Friday, March 28, 2014

Queer Muslims, Being Desi and Halal Romance: Growing Up Muslim in Australia

March 28, 2014

Coming of Age: Growing Up Muslim in Australia is a book that came about, in part, so that young Muslim Australians would see themselves reflected.

‘We grew up with images of Anglo Australia that placed us on the sidelines,’ said co-editor Demet Divaroren. She said that growing up, for her, was a series of questions. What part of her was Australian? How much was Muslim, or Turkish?

In the green room before the Coming of Age event. From left: Tasneem Chopra, Amra Pajalic, Demet Divaroren, and, at far right, Alyena Mohummadally.

Co-editor Amra Pajalic was a teenager living in Australia when Yugoslavia broke apart. ‘When I said I was Yugoslav, strangers now demanded more information: was I Bosnian, Croatian or Serbian? When I told them I was Bosnian, more questions followed: why was the war happening, why wasn’t my hair covered, and most importantly, “How is it that there are Muslims smack-bang in the middle of Europe?” These questions made me feel as if I had no right to call myself Australian, because I was the Other.’

‘There were no books to reassure us we weren’t alone,’ said Demet. After 9/11, it became harder for Muslims in Australia; perceptions changed and Muslims were pigeonholed. With this book, the editors aimed to go behind the ethnic and Muslim tags and show a variety of human stories.
Being a queer Muslim: ‘I lived with a double-edged sword inside me’

Alyena Mohummadally identifies as a queer Muslim woman, an identity that was difficult for her to feel comfortable with, or even accept, growing up. ‘Being Muslim wasn’t a big deal for a young person growing up in the 1980s,’ she said. But when she experienced her first same-sex attraction, aged 14 or 15, during a period living back in Pakistan (which her family had left when she was three), she ‘knew that wasn’t on’. She responded by immersing herself in her religion, thinking it would make her ‘less gay’. Returning to Australia in her twenties, she introduced herself to people by declaring her bisexuality, looking for acceptance. But she still wasn’t happy – now, she was suppressing her spirituality and trying to push herself away from being Muslim.

‘I lived with a double-edged sword inside me. Being queer would stab me; being Muslim would stab me.’

She said that one of the big issues for her was that, in 1994, when you googled ‘queer Muslims in Australia’, you got absolutely nothing. ‘It was very isolating. It made me feel I was alone in the world.’

Now, she has been with her partner for ten years and has two children (both with her surname).

‘If my story helps just one Muslim boy or girl see you can have two halves to one whole, can be queer and Muslim, I’ll be glad I shared my story,’ she said.
Irfan Yusuf: Being a ‘Desi’ Muslim

Pakistan-born, Sydney-raised Irfan Yusuf spoke about growing up in the 1970s in a ‘Desi’ (meaning stereotypically Indian) community. ‘A Desi is anyone who can watch Bollywood movies without needing subtitles, or needs them but can only understand every third word,’ he said.

In the 1970s, he said, his Desi elders were Muslim in the same way that his Sikh friends were Sikh, etc. In other words, Muslim was not the primary identity for them. ‘Sydney had a very small Desi community back then. We all stuck together.’ He said there was only one spice shop in Sydney then, and it was in Bondi, run by an Indian Jewish man. ‘No one cared that he was Jewish. He was Indian.’

He said that after a Pakistani-Christian boy was bullied and beaten to death at the local primary school, all the Desi parents in his community began sending their children to private schools. These schools were religious – Christian, Anglican – but no one cared about that. The kids went to mass along with everyone else.

He recalled laughing at his elders, with the other kids – but also teasing the kids who came from Pakistan to study in Australia, and were welcomed into the Desi community. ‘The names we would call them were exactly the ones we were called at school. We were just as racist.’
Halal romance and Goanna activism

‘Growing up Muslim in country Victoria was a relative non-event during the 1980s,’ said Tasneem Chopra, whose many roles include as chairperson of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre of Human Rights. Like Irfan, she says she was ‘more conscious of my Indian-ness than my Muslim-ness’.

