Saturday, July 16, 2016

The cruelty of people

Sometimes the actions of people can be very cruel. There is of course the obvious cruelty, like the unfathomable cruelty of someone who is able to get into a truck and mercilessly plunge into other people. Similar cruelty seems to be heightened nowadays. People cruelly murder, rape and abuse others without remorse. I am so often reminded of words that were told to me many years ago; “Human beings have the ability to be higher than the angels and lower than animals”. I will never forget these words, but it’s tragic that these days more often I can see how human beings are giving in to our ability to be lower than the animals.

We would like to believe that we are good people, we hide our cruelty in the wake of these bigger actions of cruelty, and while this may be human nature, it hinders us from improving ourselves. When we are not able to recognize the cruelty in ourselves, how will we ever be able to change it?

I came across an example of how we tend to be so cruel towards others without even considering what we are doing, or the effects of our actions. My example is simple, it may seem insignificant in the grander scheme of world events, but I cannot change world events, I can only change myself.

While browsing the internet I saw a link to an article about how some celebrities have become “monsters” with time. Of course the article was referring to the physical appearance of the chosen celebrities and how they have transformed from “beauties” to “monsters”. The list included men and women, (I can’t be happy that it’s not only women who are subjected to this kind of scrutiny when such scrutiny in itself is horrible), but nonetheless, the list included men as well, which is a change in the pressure that is usually placed on women to look attractive.

Back to the point, I initially looked at these images and had common thoughts like, wow, what has happened to these people… Then I started feeling bad. Firstly, these are human beings, and we can put forth the usual arguments such as they asked for the attention and what not, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is really cruel to be making fun of how people’s appearance have changed over the years. Secondly, who even knows if the pictures we see are real. Thirdly, why on earth does it matter! 

This sort of obsession with looks and appearance, the pressure put on all people to be physically attractive, the teasing and mocking of those who don’t meet societies standards of beauty, all of this is extremely cruel, is it not? Yet most of us would like to believe that we are not cruel.

So I had an internal reprimand to myself, how dare I look at these images and wonder things like what happened to these people? So what if their appearance has changed? Doesn’t that happen to all of us as we get older? How would I feel if people started making fun of the way I look?

Like I said, this may seem like something so insignificant. Indeed, in the wake of attacks on human life, of attempted military coups, of displaced refugees and continuous wars, of lives being lost in masses, in the wake of murder and rape and abuse and torture, how does something like this even matter?

But it does!

Because if we allow ourselves to be cruel, no matter how minimal that cruelty may be, then our levels of cruelty just increase, and before we know it the unfathomable becomes fathomable. So we need to recognise the cruelty in ourselves, and we need to stop it and change it now, because seriously, the world does not need any more cruelty! 

Image 1 from here

Image 2 from here

Monday, June 20, 2016

Book Review- "Behind Picket Fences" - by Hend Hegazi

It is said that you never know what goes on behind closed doors, and if perchance you happened to be the fly on the wall of someone’s home you would be surprised by how different your perception is to what really goes on.

This is the thought I had when reading “Behind Picket Fences” by Hend Hegazi. The narrative focuses on the lives of four families in a neighbourhood and the drama that unfolds shows that what things seem to be is not always as they are. From the psychological and emotional struggles of the beautiful young artist Summer, to the illness suffered by May, the caring mother and loving wife, to the financial difficulties affecting the marriage of Morgan and Mariam this book reminds us that life is filled with various trials. It allows us as the reader to get out of our own world for a while and to broaden our ideas of what life should really be like. We are reminded that no one is without trials. In fact even a seemingly perfect marriage like that of the characters Sidra and Farris is filled with its own trials.

This book is a lovely portrayal of the trials and tribulations of life, the way in which people understand and depict love and the things they would do to achieve happiness. It sheds light on the fact that human beings are complex creatures and our motives and actions may not make sense to each other, but often come from genuine feelings. It touches on the idea of tolerance and reminds us that if we do not empathize with and tolerate one another then we will miss out on having meaningful relationships with others.

The book also allows us to focus on the fact that although we are all very different, in essence we are actually more similar than we think.

