy Qur’an,

‘But whoso does good works, whether male or female, and is a believer, shall enter Heaven, and shall not be wronged even as much as the little hollow in the back of a date-stone.’ (4:125)

Numerous other Quranic verses leave no ambiguity of the equal spiritual status of the sexes.

The spiritual status is the most important indicator of parity between sexes for Muslims as the Quran states that though different people appoint various objectives for their lives, the purpose that God Almighty has specified in His Holy Word is

‘…that they may worship Me.’ (51: 57).

According to this verse the true purpose of human life is the worship and understanding of God Almighty and devotion to Him.

21st century Muslim women cannot be considered a single entity. The Muslim woman is characterised by many as an oppressed victim deprived of the most basic rights. This might be the obvious conclusion on observing the treatment of women by ISIS, Boko Haram and some courts in Muslim countries. Yet at the opposite end of the spectrum, Muslim women have reached the pinnacle of political participation in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The realities of Muslim women’s lives range from being powerless and deprived of human and religious rights, to enjoying equal and sometimes more freedom and legal protection than non-Muslim women in the developed world. The contradictory developments and diversity in practices among Muslim societies, must urge one to question the assumption that Islam is the source of oppression.

The spectrum of the condition of Muslim women in the 21st century mirrors the continuum found within and between all society. The universal reality is that women face a gender gap. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Index assessing health, education, economy and politics disparities has revealed that progress is ‘still too slow for realising the full potential of one half of humanity within our lifetimes.’

Unfortunately, Muslim women seem to be worst affected as Muslim countries make up 23 of the bottom 25 countries with the widest gender gaps. The challenges women face in the Muslim world are often enshrined in archaic laws and practices on ownership, education, healthcare, job opportunities and wages which are ironically in violation of Islamic teachings on women’s rights.

In education the gender gap remains large, relative to most other major religious groups, although some progress has meant it has narrowed in recent generations. Muslim women have made greater educational gains than Muslim men in most regions of the world, according to the Pew Research Centre. Illustrative cases include United Arab Emirates, where women enrol in university at three times the rate of men and Saudi Arabia, where the university gender gap was closed ten years ago, and university enrolment rate is higher than in China, India, or Mexico.

Studies to understand the gap in political participation in Muslim-majority countries show that major cross-national differences in the extent of the gender gap cannot be explained by levels of ‘state Islamisation’, modernisation or societal gender equality. We are well aware that even in developed countries such as the UK, there are many barriers preventing women from entering politics unrelated to faith.

Nevertheless leaders in Muslim countries might wish to remind themselves of the dictates of Islam prescribed to ensure equity for Muslim women. Just as in the 7th Century, modern day women have the right to and are expected to pursue education. As evidenced in hadith, the pursuit of knowledge is a duty on every Muslim, male and female and the contribution of women in theological learning was affirmed when the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) said that half of faith can be learned from his wife Ayesha (may Allah be pleased with Her)

Fathers and husbands have been charged with responsibility for the adequate provision for females to a standard which is equal to their own. It ought to follow then that in patriarchal societies in particular, there is no scope for suboptimal provision of services for women. The Holy Prophet (peace be on him) said that the best amongst the believers are those who are best in morals, and the best in morals are those who are best in treatment of their wives. He has also said that taking good care of a daughter opens the door to Paradise for a Muslim. In his final sermon, he counselled

“O people, you have rights over your wives and your wives have rights over you. Remember, you must always treat your wives with kindness. Woman is weak and cannot protect her own rights. When you married, God appointed you the trustees of those rights. You brought your wives to your homes under the Law of God. You must not, therefore, insult the trust which God has placed in your hands.”

The 21st century reality is that Muslim women are fighting to overcome inherent, discriminatory attitudes prevalent in all levels of society just as all women are, within the cultural context they find themselves. Muslim women are doing this not on the grounds of the secular rally for women’s equality but based on a right Islam has given.

Yet her greater fight is the 14 century-old struggle to achieve her life’s purpose through the recognition of God. Every individual continues this struggle within the constraints of her society, financial situation, family and personal capabilities. As God has comforted –

‘Allah burdens not any soul beyond its capacity…’ (2:287)

Her definition of success is her personal relationship with God – she may achieve this whilst serving as a leader wielding immense political power, but equally as a daughter who discharges her obligations to her parents, or as mother who fulfils the dues of her children.

