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Dew Point

This blog is dedicated to sharing my every-day discoveries of how the light and beauty of Islamic spirituality can be part of a modern, well-rounded way of life.

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Arab women

One life. Six words.

I’m very excited to be taking part in a dynamic and unique online exhibition featuring Muslim women around the world. The International Museum of Women launched the exhibit, called Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art and Voice, yesterday for International Women’s Day. I wrote a special piece for the exhibition which will be featured in the coming weeks that I’m eager to share here!

As part of the process of putting together the exhibition, myself and other young Muslim women wrote six-word memoirs, keeping in mind the question: What does it mean to you to be a Muslim woman today?

The idea was inspired by a legend that Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. He responded with: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” SMITH magazine asked readers to submit their own six-word memoirs in 2006, and the trend has taken off since then.

The six words I chose were: “Adding, Subtracting, Finding Patience In Commotion”… Find out why by visiting my page on the Muslima website.

I would encourage you to browse through the site to learn more about the Muslima Ambassadors from Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines and the United States, including myself, who got this project off the ground. You can see the Curatorial Statement from curator Samina Ali and view some amazing contributions from female artists, photographers, writers, musicians and poets. There will be new content rolled out over the coming weeks and months. Please also take time to join the “Speak up! Listen up!” campaign to speak out against negative stereotypes about Muslim women and encourage others to truly listen to our voices.

Much love for International Women’s Day!

Being single in good spirits

Sometimes I think about how different my life would be if I had gotten married at 23 years old.

At the time, nine years ago, I was engaged to my first love, and so love-struck that I failed to see in him any flaw and naively dismissed many warning signs of serious potential pitfalls facing our relationship.

While he was perhaps “suitable” within cultural standards, when I look back now he was undoubtedly an improper fit for me for so many reasons, and I am thankful to God that circumstances, however messy and piercingly painful they were, unfolded as they did and our relationship unravelled at the seams. Severing ties completely was a hard blow but a precisely necessary one.

I sincerely believe that if this marriage had proceeded, it would have distracted me from realising my full potential in numerous avenues in my life. With him I was never completely myself. I was constantly adapting to his needs, desires and objectives, playing a role as though it was truly my own. Rather than seeking a comfortable complementary bond with a partner who would support my personal and professional ambitions, I was almost exclusively positioning my life to furnish his own.

Suffering from a glaring wake up call, I faced the broken heart of my life after that relationship ended. Innumerable minutes in months were spent repetitively wondering what had gone wrong and what I could have done differently to have salvaged our relationship from oblivion. Regardless of how inexplicable the moment of departure was, and how many times I tried to rework this failed equation in my mind, it happened as it should have. It was only years later that I realised a good deal of these negative emotions that had arrested me stemmed from a lack of self confidence and deficiencies in my faith.

At that juncture I very quickly moved from the cusp of matrimony to being plunged into singlehood for the better part of a decade. It wasn’t that I was closed off to the idea of marriage, but I did not cross paths with a complementary companion.

So, rather than learning how to live well with another person, I was compelled to learn how to be happy on my own. This has turned out to be one of the most-precious and valuable lessons of my life. Achieving a sense of contentment with being alone has been no easy feat. It is often difficult, for women especially, to feel at ease while being single simply because of the tremendous familial and social pressures that impede the process of finding comfort alone.

Arab societies, like numerous others, glorify marriage as the only means for women to achieve fulfilment and happiness. Women are programmed to focus their happiness on securing and maintaining another person’s affection, regardless of whether they have realised peace within themselves beforehand. No matter what they may have accomplished professionally and socially, Arab women are too often pitied and deemed incomplete without a husband and kids.

What I have found in the past nine years since that ill-fated romance in my early 20s, and especially in the past few years, is that cultivating a deep sense of self is in some ways better realised alone. Developing a quiet, nuanced awareness of who I am has actually been the best way to prepare myself for marriage, if God wills that I find myself in this bond someday.

Spending a lot of time on my own has forced me to really understand my heart, built my confidence, recognise my beauty and talent and, most importantly, fortify my bond with God. The peace of mind that comes with striving to live in Islam, Arabic for submission to God, has tremendously boosted my sense of self and purpose.