I enjoyed how the characters came together to support one another even though they may not have understood each other’s lives or situations. The neighbourly spirit was brought to the fore as characters put their own issues aside to help out and see to the needs of their neighbours. It was refreshing to see people depicted as supportive instead of hostile towards one another.

One thing that bothered me while reading though was that I had to wait a few chapters to find out what happened to the character as the book was divided into 4 stories and each chapter focused on a different story. At times I found myself filled with suspense, wanting to skip chapters just to find out what was going to happen to the characters I was reading about.

All in all I enjoyed reading this book. It tugged at the emotional heartstrings and presented relatable stories. The characters and their struggles are identifiable to people across cultures and religions. What the book focuses on is the human experience and the essence of life. It reminds us not to judge anyone because indeed, we never know what goes on behind closed doors, or in this case, behind picket fences.

To read more about this author:

Image from here

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Accepting ourselves

It starts from a young age… the feeling that you are not good enough and that no matter what you do everyone else around you will always be better. It may seem that you are the only one who doesn’t quite know how to fit in, or how to react. You may find no good in yourself, and the desire to completely change who you are and everything about yourself may be so overwhelming that it consumes you, sometimes to such an extent that you even feel the need to harm yourself.

A while back a blogging friend of mine, Marie, asked me as a mental health professional, if I am seeing more cases of depression, basically more people who are in turmoil. She mentioned to me that when she spoke to people in this field in her locality they told her that there is definitely an increase in cases like depression and so on. I have to agree, in recent years things have definitely escalated and people seem more in need of help now than ever before. I think that working as a counsellor desensitizes you in many ways, but the one thing that still really gets to me is to see people, especially young children, who hate themselves; people with such low self-esteem that they are unable to have any happiness in their lives.

While the reasons for having low self-esteem may differ from situation to situation, I think that it goes back to expectations. Parents’ expectations of what their children should be like, children’s expectations of what they need to be like, societies expectations of what people should be…

Interestingly, and very importantly, all that Allah expects from us is to be good people, to worship Our Creator and obey His rules, and to treat others well, just to do our best!

The One who really matters does not place unrealistic expectations on us, instead He accepts us for who we are, and of course, this makes sense, since Allah created us, and He created us all differently.

I see so many people trying to fit the mould. A mould that has been defined by our societies, societies that happen to be very flawed. I see wonderfully talented people believing that they are worthless, simply because they do not fit that mould. I see beautiful human beings believing that they are nothing, simply because their outer bodies do not appear to be beautiful to others. I see true talent, true potential simply shriveling away and dying, leaving behind it a sad and lonely person, continuously striving to fit the mould!

I learnt a very profound Hadeeth (saying or teaching of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon Him) recently. It’s translated something to this effect:

“Indeed, Allah does not look at your body, and not at your shape, but looks at your hearts.”

SubhanAllah (Glory be to Allah), isn’t this a wonderful hadeeth.

This reminds me that all we have to do is accept ourselves for who we are. We need to stop looking at others to define ourselves. We need to stop trying to fit the mould. No person is exactly like the other, and really, why would we want to be the same as others. All of us have our good and bad, no one is perfect, but all we have to do is be good people, with good hearts.

I find myself trying so hard to explain this to people, both adults and children. Sometimes I feel like I am wasting my time, but still I cannot give up, not just yet!

Let me just end by saying that If Our Creator, the One who loves us the most is able to accept us for who we are, then why is it so hard for us to accept ourselves!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Response from author April Fonti and the importance of discussion

There is no doubt that we are living in difficult times, there is a lot of confusion, throughout the world. Sanctity for life is rare and instead power, control and greed seems to have overtaken people. In this time, when its easier to dismiss people as "the other" than to actually understand one another, it is commendable to see people still interested in discussing, learning and understanding each other.

On this note, I recently posted a review of "Travels in a Veil" by April Fonti and I have had the privilege of having her respond to my review. I have posted her response below, because discussion is important and because the journey of understanding ourselves involves understanding other people as well. 

April's response is humble and insightful and it shows that there is hope for humanity yet when we have people like this who do not wish to cast away others, but instead hopes to understand and embrace differences. 

