Muslim men should improve this one thing about themselves this Ramzan

Its the night of the 15th of Shabaan and Muslims all over the world are preparing for an eventful and pious Ramzan. Ramzan is not just a time to abstain from food but also a time to focus on what we have that others don’t and to make it available for them.

I would like to focus today on what Muslim men have that they do not use correctly or share: Agency.

Muslim men, being in a patriarchal world, have privilege and power to help their female counterparts. Yet, so many of them are either blind to what women go through, call it their “natural” role/destiny and do nothing about it, or actively make things worse for women. Does this come as a shock to you? Here is how you may be contributing:

Asking women to cover up in order to avoid rape and being looked at:

This is a particularly messy one because of our culture of Hijab, Niqab and other coverings for women. However, data has shown time and again that men who target women by making them uncomfortable or sexually violating them, do this regardless of what the woman was wearing. If you don’t believe me, check out this video of a man trying to grope an Egyptian woman who is fully covered in a burkha, including a headscarf.

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Keeping your eyes off a woman and asking other men to do so is not just good manners but actually following the footsteps of the prophet.

“Narrated Abdullah ibn Abbas (radi Allahu anhu): “Al-Fadl bin Abbas rode behind Allah’s Messenger (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) as his companion rider on the back portion of his she-camel on the day of Nahr (slaughtering of sacrifice, 10th Dhul-Hijja) and Al-Fadl was a handsome man. The Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) stopped to give the people verdicts (regarding their matters). In the meantime, a beautiful woman from the tribe of Khatham came, asking the verdict of Allah’s Messenger. Al-Fadl started looking at her as her beauty attracted him. The Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) looked behind while Al-Fadl was looking at her; so the Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) held out his hand backwards and caught the chin of Al-Fadl and turned his face (to the other side) in order that he should not gaze at her. She said, ‘O Allah’s Messenger! The obligation of performing Hajj enjoined by Allah on his worshippers has become due (compulsory) on my father who is an old man and who cannot sit firmly on the riding animal. Will it be sufficient that I perform Hajj on his behalf?’ He said, ‘Yes.'” [Sahih Bukhari]

This hadith gives several important rulings. One is that the Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) acted himself, and made other men act, on Allah’s orders to lower their gazes. [Quran 24: 27-29] We see in this hadith, that the Messenger of Allah (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) listened to the woman’s question and answered it while not looking at her. He also turned the face of his cousin to the side who had been staring at the woman’s beautiful face. He (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) did not ask the woman to cover her face. “

If you find a man staring at a woman, muslim or otherwise, stare HIM down and ask him to behave, rather than moral policing the woman.

Not being active in domestic duties or child care:

Yet another thing the prophet was known for, was cooking his own meals, sewing clothes, taking care of the domestic animals and being generally active in the household. However, Muslim men of today sit on the sofa barking orders to the women in the house. Not only is this not following the prophet’s tradition, but going against his active dislike of people who mistreated others and abused power. Housework is not shameful and women are not lesser beings. Step up your game.

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Not letting women have a voice or opinion:

Women are relegated to the kitchen and changing the babies diapers. However, it was the Prophet’s tradition to regularly consult his wives in the matter of household, finances, and even the trajectory of Islam and how to take it forward. He married a businesswoman who had her own identity independent of wife and mother. His last wife took his work forward after his death, so he clearly did not think less of women and neither should you.

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Not letting women be financially independent, educated or aware:

My father and family believe in not letting me travel because I am single. I know how much I had to struggle to get my education and be a working woman. Muslim families still do not allow women to be intellectually and financially independent. They stop them at each step – be it traveling, choosing one’s husband or leaving a bad marriage. They are discouraged from growing their education and understanding, and having a say in matters, especially finance. This goes against not only how the prophet behaved with his wives but also Islam’s tradition of lifelong learning.

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This Ramzan, vow to be a better man, a better human, and stop adding to systematic inequalities. For tips on parenting to raise muslim boys so that they become good muslim men who respect women and treat them well, click here.