When this bond with the Almighty is the guiding principle, we become more careful and mindful of our interactions. We learn to treat our family members, friends, colleagues, spouses and strangers in the best possible manner so as to embody the assets of a good Muslim human being and thus fulfil a divine commitment prescribed by God. From this vantage point, our desire to form relationships stems not from a need to fill a void because of a deficiency, but rather to further enrich our lives and contribute to our faith.

We learn in Islamic teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, that marriage constitutes half of one’s faith. Forming a family is the cornerstone of society and marriage is a bond that can be exceptionally valuable in our development as individuals. It is certainly a bond that I would feel very blessed to be able to build upon and strengthen in the next stage of my life.

But no matter what social pressures are exerted upon us, marriage cannot be rushed, uncritically expected or forced. When God wills for us to find a partner, it will happen, whether we are 23, in our mid-30s, well above 40 or not at all.

I genuinely hope to find a virtuous partner and build a good, happy marriage that enhances my life. But I find that this reflective time alone has given me a clear sense of self and faith that is of incalculable worth. I wouldn’t trade a day of my singlehood in the past nine years because of the sense of personal fulfilment and peace I uncovered along the way. It is precisely by building this foundation of harmony with self that, I believe, will bring us independent single ladies greater contentment in marriage when it does come to pass.

Let’s keep the spotlight on Egypt’s sexual harassment crisis

The insidious prevalence of sexual harassment in Egypt found itself at the centre of a very public, global discussion this year, and I could not be more pleased that this issue has emerged from the shadows.

CBS reporter Lara Logan’s account of her physical and sexual assault by a Cairo mob and news that women detained during the Jan. 25 uprising were subjected to forced virginity tests have given male offenders a sampling of the negative glare and condemnation they deserve.

These incidents will surely make many tourists think twice about travelling to Egypt and should force society and the government to bring to an end the practice of turning a blind eye to acts of violence against women. For decades, too many men in Egypt have become progressively more cruel and deliberate in their mistreatment of women in public places.