She talked about growing up in Bendigo, catching yabbies, riding bikes and making icy poles from orange juice. She also spoke about her family’s membership of the Indo-Australian Club, as one of about 30 families in town, which meant Indian dance classes, learning Hindi songs and ‘focusing on the promised McDonalds cheeseburger and milkshake on the way home’.

In the 1980s, she started going to Muslim youth camp, where she was ‘the diva of the camp’ with her carefully pre-selected outfits. ‘Despite the fact that girls were required to wear hijabs, the creative blend of big fringes and puffy hairdos that strategically perched under your scarf, or more often than not flowed inside it, became a coveted art form. Dress codes were no deterrent for fashionista warriors.’

At camp, ‘halal romance’ flourished – ‘a tricky journey in which halal and hormones frequently collided’. The camp was significant, Tasneem said, for placing her in a rare environment where she was ‘surrounded by Muslims 24/7.’

Her lifelong activism was spurred by a particularly Australian moment: the school assembly performance by Goanna of their hit ‘Solid Rock’, a song with lyrics ‘that proclaimed that white law had lied’.

‘Solid Rock planted the seeds of activism in my heart. It dawned on me that the state could actually be complicit in inflicting injustices and get away with it. And so began my moral outrage, which would last me well into the future.’

Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia was an event held at the Wheeler Centre on 24 February. The book Coming of Age: Growing Up Muslim in Australia (Allen & Unwin) is in bookshops now.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dear All Muslims – An Open Letter about Gender-Based Violence, Rape Culture and Community Priorities

By Samar Kaukab Ahmed -- March 27, 2014

Dear Absolutely Everyone in the Muslim Community: What does it take for our scholars, thought leaders, and community shepherds to understand that gender-based violence is a form of institutionalized oppression – one that belongs on the list of every Imam’s duas at the end of every communal prayer?

How long does it take to get an institutional response to “jokes” made by a public scholar that perpetuate rape culture? Does the adab (Islamic etiquette) of not humiliating one man in a position of authority who has publicly made oppressive, mean-spirited statements supersede the infliction of debilitating psychological triggers and post traumatic stress (PTSD) on countless others? Does tiptoeing around an individual teacher and the institutions that he is affiliated with rise above the psychological health and safety of our communities and those who follow his guidance as his students?

And, what does it take to stop silencing women and men who take on the necessary burden of broadening the scope of our communal priorities?

Unfortunately, the most recent incident of a public scholar making jokes about gender based violence as an attack on International Women’s Day (the Abu Eesa incident) and the aftermath of responses and non-responses has demonstrated that a lot of work is yet to be done in order for our communities to prioritize the everyday oppression of gender-based violence and rape culture. Since this is a teachable moment, let’s get some statistics out of the way. Do not skip over this section. If we were ready to skip over the numbers, this letter would not be necessary today.

Gender-based violence affects people of all cultures, religions and ethnic backgrounds. A survey of 801 American Muslims found that 31 percent reported experiencing abuse within an intimate partner relationship, and 53 percent reported experiencing some form of domestic violence during their lifetime. (Peaceful Families & Project Sakinah 2011 DV Survey)

Ready for some more? Every two minutes another American is sexually assaulted. Over 400,000 women are sexual assaulted each year in the UK. Approximately two-thirds of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. Sixty percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.*

Here is some information on PTSD that you should probably know too. The terminology of ‘triggers’ is based on research and studies on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Behaviors and situations (including jokes about violence against women) can trigger flashbacks to traumatic events and other unwanted symptoms like panic attacks and the compulsion to self-harm. Research has demonstrated that these triggers can lead to people becoming incredibly socially isolated, as they attempt to protect themselves from distressing situations, experiences and behaviors. It can also lead to the voices of survivors being silenced, as taking part in discussions can be too distressing. So a single “joke” or off-color comment, can devastate a survivor or co-survivor’s ability to get through the day, to focus on their studies, to excel at work, to be engaged parents, to fulfill their roles in society. Trigger effects are not due to being overly sensitive and they are not the result of people being weak. Just like soldiers of war, survivors of rape and other forms of gender-based violence can suffer long-term neurological impacts after traumatic incidents. So in the least, joking about oppression of any sort is and should be intolerable in any professional or personal capacity.