P.S: I know that there are some problematic discourses within Islam but this post was purposely centered on using proofs from within Islam because these are some proofs/verses that everyone agrees with and so it helps to start getting believers to act more responsibly at home and around women. 

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The Therepuetic World of Harry Potter I entered at age 13.

It’s 20 years since the first book and nostalgia is all over the internet. The geeky kids of then are reminiscent adults of today. Till about 12 or 13, I was hardly a reader, forget an avid one. I tried cultivating the habit because they said at school that it was a “smart people thing”. Because of being an introvert and some other personality traits and often terms like “slow” and “God forgot to give you brains” used by loved ones, I thought of myself as lacking in intellect. And I tried really hard to prove that otherwise.

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My elder brother was the reader of the house and he introduced me to the Harry Potter books. He bought them second hand and got them bound and the colours were really dull – a dirty blue with dull red borders. I was quite honestly put off. The first day I opened the book, I was stuck at the “Boy who lived” – the first page for three hours. At some point, I dozed off and then decided – books, or at least this one, wasn’t for me.

Days passed. I was cleaning the house and I came across the book again. And this time, it was a deep dive. I went from the Dursleys, to Hogwarts, to two-faced Quirrell in a matter of days. And that was really fast by my standards. And then I was done with all six books in the next few months (despite exams). I was then eagerly awaiting the seventh one like the rest of the fans.

The book was therapeutic because it helped me believe that you don’t need to grow up in privilege to turn out good. That you could be bright and be a girl. That you could be awesome at sports and not be a douche. That friendship matters and stands the test of time. That “bad people” aren’t always bad but just misguide their energies because of some bad treatment they received before. That love makes us do great things. That old people don’t have to be boring or uncool. Just at the age when I would have formed perceptions and stereotypes, the books helped me challenge them.

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But more than just this, Harry Potter introduced me to the world of reading. At a time when patriarchy overpowered me and limited my access outside home, books were a good world to lose myself into.  It was safe and it was dreamy. Books were my gateway to many important, impressive people, specifically, women and feminism and social justice and a bunch of important ideologies that define me today.

I think sometimes, where would I be without the second chance that I gave to the Dursleys.

Changing your family is the most necessary and the most difficult life task

It was the year 2008, and I had just finished my 10th std. To my shock, my father did not want me to study further. I knew my family was conservative, but not this much. He said that I could only study if I wore the burkha. At that point, I was not entirely convinced of the burkha. My mom wore it, but out of choice. I knew women who wore and did not, and I do not think the cloth per se made them more or less pious. We somehow got him to agree that I would do it post my 12th.

Two years later, I was still not convinced. I researched a lot, and the evidence was sketchy at best, about it’s requirements. Besides, the burkha as it is came because of Khomeini’s campaign in Iran during the 70s. Back then, I was still unsure of my arguing powers so we settled on the midway of a headscarf. I stopped wearing it after a while. I didn’t think it was necessary to wear a piece of cloth to prove my worth to anyone.

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Now, my stance on that was very clear. I guess somewhere my father had realised that. I would be ready with all Quranic evidence and hadith always. Another fact was that I would bring up what men were “supposed” to do as well, according to Islam. That would shut them up.

But what mattered along with that was that my academic record was impeccable, I would go out of my way to help out at home and get a lot of tasks done. And yes, there were never any late nights and for the longest time, most of my family did not think I have male friends. In an ideal world, I should not have to be a typical “good girl” to get basic rights like education and freedom. But this is not an ideal world.

While I was working up to my education, I agreed to certain things and challenged certain things. My dad said I could do my masters only if I agreed to seeing potential grooms after the first year. I agreed. But I’m still not married at 24. Most of these things don’t even happen. It was just a way for him to show him who is in control. While I agreed here, I started challenging that women should eat yesterday’s rotis if they were left. I said, divide the leftovers equally. I helped mom to start questioning things. I helped her stop being a slave for my brothers and bring them down from the pedestal.