Egyptian women have sought for years to stop sexual harassment
Sexual harassment of Egyptian women is, sadly, ingrained in the cultural fabric of society to the extent that we have accepted it as an unalterable reality, one that women have been forced to adapt to. I certainly became numb following repeated exposure to harassment while living in Cairo after university, and during periodic visits since then.
As a young, cash-strapped journalist when I first moved to the Egyptian capital in 2002, I would take mini buses and vans to and from my family’s apartment in the heart of the Pyramids district to my office in the more upscale neighbourhood of Mohandiseen. The commute took about an hour in the morning rush on Cairo’s congested Pyramids Street.
I was always careful to wear ankle-length skirts or pants, and the sleeves of my blouses would usually extend below the elbow. All but my hair and face were generally covered. Yet not a day would go by that I wasn’t glared at, subject to inappropriate often sexual remarks, objectified, and sometimes touched or stroked by other male passengers.
My cheerful disposition quickly transformed; I became very stern, unsmiling and cold in order to dodge harassment as much as possible. I learned to avoid eye contact with men, instead focusing on a book or out the window as I eagerly awaited my stop each day. It was exceptionally difficult to feel comfortable in my own skin when defiant stares concentrated on every part of my body.
Such an experience is the rule rather than the exception. Some 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women said in a 2008 poll by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights that they faced sexual harassment while in Egypt. A staggering 46% of Egyptian and 52.3% of foreign women faced harassment daily – and 72.5% of the well over 2,000 women surveyed wore some form of a veil.
Women have little recourse to report abuse
Needless to say after about five months of taking public transportation, I was relieved to be able to afford regular taxis that would pick me up and drop my off. Until today I cannot fathom how women endure the abuse of men every day on public transport; I applaud their courage and strength. My experience in the workplace, at functions and meetings  tended to be more respectful and comfortable.
Yet even after I stopped taking public transportation, men would find ways to do the most appalling things. Once I was waiting for my morning taxi on the street corner in front of my apartment building, and a young man of less than 30 passed by. He stopped a couple of metres away from me at the corner of the fence that bordered the property next door, pulled down his pants and underwear and began masturbating while facing me and staring. Horrified, I ran up the walkway of my building and waited at the top of the stairs until my driver called to inform me he had arrived. From then on, I wouldn’t leave my apartment until a missed call signalled the taxi was downstairs.
It was not always easy to escape quickly when faced with inappropriate behaviour. Often when my hands were full of groceries as I walked home from the nearby souk, young boys would challenge each other to run by, touch my bottom or breast, and then run away. Lecturing them to have some respect or fear of God would induce only laughter. These boys had learned that it is alright to objectify women who are not their sister, relative or family friend. And they faced no consequences for doing so.
The walk to my office, home, grocery store or mall would often be interrupted by a slow-moving car whose driver was scouting the streets for prostitutes. And I don’t even want to remember the remarks I heard and touches I suffered when I once missed the door to the women’s carriage of the Cairo subway and found myself in a subway car teeming with men, many of whom had no concept of respect or courtesy for the opposite sex. What consistently shocked me was the lack of intervention; not one time did a man who very publicly harassed me face any criticism from others standing in the vicinity.
The tides are beginning to change with initiatives such as HarassMap, which allows women to instantly report incidents of sexual harassment by sending a text message to a centralised computer. This initiative is absolutely imperative to start altering the culture’s tolerance of sexual harassment by documenting its frequency. The media is catching on as well. Al-MasryAl-Youm said this month it would feature pieces each Wednesday to “dissect the reasons behind sexual harassment”.
I was very excited by women’s extensive participation in the Egyptian revolution, especially when I heard anecdotally that harassment was rare in Tahrir Square. I thought the revolution would offer a sincere challenge to the patriarchal structure that for so long had condoned sexual harassment. In recent months, however, it seems the condition for women has reverted back to what it was before, and by some accounts harassment has gotten worse as part of a concerted effort by the military to shame women away from protesting:
“The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and drugs.”
This blatantly incorrect, ignorant and shameful comment by an army officer did not surprise me. Such perceptions are suggestive of the damage caused by the disintegration of moral values in Egypt in the last 40 years. Virtually every Egyptian woman over 55 will recount stories of how she and her friends wore short dresses and sleeveless tops in the 1950s and 60s—and no man dared to harass them.

My mom feeding a giraffe with friends at the Cairo Zoo in late 60s, when harassment was rare
Ironically, my mom was more comfortable walking on Cairo’s streets as a striking 20-year-old in a mini skirt than she was as a conservatively dressed woman in her late 50s. After buying groceries at a neighbourhood shop a few years ago, she was approached by young man who offered to assist her with the bags. When she declined his invitation, he made an obscene comment. Needless to say my mom gave him a well-deserved and very loud lecture on morality and Islamic values before he was able to escape the vicinity.
Society must begin naming, shaming and ridiculing male perpetrators of sexual harassment in newspapers, on television and online. These offenders must face legal consequences for their actions so Egypt’s youth are conditioned over time to change their disgraceful ways. Allowing the harassment problem to continue to fester threatens widespread social and economic ramifications, including for tourism.
New campaigns that target a man’s honour, preach respectability, and teach men to treat all women as they would their sisters must happen widely and aggressively before meaningful change takes place. Egyptians are persuaded by the ideas of honour and shame they are exposed to on the news, television programmes and movies. The onus of upholding honour has always fallen on the shoulders women. The time has come for men to share the burden.

Look forward to your comments!

Facing the veil

The debate over niqab currently ensuing as France enforces a ban on face veils somewhat bewilders me, mainly because I live in Dubai, a city of striking contrasts that attempts to cater to the values of many of its varied residents who hail from countries around the world. Dubai has become a “salad bowl” of cultures that strive to co-exist while maintaining traditional practices, including attire. On some occasions, I have sensed that women are more liberated in their clothing choices in Dubai than they are in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada.