Motherhood is a relevant subject of discussion for women in every century. In the UK while 74% of women recognise motherhood as a full time career, over 70% of mothers work. The factors driving this picture are many of which economic reasons are foremost. The drive to get women in to work waxes and wanes in sync with perceived economic need by governments. But Islam assigns a position of great honour to a mother which is unchanging. The love and devotion due to parents, and especially to the mother, are repeatedly stressed in the Holy Quran:

“We have enjoined on man kindness towards his parents…” (29:9)

and by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him):

“Paradise lies at the feet of your mothers.”

The paradise mentioned refers to both the societal paradise that can be achieved and the heavenly Paradise. Islam recognises the unique position of women in their ability to nurture valuable future denizens of the world and in this recognition has placed mothers above fathers.

 

References

http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2016/

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/12/27/the-muslim-gender-gap-in-educational-attainment-is-shrinking/

Hilde Coffé, Selin Dill, The gender gap in political participation in Muslim-majority countries. International Political Science Review Vol 36, Issue 5, 2015

 

The Significance of Gender Segregation at Jalsa Salana

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By Navida Sayed, Hounslow, UK

Every year thousands of Ahmadi Muslims flock to Jalsa Salana UK (the Annual Convention) in Alton, Hampshire. The aim of the event for the members of the community is to attain spiritual advancement, unite in universal brotherhood and promote peace. Many guests attend for whom a salient feature of the convention is the segregation of the sexes. The separation of Muslim men and women at religious gatherings can be perplexing, misunderstood and sometimes difficult to accept especially in Western society.

Segregation of the sexes exists in all spheres of society including schools, hospitals, prisons, members clubs, workplaces and gyms. Yet when Muslims uphold the same principle it is seen as a medieval sign of the oppression and subjugation of women. Unfortunately some misconceptions are due to atrocities and injustices against women inflicted by bigoted extremists. To make matters worse, the negative biased and sensationalised stories about women in Islam plague the media. Taken together this creates a public narrative that there is a need to rescue and liberate Muslim women from the clutches of the faith of Islam.

In any workforce employees happily comply with company regulations in order to keep safe and protect their rights. Disregard or disobedience could result in disciplinary action or even termination of employment. Likewise practicing Muslims are expected to understand and obey the teachings of Islam, which is the faith of their choice. The commandments of Islam for both men and women to observe Purdah (veiling as a mindset) are for the betterment of society. This does not necessitate that teachings of Islam are out-dated and in need of reform.

For Ahmadi Muslims the separation of men and women during prayers and religious events has always been the norm and stems from Islamic teachings relating to Purdah. Many individuals may be completely unaware that males were the first to be instructed in the Qur’an to lower their gaze. Being aware of men’s weak innate nature, God also commanded women to cover themselves as a preventative measure. In Islam a woman is not regarded as a sex object and is free from exploitation and harassment.

Those who strongly oppose gender segregation on the grounds that both genders are being deprived of each other’s company are not aware Islam upholds the belief that intimate relationships should be confined to the private domain of marriage only. The separation of the sexes in mosques and religious gatherings is a preventive measure both for men and women to maintain the highest standards of good behaviour, dignity, self-restraint, modesty and purity.

The separate spaces are for their own comfort and ease where they do not have to cover up and where they can relax and reap the benefits of attending religious gatherings. Religious settings and gatherings such as the Jalsa Salana are not places of social hangout rather the prime focus is to reap spiritual benefits through prayers and listening to the speeches.

Sitting separately from men at community events or wearing the Hijab, does not restrict a Muslim woman’s role. She is encouraged to seek education and is not restricted to pursue a professional career. Ahmadi Muslim women excelling in highest standards of academic achievement can be witnessed in the award ceremony on the second day of Jalsa. Muslim women have all the rights that Muslim men enjoy, and in some ways, have certain privileges, which men do not enjoy. In a recent survey amongst 323,500 American adults, 56% of working mothers with children under the age of 18 said they would prefer to stay at home and take care of their house and family. A Muslim woman has the right and choice to stay at home and raise the children and for her husband to shoulder the financial responsibility for family. Another privilege is that a Muslim man has absolutely no right to demand anything from his wife’s income, property or wealth and Islam gives her the right to spend it as she wishes.

At the Jalsa Salana we welcome all interested in discovering the true teachings of Islam including the treatment and rights of women. Islam has granted women a position of dignity and honour and was the first religion to formally grant women a status never known before. The moral, spiritual and economic equality of men and women as propagated by Islam is unquestionable.

