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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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Muslim women

Of Saints and Matchmakers

As I was growing up, Islam’s benevolent female saints existed in my imagination as otherworldly matchmakers.

Common features of my family’s infrequent summer holidays with relatives in Egypt were visits to mosques enclosing the shrines of Sayyida Zainab and Sayyida Nafisa, two descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who have come to be regarded as Cairo’s patron saints, may God grant them peace and blessings. My mother, often with her sisters who lived in smaller cities along the Suez Canal, would arrange mini pilgrimages to these grand Cairene mosques for a single purpose: to pray for suitable partners for their unmarried children.

SAYYIDAZAINABCAIRO
Female worshippers gather around Sayyida Zainab’s mausoleum in Cairo

Amidst weeps and whispers, they would gather around the mausoleums of these saints offering earnest prayers to rescue their single daughters and sons from the matrimonial side lines. From beyond the divide between this world and the next, these venerable women of faith would intimately identify with the anguish of being the mother of an unwed child and act as intermediaries with God in removing the obstacles blocking the perfect partner from springing forth – at least that was the hope of my female kin.

While my own memories of these visits are vague and likely layered by personal accounts relayed by my mother over the years, the urgency placed on marriage left me feeling perplexed. The more I found myself becoming the focal point of the prayers, the more frustrating and painful these pilgrimages became.

By my mid- and then late 20s, the cultural pressures to wed young and my inability to make it happen inadvertently alienated me from faith, and obscured my view of the spiritual significance and prowess of these female saints. My only encounters with them were a manifestation of socio-culture pressures that dictate a woman’s value lies solely in her success as a wife and mother, a line of thinking that left me jaded and confined rather than empowered by their presence. Continue reading “Of Saints and Matchmakers”

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In her shoes

My piece for the International Museum of Women’s Muslima exhibition was published today here. It was shortened slightly from the original, which I’ve included below.

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I’ve been thinking about how she encouraged me to be myself.

There she was, a single mother of three, managing a family business that her late father had entrusted her with. She worked with such professionalism, poise and proficiency that the community of men surrounding her held her in high esteem. Known for her hard work and competence, she was also regarded as a symbol of compassion and devotion to God. A number of men, enamoured by her vitality and charm, attempted to court her. After two marriages left her widowed, she would consistently turn a cold shoulder to these suitors, not interested in forging another bond in matrimony.

Until, that is, she met him. Continue reading “In her shoes”

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!

My sharpened pencil

I’m taking part in an online exhibition called “Muslim Women’s Arts & Voices,” which is being organised by the San Francisco-based International Museum of Women and is set to launch in early 2013. Muslim women from around the world will be engaging in monthly workshops and discussions in different cities and contributing works of art/writing/poetry/photographs/video, etc, for the exhibition.

We had our first workshop in Sharjah, a city in the United Arab Emirates, earlier this week and I felt so enlivened and inspired by the richly diverse and talented women I met. We were asked to bring one object to represent our identity. I had jotted down some ideas on what I would like to say about myself — as well as the object I chose which was, simply, a sharpened pencil — prior to the workshop. Thought it would be relevant to share these here, too!

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My name is Daliah Merzaban, I have Egyptian roots, I was born and raised in Canada and I’ve lived in the UAE for seven years working as a financial journalist, analyst and editor. In my current role, I’m an emerging markets editor at Bloomberg News covering finance in the Middle East and North Africa.

That’s my day job. But what I have become most passionate about in the past few years is uncovering the layers of my faith in God through Islamic spirituality, and I write about this journey on my blog, which I started almost two years ago, as well as for the Huffington Post.

For my object, I wasn’t very complex, I chose a pencil and the notepad that accompanies it. If I am to choose one thing that I have carried with me throughout my life it is this item: I’ve been a journalist since I was 17, and before that was always very interested in creative writing, poetry, short stories, from a very young age. So the written word is what I spend most of my very long hours in the office and my free time working with.

I also chose a pencil because before I truly embraced my Islam, I perceived faith as something I needed to enter into with my eyes closed, without rationale, analysis or intellect. To my surprise, as I have investigated Islamic teachings more thoroughly in the past three years, I realised that it was through the acquisition of knowledge and use of reason and logic that certainty of God’s existence becomes most palpable. For me, the pencil is a very simple representation of the acquisition of knowledge, which is a fundamental right for every human being.

In the Quran in Surah 96, God reveals to Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, a verse through the Angel Gabriel whereby he orders the Prophet to “Read!” Saying: “Your Lord is the Most-Bountiful One. Who taught by the pen. Taught man what he did not know.” I think these words underscore our responsibility as Muslims to acquiring knowledge to gain a more thorough understanding of our faith.

A pencil is not permanent, it needs to continue to be sharpened and it represents my understanding that I’m on a journey of discovery and I don’t have all the answers. I need to always keep an open mind, and a blank piece of paper in my notebook.