During a visit to one of Dubai’s many malls, one can pass by scantily clad women wearing mini-skirts and provocative tops and, a few seconds later, walk beside a woman of Gulf Arab nationality donning a black abaya (robe) and full face veil, sometimes accompanied by her husband and children, sometimes with other female relatives or friends and sometimes on her own. 
Diverse attire worn in Dubai shopping mall, courtesy Gulf News

Despite warnings in malls about ensuring that people dress modestly, women are able to buy and wear a diverse array of clothing. Some dress in stylish and modest Western dress, others wear decorative abayas with or without a head-covering, some wear Western-style attire with hair covering, and still others wear traditional Asian attire such as the Indian sari or Pakistani shalwar kameez.

I suppose living in this nuanced environment for a number of years has desensitised me to the issue of women’s attire. I am pretty much fine with what a woman wears so long as she is comfortable. In my view, clothing choices to a large degree are not independently reached. Rather, women are conditioned by the familial and cultural influences they were exposed to growing up. Many women believe their individual liberty can be expressed by exercising their freedom to wear revealing clothing. Many others feel they derive liberty from modest attire that distracts attention away from their physical manifestation and forces people they interact with to focus on their intellect.

The face veil is not an exception to this debate. Cultural interpretations of God’s expectations from women practising the Islamic faith have in a limited number of cases idealised this form of dress. My perspective is that the face veil is not rooted in Islamic texts, nor do I regard clothing in general to be among the primary markers of one’s Islam, an Arabic term meaning “submission to God”.
Unfortunately, face veils are in certain cases a misogynist cultural convention that has conditioned some Muslim women to believe that the clothing they wear will dictate their fate after death. However, the motivation behind wearing niqab is not exclusively so; many women wear niqab out of deep conviction that it draws them nearer to God and removes their physical self from the glare of sexual objectification.
One of my aunts began wearing a face veil a few years ago. She was widowed two decades ago, lost a teenager daughter eight years ago, and now lives on her own. She came to the decision as she draws herself more deeply in worship, showing her face only to God when she prays. While I witnessed a number of individuals in the family question her rationale for making this choice, arguing that it does not have a legitimate basis in the faith, I defend her freedom to choose. As someone attempting to embrace  the true spirit of Islam, I am obliged to be kind, tolerant and nonjudgmental. I feel deeply that if a woman is wearing a face veil as an expression of her identity and belief, it should be her right to do so in a society that values freedom of expression.
An outright ban on a garment of clothing only perpetuates oppression and hatred. It demeans the cultural tradition, puts in jeopardy community bonds and can incite an angry backlash, rather than advancing women’s rights and guarding public safety. On the contrary, people understandably tend to cling to their values when they come under threat.
Supporters of France’s ban deem it legitimate because they argue face veils are incompatible with gender equality and pose threats to public safety. If there are legitimate security concerns, then Amnesty International’s proposal last July for “targeted restrictions on the complete covering of the face in well-defined high risk locations” would suffice. “Individuals may also be required to reveal their faces when objectively necessary, for instance for identity checks. French law already allows for such limited restrictions,” Amnesty, which opposes the ban, continued.
If there are genuine concerns over the treatment and coercion of women by their husbands, these should be addressed through greater emphasis on and funding of cultural institutions dedicated to assisting women who choose to leave abusive circumstances. There should be steps taken to influence the conditioning process, so women who have not been exposed to the variety of viewpoints rooted in Islamic values are able to, over time, make informed, independent choices.
While growing up in Canada and the United States, I came across a number of women of various nationalities and faiths who faced abuse (physical, verbal and emotional) by their husbands. Through community support networks, interactions with women in their neighbourhoods and watching talk shows like Oprah Winfrey, these women found the courage to leave their abusive households. 

As many of these women were reliant on their husbands financially, their means of escape was facilitated by the existence of local shelters for battered women. These institutions offered them a secure environment, moral and financial support to progressively tackle their situations and help them begin new lives. Strengthening and funding such community programmes is much more essential for empowering women than making a blanket assumption that all women who wear a face veil must be brain-washed, oppressed and abused.

France’s niqab ban stems from an intolerant government policy rather than any genuine interest to advance women’s equality and protect society. When France began enforcing the ban on face veils this week, I read pages of anti-Islam comments congratulating the government and encouraging it to follow up with new policies, some going as far as calling for all Muslims to be expelled from the country. 

