Moin Shakir and ‘Women in Muslim Society’

Moin Shakir’s ‘Women in Muslim Society’ as it appears in ‘Status of Women in Islam’ edited by Asghar Ali Engineer, demonstrates that very few Islamic countries have in fact progressed at the desired pace. Much of what Shakir writes in ‘Women in Muslim Society’ can still be applied today.

Published in 1987, twenty years ago, the question of the position of women in Islam remains pertinent.

Shakir comments that ‘the practice of seclusion or veil existed in the pre-Islamic times. In the same way a number of customs which are now treated as Islamic have nothing to do with Islam. These customs and practices have been the features f the social and cultural life of the people who did not abandon them after embracing Islam. The example of the Indian Muslim social structure may be instanced here. This may be described the folk aspect of religion which may go or may not go against the letter and spirit of normative aspect of religion. In other words religion, normative or popular, is not and should not be viewed as an autonomous and independent phenomenon.’

Status of Women in Islam, edited by Asghar Ali Engineer was first published in 1987 by Ajanta Publications.


Khuda Ka Liye at the Tongues on Fire Film Festival

I have the pleasure of introducing and discussing Shoaib Mansoor’s directorial debut at the Brady Centre on 13 March at the Brady Centre. Screening starts at 11am and is free and open to all.

Khuda Ke Liye is a ground breaking Pakistani feature on the aftermath of 9/11.

Ras H. Siddiqui writing for Pakistan Link puts it succinctly when he stated that “I had the privilege to view Shoaib Mansoor’s widely acclaimed Pakistani movie “Khuda Kay Liye” or “In The Name Of God” on a full screen at NAZ8 Cinemas in Fremont , California. I call the viewing a privilege because Pakistani movies being shown to the wider public on a full screen in Northern California are something quite rare, even when the theatres screening them like NAZ8 are known for showing Indian (Bollywood) blockbusters. Since this was a 1PM show on a Saturday, we hurried to the venue to get a good seat. There were five of us and when we stepped into the theatre we were surprised that there was plenty of room. Either word about this movie has not circulated or the impact of pirated DVD’s had already been felt. But after seeing it I can write that this movie should not be missed by Pakistanis, Americans or other South Asians. We saw it with English subtitles but a great deal of this movie is already in the English language. South Asian films have overcome many barriers in the United States over the past few years. Most of them have been made by the Indian-Pakistani Diaspora resident in Britain, Canada and the US. Mira Nair, Hanif Kureishi and now Tariq Ali have entered into filmmaking for Western audiences. Mira’s “The Namesake” is being released on DVD and is being considered Oscar material. And indigenous Indian movies such as Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya are getting international funding. But where does this movie fit in? Khuda Kay Liye is a remarkable film that can compete with any movie coming out of either Hollywood or Bollywood these days. Unfortunately, it will not penetrate the mainstream US movie market because it is going to be very controversial on both sides of “the divide”.  Click here to read the full article.

You can contact Tongues on Fire for further details of screening and discussion on            020 8961 8908.

Islam, Wife Beating and the Archbishop of Canterbury

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks on the inclusion of Sharia law into British secular law was unnecessary and untimely. Perhaps the Archbishop should read the Quran and assess for himself the extent of the problems and restrictions that Sharia law Arriving at the correct interpretations of the Quran has been a matter of great debate.

With no provisions for dealing with problems that women face, in particular domestic violence, the Islamic organisations in Britain are impotent when dealing effectively and in the interest of women. The Archbishop’s archaic views can only reinforce multicultural attitudes of ‘let them sort it out in their own communities’ approach. His remarks also throws light on the escalation of funding cuts in the voluntary sector by local authorities throughout Britain which has meant that women’s organisations such as Southall Black Sisters are facing an uncertain future. Southall Black Sisters has been at the forefront of rights for minority women but are now facing a core funding cut by Ealing Council depriving Britain of an organisation that is ‘iconic, vital and essential (Keith Vaz). Both the Governments and local authorities mantra these days is that ‘we are not living in Alabama are we?’ meaning there is no need for special provisions for minority groups anymore. According to them, the war on racism and inequality for women has been won.

 The erosion of provisions in law and civil life for minority women of all religions has ensured an increase in violence, destitution and abandonment. In many cases there are high risks to their lives where women are killed (Banaz, Surjit Atwal) or commit suicide (Navjeet Sidhu). The Archbishop’s careless remarks can prove to be very costly indeed.

