February 1: World Hijab Day


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj
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World Hijab Day - 2

Today, February 1, 2014 is “World Hijab Day”

More than 50 countries of the world celebrated “World Hijab Day” on February 1, 2013.

A New Yorker Nazma Khan born in Bangladesh founded the World Hijab Day. It was organized almost solely over social networking sites. Muslims and non-Muslims in more than 50 countries across the world have been attracted by it.

Nazma Khan came to the United States from Bangladesh at the age of 11. She was the only person in her Bronx school to wear the Hijab, the traditional Islamic veil or scarf that is worn by many post-pubescent Muslim women to cover the head and chest.

Her classmates and schoolmates ridiculed her for wearing the Hijab and called her names. They tormented her throughout her time in the middle school and high school for wearing the Hijab. She suffered many hardships when she entered City College of New York, especially after the four coordinated terrorist attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda in New York City and the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. At that time, some New Yorkers wary of Muslims made her a target for ridicule and suspicion.

Nazma said: “I was made to feel like a criminal, as if I was responsible for 9/11 and owed an apology to everyone.”

However, Nazma, true to her religious beliefs, steadfastly wore the Hijab, shrugging off the rancorous comments and venomous stares.

Nazma Khan (Source: language.chinadaily.com.cn)

Nazma Khan (Source: language.chinadaily.com.cn)

She launched the website worldhijabday.com on January 21, 2013 with the mission to make non-Muslims understand the virtues of wearing the Hijab, the traditional Islamic headscarf.

Through her website, Nazma Khan has gained many Muslim and non-Muslim friends. Many of her Muslim followers are immigrants themselves, and have all experienced similar pains like her. Nazma has inspired many Muslim students to wear the Hijab.

World Hijab Day

In a message, she appealed to women across the world to wear the Hijab for just one day on February 1, 2013, to support the personal freedom to wear clothing of one’s own choice.

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I have listed and described the names of some common clothing worn by the Muslim women – from the least to the most conservative such as the Hijab, Khimar, Shayla, Abaya, Chador, Niqab, Yashmak, and Burqa, in my post titled, “A Muslim Woman’s Veil.

Jess Rhodes, 21, a student from Norwich in the UK with and without her Hijab (Source: bbc.co.uk)

Jess Rhodes, 21, a student from Norwich in the UK with and without her Hijab (Source: bbc.co.uk)

Even though there is no basis for celebrating World Hijab Day, Muslims in more than 50 countries of the world celebrated the day on February 1, 2013. However, there are detractors too among Muslims who are against celebrating the so-called World Hijab Day. Umm Ibrahim (https://www.facebook.com/umm.ibrahim.56) living in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, vehemently says:

✦ Please know there is no BASIS for Hijab Day, Mother’s Day, etc etc. Neither the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) nor his sahabah and none from the pious predecessors ever celebrated such stuff! Our scholars have warned us clearly against innovated festivals/occasions. Muslims should avoid initiating or encouraging innovated occasions in imitation to those of the kuffar, such as Mothers’s Day, the day of the Earth, etc!

✦ DAWAH starts with TAWHEED not HIJAB! Hadith of Mu’adh, when Allah’s Messenger (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) sent him to Yemen, he said, “O Mu’adh, you aer going to a nation from the People of the Book, so let the first thing to which you will invite them, be the TAWHEED OF ALLAH.” (Saheeh Bukhari (book 93, no 469)

✦ This is making fun of Hijab by asking support of non-muslims to wear for a day! Allah alone is sufficient for us. More reward for sisters who are struggling more to continue their hijab in west! IF possible, migrate from their lands which ban/mock Islam. Otherwise, just stay firm and be sincere and ask Allah to help. We know many sisters who wear Niqab in the West, Alhamdulillah! So, in future do we expect World NIQAB DAY, too?

✦ Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam), who said: “I urge you to adhere to my way (Sunnah) and the way of the rightly-guided successors (al-khulafa’ al-raashidoon) who come after me. Hold fast to it and bite onto it with your eyeteeth [i.e., cling firmly to it], and beware of newly-invented matters.”

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This is Communal Harmony in My Beloved India


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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United We StandTHIS IS MY BELOVED INDIA!

Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis …

” And peace on Earth to people of good will …”

This is India - Merry Christmas!

This is India – Merry Christmas!

I came across the above fabulous photo on the internet. Do you like it? What message does it convey?

Here is a collection of photographs I came across while surfing the net. 

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The vow of Hindu-Muslim unity

Talking about communal harmony on April 8, 1919, Mahatma Gandhi said:

“If the Hindu-Muslim communities could be united in one bond of mutual friendship and if each could act towards the other as children of the same mother, it would be a consumation devoutely to be wished. But before this unity becomes a reality, both the communities will have to give up a good deal, and will have to make radical changes in ideas held herefore. Members of one community when talking about those of the other at times indulge in terms so vulgar that they but acerbate the relations between the two. In Hindu society we do not hesitate to indulge in unbecoming language when talking of the Mohomedans and vice-versa. Many believe that an ingrained and ineradicable animosity exists between the Hindus and
Mohomedans.

“When both are inspired by the spirit of sacrifice, when both try to do their duty towards one another instead of pressing their rights, then and then only would the long standing differences between the two communities cease. Each must respect the other’s religion, must refrain from even secretly thinking ill of the other. We must politely dissuade members of both communities from indulging in bad language against one another. Only a serious endeavour in this direction can remove the estrangement between us.” (25:201-202)

He made the members present take a vow as under:

“With God as witness we Hindus and Mohomedans declare that we shall behave towards one another as children of the same parents, that we shall have no differences, that the sorrows of each shall be the sorrows of the other and that each shall help the other in removing them. We shall respect each other’s religion and religious feelings and shall not stand in the way of our respective religious practices. We shall always refrain from violence to each other in the name of religion.”

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Prayer Beads: The Islamic Subha / Masbaha / Tasbih


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) proclaimed: “Worship is the pillar of religion.”