The ban has, in this regard, unfortunately taken a gigantic step backward in promoting tolerance and freedom of expression. I am doubtful that efforts to mobilise protests against the ban will be effective due to the overwhelming support in government circles for passing the ban in the first place. If I was a woman who chose to wear niqab out of conviction, I would respect the new law and remove it. I would also, if it was in my power, strive to leave that environment as quickly as possible.

—–
Look forward to your comments!

Matrimonial penalty box

There is a scene in the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary where the single Bridget is attending a couples dinner party at the home of her only married girlfriend and is warned that she’d better hurry up and “get sprugged up” because the ubiquitous ‘clock is ticking’. Bridget is then asked the question that women like her – over 30 and unmarried bachelorettes across the world – dread to answer.

“Why is it there are so many unmarried women in their thirties these days, Bridget?” asks the smug husband of an acquaintance from across the table, with his pregnant wife at his side. Silence falls on the dining room as everyone sets down their utensils and all eyes converge on Bridget, almost expecting her to answer on behalf of every single woman in her thirties, everywhere.

Bridget belts a brief chuckle at the absurdity of the question, and says with a smile, “Oh, I don’t know. Suppose it doesn’t help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales.”

Sometimes I wish I could respond as she did at that moment when emotions of anxiety and embarrassment come together in piercingly sharp force in the centre of even many a resolute woman’s chest. Yet it is not always easy to take questions of postponed marriage in jest and good cheer. The stigma attached to being a single woman above 30 prevails in various cultures, which is why many of us can relate to Bridget, even if the cultural circumstances may differ tremendously.

Arab communities are particularly unforgiving of women who have not tied the knot by 30, and preferably many years younger. I was dismayed by the marriage question six years ago at 25 and I still wince when it is asked today at 31.

The obsession with marriage has made women view forming a family as the only culturally and religiously acceptable way to live their lives. Under this logic, no matter what she may have accomplished, a young Arab woman is doomed to be pitied and feel incomplete without a husband and kids. Some women are pressured to marry early and, as the years pass, to regard any man who has a job, is single and under 45–regardless of whether he happens to have a complementary personality– as a suitable match.

The preoccupation with marriage has caused many women to focus their happiness and fulfilment on securing another person’s affection, rather than realising peace within themselves beforehand. There is no use in crushing women’s self esteem as they get further into their 20s and enter their 30s simply because they have failed to cross paths with suitable men.

In an extreme example, the poster below, found in a Saudi elementary school, recently did its rounds on Twitter. It outlines a series of threats facing Muslim women, with an ominous image of a woman who appears to be gushing blood after being stabbed. Among warnings against listening to music and travelling abroad, proper Muslim girls are advised against “refusing or delaying marriage”. Rather than engendering a love of God in young girls they are taught to fear the wrath they would face if the pursuit of marriage is not their top priority.

By almost every measure outlined in the poster, I would be doomed – even though I hold family and marriage in very high regard. Family is the cornerstone of society. At a number of points in the Quran God advises us to be good to our parents, treat each other with respect and even informs us that He has created for us mates with whom we should deal with love and mercy. I hope to start a family and, if God wills, have children of my own.

But I struggle to find compelling religious justification for marrying young. Often, I would hear people say that children and wealth are ‘zinat hayat al-donya’ (adornments of this worldly life). This Arabic phrase excerpted from the Holy Quran has been regularly cited in my life as a justification for starting a family as early as possible; building a family unit is the primary purpose of a virtuous life.

As I grow deeper in my faith, the particular cultural emphasis on marriage and children puzzles me. When I read the Quran for the first time last year, I realised that the second part of that phrase was excluded from the popular discourse I had often been exposed to. “Wealth and children are (but) adornment of the worldly life. But the permanent righteous deeds are better in your Lord’s Sight (to attain) rewards, and better in respect of hope.” (Quran, 18:46)

God appears to be advising us to avoid becoming fixated on the pleasures we find in the money we earn and children we have. These things offer us a comfort in life but what endure for God are our righteous deeds, not our pursuit of family or wealth. God further calls on us repeatedly to be tolerant, to accept all of His blessings with gratitude and challenges with patience. So by extension, there is no contradiction in being single and being virtuous.