Which religious interpretation does the Archbishop suggest we follow? Saudi Arabia, Iran, India? Religious laws have no place in democracy as in essence, it operates outside of these realms. It is not just the matter of divorce in Sharia law. There are other implications for women too, for example the rule for husbands on ‘wife beating’. 

According to six eminent scholars, this is their reading on the law governing wife beating:

Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God has gifted the one above the other, and on account of the outlay they make from their substance for them. Virtuous women are obedient, careful, during the husband’s absence, because God has of them been careful. But chide those for whose refractoriness you have cause to fear; remove them into beds apart, and scourge them: but if they are obedient to you, then seek not occasion against them: verily, God is High, Great! Rodwell

Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme. Dawood

Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High Exalted, Great. Pickthall

Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God’s guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; God is All high, All great. Arberry

Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in their sleeping places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great. Shakir

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whom part you fear disloyalty and ill conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance) for Allah is Most High, Great (above you all). Ali

Female Sufi’s in Iran

When I used to visit a Sufi gathering in the 80’s with my mother, it was perhaps one of the most mesmerising experiences that I had with her, which I miss desperately since she passed away. Of course then, and as now Islam has not been kind to music or heightened self expression.

My mother and I would sit at the back and listen as the chanting turned into a beautiful rendition of desire and love for the supreme creator. Small children, girls and boys aged 6 and over would go into a trance like state and rock from side to side and I feared that they would bang their heads into one another, causing a bloody explosion.

So when I came across and extract of ‘Mystic Iran’ a documentary by from filmmaker Aryana Farshad’s film exploring sacred locations in Iran, I was struck by the women and their defiance of orthodox Islam that is so prevalent in Iran and that has gripped so many other parts of the world.

The documentary was shot in 2002 and is 52 minutes in length. Aryana Farshad’s ‘Mystic Iran’ is a testament to those who defy conservative and right wing elements in Islam and who continually reach out for a self defined expression of worship.

The Lyrical Terrorist

Only last week I was arguing with a friend that ‘Britz’ had it all wrong – how can a woman possibly think of being a suicide bomber in the UK? ‘It’s only a matter of time’ she replied. And lo and behold, ‘The Lyrical Terrorist’ hit the headlines soon after!!

In this article for BBC News 24, the writer gives an account of Samina Malik’s fascination with Islam and terrorism.

“A 23-year-old who called herself the “Lyrical Terrorist” has become the first woman in the UK to be convicted under the Terrorism Act. Samina Malik, from Southall, west London, was found guilty at the Old Bailey of owning terrorist manuals.

The jury heard Malik had written extremist poems praising Osama Bin Laden, supporting martyrdom and discussing beheading.

Malik worked at WH Smith at Heathrow Airport until her arrest last October.

She had earlier been found not guilty of the more serious charge, under Section 57 of the Act, of possessing an article for a terrorist purpose. She denied the charges.

Extremist ‘library’

Malik burst into tears in the dock when the verdict was read out”. For the full article click here

The Crime reporter at BBC News, Ben Ando’s article sheds further light on Malik’s character, following on from the Judge’s comments that she remains an enigma to him.

The enigma that is the ‘Lyrical Terrorist’

“She cut a slight, almost incongruous figure in court.

Samina Malik denied being a terrorist throughout the trial

Each day, the self-proclaimed “Lyrical Terrorist”, Samina Malik, walked to the Old Bailey hiding her face from the cameras with a headscarf.

Usually dressed in a mixture of traditional Muslim clothing with western tracksuit bottoms and trainers, she is always accompanied by her mother and her solicitor, and rarely speaks.

In the week since the jury of seven men and five women was sent out to consider its verdict; she has been given bail with conditions that she need not remain in the dock but could sit in the cafe at the Old Bailey, or anywhere within the court building”. For a full article click here

Chechen Sufi Chants

“A wolf asks a dog “why are you chained up”, the dog replies: “That’s how it is”. “I prefer to be free”, says the wolf and walks away. That’s how it is for us. If only for a day, or a year…”

An old man sits in his house, as if from a forgotten age and shares his wisdom. In this clip of the Chechen Sufi Chants if perhaps the most mesmerising footage I have seen of Sufi’s in worship.