At Jalsa special guided tours are offered and female guests have the option of visiting the women’s area too. Leading some of the tours over the years, I found the reactions of the female guests were always the same. Whilst walking across there would be an air of silence, suspense and a few questions amongst the groups. Upon entering the ladies arena the guests were astounded, some politely commenting that they expected to see only be a few women behind a curtain in a small space. Of course the prime question always arises, why do we sit separately?

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community made life easier for its members especially for women to enable them to have recognition through their own women’s organisation known as the Lajna Ima’illah. Ahmadi Muslim women around the world have their own mosque areas, offices and at Jalsa Salana an entire ladies arena to themselves.

The women’s organisation works alongside their male counterparts under the direct guidance of the worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (may Allah be his helper and guide).

If anyone still considers that Ahmadi Muslim women are regarded inferior to men because of the segregation all they need to ask is who does the cooking? The answer people maybe expect is the women as there certainly would be no shortage of female participants at the Jalsa. In reality meals cooked over the course of the three day event for thousands of guests attending the Jalsa are all prepared by men, including peeling hundreds of bags of onions and potatoes, cooking and washing the gigantic pots and pans in very hot working conditions. Men could say that this is unfair on them, but they never complain and take on the task voluntarily and happily to serve the guests of Jalsa Salana. Likewise the men do all the cleaning and all of the heavy work.

At Jalsa the women also have the privilege of being addressed by the spiritual Head of the community Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahamd directly in their own gathering on the second day of the convention when he also awards female students for their academic achievements. The Lajna Ima’illah (women) have office bearers and teams of women in all departments such as health & safety, security, registration, administration, press & media, audio visual, camera crew, Voice of Islam radio, hospitality, Humanity First, discipline, first aid, exhibitions and much more. All the women are volunteers and at Jalsa Salana the volunteers comprise academics, professionals and housewives working in unison with the men all united as one. As Ahmadi Muslim women, we have absolutely no problem with the segregation, rather it is a source of great freedom and success for us. Furthermore segregation applies equally to men as it does to women, so any question of inferiority cannot apply for both are bound by this rule in equal measure.

We invite all female guests attending the convention to visit us on the ladies side and witness for themselves women leading women. Within the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, we are well aware and educated about our rights in Islam. The men in the community are also reminded about their womenfolk’s rights. One of the beautiful aspects of Islamic teaching is that by defining the role of women in society, and then by giving dignity to that role, it makes women feel fulfilled, empowered, respected and liberated. As Ahmadi Muslim women who experience this at first hand we can vouch for the wisdom and benefits of this teaching, as the independence we gain from segregation is a source of great strength.

 

#WeStandTogether

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Sarah Waseem, London

Yesterday, 26th March, I participated in a very unusual event. Along with about ten other ladies from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community we joined a larger group of women drawn from various walks of life to stand for five minutes on Westminster Bridge to remember those who died on 22nd March. The event organised by the Women’s March was very low key –no banners, no loudspeakers, no speeches no leaflets just a simple request for women to join together to remember those who had been murdered that fateful day.

We stood hand in hand, Muslim and non-Muslim for five minutes in silence. People passed us by – some stopped to take photos of us, while others watched us. The experience was very emotional. Here we were, reminding people that terror attacks affect us too and in the words of the Holy Qur’an , ‘Whoso kills a person, except for killing another or for creating disorder in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind’ (5:33). Here we were – a visible living statement to people that we, as Muslim women condemn violence of all sorts.

As I recalled the tragic events of that day it seemed surreal to think that one person could have caused so much pain to so many, in that act of mounting the pavement with a car and deliberately crashing into the crowds. I felt overwhelmed reflecting on the deaths of innocent people, those who has sustained injuries, the violence of brutal murder in Parliament square, –and the grief of those who were now bereaved.

I am not one to relish personal attention and I felt quite vulnerable being watched by so many as we stood by the cold wall of the bridge. All I could hear was the incessant clicking away of cameras. What were they thinking of us? “What are these Muslim women doing?” It bothered me as it always does, to think some might be even be afraid of us – all these Muslim women in hijabs standing on this beautiful bridge which had been the scene of such horror earlier in the week.