People’s faith in God-granted destiny (naseeb) often wavers when it comes to marriage. Our communities are prone to placing the onus of blame on the shoulders of the single women themselves rather than trying to address the real challenges facing our societies with meaningful solutions. From the perspective of myself and other single Muslim women, there are a limited number of options available for us to meet like-minded Muslim men. Introductions happen quite infrequently as family or friends take a more and more inactive role in our personal lives.

I am lucky to have very supportive family members, including my mother, who would not pressure me to wed. Nevertheless, there are moments of weakness where I am advised on how ‘a mediocre marriage is better than no marriage at all’. I have had my fair share of experiences with ill-fated love and awkward rendez-vous with men who had little compatibility with me other than that they happened to be single.

Single Arab women are often assumed to be too difficult, too picky, too ambitious or too head-strong to qualify as marriageable material. Quite to the contrary, most of the unmarried, over-30 women I know are considerate, intelligent, attractive, tolerant, family-oriented and chaste. Very little differentiates them from married women and most of us are not going around rejecting every guy who comes by. The point is that ‘the one’ – be he Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong, or Mr. Adequate– hasn’t yet come a knocking for whatever reason.

Last year, I was having lunch with an acquaintance, a young Arab woman some five years younger than myself, who told me she did not want to become that girl who is alone at 30 (she assumed I was about 27). She appeared almost terrified at the prospect. I consider myself to be successful, compassionate and more attractive now than I was at 25, and yet so many women fear the cultural marginalisation they would face if they turned out like me.

More and more, I regard such perceptions about the suitable age for marriage as a sign of cultural distortion and oversight of faith. Finding men who are willing to consider choosing a 32-year-old over a 23-year-old has, sadly, frequently turned into a search for the exception to the rule in Arab Islamic circles.

Yet when Prophet Muhammad ﷺ recounted his monogamous marriage to his first wife Khadija, 15 years his senior, he did so with unparalleled reverence. Their 25-year marriage was full of harmony, and he is known to have described Khadija as his intimate friend and his wise counsellor and companion. Responding to one of his later wife’s claims that God had blessed him with better, more youthful brides than Khadija after her death, the Prophet ﷺ has been cited as saying: “Indeed Allah did not grant me better than her; she accepted me when people rejected me, she believed in me when people doubted me; she shared her wealth with me when people deprived me; and Allah granted me children only through her”.

There are simple lessons in this: we must have faith in the spirit of God’s message, and be tolerant, patient and progressive in our expectations when dealing with issues of marriage. If a woman is destined to marry at 40 and have four children, as Khadija did, it will happen. If God wills her to marry at 23 and be barren, that too will come to pass. Just because most women fall somewhere between the two extremes does not diminish the importance of accepting that God tests each of us in different ways. Marriage is not a magic ticket to salvation.

The next time someone asks me why I am not married yet I hope I can come up with as witty a response as Bridget’s, something that will, with any luck, cause the person to pause for a moment and call into question their question.

——
Look forward to your comments!

Revolution in perception: Egypt’s women defy labels, demand rights

“Leave! Leave! Coward” (Carolyn Cole/LA Times)
Images of Egyptian women, many donning the Islamic headscarf known as ‘hijab’, forcefully demanding freedom, rights and the demise of the Hosni Mubarak regime poured into households across the world during Egypt’s revolution. As women stood alongside their brothers, husbands, friends and colleagues to knock down the foundations of a stagnant, repressive government, they also tore down walls of stereotypes that Arab women are passive, mute, repressed victims of a religion and culture that subordinate them.
 
I have always been enamoured and awed by the power of Egyptian women. My maternal grandmother raised eight children, four girls and four boys, on her own in Cairo after her husband passed away following a battle with prostrate cancer at just 40 years of age. My grandmother has always been an emblematic symbol of an Egyptian woman for me; I see reflections of her courageous spirit, strong character, unwavering faith in God and devotion to her family and neighbourhood in my mother and, more broadly, the women I encounter across Egyptian society. Women wield great economic and moral power in most Egyptian households. It takes only a trip to a traditional fruit and vegetable market to experience their influence first hand; souqs are usually operated by resolute and tenacious women who take charge of the sales, purchases and bargaining.
 