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Salat, or prayer, is one of the Five Pillars, or essential rites in Islam. Recited five times a day (at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset and nightfall), salat intersperses the rhythms of daily life with habitual opportunities to stand before The Almighty in entranced concentration.

Islamic Prayer Beads Tesbih Subha 99 Malachite

Islamic Prayer Beads Tesbih Subha 99 Malachite

Nowadays, many Muslims pray with prayer beads as a device to keep track of the words of dhikr (remembrance of Allah) they repeat while glorifying Allah.

Muslims probably gained the concept of prayer beads from India. When this happened, however, is uncertain. However, scholars admit that the use of prayer beads originated with the Hindus in ancient India, and the Hindu or Buddhist mala is the great mother of rosaries. From India and the Himalayan kingdoms, the prayer beads traveled west to Africa and Europe, where it evolved into the Islamic Subha, the Christian Rosary, the Eastern Orthodox prayer rope, and the secular worry beads used throughout Greece and the Middle East.

In India, a strand of Islamic prayer beads is known as Subha (Arabic: سبحا) derived from the Arabic phrase Subhan’Allāh (Arabic سبحان الله) meaning “Glory to Allah.” It is also known as Masbaha (Arabic: مسبحة) or Tasbih (تسبيح).

Subha may vary in style or decorative embellishments ranging from cheap mass-produced prayer beads, to those made with expensive materials and high-quality workmanship.

Subha beads are most often made of spherical glass, wood, plastic, amber, or gemstone. The cord is usually cotton or silk.

Subha may have either 33 beads, or 99 beads separated by flat disks into three groups of 33. There is often a larger, leader bead and a tassel at one end to mark the starting point of recitations.

The believers touch one bead at a time while reciting words of dhikr which are often the 99 names of Allah (Arabic: أسماء الله الحسنى‎ ʾasmāʾ allāh al-ḥusnā),  which help the believers in their communion with Allah.

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At times the believers repeat phrases which express reverence, complete submission and gratitude to Allah. Following are the most used phrases, each repeated 33 times:

Subhan’Allāh (Arabic سبحان الله) meaning “Glory to Allah
Alhamdulillah (Arabic: الحمد لله‎) meaning “Praise be to Allah
Allāhu Akbar (Arabic: الله أكبر) meaning “Allah is Great”

At the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Muslims did not use prayer beads as a tool during personal prayer, but may have used date pits or pebbles. Caliph Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) used a Subha similar to modern ones. The widespread manufacture and use of Subha began about 600 years ago.

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Prayer Beads in Major Religions


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj .

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In many major religions and cultures, the device most used to help devotees to pray and meditate is the strand of prayer beads. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population meditate or pray with beads.

Hindu/Buddhist 108-bead mala of  jasper with turquoise howlite and red bamboo coral marker beads.

Hindu/Buddhist 108-bead mala of jasper with turquoise howlite and red bamboo coral marker beads.

Many scholars admit that the use of prayer beads originated with the Hindus in ancient India,and the Hindu or Buddhist mala is the great mother of rosaries. From India and the Himalayan kingdoms, the prayer beads traveled east to China and Japan, and to the west to Africa and Europe, where it evolved into the Islamic Subha, the Christian rosary, the Eastern Orthodox prayer rope, and the secular worry beads used throughout Greece and the Middle East.

Catholic Rosary

Roman Catholic Rosary

Traditionally, the prayer beads have consisted of strings of similarly sized beads, seeds, knots, or even rose petals and beads made from crushed roses, from which we get the word “rosary.” In Latin the term “rosarium” means ‘crown of roses’ or ‘garland of roses.’ The Roman Catholics sometimes write the word ‘rosary’ with an initial capital as ‘Rosary.’

Since counting prayers were initially so important, each religion embracing the use of prayer beads developed its own symbolic structure to follow. In addition to helping keep one’s place in structured prayers, the prayer beads also symbolize the commitment to spiritual life. With its circular form, a string of beads represents the interconnectedness of all who pray.

Common to many strands of prayer beads is the number nine. Greatest of the single-digit numerals, nine symbolizes completion. Where the numbers do not add up to nine, they are often divisible by three, symbolic of the trinity in Hinduism (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva), the three central concepts of Buddhism (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) and the trinity in Christianity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).

In addition to their use in the religious rituals of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, the prayer beads find a place in the spiritual practices of cultures as diverse as the African Masai, Native Americans, Greek and Russian Orthodoxy.

Eastern-Orthodox Prayer Rope

Eastern-Orthodox Prayer Rope

Many similar prayer practices exist in various other Christian communities, each with its own set of prescribed prayers and its own form of prayer beads or prayer rope. These other devotions and their associated beads are usually called “chaplets”. The rosary is sometimes used by other Christians, especially in Lutheranism, the Anglican Communion and the Old Catholic Church.

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Hindu Muslim Bhai Bhai


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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Krishna Janmashtami - 2

Today, while Hindus all over the world are celebrating Krishna Janmashtami, I was flipping through my vast collection of photographs harvested from the World Wide Web. I came across photographs that heartened my soul with love for my country where my Hindu and Muslim brethren coexist as a closely knit family.

THIS IS MY BELOVED INDIA!

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Sawm Ramadan


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj

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May this Ramadan bring you the utmost in peace now and during prosperity. May light triumph over darkness.

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Ramadan (Arabic: رمضان‎ Ramaḍān), the ninth month of the Islāmic calendar, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

Though not mentioned in the Quran, but summarized in the famous hadith of Gabriel are the Five Pillars of Islam (arkān-al-Islām أركان الإسلام; also arkān ad-dīn أركان الدين “pillars of the religion”) which are the foundation of Muslim life – five basic acts in Islam, considered obligatory by believers. They are:

  1. Shahadah (belief or confession of faith – Muslim life)
  2. Salat (worship in the form of prayer)
  3. Sawm Ramadan (self purification by fasting during the month of Ramadan)
  4. Zakat (alms or charitable giving or concern for the needy)
  5. Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime)

Annually, Muslims, worldwide, observe self purification by fasting during the month of Ramadan which lasts 29–30 days based on the visual sightings of the crescent moon.