I am a Londoner. I am proud of this city of ours, home to such a divergent range of cultures and faiths. Acts of terror affect me, as they do the next person, but more so because when a so called Muslim commits such a barbaric crime, he or she disgraces all of us and does a grievous injustice to the name of the founder of this faith – the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him). His kindness, compassion and mercy to all was unrivalled. Under the guidance of the teachings of Islam, he brought peace and civilisation to the unruly uncivilised nation that was pre Islamic Arabia.

As a Muslim my religion teaches me that I have responsibility to maintain peace in society –to observe law and order, and to respect those in authority. My Islam guides me to care for the young, the old, the orphans and the dispossessed, to respect others’ faith and to safeguard freedom of belief. This is not a faith of terror and extremism. ‘Moderation in all things’ was the way of the Prophet of Islam.

As I stood on the bridge, and the minutes moved on, a sense of calm come over me. Suddenly it did not matter anymore what people might be thinking. I was proud to be there – to show passers-by that, I as a Muslim cared about what had happened in my city, and that I condemned it. I hoped that with my companions, we had in some small measure, showed that terrorism could not divide us from them, that we were at one with them and that perhaps we could reassure them that Islam was not the enemy.

Testing Tolerance

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Sarah Waseem, London

By now most people know, The European Court of Justice has ruled that companies can now stipulate that employees may not wear the Islamic headscarf, but only as part of prohibitions including other religious and political symbols.  They argue that “an internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination”.

I have been debating this with a friend. She maintains that there is nothing wrong in companies stipulating a dress code – that it their right to do so. If a Muslim woman or Jewish or Sikh man does not wish to comply, then he or she should look elsewhere for work.

It is true that dress codes have been in force for years from school uniforms to official uniforms. We expect people to dress and conform to certain standards when working at every level in society.

So what is wrong with the Luxemburg decision?

The Luxembourg-based court found that a headscarf ban may also constitute “indirect discrimination” if people adhering to a particular religion or belief, such as Muslims, are put at a particular disadvantage.

But indirect discrimination is permissible if it is “objectively justified by a legitimate aim”, such as a company’s policy of neutrality, provided that the means of achieving it are appropriate and necessary.”

In many hospitals in the UK uniform measure are already in place to reduce infection. So for example, many staff are expected to wear short sleeves.  There is a logical reason for this. At airports, security concerns dictate that women covering their faces must remove their veils. Again, there is a rationale for this, that all must follow regardless of faith.

However, what does ‘a policy of neutrality’ mean?  Psychologists have been telling us for a long time that we make judgements about people within a few minutes of meeting them. From their accents, we make rash conclusions about their political views; from body shapes we may censure or applaud food choices, and (here’s the clanger!) if they are attractive we are more likely to employ them and promote them!

So, given these biases that we as humans make, from seeing someone, the rationale of not making judgments about their religious affiliations seems somewhat nonsensical.

The reality is that religion has become politicised, especially in Europe. The other reality of this ruling is, that on sheer demographics, the main target will be Muslim women, rather than interestingly, Muslim men who do not usually display their faith affiliation so obviously. Such a move will mean some Muslim women will be forced to consider where they work, and for many, this  may mean a withdrawal from sections of the labour market.

In my opinion, secularists are afraid of the power of faith – that believers do not look to solely the state for their needs but to a Higher Power. And the main source of their fear today, is Islam which is the fastest growing religion in many parts of the world.  Given the destruction wrought on the world by terrorist groups such as Daesh, their fears are understandable. However, these groups do not come out of nowhere, and as sociologists will remind us, discontent and resentment within the Muslims world has been brewing for centuries, largely aided by Western politics of interference in their affairs.

So what is the way forward? I have recently returned from the beautiful Spanish city of Cordoba, ruled by Arabs centuries ago. It was a city where faith was respected – Christians, Muslims and Jews lived cordially side by side. It was an era of a great exchange of ideas and cultures, and philosophies. It was an era of great material and scientific advancement as exemplified by the architectural beauty of the Cordoba mosque, or the ruins of the city of Medina Al Zahara.

Banning displays of faith will not lead to peace nor will they create greater integration. That comes from dialogue and discussion, not hiding one’s values, under the guise of ‘neutrality’.   The court ruling, in my opinion sets a dangerous precedent which will undermine cohesion and may lead to further divide in societies.