(In the same light I would also like to acknowledge two fellow bloggers who have been constant in their quest of understanding and discussion, Marie and Kim,- May you always be blessed with the ability to understand). 

April Fonti's response to my review:

Hello Zarina,

Thank you for taking the time to write such a generous review. It's very heartening to have someone with academic interest and personal engagement, take the time to discuss my book so thoughtfully.

I would like to provide some context and background in response.

Firstly, I would like to address your comments on my harshness of the Muslim women I met. This is the first book I wrote and I believe the harshness may simply be a reflection of my limitations as a writer.

Early drafts of the book treated the women I met with a much, much softer approach. These drafts were written with an ardent and at times myopic defence of Muslim women. But the story was really floundering. The problem is that I was trying so hard to 'present' a positive image that there was no real narrative. There was no journey because I had skipped the ugly truths of my instinctual responses, many of the negative encounters and my subsequent growth in understanding.

Real life is messy and there are multiple narratives I could have chosen from the raw material. In the end, I chose to dramatize my journey from a harsher to a more enlightened understanding. This meant exploring my more negative responses and not holding back. It was a very challenging process.

I chose this narrative because it was one of the many truths of my experience, but also because I felt very obligated about communicating with people coming from a Western ideological perspective and wanted others to experience my journey towards a more open-minded perspective. It might be of interest to know that these drafts were written in immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks and I felt a real passion to communicate to the hysterical and outrageous conversations going on around this time. 

It was a tricky balance and yes, I'm sure it does fail and succeed for different readers.

Finally, I would like to address your uneasiness about the social or political contexts I used to understand the women I met. It felt terribly audacious to write about other people's religious beliefs and I dealt with this by consciously limiting the content to my personal experiences or retreating towards academic perspectives. In retrospect, I probably did shy away from the women's personal beliefs too much. Asking women about their personal beliefs would have been a wonderful and very integral layer to the last stage of the story.

Thank you again,

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Book Review- ‘Travels in a Veil’, by April Fonti

‘Travels in a Veil’, could perhaps be described as a social anthropological study, although it does not intend to be this exactly. April Fonti writes about her travel experiences in Pakistan, Sweden and Iran. Her encounters with Muslims are described and more specifically the book centres on her experiences and observations of Muslim women and the issues faced by them. But I found that this book was not only a journey of discovery of Muslim women, but also a journey of discovery of herself and her own views regarding Muslims in general and women in specific.

Now, we all know that issues regarding Muslim women have become a very controversial and much debated discussion, and it is for this reason that I find books like these to be extremely important to read. As a Muslim woman myself I obviously have a vested interest in this topic and a need to know what is being discussed. This book has reminded me of something crucial and that is, that it is extremely dangerous to make generalizations about Muslim women. I have to admit that some of the things that April describes in her book are alien to me, which further emphasises the need for understanding, even amongst Muslims from different countries and regions. I like that April makes mention of the fact that generalizations cannot be made, and she backs up her own experiences with other studies and expert opinions, which I felt grounded the book within a broader context.  

The book is divided into 3 parts, and the chapters are named after women that April met in her travels, thus each chapter focuses on the experiences of those women.

The first part discusses April’s travels as a single woman travelling through conservative Pakistan. Here she experiences intense seclusion of Muslim women in a way that seems to really disturb her. She also experiences what it is like to transgress the social and cultural laws. Of significance is that this is the place where she meets Shaheen, an Iranian man who is someone who she initially admires for his liberal views. Shaheen is an important person in this book, not because of the relationship that develops between April and him, but because of how he allows April to come to certain conclusions about Muslims and gender issues.

The second part of the book focuses on April’s time spent living in Sweden with Shaheen, and mixing mainly with his Iranian friends. She becomes a sort of participant observer in Sweden, because as much as she is part of the Iranian Muslim community there, she still largely ends up feeling like she doesn’t exactly fit in.

The third and final part of the book I regard as a sort of re-discovery period. Here April travels alone to Iran and through Pakistan and India again, and she sees things through the eyes of someone who is older and much more experienced.