(Read about how studying Arabic reignited my love of pencils and the written word here)

Unlike Fulla, the Islamic Barbie doll, we aren’t objects

‘Fulla’ is an Islamic answer to ‘Barbie’ marketed in the Islamic world
I often imagine it must be truly difficult for many non-Muslims to understand why a woman would choose to be Muslim. If you look at the media these days you find so many reasons why it seems absurd for an independent, modern-minded woman to follow the Islamic faith. This month, news emerged that a group of women in Malaysia had set up an ‘obedient wives club’, which sounds dreadful, but somehow manages to be worse than it sounds.
The club’s founders say that domestic violence, infidelity and divorce can be rectified only if women keep their men happy in the bedroom. They should be so good in bed that they are “better than a first-class prostitute”. In effect, they equate a woman’s proper practicing of the Islam with her success at satisfying her man’s carnal desires. Some Indonesian women have opened their own branch of the club.
If I was not a Muslim myself, I would cringe at the thought of a faith that objectifies women such that they are reduced to being sex objects for their husbands. Marriage, in this context, is a union forged solely for physical satisfaction and a man’s faithfulness relies on a woman’s ability to satisfy his sexual needs.
Fulla and Barbie: just toys

At about the same time as that story was splashed in newspapers and news wires across the world, a Kuwaiti woman who had once run for parliament called on sex slavery to be legalised. She argued that buying a sex-slave would protect devout Kuwaiti men from committing the sin of adultery.

Again, what woman would willingly choose to be part of a belief system that assumes men are inherently too weak not to be given to sin, and places on women’s shoulders the burden of ensuring men don’t stray from their faith?
I sympathise with non-Muslims. Even as a Muslim I read these articles and cringe. In many ways, they are worse than reading about men suppressing Muslim women in places like Saudi Arabia, where women are struggling even for the basic right to drive.
I cringe because these women attack the most-beautiful aspect of my life, my Islam, and complicate it, tarnish it, misconstrue and misinterpret it. In my view, they are doing a major injustice to humankind and, more importantly, to God. They appear to take the view that we as women are nothing more than Barbie or her Islamic answer, Fulla – objects that can be bought and played with.
Muslim men and women will often loosely cite traditions or Quranic phrases, stripping out the context and relevance, in order to justify their illogical ideas of what it means to be Muslim. In the process, they alienate Muslims and non-Muslims alike. They distort the beauty of God’s message in a way that places ego and fulfilment of pleasure above all else, which is completely at odds with Islam’s purpose.
Indonesian women launch branch of ‘Obedient Wives Club’
The term Islam means ‘submission to God’ in Arabic. The more you surrender to the Divine, the less attached you become to the desires and temptations of the world, and the greater freedom you find. As a woman, I have found more liberty in submitting myself to God in Islam than any feminist ideology, job title, self-help or how-to book, or piece of clothing would ever collectively even come close to giving me.
Submission places in a human’s grasp the freedom to be happy in every moment of life, and find purpose and blessing in every hardship and triumph.
A relationship between true Muslim men and women is far greater than a physical bond. One who really loves God and submits her/his self to the Creator as a Muslim would never be unfaithful. That is not part of the language of true submission, that is part of the language of ego and desire that we are supposed to separate ourselves from.
I would applaud efforts to strengthen marriages by encouraging men and women to communicate better and be obedient to each others needs mentally, spiritually and physically. But placing the burden on women is a gross misrepresentation and disservice to Islam.
Islam is simple and inherently rationale, hence its appeal to me and many women. God gives each human soul the chance to attain salvation through prayer, fasting, charity, patience and works of righteousness. I often cite the Quranic verse below because it so beautifully encapsulates the egalitarian ideas that God tries to convey to those who are willing to listen:
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)
There is an intrinsic spiritual equality between men and women in the pages of the Quran (The Recitation), which charts out the path individuals should take to strive toward eternal peace and escape the facade of modern life. Men and woman are different by nature, and our roles in life are very often complementary. But Islam does not objectify women – patriarchal cultures and traditions upheld by men, and women, do. Islam is a very personal struggle to discover God and find peace.
As I truly embraced Islam in the past year, I discovered how to separate myself from the emphasis society places materialism, consumerism, success and sex appeal in achieving lasting happiness. Islam has taught me to drown out the senseless noise of modern society and allow the beauty of God’s message guide me.

Being a Muslim woman means I am chaste. I involve God intimately in each of my daily activities, knowing as God informs us in the Quran that He is closer to me than my jugular vein. Like everyone, I work and run errands, meet friends and family, cook, clean, shop and travel. But five times each day like clockwork I pull myself away from whatever activity I am doing to kneel in devotion to God in prayer. It is comforting to have this consistency in my life; whether I am having a good day or a bad day, I am constantly drawn back to the Source.

Quran mentions women and men and equal number of times on its pages
There is a harmony in submission that runs through your life as though it were a continuous thread, weaving together our days into a beautiful quilt, each loop of which is coloured with a new insight from the Divine.
Being a Muslim woman means I fast regularly out of a desire to purify my body, speech and thoughts. It means I give generously to charity from the money God has entrusted with me. It means I try my utmost to be a loving, devoted daughter, sister, friend, colleague and human being. I am not married, but if God wills that I should be some day, it will mean cherishing my husband and striving to work together to find intimacy on a spiritual, mental and physical level.
This short description of what Islam means to me as a modern, independent and devout Muslim woman will never be splashed as a headline like the “obedient wives club” so irritatingly was this month.
But this is my reality; submission is a beautiful state of existence. It is a shame that a minority of irresponsible women and men will continue to tarnish the spirit of Islam for their own narrow-minded, self-centred objectives. 

All I can really do to fight the stereotypical view of Muslim women’s oppression is be the best Muslim I can be. The closer I draw into God’s embrace–and He becomes the object of my affection–the more I discover liberty in the truest sense.

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.

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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.

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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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