Empowerment of Women in the 1920s: The story of Lajna Ima’illah

LajnaBlogWomen'sDay

Sameen R. Chaudhary, London

It is generally acknowledged that the role of women changed during and after the World Wars. With the men away on the battle field, it was up to women to hold down the fort at home, taking on war jobs that went beyond their traditional roles. Mechanics, factory workers, farmers; jobs that before were ‘men’s jobs’ were now being done by women. Posters of strong women and propaganda challenged the stereotypes and encouraged women to work, because the nation demanded, nay, depended on it for their survival. It was perhaps intended to be a temporary break from the norm until the men returned. Once begun however, many of these women found it difficult to go back to their roles pre-war. They had come to a realisation almost by default; that they were capable and intelligent enough to do a man’s job and for them that meant that they were now equal.

There was a quiet revolution for women happening elsewhere in the world around the same time, 1922 to be precise. There were no posters, and no propaganda. And women were not being told to leave their traditional roles temporarily. These women had already been given an equal status by their faith, Islam, more than a thousand years earlier, but they did not have to act like men to prove it. This revolution recognised the uniqueness of women and the contributions they could make to further a nation, as women in their own right. This revolution occurred in India. Here, even though approximately 1.3 million men had gone off the fight the war, still women did not have to take on the role of men. Instead they were taught how to flourish in their own role as women. When a woman is allowed to achieve everything on par with men, but in her own way, without having to prove that she can act like a man- that is not just equality. It is freedom. Freedom to be a woman, and freedom to be equal in the true sense of the word.

These women I speak of, Ahmadi Muslim women were relatively financially poor but rich with enthusiasm and love for Islam and even managed to wholly finance the first mosque in London while living in 1920s India. The Second Khalifa, the spiritual head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community set up an auxiliary women’s organisation called Lajna Ima’illah in December 1922. Its aim was self-education and training of women, both in spiritual and secular terms. For example, as is still the norm in rural parts of the East, women learn crafts such as sewing and embroidery. One of the first departments created within this auxiliary was that of Industry and Handicraft, after some ladies used their skills to make artefacts and hold an exhibition where they were sold. The proceeds went to good causes. And thus this department was born with its roots in the empowerment of women by encouraging them to learn and use their skills to eradicate unemployment.

In short, it allows them to pursue means by which they can improve their skills and earn their own money-an important feature for some women when claiming their independence. But crucially, it allows them to do it in a way that does not compromise any other aspect of themselves. So often women who have multiple roles face the harsh reality of having to put one role above the other: A working mother may feel the guilt of leaving her child whilst she goes to work sometimes out of financial necessity and sometimes out of having to make a financial contribution to her household as this is what her ‘equality’ entails. The Second Khalifa of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, with his amazing foresight, recognised the importance of making women independent and eradicating unemployment as a means to empower them, rather than empowering women because they needed to fill the shoes of men. Even today in many cultures financially independent women are still feared. But he encouraged them at a time when working women were scarce amongst those that were financially supported, by giving them a higher cause: to earn their own money and spend out of it for the cause of faith thereby raising their spiritual status as well.

For over 10 years now I have watched my mother serve in the capacity of Secretary for Industry and Handicraft for Lajna Ima’illah UK; watched all kinds of women work hard, to learn new skills, to set up their own businesses sometimes in the face of adversity. I have seen women take on their roles as women and entrepreneurs with dignity and grace, and above all, creating a work life balance where their womanhood is not compromised. Skills such as cooking, sewing and handicrafts may seem old fashioned and out dated. But only a look at some of the most popular TV programmes currently suggest otherwise. It is not only these skills that can be developed, but whatever you wish. The idea is to help all those who have not pursued other career routes to work for themselves, giving them true independence and the ability to answer to no one but themselves and God. Women have organised bazaars with a footfall of over 3,000 women, providing a platform for many business women to sell and advertise their products and services. They work in temporary industrial sized kitchens in the outdoors, and feed over 10,000 women every day for three days every year at the Annual Convention for the Ahmadiyya Community. It is not pretty or dainty work, and it is certainly not for the weak. The strength, stamina and resolve of such women is remarkable. And they are not alone. A huge voluntary task force of women work long hours providing security, shelter, food, and comfort of every kind to their guests during this time.

As India celebrates its all women flights, Lajna Ima’illah has been running its own organisation, own events and own programme of education and reform for all women and girls for decades upon decades. Indeed, it is now an organisation global in scope, working in over two hundred countries around the world. Perhaps here in the UK in the future Lajna Ima’illah can reach the level of holding exhibitions such as those in Earl’s Court and the Excel Centre, mirroring the humble efforts of those first pioneers back in the 1920s.