It is emotional, frightening, captivating and uncomfortable. In the far distance you can see a large mosque on the hill that dominates the village and to its right are the gallows.

The combination of spiritualism and a firm belief that the Chechen Islamic way is the only way forward is contrary to the beliefs of Sufi’s, confirming that religion is a matter of interpretation and not fact.

The Rules of Love: Vătsyăyana, the advocacy of the perfect kiss

Perhaps the demonstrators protesting against the kiss by Richard Geer planted so passionately upon the cheeks of Shipla Shetty should go back into their heritage. May I suggest the remarkable translation of the Kăma Sŭtra by Alain Daniélou which is faithful to the original by Vătsyăyana. The protestors, who are easily provoked, are frightening; poverty, instability, caste and religious differences and the growing gap between the poor and the rich have added to their anger.

The draconian censorship laws in India are partly inherited by the British.  In actual fact, it was the British colonials who during the 1930’s created the censorship laws that were directed specifically at the Indian Film industry, their greatest achievement being the banning of the kiss on the screen, applying prudish Victorian values on a culture with an extraordinary heritage. Prior to that, the kiss was an everyday matter, Devika Rani in Karma.

What a pity that sensuality of the kiss is relegated to something crass and dirty and contemporary Indians lack the courage to embrace their true heritage. Will they destroy Khajurao or the magnificent temples dedicated to Shiva in the South, clearly showing Shiva’s masculinity? I visited the temple at Kanya Kumari, where Shiva is draped in dhotis!

In Alain Daniélou’s extraordinary translation of the Kăma Sŭtra of the entire works complied and written by Vătsyăyana, you finally understand its genius. The Kăma Sŭtra dates back to the eight century, and in Danielou’s translation he presents the complete Kăma Sŭtra – the first unabridged modern translation of the classic Indian text. In contrast, Richard Burton’s version pales into insignificance, highlighting the Victorian values he applied, censoring and butchering the work in his version of the 1800’s.

In The Complete Kăma Sŭtra, Daniélou begins with Vătsyăyana’s introduction:

“Invocation; Origin and development of erotic science, or Kăma Shăstra:

1-2 Praised by the three aims of life, virtue (dharma), prosperity (artha), and love (kama), which are the subject of this work.

Why does Vătsyăyana begin his work thus, without invoking other gods? It is in order to explain this that I have written this commentary. There are four social functions in this world, namely the priest’s, the warrior’s, the merchant’s, and the artisan’s , as well as four stages of life, that of the student, the married man, withdrawal into the forest, and the mendicant monk. For the Brahmans and others, so long as they are heads of a family, the search for spiritual realisation is not practicable, and the aims of life are limited to three. The advocates of eroticism consider that love, given its results, is the most important inasmuch as virtue and prosperity both depend on it and without it they would not exist. According to the most ancient scholars, the prophet of the Asuras, Mallanăga, created this science after studying its means of accomplishment. Treatises have been written on the ways to acquire virtue and wealth, but love, being practiced with another person, requires other methods, methods concerning mutual relations. Such methods are expounded in the Kăma Shăstra, and not in the works on Economy (Artha Shăstra) or ethics (Dharma Shăstra). Because it depends on relations with another, because it deals with men and women, love requires a know-how that is explained only in the Kăma Sŭtra.

The methods indicated by erotic science are easy to put into practice, but are difficult for those who act alone or who follow the opinions of someone who does not know the Kăma Sŭtra. Inventing procedures one knows nothing about is like trying to read a text from the channels traced in wood by worms; its accomplishment is absolutely impossible for the ignorant.”

The Complete Kăma Sŭtra – The First Unabridged Modern Translation of the Classic Indian Text translated by Alain Daniélou was published in 1994 by Park Street Press, One Park Street, Rochester, Vermont 05767. ISBN 0-89281-492-6

Devika Rani in Karma: Cinema Vision India – India’s first professional cinema quarterly. Vol 1 No: 2 April 1980. Article by Arun Khopkar “The Second Language Take – Regional authenticity and overall indianness in films from Western India.” Cinema Vision India, 65/1503, Adarsh Nagar, Prabhadevi, Bombay 400 025. Telephone: 457814.