The word Ramadan derived from the Arabic root ramiḍa or ar-ramaḍ, means “scorching heat” or “dryness.” It is “obligatory” for adult Muslims to fast, except those who are ill, diabetic, traveling, pregnant, breastfeeding, or during menstrual bleeding.

The Quran states:

The month of Ramadan is that in which the Quran was revealed, a guidance to men and clear proofs of the guidance and the distinction; therefore whoever of you is present in the month, he shall fast therein, and whoever is sick or upon a journey, then (he shall fast) a (like) number of other days; Allah desires ease for you, and He does not desire for you difficulty, and (He desires) that you should complete the number and that you should exalt the greatness of Allah for His having guided you and that you may give thanks. [Quran 2:185]

Wall Street Bull

Wall Street Bull (Photo: V.A. Subas Raj)

Bowling Green is a small public park in Lower Manhattan at the foot of Broadway next to the site of the original Dutch fort of New Amsterdam. Built in 1733, originally including a bowling green, it is the oldest public park in New York City surrounded by its original 18th century fence. At its northern end is the Charging Bull sculpture, which is sometimes called the Wall Street Bull or the Bowling Green Bull.

Dhuhr (Noon) prayer in Bowling Green - 1

Dhuhr (Noon) prayer in Bowling Green (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

Dhuhr (Noon) prayer in Bowling Green  (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

Dhuhr (Noon) prayer in Bowling Green (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

Last year, while my wife and I were in New York, we saw a faithful Muslim in the Bowling Green at 1:23 pm unmindful of the blaring noise surrounding him, perseveringly reciting the Dhuhr (Noon) prayer. We were spellbound by his faith in God and his steadfast adherence to his religious duties.

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Maldives: 15-year-old Girl Raped by Stepfather Flogged for ‘Fornication’


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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Maldives Queen of all islands

Maldives Queen of all islands

Every year, around 700,000 visitors from around the globe visit the Maldives, lured by its pristine beaches. However, this paradise nation has become increasingly conservative in recent years due to influence of more fundamental forms of Islam.

In the summer of 2012, in the remote Feydhoo island in the Maldives, a police investigation after finding the corpse of a baby buried beneath an outdoor shower area outside the home of an unfortunate 15-year-old girl revealed that the teenager gave birth to her stepfather’s baby, which he allegedly killed and buried.

Feydhoo island, Maldives

Feydhoo island, Maldives

The teenager reportedly confessed to the police that apart from her stepfather she had consensual sex with another male. It is unclear whether the police has identified or charged this person. The police have charged the girl’s stepfather for raping her for years and murdering the baby she bore.

On February 25, 2013, a juvenile court in the Maldives, instead of sympathizing with the plight of the 15-year-old girl, has found her guilty of having “sex outside marriage.” The Court sentenced her to spend eight months under house arrest and to receive 100 lashes according to the Sharia Law when she turns 18, unless she requests it earlier.

This incident has triggered widespread worldwide condemnation. 

Under the current laws of the Maldives, pre-marital sex is a crime and those found guilty are often flogged. Flogging as a punishment for this ‘crime’ directly violates international law, which completely prohibits cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments. Yet, flogging remains all too common in the Maldives. In 2009, the courts sentenced over 180 people for flogging for the ‘crime’ of fornication. Almost 90 per cent of them were women.

However, under the international human rights laws and standards, to which the Maldives is a signatory, ‘fornication’ is not a recognised offence and member states must not criminalize or punish young people who engage in consensual sexual activity, or are victims of abuse.

While visiting the country in 2011, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms. Navi Pillay called flogging “one of the most inhumane and degrading forms of violence against women” and she requested the Maldives to stop this barbaric practice.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said: “The girl is already a victim and is traumatized. The authorities should be trying to protect her, not punish her.”

Mohammed Waheed Hassan, President of Maldives

Mohammed Waheed Hassan, President of Maldives

President Mohammed Waheed Hassan of the Maldives is already feeling global pressure. The president’s office has released a statement saying that the girl is a victim to be protected and not punished by the government. A government spokesperson has also said that the Maldives are considering changing the law.

The Amnesty International UK / Blogs says:

If one good thing could come out of this case, it is that the international outrage prompted by this girl’s story and focus on the darker side of life in this seemingly idyllic holiday destination will convince the authorities to end the practice of flogging and decriminalise consensual sexual activity.

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Saudi Preacher Who Raped and Tortured Daughter to Death Spared After Paying “Blood Money”


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj

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According to Islāmic laws a father cannot be executed for murdering his children, nor can husbands be executed for murdering their wives.

A Saudi money exchanger counts Saudi riyals in Riyadh

Blood Money

Fayhan al-Ghamdii, raped his five-year-old daughter Lamia al-Ghamdi for a prolonged period and tortured her. The little girl admitted to a hospital on December 25, 2011 with multiple injuries, including a crushed skull, broken ribs and extensive bruises and burns eventually died after ten months on October 22, 2012.

The authorities imprisoned Fayhan al-Ghamdii, a Saudi Islāmic preacher and a regular guest on Muslim television networks. He confessed to this monstrosity of having used cables and a cane to inflict the injuries, the activists from the group “Women to Drive,” said in a statement.

However, he was in prison just for a few months. In a cruel twist of Islāmic justice, the judge ruled the prosecution could only seek “blood money (compensation for the next of kin under Islāmic law),” and the time the defendant had served in prison since the little girl’s death suffices as punishment. According to Islāmic laws a father cannot be executed for murdering his children, nor can husbands be executed for murdering their wives.

The authorities released Fayan after he paid about $48,000 as “blood money.”

A few years ago, some clerics in a mosque took this monster Fayhan al-Ghamdii, a drug addict, under their wing. They even helped pay for his marriage with Sayeda Hamadari. After a while, unable to cope with his cruelty and violence his wife asked for divorce. Sayeda agreed to allow her estranged husband to see their daughter could periodically.