I would be happy to continue this teachable moment, but I’ll leave some of the fun for another day.


Now that we are all on the same page about why this is no laughing matter or the case of a bunch of overly liberal people being overly sensitive, why does this happen? What in our broader culture allows men in positions of leadership to get away with this behavior? What in our institutional structures makes our leaders prioritize institutional branding and the adab of dealing with a public individual over oppressive humor that inflicts real harm upon our own people?

I’m happy to stand corrected, but my two cents are that so much of our institutional culture caters to giving men in positions of power what they want. At times, this is prioritized even higher than the prophetic goal of pursuing individual and societal excellence as a means of worship.

“He was just joking. He makes other off-color jokes too. He’s normally not like that. They are just feminists. These are just words.” These were all reactions seen and heard in the aftermath of the Abu Eesa incident. Pretty quickly, one can see how the insidiousness nature of a base level tolerance gives permission to move to the next level of societal harm, one in which a woman’s worth is consistently diminished and utterly ignored. In other words, what we see here is a cultural spectrum of actions in which a fun-times-let’s-keep-it-real-for-the-young-people scholar can spew misogynist feces at thousands of followers on one end, and we have the deafening apologetic silence of many of our religious and community leaders on the other end.

What worries me the most is the latter end. It is the silence of our scholars and institutional leaders that implicitly encourages this entire spectrum of sickening actions to thrive and never die off.

Chicken or the egg, either way you slice it, this is cultural sickness.

So while I don’t have enough space or energy at the moment to fully discuss how to address this cultural malaise, I can begin to address what I think are a few key points. I hope that the conversations that have been started by so many others continue to build on this very initial list of how to move forward.

1. Community Accountability and Institutional Responses Not Only Matter – They are Necessary.

Community accountability has the potential to create real change. Stop using silencing words to mute critics of those who deserve admonishment. The responsibility to stand up for a community-wide harm far supersedes the public admonishment of one who made public actions. Scholars: there is an urgency to speak up and stand up. As you continue to shepherd our flocks, note that the moment is today, not tomorrow. Students and community members: demand that those that we look up to and those that we turn to for guidance educate themselves on this subject that silently impacts so many in our communities. Demand that our leaders stop being silent. As a reminder, at least 1 in 4 women that you come across today are survivors of sexual violence.

It would be unwise of me to speak about community accountability without at least flagging a few guiding principles (note, this isn’t an exhaustive list) to keep in mind while doing this important work:

• Women’s voices and experiences must be central to this work and to informing this work.
• The issue of race and intersectionality matters both as co-forms of oppression and due to the fact that marginalized peoples are disproportionately affected by gender based violence.

2. Stop Joking About Oppression Against Women.

Making “jokes” about rape and gendered violence is a choice. Civily admonishing someone about a terrible choice made in public is not bad adab. What is bad adab is making space for the sensitivity of the one who makes rape jokes somehow equally sacred alongside women’s actual humanity and physical sanctity.

3. Stop Attacking Those Who are Brave Enough to Speak Up About this Disgusting Behavior

So while we’re at it, I have more experience with complex institutional strategy and organizational responses, than you have being a woman. So stop silencing me and stop silencing my esteemed sisters, who have every right to share their perspective and expect an appropriate institutional and community-based response.