These are the impressions of Egypt’s women I grew up with, and it has been thrilling to watch the world capture a glimpse of this in the past month and a half. Female participation in the revolution was extensive: young university students seeking greater opportunities and an end to corruption stood alongside mothers of victims of state-sanctioned violence hunting for justice and thought leaders, such as renowned Egyptian feminist Nawal El-Saadawi.
 
It is my belief that the Egyptian revolution will come to represent a decisive shift in the narrative about the status of women in Arab and Islamic culture. In first week of the revolution in January, I forwarded this Facebook album, which amalgamates images of women in the Egyptian revolution, to friends across the world. The responses I received were immense. For a number of friends and acquaintances in Canada and the United States, the images challenged pre-conceived notions they had held about Arabs, and Muslim women in particular.
 
Women take part in anti-regime revolt (Felipe Trueba/EPA)  
Yet Egyptian women, like their counterparts in other Arab countries, face an uphill battle against patriarchal laws and interpretations of faith which I believe have really clouded the exalted role women are granted by virtue of Islamic faith.
 
Egypt’s women working toward cementing greater rights and empowerment are planning a demonstration on March 8, dubbed the “Million Woman March”, to coincide with International Women’s Day.  Protest organisers seek to reinforce the role of women in Egypt’s revolution at a time when the government is listening to citizen concerns more than it has at any point in decades – and arguably in the past century.
 
These are some of the protesters’ demands:
 
 (Credit unknown)

* Abolition of absolute parental authority over women.

* Empowering women in political life.
* A new civil constitution.
* A new and civil personal status law.
* The immediate application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates women’s rights in addition to all other international agreements that Egypt signed on to; many of them are inactive and not applied.
* Rewriting all Egyptian laws to ensure equality for men and women.
* The abolition of all forms of political and social tutelage forced on Egyptian women.
 
While I am uncertain how these demands will play out, I believe this bold move will send a message that watershed transformation in Egypt should not be allowed to overlook the rights of women of all faiths.
 
Women pray at Cairo’s Tahrir Sq (Credit unknown)

Women have a long way to go to be granted their God-given rights across the Arab world. Islam – a state of mind in which a believer submits her/himself to God – is frequently misconstrued as contrary to the rights of women. For me, this is one of the most-frustrating stereotypes I face as a Muslim woman. It is through embracing the message of God and submitting myself to His will in Islam that I, as a woman and a human being, have been able to attain true freedom.

 
The Quran, which literally translates from Arabic as ‘The Recitation’, is God’s gift to human beings, regardless of gender. God refers to men and women an equal number of times – in each case on 24 occasions – in the Holy Book and grants each human soul the chance to attain salvation through prayer, fasting, charity, patience and works of righteousness. I often notice in translations of the Quran from Arabic to English that the Arabic term “Naas” (meaning people) becomes “mankind” in the English version, which can detract from the beauty and equality of the message. God’s law speaks of the complementarity of women and men in their lives on this earth, and their equality in striving for eternal peace.
 
For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s (God’s) praise, for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward. (Quran, 33:35)
 
I find great inspiration in the first human being to embrace Islam following the Prophet Muhammed , his first wife Khadija. A widow, Khadija managed her father’s business, fed and clothed the poor, and at the age of about 40, following the death of both of her parents, married Muhammed , who was then 25 and one of her employees.
 
“Christian + Muslim = Egyptian” Credit unknown

Khadija is regarded as one of history’s rare “perfect women” alongside Mariam, mother of Prophet Jesus. When I contextualise her story with examples of devout women I have encountered in my life – my mother, grandmother, and many women of the Jan. 25 revolution among them – it gives me great hope that Egyptian and Arab women have the strength of mind and character to insist that their rights be recognised and enshrined. Raising our voices at this pivotal point in Arab history is absolutely imperative.

 

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