During one of the daughter’s visits, Fayan requested the mother to allow him to keep their daughter for a fortnight because he wanted her to become used to his ‘presence in her life.’. The mother consented. During those two weeks, Fayan subjected the five-year-old girl to all types of cruelty and torture including beating and blows to her head that resulted in multiple fractures, mutilation, and even cauterized her. The little girl’s mother said that hospital staff told her that the “child’s rectum had been torn open, and the abuser had attempted to burn (cauterize) it closed.”

When asked why he had tortured his daughter to death, the sick minded father said he suspected the conduct of his daughter and doubted her virginity.

Sayeda Hamadari, the girl’s mother, now divorced from the cleric wanted her former husband’s death. “I want him killed. I want the full Islāmic punishment. This is God’s law,” she said.

Members of the Saudi Arabia’s Royal Family are now believed to have blocked Fayhan al-Ghamdii’s release after the case attracted international attention, and have promised to uphold a stronger sentence.

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“The day I saw 248 girls suffering genital mutilation” by Abigail Haworth


In 2006, while in Indonesia and six months pregnant, Abigail Haworth became one of the few journalists ever to see young girls being ‘circumcised’. Until now she has been unable to tell this shocking story.

By Abigail Haworth

female circumcision

Midwives wait for the next girl to be brought in for circumcision in Bandung, Indonesia. Photograph: Stephanie Sinclair / VII

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It’s 9.30am on a Sunday, and the mood inside the school building in Bandung, Indonesia, is festive. Mothers in headscarves and bright lipstick chat and eat coconut cakes. Javanese music thumps from an assembly hall. There are 400 people crammed into the primary school’s ground floor. It’s hot, noisy and chaotic, and almost everyone is smiling.

Twelve-year-old Suminah is not. She looks like she wants to punch somebody. Under her white hijab, which she has yanked down over her brow like a hoodie, her eyes have the livid, bewildered expression of a child who has been wronged by people she trusted. She sits on a plastic chair, swatting away her mother’s efforts to placate her with a party cup of milk and a biscuit. Suminah is in severe pain. An hour earlier, her genitals were mutilated with scissors as she lay on a school desk.

During the morning, 248 Indonesian girls undergo the same ordeal. Suminah is the oldest, the youngest is just five months. It is April 2006 and the occasion is a mass ceremony to perform sunat perempuan or “female circumcision” that has been held annually since 1958 by the Bandung-based Yayasan Assalaam, an Islamic foundation that runs a mosque and several schools. The foundation holds the event in the lunar month of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and pays parents 80,000 rupiah (£6) and a bag of food for each daughter they bring to be cut.

It is well established that female genital mutilation (FGM) is not required in Muslim law. It is an ancient cultural practice that existed before Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It is also agreed across large swathes of the world that it is barbaric. At the mass ceremony, I ask the foundation’s social welfare secretary, Lukman Hakim, why they do it. His answer not only predates the dawn of religion, it predates human evolution: “It is necessary to control women’s sexual urges,” says Hakim, a stern, bespectacled man in a fez. “They must be chaste to preserve their beauty.”

I have not written about the 2006 mass ceremony until now. I went there with an Indonesian activist organisation that worked within communities to eradicate FGM. Their job was difficult and highly sensitive. Afterwards, in fraught exchanges with the organisation’s staff, it emerged that it was impossible for me to write a journalistic account of the event for the western media without compromising their efforts. It would destroy the trust they had forged with local leaders, the activists argued, and jeopardise their access to the people they needed to reach. I shelved my article; to sabotage the people working on the ground to stop the abuse would defeat the purpose of whatever I wrote. Such is the tricky partnership of journalism and activism at times.

Yet far from scaling down, the problem of FGM in Indonesia has escalated sharply. The mass ceremonies in Bandung have grown bigger and more popular every year. This year, the gathering took place in February. Hundreds of girls were cut. The Assalaam foundation’s website described it as “a celebration”. Anti-FGM campaigners have proved ineffective against a rising tide of conservatism. Today, the issue is more that I can’t not write about that day.

By geopolitical standards, modern Indonesia is an Asian superstar. The world’s fourth-largest country and most populous Muslim nation of 240 million people, it is beloved by foreign investors for its buoyant economy and stable democracy. It is feted as a model of tolerant Islam. Last month, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited London to receive an honorary knighthood from the Queen in recognition of Indonesia’s “remarkable transformation”. Yet, as befitting an archipelago of 17,000 islands, it’s a complicated place, too. Corruption and superstition often rule by stealth. Patriarchy runs deep. Abortion is illegal, and hardline edicts controlling what women wear and do are steadily creeping into local by-laws.

Although Indonesia is not a country where FGM is widely reported, the practice is endemic. Two nationwide studies carried out by population researchers in 2003 and 2010 found that between 86 and 100% of households surveyed subjected their daughters to genital cutting, usually before the age of five. More than 90% of adults said they wanted the practice to continue.

In late 2006, a breakthrough towards ending FGM in Indonesia occurred when the Ministry of Health banned doctors from performing it on the grounds that it was “potentially harmful”. The authorities, however, did not enforce the ruling. Hospitals continued to offer sunat perempuan for baby girls, often as part of discount birth packages that also included vaccinations and ear piercing. In the countryside, it was performed mainly by traditional midwives – women thought to have shamanic healing skills known as dukun – as it had been for centuries. The Indonesian method commonly involves cutting off part of the hood and/or tip of the clitoris with scissors, a blade or a piece of sharpened bamboo.

Last year, the situation regressed further. In early 2011, Indonesia’s parliament effectively reversed the ban on FGM by approving guidelines for trained doctors on how to perform it. The rationale was that, since the ban had failed, issuing guidelines would “safeguard the female reproductive system”, officials said. Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama, also issued an edict telling its 30 million followers that it approved of female genital cutting, but that doctors “should not cut too much”.

The combined effect was to legitimise the practice all over again.

