Dance Is How I Get Close to God: An Interview with Dancer and Upcoming Actress Isha Farha

Born into a family where art is a compulsion, Isha Farha started learning dance at the age of three from her mother, Kalamandalam Haseena. She is now adept in various Indian dance forms, including Bharathnatayam , Mohiniyattam, and Kuchipudi. She won the title of Kalathilakam in 2008 for excellence in the field of Bharathnatyam, Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudy, folkdance, one-act play and storytelling. She is the founder of the dance teaching institute Bharatha Bharathi.

An engineer by profession, Isha Farha, made her Malayalam movie debut last year with Progress Report. In an email interview, she speaks about her passion for dance, and how she balances her many acts, well into adulthood.

Izzie: How did your family introduce you to Indian dance forms?

Isha Farha: My mother is Kalamandalam Haseena, a trained professional dancer and choreographer from Kerala Kalamandalam. She is my Guru and she has trained me primarily on Bharathnatayam, Mohiniyattam  and Kuchipudi . I am now currently training on Kathak and other contemporary art forms. I was offered a scholarship from Center for cultural research and training  (CCRT) for Bharathnatyam and Mohiniyattam. This scholarship helped me pursue my passions. [Read more...]

A Muslimah’s Guide to Rocking the World

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.

Fanta Ogoiba. [Source].

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.”

[Read more...]

From Gaga to Malala: Muslim Women as Stereotypes and Exceptions

Editor’s note: Malala Yousafzai has been extensively covered in media lately, and several MMW writers wanted to weigh in on the way she is being portrayed.  Today’s post is by Amina; stay tuned for reflections from Nicole and Eren later this week.

Lady Gaga’s pink burqa. [Source].

Just a couple of months ago, Lady Gaga wore a ridiculous, sheer pink burqa. While I didn’t buy her reasons for it, she allegedly did it as some vague, old attempt at empowering Muslim women by trashing a form of hijab.(Read Eren’s take on “Pink Burqas, Gagas and Madonnas” here.) Mariam Elbaprovided a great analysis of Gaga’s “Bura/Aura”  lyrics for PolicyMic; the lyrics include “I’m not a wandering slave, I’m a woman of choice … My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face.” All of that, as Elba, points out, sounds okay, maybe even promising. And then, the chorus dives into stereotyping and  hypersexualizing with  “Do you want to see me naked, lover? Do you want to peek underneath the cover? Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura? … Do you wanna touch me? Let’s make love.”

As Elba writes:

“The heavily erotic images ultimately dehumanize and degrade burqa-wearing women and turn them into animalistic beings. In a society that automatically associates the burqa with Muslim women and Middle Eastern culture, a song like this only adds onto the monolithic image of the Muslim woman being quiet, sheltered, and owned by a man.”

With her recent American tour, internet campaign to award her the Nobel Peace Prize, and alright media bonanza, stories about Malala embed a similar rhetoric. The mainstream media has largely personified her an exception, rather than the rule; as if with her courage, bluntness, and conviction, she is unlike most Muslim women. Omid Safi’s post, “How to Keep Malala from Being Appropriated” makes a great case for the need to avoid an “exceptionalizing narrative.” [Read more...]

Double Standards on Public Decency

My cousin’s daughter is smart. She recently summed a deeply rooted societal problem in few words. The little girl is relatively chubby and her mom, my cousin, keeps giving her remarks on her weight and looks. At one point, she responded: “Don’t you see that you are fat too! Plus, you are the one who keep feeding me all the time!”

Hypocrisy is the first word that came to my mind when I first saw this headline: “Morocco teens held for kissing photo on Facebook”. As mentioned in the story, the teen couple was “held for violating public decency.” For those who live in the Arab world, this is a well-known misdemeanor. And personally, as a citizen, I’m totally with maintaining public decency. But wait: is the sight of two teens kissing in public an act that actually violates public decency? I feel like I have been fooled for my entire life!

My teenage years were during the nineties, those days when our lives revolved around the TV schedule. We were based in a Gulf state and in the summer vacation we used to spend time Egypt. In both “Arab countries,” where kissing in public is unlawful, the few TV channels that were available back then (state-run channels) had daily Arab movies (mainly Egyptian) on their schedules, and *surprise surprise* kissing scenes were a must in any romantic story. As a teen, the message that I got from these films was: it is  completely okay for couples to kiss in public as long as they are in love.

BUT, society is always there to confuse us. The very same states that shower us with such romantic scenes on a daily basis consider these acts violations to public decency if practiced by the citizens. Well, I’m sorry to tell you that your laws are not helping in preserving your idea of “public decency,” for we are human beings and learning by imitation is inevitable! As the few lines of the above story highlighted, “Others accuse society of hypocrisy for castigating a young couple for copying what they see on TV.” Some might argue that this generation is an “online generation” and TV is not as influential, hence no state control is practiced any more over the content to which a teenager is exposed. Again, such scenes are not met with the same social disapproval when they are on the screen. What happens on the screens stays on the screens. Try to convince a teenager with this rationale.

Before leaving this story, a vital question emerges: What really are the acts that violate public decency? [Read more...]

On Portrayals of Indonesian Muslim Women: In Search of the Missing Pictures

There are a number of reasons why I decided to contribute to this blog. One of them was because sometimes I find myself in a no-(wo)man’s land when it comes to media portrayals of Indonesian Muslim women in general.

Years ago, I came across this meme about hijabs. The image on the bottom left struck me as a familiar stereotype of Indonesian women, one that is most especially notable in the Middle East: that of the lowly-educated housemaids. My mother, who travels to Saudi Arabia on a regular basis, comes across this stereotyping every now and then when shop assistants ignore her inquiry and serve another Arab-looking customer instead. The “Indonesian maid” image is also prevalent in Malaysia and Singapore. Basically, if you’re Malay-looking and wears a plain-looking hijab, there is a fair chance that you will be mistaken for a housemaid at some point in your life (yes, I’m saying this based on my personal experience).

[Read more...]

Muslimahs Want Their MTV

Last year, I got a call from a young cousin who informed me, with sheer glee, that the new One Direction music video featured a young Muslim in hijab. Those few seconds in the video that highlighted a giddy, veiled teenager were a breakthrough for young identifiable Muslimahs in the world.

I think this meant that I was supposed to embrace the boy band that I had successfully been trying to avoid. I must admit I checked out the video. OK, I can’t lie. I watched it on repeat about ten times. (It’s a catchy song). And yes, from 1:20 to 1:23 in the video may seem like young eager Muslimah pop fans have been well represented. No inferences of weakness, oppression and need of immediate liberation. There isn’t race. There isn’t creed. There isn’t blatant stereotyping of women; there is just 1D fangirling – which unites us all.

Normally, Muslim women are depicted as wearing hijab. That is first and foremost the most identifying factor – albeit inaccurate – of a Muslimah.

One of the first videos I could recall featuring a variety of Muslim women (both veiled and unveiled) was about four years ago from Outlandish. The song was a cover of Cheb Khaled’s ‘Aicha’. It depicted different women of colour: some covered, some not. Just going about their lives, working, walking and nodding their heads. Mostly smiling. No rage. [Read more...]