The point is, change is slow. And, change is difficult when you have to change the people you love. Because repulsion for their beliefs and love for them as people – both have to exist together and that makes it hard for you.

But it’s possible. Its all about the negotiation. Agree to certain things, and push them for other things. Shifts in reality are always slow.

Recently, a cousin of mine was almost forced into an engagement. She wanted to talk to the guy a little more before deciding, but her parents did not let her, because their society did not allow that. They valued society’s opinion more over their daughter’s happiness.

When my dad came to know this, he said “How can they do something which will surely make their child unhappy?”

Would my dad of 2008 have said this? If this is not change, what is?

How good a defense is “this is our (or against our) culture?

Because I feel so illiterate about a lot of history and modern politics, I decided to take this free online course that would help we re-caputure on modern history. Modern world being the period from 1600s-1700s till today. A bunch of stuff happened here that was distinct from the traditional world, but that’s beside the point.

What struck me is that a lot of what we call culture and which we use as a defense during victim blaming or abusive bull fighing, is really, such a shifting concept. I mean, think of the fact that modern armies were first developed by Eurpoeans and then caught on by the rest of the world. Writing language was invented in Mesopotemia and the Printing press in the Roman Empire. Now imagine, if the rest of the world shot up their hands saying, “No, the printing press was invented in the Roman Empire, it’s not our culture” – where would we be today in terms of dissemination of knowledge?

The fact is that culture and ways of life come not only from your geographic location, but ever since we entered the modern world, culture also comes from an exchange of ideas. And we are very happy when culture infiltrates. I mean, aren’t our weddings all the more colourful thanks to the addition of cocktails and bachelor parties?

We see other people with different ideas, different ways of life and then we take some aspects on. Because that’s the point – to make life better. So, this  “culture” which we seem to be gaurding, which seems to be the reason why we are so resistant to change – this concept of culture has itself never been the same. Culture has always been evolving and because it is evolving, we got so far.

Now, a bunch of xenophobic people are inducing mass hysteria and paranoia in others, with notions like “they will take your jobs” or “this is against our values” – you know why? Because their power is rooted in the old ways of life. For example, if we really did see the light of the day and do something about all the animal abuse happening at bull fighting sports, obviously, all the people who arrange for the sport will get affected. Of course they don’t want to let it go!

Culture? The real reason for staying back, is commerce. The commercial interests of a few people.

Can you be compassionate towards animals even if you eat non-veg food?

As I collect my mail, I see that PETA has sent something. I look at the cover. It is rabbit, but something is wrong with its eyes. The cover boldly screams that rabbits are being used to test cosmetic products in labs. PETA needs my help in pushing the Indian judicial system to ban these drug tests. I have an automatic monthly donation to PETA anyway, but I vow to myself that I will either try to donate some more, or send a letter to the concerned department creating pressure for a faster and positive judgement on this.

This question plagues me many times: If I feel so compassionate towards animals, how do I manage to eat non-veg every now and then? Compared to the tastes and appetites of my family, I probably have the diet of a goat, but I do still eat non-veg every now and then.

I once read this very interesting article on Scroll about how, there’s no getting away from the violence that comes with survival. And that being “brahmin” is merely about putting the violent and dirty work on to the outer circles of the groups, i.e., the untouchables.

Some other news also comes to my mind about how plants have feelings too and can probably feel hurt as we pluck them.

But at the same time, I am not okay with the cruelty of the meat industry, the weird festivals and practices we have with animals – circuses are a big example, and of course, lab testing of animals.

Till I find my answers, I feel this much for sure: That eating animals may still be exempted since our diets cultuarally formed when our ancestors ate what was available years ago. Because even plants being plucked for eating get hurt.

But the rest of the stuff: Animal abuse in various forms, is just like deforestation – not necessary, as long as we can be bothered to find other ways. So yes, I do find myself to be compassionate towards animals, and plants.

Till we find a way to gain nutrition without eating plants or animals, we can still care for them. We can be compasstionate when breeding them, and be least harmful in other ways – giving up animal, products, animal testing, not taking up their habitat, not hunting and not trying to tame them. Because of the way the food chain functions currently, we do end up eating some animals – but do we have to trample them and treat them as lesser being justs because of this? I don’t think so.