It is impossible to second-guess what kind of place holds mass ceremonies to mutilate girl children, with the aim of forever curbing their sexual pleasure. Bandung is Indonesia’s third largest city, 180km east of the capital Jakarta. I had been there twice before my visit in 2006. It was like any provincial hub in booming southeast Asia: a cheerful, frenzied collision of homespun commerce and cut-price globalisation. Cheap jeans and T-shirts spilled out of shops. On the roof of a factory outlet there was a giant model of Spider-Man doing the splits.

Bandung’s rampant commercialism had also reinvigorated its moral extremists. While most of Indonesia’s 214 million Muslims are moderate, the 1998 fall of the Suharto regime had seen the resurgence of radical strains of Islam. Local clerics were condemning the city’s “western-style spiritual pollution”. Members of the Islamic Defenders Front, a hardline vigilante group, were smashing up nightclubs and harassing unmarried couples.

The stricter moral climate had a devastating effect on efforts to eradicate FGM. The Qur’an does not mention the practice, and it is outlawed in most Islamic countries. Yet leading Indonesian clerics were growing ever more insistent that it was a sacred duty.

A week before I attended the Assalaam foundation’s khitanan massal or mass circumcision ceremony, the chairman of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia, the nation’s most powerful council of Islamic leaders, issued this statement: “Circumcision is a requirement for every Muslim woman,” said Amidhan, who like many Indonesians goes by a single name. “It not only cleans the filth from her genitals, it also contributes to a girl’s growth.”

It was early, before 8am, when we arrived at a school painted hospital green in a Bandung suburb on the day of the ceremony. Women and girls clad in long tunics were lining up outside to register. It was a female-only affair (men and boys had their own circumcision gathering upstairs), and the mood was relaxed and sisterly. From their sun-lined faces and battered sandals, some of the mothers looked quite poor – poor enough, possibly, to make the foundation’s 80,000 rupiah cash handout as much of an enticement as the promise of spiritual purity.

Inside, I was greeted by Hdjella, 57, a teacher and midwife who would supervise the cutting. She was wearing a pink floral apron with a frilly pocket. She had been a traditional midwife for 32 years, she said, although, like most dukun, she had no formal training.

“Boy or girl?” she asked me, brightly. I was almost six months pregnant at the time.

“Boy,” I told her.

“Praise Allah.”

Hdjella insisted that the form of FGM they practised is “helpful to girls’ health”. She explained that they clean the genitals and then use sterilised scissors to cut off part of the hood, or prepuce, and the tip of the clitoris.

“How is this helpful to girls’ health?” I asked. “It balances their emotions so they don’t get sexually over-stimulated,” she said, enunciating in schoolmistress fashion. “It also helps them to urinate more easily and reduces the bad smell.”

Any other benefits? “Oh yes,” she said, with a tinkling laugh. “My grandmother always said that circumcised women cook more delicious rice.”

FGM in Indonesia is laden with superstition and confusion. A common myth is that it is largely “symbolic”, involving no genital damage. A study published in 2010 by Yarsi University in Jakarta found this is true only rarely, in a few animist communities where the ritual involves rubbing the clitoris with turmeric or bamboo. While Indonesia doesn’t practise the severest forms of mutilation found in parts of Africa and the Middle East, such as infibulation (removing the clitoris and labia and sewing up the genital area) or complete clitoral excision, the study found the Indonesian procedure “involves pain and actual cutting of the clitoris” in more than 80% of cases.

Hdjella took me to the classroom where the cutting would soon begin. The curtains were closed. Desks had been covered in sheets and towels to form about eight beds. Around each one, three middle-aged women wearing headscarves waited in readiness. Their faces were lit from underneath by cheap desk lamps, giving them a ghoulish glow. There were children’s drawings and multiplication tables on the walls.

The room filled up with noise and people. Girls started to cry and protest as soon as their mothers hustled them inside. Rapidly, the mood turned business-like. “We have many girls to circumcise this morning, about 300,” Hdjella shouted above the escalating din. As children were hoisted on to desks I realised with a jolt: this is an assembly line.

Hdjella led me to a four-year-old girl who was lying down. As the girl squirmed, two midwives put their faces close to hers. They smiled at her, making soft noises, but their hands took an arm and a leg each in a claw-like grip. “Look, look,” Hdjella commanded, as a third woman leant in and steadily snipped off part of the girl’s clitoris with what looked like a pair of nail scissors. “It’s nothing, you see? There is not much blood. All done!” The girl’s scream was a long guttural rattle, which got louder as the midwife dabbed at her genitals with antiseptic.

In the dingy, crowded room, her cries merged with the sobs and screeches of other girls lying on desks, the grating sing-song clucking of the midwives, the surreally casual conversational hum of waiting mothers. There was no air.

Outside in the courtyard, the festive atmosphere grew as girls and their mothers emerged from the classroom. There were snacks and music, and later, prayers.

Ety, 40, was elated. She had brought her two daughters, aged seven and three, to be cut. “I want them to be teachers. Being circumcised will bring them good luck,” she said. Ety was a farmer who came from a village outside Bandung. “Daughters should be pure and obey their parents.”

Neng Apip, 28, was smiling radiantly. She said she was happy her newly cut daughter Rima would now grow up into “a good Muslim girl”. Rima, whose enormous brown eyes were oozing tears, was nine months old. Apip kissed her and gave her a rice cracker to suck. “Shh, shh, all better now,” she cooed.

Tradition is usually about remembering. In the case of FGM in Indonesia it seems to be a cycle of forgetting. The act of cutting is a hidden business perpetrated by mothers and midwives, nearly all of whom underwent FGM themselves as young children. The women I met had little memory of being cut, so they had few qualms about subjecting their daughters to the same fate. “It’s just what we do,” I heard over and over again.

When the pain subsides, it is far from all better. The girls in the classroom don’t know that removing part of their clitoris not only endangers their health but reflects deep-rooted attitudes that women do not have the right to control their own sexuality. The physical risks alone include infection, haemorrhage, scarring, urinary and reproductive problems, and death. When Yarsi University researchers interviewed girls aged 15-18 for their 2010 study, they found many were traumatised when they learned their genitals had been cut during childhood. They experienced problems such as depression, self-loathing, loss of interest in sex and a compulsive need to urinate.