A general rule of thumb my parents taught me: If you throw vomit and feces at people, expect to receive a response. When people, particularly women, speak up in civil formats (i.e., articles, blogs, social media campaigns), they’re met with dismissal, condescension, and the sometimes implicit/sometimes explicit, message that these women are entering territory that they should keep out of. “You, evil, maniacal feminists, you’re starting an east/west fight.” “You silly bloggers, you don’t even realize the mess you’re making!” “You-Trix-are-for-kids-ladies, why are you ruining the brand of the XYZ Institute?!” All that is to say — women, you are not welcome here. That’s messed up and ridiculous. I’m not a scholar of Islam by any means, but even I know that’s not prophetic in nature and it is not the example of some of the most important women in Islamic history.

4. More on Community Accountability: Support Grassroots Campaigns that are Working Towards Change. 

Historically speaking and currently, our broader American community has been able to effectively use grassroots social justice campaigns to make change. From the participation of Muslims in America’s civil rights struggles to more recent efforts to combat institutionalized Islamophobia, I can think of numerous instances where boycotts, social media campaigns, and other forms of grassroots actions have impacted change on a number of fronts. Similarly, we need to be willing to support more of the same strategic actions as a means to address rape culture and gender-based violence.

With all due respect, I for one, can not and will not participate in supporting an institution, other scholars, or conferences that continue to affiliate themselves with an individual who has relentlessly caused trauma and pain. Putting pressure on our own institutions and community leadership is a mechanism to shake up our communal priorities and we should not be afraid to use it.

So, my people, what does it take to shame our community into action? What keeps me hopeful is the knowledge that there are a lot of wise people out there who will keep at the struggle to address this complicated question. What I also know is, as my dear scholar sister, Yasmin Mogahed, once eloquently pointed out in a webinar on domestic violence, “Sabr (patience) is not suffering in silence.”

* See more at

Samar Kaukab Ahmad is the Director of Research Strategy and Operations at the University of Chicago (Arete, Office of the Vice President for Research and National Laboratories). She is also a board member at Heart Women and Girls and the former Executive Director of Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence. This article originally appeared on Altmuslimah, which is not affiliated with Altmuslim.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ziauddin Yousafzai: My daughter, Malala

One Thousand Times

by S. N . Smith -- March 26, 2014

Zeinab has lived in Syria all of her life. About a year and a half ago, along with her daughter, son-in-law and two grand-daughters, she was forced to flee out of the country due to the violence taking place there. 

While she fled she fell down and broke her shoulder, the pain of which still bothers her to this day.

Zeinab now resides in a southern Turkish village and is safe for now from the fighting, and there is a small semblance of normality. 

Her husband Nasr, a man of great learning and intellect, passed away three years ago.

But despite her afflictions, she has not forgotten a promise she made to God 23 year ago. 

Back in 1991, Zeinab made a decision that she was going to recite the Quran 1000 times from cover to cover before she passed away, for she was taught from childhood of the many rewards of reciting even one letter from this sacred book. 

Twenty three years have passed, and although she has lost count, Zeinab is certain that she has read the Quran in its entirety several hundred times. 

Currently she is reading the entire Quran twice every 10 days, so at that rate she is completing the Quran at least 6 times per month.

In addition, after every fajr salat (morning prayer) she makes salawat -- an invocation of peace and blessings -- on the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) 1000 times before she begins the rest of her day. 

Each time she reads the Quran she gains new insight and much needed comfort in the midst of intense suffering that she, and her people, are forced to encounter on a daily basis. She does not have much else to provide her comfort as the bad news of what is taking place in her native Syria keeps pouring in. 

Zeinab is well aware that the days ahead of her are much less than the days behind her. Her health is not the best, which acts as a tangible reminder that soon she will go back to her Lord.  

Day after day, her eyes fall upon the holy book and its sacred words pour forth from her heart and mouth and rises up to heaven from whence they came; back to the throne of the Almighty who knows and sees all things. 

Day after day, she harbours the hope that she will return to her native homeland so that she can be buried with her beloved husband. 

And day after day she sends salawat on the Prophet Muhammad -- peace be upon him -- because no matter how bleak things may be, she has made a promise to God and she intends to keep it. 
Zeinab will soon turn 80. 

S N Smith writes from Ottawa, Ontario