As I see Eid wishes circulate around the Internet in the form of Facebook updates and Twitter posts, especially by people who are not Muslims, I too send out a wish: May this festival inspire all these well-wishers to make an attempt to learn more about Islam, and about Muslims.
Why do I wish this? Because I regularly meet people who think they know all there is to know: what Muslims look like, what they eat, how they think, what they believe, what their scripture says, etc.
However, I have not met too many who have discovered that jihad is also about fighting one’s inner demons, or that there are women for whom wearing a headscarf is not only a voluntary act but symbolic of their closeness to their Creator, or that Muslims are enjoined by their faith to set aside a certain part of their income to benefit those who are struggling to make ends meet.
The tragedy is that we think we know enough without caring to engage sincerely. And the situation has become only more tragic after the post-9/11 hostility unleashed against Muslims. Stereotypes and prejudices continue to proliferate, often exacerbated by politicians, media and intellectual circles.
Incidentally, over the last two days, I have been reading quite closely an article titled ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others’ written by Lila Abu-Lughod for the journal American Anthropologist in 2002.
She takes on the very important task of identifying the assumptions that lie behind this compulsive urge to ‘save’. She writes, “We need to work against the reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women’s unfreedom, even if we object to state imposition of this form, as in Iran or with the Taliban…we must care not to reduce the diverse situations and attitudes of millions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing. Perhaps it is time to give up the Western obsession with the veil and focus on some serious issues with which feminists and others should indeed be concerned.”
I would say that this tendency to think of ‘the Muslim woman’ as ‘a veiled creature’ is also something that a large number of Southasians are guilty of. Why blame only the West? When I visited Lahore, Pakistan in February 2012 as part of a delegation comprising students and teachers from India, many of us were surprised that we were in a country where more than 90 per cent of the population was Muslim yet there were such few women wearing the burqa. That seemed entirely different from a city like Mumbai where one comes across large numbers of women wearing the burqa. What does that say about our preconceived notions regarding how Muslim women dress?
What I also found very interesting in Lila Abu-Lughod’s article was her discussion of how many women in Afghanistan look to Iran as a country to seek inspiration from, where women seem to be making significant gains within an Islamic framework “in part through an Islamically oriented feminist movement that is challenging injustices and reinterpreting the religious tradition.”
She refers to the work of Afsaneh Najmabadi who argues that it is simplistic to view history in terms of an opposition between Islam and the West, between fundamentalism and feminism. Why? We are told this is because “those many people within Muslim countries who are trying to find alternatives to present injustices, those who might want to refuse the divide and take from different histories and cultures, who do not accept that being feminist means being Western, will be under pressure to choose…Are you with us or against us?”
I would like to learn more about this, especially how women draw strength from their religious practice and their spiritual and cultural traditions; and also from feminism, in their families and communities, in their intellectual work, in their relationship with themselves.
Perhaps such engagement will make our Eid wishes more meaningful. They would not be simply about putting up a status update but be informed by rigorous inner work.