I saw my interpreter, Widiana, speaking to Suminah, the 12-year-old who was the oldest girl there, and went to join them. Suminah said she didn’t want to come. “I was shaking and crying last night. I was so scared I couldn’t sleep.” It was a “very bad, sharp pain” when she was cut, she said, and she still felt sore and angry. Widiana asked what she planned to do in the evening. “We will have a special meal at home and then read the Qur’an,” said Suminah. “Then I will listen to my Britney Spears CD.”

Back in Jakarta, an Indonesian friend, Rino, agreed to help me find out about the newborn-girl “package deals” at city hospitals. Rino phoned around Jakarta’s hospitals. They told him he must see a doctor to discuss the matter. So we decided that is what we would do: since I was visibly pregnant, we’d visit the hospitals as husband and wife expecting our first baby. (“It’s not necessary to bring your wife,” Rino was told repeatedly when he rang back to book the appointments.)

We visited seven hospitals chosen at random. Only one, Hermina, a specialist maternity hospital, said it did not perform sunat perempuan. The other six all gave package prices, varying from 300,000 rupiah to 550,000 rupiah (£20-£36), for infant vaccinations, ear piercing and genital cutting within two months of birth.

Interestingly, the only doctor who argued against the procedure was a female gynaecologist from the largest Islamic government hospital, the Rumah Sakit Islam Jakarta. “You can have it done here if you wish,” the doctor said with a sigh. “But I don’t recommend it. It’s not mandatory in Islam. It’s painful and it’s a great pity for girls.”

Last month I spoke to Andy Yentriyani, a commissioner at Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women. Yentriyani told me the problem is now worse than ever. Since the government’s guidelines on FGM came into effect last year, more hospitals have started offering the procedure.

“Doctors see the guidelines as a licence to make money,” she says. “Hospitals are even offering female circumcision in parts of Sumatra where there has never been a strong tradition of cutting girls.”

“They are creating new demand purely for profit?”

“Yes. They’re including it in birth packages. People don’t really understand what they’re signing up for.” Nor do some medical staff, she adds. The new guidelines say doctors should “make a small cut on the frontal part of the clitoris, without harming the clitoris”. But Yentriyani says that most doctors are trained only in male circumcision, so they follow the same principle of slicing off flesh.

Moreover, according to The Jakarta Post, the guidelines were rushed through partly in response to the deaths of several infant girls from botched FGM procedures at hospitals.

Likewise, Yentriyani says, the recent endorsement of FGM by some Islamic leaders has vindicated those carrying out mass cutting ceremonies, such as the Assalaam foundation. “Women are caught in a power struggle between religion and state as Indonesia finds a new identity,” the activist explains. “Clamping down on morality, enforcing chastity, returning to so-called traditions such as female circumcision – these things help religious leaders to win hearts and minds.”

Yentriyani and other Indonesian supporters of women’s rights believe FGM can never be justified as a religious or cultural tradition. “Our government and religious leaders must condemn it outright as an act of violence, otherwise it will never end,” she says. Her view is supported by organisations such as Amnesty International, which has called on Indonesia to repeal its guidelines allowing FGM. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also weighed in, saying in February this year that, although many cultural traditions must be respected, female genital cutting is not one of them. “It is, plain and simply, a human rights violation,” Clinton declared.

Suminah will be 18 now; a grown woman. She could well be married, or at least betrothed. Soon enough she will probably have her own kids. I hope she’s forgotten her pain, but held on to her rage.

Reproduced from The Observer, Saturday 17 November 2012

 

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Taliban: Agent or Victim?


In their attempt to assassinate girl-activist, Malala Yousufzai, has the Taliban inadvertently rescued the narrative of violence against women?

By AFIYA SHEHRBANO ZIA 

October 24, 2012

Just as in other patriarchal societies, violence against women (VAW) in Pakistan is endemic and cuts across all classes and ethnicities. Men of all ideological bents instrumentalise the political economy of VAW as a highly lucrative and politically successful strategy of maintaining material supremacy and social power.

Over the last three decades, Pakistan has been at the receiving end of donor-assisted campaigns and gender-empowerment awareness programmes on violence. These projects were sub-contracted to NGOs that had been set up by feminists who themselves, in the 1980s, had been involved in direct action activism on cases of violence. With the sponsorship of international development assistance, “women’s NGOs” steadily embraced the concept and become advocates of linking VAW to neo-liberal development agendas. This has re-directed analysis and activism from its primary focus on survivors and perpetrators of violence. Instead, increasing attention and funding has led to a change that is more in tune with the UN and donor-preferred approach known as ‘Gender-Based Violence’ (GBV).

The shift has meant more than a replacement of acronyms. The impetus of both, VAW and GBV activism, may be the overlapping themes of violence but for the latter, the emphasis is much more on the context and sites where violence is ‘gendered’ and sustained. The long-term developmental aim of GBV is to change power inequalities between men and women in society. Exacerbating factors such as poverty, injustice, discrimination or lack of awareness or dis-empowerment of women and girls, is the core of the GBV agenda. However, the UN preference for GBV linkages with developmental goals has meant that the politics of VAW have deflected or at least, diluted, the focus from the immediate perpetrators, purpose and benefits of violence. Instead, the GBV approach looks closer at socially constructed masculinity rather than material-based patriarchy, to be the direct motivation or cause of criminal intent behind such violence.

Perversely, this is allowing generations of perpetrators to metaphorically but also literally, get away with murder. This is because GBV projects offer to rehabilitate masculinities, change the broader power structures, and improve the justice-education-health systems or gender relations in communities, rather than simply recognize the criminal and his immediate motivation. Nor do GBV projects sponsor punitive methods to address such violations. The recent attack on a 14 year old girl-activist, Malala Yousufzai, by the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Swat, Pakistan, has pushed the reset button on the momentum that was being gained by Gender-Based Violence (GBV). The Taliban’s attack may have inadvertently rescued the narrative of the VAW approach, which calls for more direct focus on immediate causes and perpetrators and more urgent responses to cases of violence against women.

