Growing up as a queer-identified South Asian Muslimah and a survivor of domestic violence, I’ve occasionally felt that merely existing was, in and of itself, an act of rebellion. But I’ve been fortunate. I’ve not only survived, but thrived, now living the life of a resident physician.
I can’t take all the credit for where I am because, simply put, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. Through my life, I’ve consistently found media depictions of Muslim women and others engaging in daily acts of resistance to subvert and redefine the predominant discourses about Muslim women. These people and stories form a series of lessons to which I give credit for the awesome trajectory of my life. Here, then, are my seven lessons for a Muslimah’s guide to rocking the world.
Lesson #1: Our commitment to social justice reflects our commitment to faith.
It’s easy, I think, to get lost in the textual analyses of faith alone. The Qu’ran and hadiths are, after all, rich, deep, and complicated. But in an incredible interview on Vimeo, Amina Wadud makes a distinction between being a servant of God and an agent of God. She talks about how her focus on the Qu’ranic meanings alone wasn’t enough; that being an agent implies an obligation to actively live in ways that are consistent with principles of social justice. Wherever and whenever there is injustice, we’re obligated to challenge the status quo.
Lesson #2: Some principles are worth being unwaveringly unapologetic about.
Our social and political positions may not always be popular. In general, I’m all for compromise but, occasionally, there are principles that are and should be “non-negotiable.” With the non-negotiables of life, even when the going gets tough, there should be no sidelining, shifting, or redrafting of the message. Easy to say, difficult to do. But Fanta Ongoiba, executive director of Africans in Partnership Against AIDS in Toronto, makes it look slick. Sexual health and HIV remain hushed, tabooed topics within many Muslim communities. Ongoiba’s work , recently honored by the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, provides real space and fills a real need, no matter the response from religious leaders. As a Toronto Star article put it, “at an international conference, one sheik called her a ‘troublemaker,’ a label she embraced” and to which she also responded “ I’d prefer to be a troublemaker to wake you up.”
Lesson #3: Love ain’t just a feeling. It’s a deep, deliberate act of sociopolitical defiance.
As a kid, I ate up historical accounts of bold, resolute Muslim women anywhere I could. Timely, given that Ashura fell just last week, I’ve always held the story of Sayyeda Zainab bint Ali tightly in my heart. Sayyeda Zainab, granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammed, was taken captive by Yazid’s army after she witnessed the brutal deaths of her sons and her brother, Imam Hussayn. Accounts of her in the aftermath describe her as unapologetic, speaking truth to power without fear through her captivity. She, most compellingly, gives a scathing sermon in Yazid’s own palace, openly shaming and challenging his oppressive authority. While her sermons were demonstrations of her love for her brother, sons, and grandfather, more importantly, they were also a means of cultivating resistance against Yazid.
Lesson #4: Dare to engage in academic discourses.
Academia can carry a sometimes arrogant, inaccessible mystique about it. It may, in fact, be occasionally tempting to undermine the importance of academia by almost fetishizing the experience of not having an education. Yet academia has an incredible power to mould the discourses of our social world in ways in which they define all things that are considered “normal” within our contexts. Islam is no different. Academic discourses in Islam have been largely dominated by men and, no surprise, little that comes from that work is relevant to or empowering for women. In her paper, “In the Book We Have Left Out Nothing’: The Ethical Problem of the Existence of Verse 4:34 in the Qur’an,” Dr. Laury Silvers ethically and theologically unpacks Verse 4:34, commonly known as the “beating verse.” (I’ve referenced her articles in a previous post, here.) Her article is the ultimate case in point that women have enormous contributions to make in the academic sphere because our gendered experience provides us a lens that men simply do not and cannot have.
Lesson #5: If you build it, they will come.
I had stopped going to mosque a long time ago. I couldn’t reconcile being committed to principles of equity to then find myself in a room at the back, praying hidden from the imaam, in a miniscule and poorly equipped space. Cue the El Tawhid Juma Circle: Toronto Unity Mosque (TUM). The mosque, founded by El Farouk Khaki, Troy Jackson, and Dr. Laury Silvers, is based on principles of gender equity, shared authority, and is committed to maintaining a space affirming of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans identities. The mosque started, literally, with just the three of them, meeting every Friday, in their living room. Ten years later, events organized by TUM can gather over 200 people. TUM is the reason I returned going to mosque, that I’ve learned to lead prayers, and that I now have a capacity to genuinely engage with my Muslim ummah. And it all started from their living rooms.
Lesson #6: You too can be a baller. (A footballer, that is.)
As a Muslim girl, the importance of athletics totally got played down at home. Sure, I played a little basketball and swung a baseball bat around a few times, but really, it was nothing too serious. I didn’t get any encouragement from my mother so just never really engaged in anything resembling serious athleticism until I reached adulthood. (I’m a runner!) Our own MMW contributor, Shireen Ahmed, breaks the trend and creates the trail. A fierce footballer, her visibility as a hijabi Muslim woman on the field makes sport accessible and provides a means of normalizing athletics in ways that it can be part of a Muslimah’s experience. Follow her blog here.
Lesson #7: Our work can stir the soul.
I love Qawwalis. They’re a form of spiritual, devotional music popular in South Asia. In a space traditionally dominated by men, Azalea Ray’s voice rattles bones. Music, at least in part, reminds me that the world is a big place, that we can transcend beyond ourselves into a larger, shared experience. A woman’s voice, particularly in a spiritual context and especially Ray’s, unearths a fierce power full of uncompromising, unconditional love. For me, that is exactly what faith is about.