A Criminal and Cowardly Act – the bombing of Algiers

The prime minister of Algeria, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, declared yesterday’s bombing in central Algiers as ‘a criminal and cowardly act’. The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) now called the Organisation of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb an extreme right wing group have taken responsibility for the attack killing over 30 people.

The attack yesterday is said to be a reaction to the army’s activities in the Bejaia region, where government forces have increased their operations against the Organisation of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Algeria seems to be heading for the dark days of the 1990’s where the country descended into violence when more than 200,000 innocent people were killed.

Many extremist groups related to or in sympathy with al-Qaeda throughout the Islamic world, from Iraq, Indonesia through to Afghanistan have abandoned Islamic law and rules of engagement, misusing Islamic concepts, altering Quranic versus to suit their own need for a base for power. 

Many attacks by Al-Qaeda and their splinter groups that don’t make the headlines are carried out in remote areas fall within the realms of the unjust; acts such as poisoning wells, destroying farm land and generally terrorising, including rape.  The injunctions laid out in the Quran on the rules of engagement are being blatantly ignored by Al-Qaeda et al. Afghanistan is a case in point when Osama bin Laden was retreating into the mountains, ordered the wells to be poisoned.

The prophet Muhammad declared many injunctions whilst commanding his forces during battle, amongst them:

No killing of non-combatants
No immoral attacks on wildlife and nature
No felling or destruction of orchards and trees
No destruction of wells

The Quran clearly states that:

“So if they withdraw from you, and fight not against you, and offer you peace, then Allah does not give you permission to take any action against them”.

Abu Bakr, the Prophet Muhammad’s companion, further reinforced these injunctions by stating that:

“Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone”.

Fugitive and Cloistered Virtue

The new translation of the famous Malleus Maleficarum, or ‘The Hammer of the Witches’ that has recently become available, illuminates the mind of the writer and the subsequent persecutions. Written in 1486, the Malleus became the bible of the witch hunters and used ‘blasphemy’ as a point of entry to terrorize and torture their victims. An extremely disturbing book, the advocacy of violence towards women in particular is shocking. This highly controversial book is said to have sent mostly women, many men, gypsies and anyone who didn’t fit into to the norm to their death. Although debate is still rife as to how many were killed, the trials at Salem in America are famously documented and illustrate the extent of what one human being can do to another.

Blasphemy played a key role to accuse and punish, and if you look closely at the word blasphemy, break its Latin components down, I believe it reads ‘stupid woman’. And since the roots of blasphemy are inherently about doubting the interpretations of the word of god or the sheer act of transgression, the word manages to travel effortlessly across all religions. And women have historically been dealt the card of being at the root of all evil, so that explains the construction of the word.

As words evolve they take on a character and standing, managing to strike a blow when called upon. Men and women throughout history have stood up against oppressive forces, questioning their interpretation of religious texts. Many of these opposing voices ended up being crushed or silenced.

“Estimates of the death toll during the Inquisition worldwide range from 600,000 to as high as 9,000,000 (over its 250 year long course); either is a chilling number when one realizes that nearly all of the accused were women, and consisted primarily of outcasts and other suspicious persons. Old women. Midwives. Jews. Poets. Gypsies. Anyone who did not fit within the contemporary view of pious Christians were suspect, and easily branded “Witch”. Usually to devastating effect.”  Introduction to the online edition available at

Although our world is far from that of the 1400’s but on reflection what can future generations’ highlight about our understanding of the need for freedom of speech? The brutality of regimes throughout the world employs both sophisticated and crude methods of weeding out the non-conformist. Communalism, ethnic cleansing, censorship of anyone who would want to doubt and question scriptures are rife. Although no one has been burnt alive due to being a witch, many are killed for reasons of going against religious and cultural beliefs.

Writing almost 200 hundred years after the publication of the Malleus, John Milton, the poet was still pleading against censorship. An extraordinary poet and visionary and a devout Christian of the puritanical strain – he wrote passionately about the dangers of censorship: ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.’

And in another work he wrote: “Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do ingloriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple: who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

Cleverly using the idea of truth in the feminine, Milton clearly understood and demonstrated how easy it was to crush that voice. Merely questioning or uttering what might appear to be blasphemous even today can still cost a life; in many parts of the world a ‘medieval’ state of being exists. Perhaps we have to wait for another four hundred years before we reach the enlightened state that John Milton possessed with such intelligence and grace.