Responses to the Taliban attack

The range and multitude of the global response to the attempted assassination of Malala have been far-reaching. They span from Madonna’s puzzling bareback tribute to the young activist at a concert just days after the attack, to the equally jingoistic decision by the government of Pakistan to name three of its Frontier Corps platoons, ‘Malalai’, ‘Shazia’ and ‘Kainat’, as a ‘tribute’ to all three school girls targeted and injured by the Taliban. While the case has received near-universal condemnation, various interest groups in Pakistan are competing to add to the multiple layers of ascribed motivations, causes and responsibilities. There is also much political mileage to be availed in view of the sweep of outrage and sympathy across the world. A virtual supermarket of ‘Blame’ brands are available for commentators ranging from American hegemony, imperialism, drone attacks and even, anti-Islam blasphemous material produced in the West.

Pakistani women protesting with banners and signs

”We demand the end of Extremism and Terrorism” – Protest in Pakistan by left and women’s groups. Photo: member of WAF.

While GBV approaches link the low rate of literacy and abysmal indices for girls’ education in the country to gender based discrimination, the narrative that has spun around Malala’s case has thrown up a host of deeper, unresolved and critical issues with reference to violence. The Taliban has categorically reclaimed religious patriarchy as a deliberate base for the kind of violence it consciously employs. In several press releases, the Taliban spokesman has refuted all the defenses being spun by Islamists and conservatives (such as drone attacks), as the motivation behind the assassination attempt. The statements have impatiently corrected the rationalisations and confirmed that they attacked Malala specifically for her adversarial intent to “secularise society” by educating girls according to a non-Islamic curricula. Her aimed defiance to the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) qualifies her as anti-Islamic and the Taliban claim, “We did not attack her for raising voice for education. We targeted her for opposing mujahideen and their war”. The aim to kill her was the natural culmination of their larger campaign of systematically blowing up girls’ schools over the last five years, in northern Pakistan.

For decades, women’s rights activists resisted the monopoly of violence claimed by the state, and unpacked the lease of this to men in communities who then target women with impunity under the guise of cultural practices and patriarchal traditions. Over the last two decades, with donor encouragement, several development practitioners became engaged with the idea of instrumentalising Islam as a tool for women’s empowerment. This premise allowed them to pursue the case for educating women and girls through religious didacticism. It also allowed for the co-option of clergy who resisted contraceptive use to become its promoters. Theoretically, it was thought that this strategy would counter what were labeled ‘anti-Islamic’ traditions that sanctioned violence against women. VAW proved far more resilient. What these activists underestimated was that instrumentalising Islam is not a parochial privilege limited to rights based activists. The Taliban and sympathetic Islamists do not doubt nor resist the need for women’s education as a Quranic prescription– just its nature, purpose and ‘secularising’ ends.

The debate is shifting away and being reframed by all the actors involved and reconfiguring around notions of religious and secular forms of violence. As a result, the symbol of woman as a carrier of both the virus and cure, the seed of destruction and resurrection, war and peace, continues to serve as the barometer of Pakistan’s unresolved issue of Islamic vs secular options and pursuits.

Clarity in the Taliban agenda

In the post War on Terror (WoT) period, incrementally, Pakistani women have been the direct targets of Islamic militancy. At first, activists struggled to decode the patriarchal impulses and gendered impact of a more generic conflict. By 2007, however, the Swat Taliban came to have virtual control over Swat. Girls’ schools were bombed, barbers and music shop owners were attacked, women warned not to come to the bazaars or hospitals or to leave their houses alone, and were assaulted when in violation of regulations. Women performers, called the ‘dancing girls of Swat’ were assaulted, and at least one, Shabana, was shot dead and her body hung on display at a crossing dubbed Khooni Chowk (Bloody Crossing) as a symbol of the Taliban’s regimen of moral cleansing. The use of women as a signpost is not exclusive to the Taliban but unlike in inter-community or inter-ethnic murders, Islamic militants leave messages to the state, government and citizens by literally pinning post-its to dead bodies routinely and systematically. So too, Shabana’s body was strewn with currency notes as a mocking reminder of the fate of those deemed un-Islamic (in her case, prostitutes) by the Taliban’s sharia rule.

Unlike men of sub-nationalist movements or even mainstream Islamists, the Taliban are overt and unapologetic in their exploitative and symbolic use of the female body. Despite the self-confessed assassination attempt on Malala and repeated explanations of why they will continue such acts, the Islamists and conservatives in Pakistan have launched a counter-campaign to disassociate this crime (against Malala) from the criminal (the Taliban militant). The argument in the media spin that followed the targeted assassination attempt was that Malala had been attacked by an abstraction – American hegemony, imperialism, Islamic freedom, militancy, Westernisation, class aspirations, honour, nationalism, secularism, women’s rights. By not recognizing the self-confessed murderer, Islamists absolve the criminal and dissolve the crime.

Such unprecedented violence has diverted attention and hindered the struggle of women and human rights activists who were more committed to normative and routine public and private cases of VAW. Activism meant rescuing women under threat, offering legal assistance and providing shelter as well as, pressurizing the state and justice system to deal with the perpetrators. Even as we observed the course of the ‘war on terror’ and its fall-out in Pakistan, the growth of GBV projects continued to divert the emphasis away from direct action and towards developmental and rehabilitative approaches. Islamic militants such as the TTP have directly challenged all apologia that argues that they are victims of some misguided masculinities, brutalized by tribal war and poverty. Neither do they view themselves as jihadi proxies used and discarded by the Pakistani state, or as citizens who are denied justice. They do however agree with some sympathisers who continue to view the Taliban as products and resistance armies of US anti-imperialism. Is it viable to continue viewing the conscious agent as a victim?