I have to admit that I liked reading the book, it was sort of like reading someone’s travel diary and it had a personal touch to it. I also like that the complexities involved in the discussion of Muslim women and liberation, freedom, seclusion and so on, was highlighted through experiences. Nonetheless, I still have some issues with this book.

My biggest issue with this book is that at times I find that April tends to judge women a bit too harshly. As much as she attempts to be open-minded and ready to empathize with the experiences of Muslim women, she still tends to view them from a Western ideological perspective. Her own ideas of empowerment and liberation still seem to take the foreground even when she makes mention of the fact that perhaps Western liberation is not such an easy answer.

I would have liked it more if she had met and observed these women without prior ideas of what it means to be a liberated and independent woman, but of course, I understand that this is not easily achievable. The reason that this is one of my biggest issues though, is that it is generally expected that everyone’s ideas of liberation and empowerment should be similar. However, studies have proved that people from different cultures have different understandings of what empowerment means. In my own Masters study conducted on the empowerment of Muslim women, I found that the Muslim women I studied generally would not be regarded as empowered in accordance with dominant empowerment theory, and the reason for this is because they see empowerment in very different terms. For instance, for the women in my study empowerment was not about individual independence but about being part of a group and giving back to the community through this group interaction.

I understand fully that April’s travels took her to particular parts of the Muslim world and she thus came to view Muslim women in a certain way. Perhaps if she had traveled to other parts and met different Muslim women then her ideas would have differed vastly. But, be that as it may, her encounters have left her with the belief that a reinterpretation of Islam is necessary in modern times. This again is a topic which has become debatable, I personally am of the opinion that Islam needs to be understood for what it really is, instead of observing Muslim practices (which most of the time are so closely linked to cultural practices that it’s hard to tell the difference between what is religious and what is cultural). I think that a true and unbiased understanding of Islam in its entirety and not the way Islam is being practiced by certain people is essential before making claims of the need to reinterpret, but this is just my opinion.

I admire April because unlike many other people, she has decided to write based on experience, but as a Muslim woman, I do not believe that the actions or reactions of the people that she encountered is representative of the real teachings of Islam. Islam emphasizes respect for women, it insists on no compulsion in religion, its rules and punishments are the same for both men and women (despite what many people practice and believe). In Islam it is not acceptable for a man to take advantage of any woman, it is not even permissible for him to touch an unrelated woman. Men are also not supposed to be mixing with women on an intimate level, and men also have a dress code. There are so many other things I can mention here, but I think it diverts from what is relevant to this book.

I will end by saying that there were certain parts of this book that left me feeling uneasy, and I couldn’t understand why it did, because after all, this is a book about someone’s experiences and it shouldn’t have to match my understanding of things, in fact, I wouldn’t learn from it if it did match my understanding. I took some time out to try and make sense of why I felt this way and I realized that it’s because for me and the women I know, Islam is about our personal religious beliefs, rather than only being a social, cultural or political system. So you will find me wearing the black abaya and not finding it stifling at all (yes even in the midst of summer), and you will find me content when I am wearing my headscarf, and you will find my friends happy to cover their faces, and many of us have made the choice to be stay at home mothers and wives without regarding ourselves as dependent, but the difference here is that we have made the choice ourselves.  I think that these choices we have made is the defining thing, perhaps if we had not made the choice ourselves then we wouldn’t be regarding these things as liberating while other Muslim women regard it as stifling or oppressive.

So again, one of the biggest things that this book has reminded me is that generalizations are extremely dangerous; just like generalizations of Muslim women are dangerous, so are generalizations of things like empowerment, liberation and independence. I’ve written this before on my blog and I will mention it now, I do not feel the need for any particular ideology to be “The Standard” by which everyone in the world lives their lives. I think that people should be allowed to make their own choices of what makes them happy, and I think that people should be allowed to define their own “Standard”.

All in all, I would recommend that you get this book and read it, look how much discussion it has generated in just one review. If anything, it is a book that brings about discussion, a book that has an intention of asking the difficult questions and a book that focuses on experiences instead of simply accepting hearsay, and for these reasons I recommend you to read it.

Read more about April and her travels here and here

Images from here