Expectations that kill: A case for parenting in India

I grew up in a home where girls were not really expected to soar to heights in their career, and were expected to be demure little things stirring the porridge in the kitchen. While that came with baggage of its own, I believe I narrowly escaped the catastrophe of what intense academic pressure could do to you.

My masters thesis was about the perception of school in children, and even in my current work, I come across children and teenagers facing academic and career issues.

The problem is not the stress they face, because each  situation in life will have stress, but it is the peculiar way that patentable expectations have become so set in stone that question their rationality is never a question.

‘Make my parents proud’ was written by almost each 9th std kid who answered my Masters thesis survey. This meant that he or she wanted to keep scoring impossibly high and end up in an IIT or an IIM or be an MD. Anything else was unimaginable.

The parent is a child’s first reference point of the world. We take our parents very seriously. In this country, all the more so because of the culture of obedience. It becomes very difficult for us to fathom that our parents have unrealistic expectations from us.

The result: We start to feel that the problem is within me. I must be dumb or stupid. Or else, why can’t I score like my elder brother or my neighbor’s kid?
Pretty soon, I start to doubt my self image and become a bundle of nerves. Extreme anxiety can make me kill myself. But I will not dare question my parents.

An important part of childhood is to explore and understand yourself. While we like sending our kids to expensive classes and buying world class toys for them, we do not let them be free and think. The result being that a 15 year old cannot answer a question as simple as ‘what are some things you have been good at since childhood?’

How can he, when all he was told is how bad he was, how he was letting everyone down, and how he must do better still.

India is facing a parenting crisis. Right from setting realistic expectations to handling failure to managing the sexuality of the child, we are not at all up to the task. While many parents, especially parents of children with special needs are in fact learning these things, the masses seem to still be following the age old rigmarole.

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Here’s some facts to wrap your head around if you are a parent: each child is not going to be an engineer or a doctor or an IAS officer. If money or a good career could buy happiness, 36% of India would not be depressed. 30% of young people have mental health issues.

The question before you is this, can you accept a child for his unique strengths and capacities or would you want your child to be a self-hating bundle of anxiety? Or worse, dead?

The Suffocating Effect of Guests That Makes You Question Your Existence

Guests are an obligation much like a loan, except it is not as voluntary a decision.

When guests come to my house, it is like other-imposed Hotel California-ness. Once they come, it’s like something supernatural prevents them from leaving.

The problem is not so much of shared space, because be it our trains, buses or Marine Drive, sharing space has never been a problem for Mumbaikars.

Then, the problem with guests come down to two aspects: The ownership they show around things that they do not belong to them (they often belong to me), and the judgment with which they view me and my choices.

They often voice vile and judgmental opinions, but the world is an exhausting space and all I want to do is find the nearest blanket to cuddle. But then, while I am trying my best to ignore what is being said, they then go out of their way to question MY judgement and opinions.. I mean, the nerve!

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And I do not really need to elaborate on the sense of ownership part, do I? They simply pick up and use stuff that is not theirs because they took ‘apna hi ghar samjho’ quite literally – whereas we, or at least I, never said it.

While I grow weary defending my belongings and my opinions, there have been moments of doubt – not that I thought I was wrong, no, but I did think whether I should have gone with the easier choice of just agreeing with them on their face, to make life easy for everyone.

But the answer has been a loud and resounding NO. How can I agree when they say Hell will be filled with women because they deserve it? While they condemn us before we can commit sins or good acts? How can I sit by and let them be unjust to each and every marginalized group imaginable? How can I sit while they pretend to be nice and abuse our hospitality? How can I pretend to agree while they perpetuate unjust stereotypes and systems?

While the tenure of guests is definitely overrun in this country, I think my doubts have helped me to not only sharpen my arguments but also to develop a thick skin when needed. Sometimes, even I am surprised at how, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.