Agent as victim

To deflect the direct responsibility of a crime away from the individual and place it on the breadth of society, government, the state, global powers or imperialism, then empties the perpetrator of criminal motivation and refills him with a higher, larger-than-life, mission.

The creation of such noblesse oblige is done by converting the agent into a victim. This laundering opens a new line of defense. It suggests (as several Islamists have done) that, under certain circumstances, a case of justifiable homicide may be made. However, in the views of the same sympathisers, this flexibility is a limited moral commodity.  The defense of a higher moral purpose as the motivation for murder is not a universally available tool for all citizens regardless of class, creed or gender. It is a selective application reserved only for those who are deemed Islamic enough and soaked in the cause of promoting/defending Islam as defined by powerful or political clergymen.

In other words, Malala may be worthy of sympathy due to her status as a minor but does not qualify for justice because of her near-fitna (seductive, luring, chaotic) activities. In the minds of these apologists, her would-be assassins were absolved of their crime even before they were caught, despite their stated motivation (which has not been cited as the drone attacks but due to Malala’s adversarial intent to secularise her society) and even prior to a judicial hearing. In such a world-view, justice must not be blind but dependent on the perceived beliefs or religious weightage of the individuals or parties involved.

One of the complaints made by proponents of the Taliban-as-victim group, is that violations against women by secular landed politicians, do not receive as much media attention or outraged response. This is a completely dishonest proposal. The case that is often quoted as ‘exaggerated’ or ‘sensationalised’ to expose the Taliban’s Islamic justice system following the peace deal with the government in 2009, is that of a woman flogged by Taliban ‘police’ in the streets of Swat. The mobile phone amateur video went viral on national and international channels.  In 2008, soon after the new incumbent civilian government was installed, two high profile cases involving the landed politicians of the ruling party were equally ‘sensationally’ splashed across the media. With reference to one of these cases of the alleged ‘live burial’ of girls who refused their arranged marriages, Pakistani women’s groups lobbied, protested and came on TV channels demanding the removal of the cabinet minister from the said constituency. They did so, in protest of his defense of such ‘traditions’, which he offered as a justification for this crime. To suggest that religious militancy is the only crime that is picked up by the media or liberal groups is an intellectually dishonest claim. The spectacle of the flogging caught on video made the case more visual and hence caused more outrage than the other cases.

Reclaiming agendas

This defensiveness stems from a more common refrain used by the apologists of Islamists’ politics of violence – that secular political forces are no better. Feminists, including myself, have persistently made this critique of not only liberal, secular men, but also of the state, as abusers of the political potential of women’s bodies and also because their acts sanction a regulation of women’s sexuality and all its manifestation. However, the Malala case falls outside of this framework. The concern of the Taliban in this case was not to regulate the girls’ sexualities (although it may be elsewhere), nor to accrue material benefit, nor revenge for drones and nor was the purpose to restore ‘honour’, as some communities employ this motivational excuse in cases of VAW. In these non-theocratic cases, perhaps the GBV framework is a useful one. However, the Taliban are not hiding behind socioeconomic or tradition based excuses. It is time for analysts to recognise the self-acclaimed agency of the perpetrators and clearly identify the victim in cases of VAW, rather than defend the criminal as a victim and dissolve the crime as an abstraction.

The TTP has reminded us of the simple core of VAW and reiterated what feminists always knew – VAW removes any threat that the liberationist ‘Woman’ may pose to the religio-patriarchal social order. If eliminating girls’ schools do not do the job, then a stronger signal of directly removing all agents (women/girls), should secure the message for those who may be harbouring plans to disrupt the Islamic order they seek to impose. Foreign donors scramble to rebuild schools, and the state attempts to resist militancy by giving symbolic significance to the services and resilience of girls such as Malala, in order to boost their public relations campaign in the fight against militancy in north Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban has recovered the simple lesson of success achieved by direct action, and the symbolic value and immense ideological success available through the act of removing the obstacle. Will we?

About the author

Afiya Shehrbano Zia is a feminist researcher and activist based in Karachi, Pakistan.  She is the author of,‘ Sex Crime in the Islamic Context’ and several published articles on women, religion and secularism

This article is published under a Creative Commons license. If you have any queries about republishing please contact us. Please check individual images for licensing details.

Articles by Afiya Shehrbano Zia

 Taliban: agent or victim?

AFIYA SHEHRBANO ZIA 24 October 2012

In their attempt to assassinate girl-activist, Malala Yousufzai, has the Taliban inadvertently rescued the narrative of violence against women?

 The gendered cost of NATO in Pakistan

AFIYA SHEHRBANO ZIA 30 April 2012

Pakistan’s Domestic Violence Bill has become the latest fatality in the barter between women’s rights, NATO, and issues of national security, says Afiya Shehrbano Zia

 Female suicide bombings in Pakistan – what’s in it for women?

AFIYA SHEHRBANO ZIA 4 October 2011
Islamic militancy in Pakistan appears to be mobilising women suicide bombers as part of its religious trope. This trend unsettles the conservative divide between the public and private roles of women in traditional societies, and also attracts an anthropological defense of Islamist women’s agency. The question remains: what’s in it for women?

Two million dollars: a patriarchal bargain

AFIYA SHEHRBANO ZIA 29 March 2011
The murder of two men by a CIA agent in Pakistan raised issues of masculinist national sovereignty and honour, and exposed the uncomfortable privilege that religious laws based on power, rather than religion, extend to men, says Afiya Shehrbano Zia

During Zia’s years, liberal forces presented the most radical opposition to the theocracy-military collusion and oppression. Today, we witness a liberal democratic government, with a secular alliance that is paralysed and besieged by its lack of vision and inability to govern, says Afiya Shehrbano Zia

 Donor-driven Islam ?

AFIYA SHEHRBANO ZIA 21 January 2011
Collaboration between western academia and Pakistani women at home and in the diaspora has established a body of donor-funded research with an exclusive focus on Islam. Will development policies based on such research lead to any kind of liberation?
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