Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Thunder, Perfect Mind

I am shame and boldness.
I am shameless; I am ashamed.
I am strength and I am fear.
I am war and peace.

From The Thunder: Perfect Mind


Veena Malik bared her body and exposed the nakedness of her society.

But she is not alone. In recent weeks, Egyptian Aliya Magda Mahdi posted bold self-photographs on her blog. Tunisian actress Nadia Bostah posed provocatively to promote a film.

Something's happening here. And it could be very significant.

We heard the footsteps of what was coming in Naipaul's 1982 classic Among the Believers. We sensed it in 1988 when Ayatollah Khomeini threatened Salman Rushdie over Satanic Verses. We saw it in the 1997 film My Son the Fanatic (based on Hanif Kureishi's short story).

Then we saw it play out on our television screens on 9/11.

The destructive anger, the rejection of modernity, the war on freedom.

Something had gone badly wrong in Islamic societies.

Much has been said about how to change this dynamic.

From toppling dictators to killing terrorists, from settling intractable political conflicts to encouraging democracy - all manner of ideas have been proposed to change this ugly bend of history.

There has been some success. Arab societies, in particular, have rebelled against their stagnant status quo. Their dictators have been shown to be paper tigers - they hide in spider holes and gutter pipes when under fire. Their armies are weak - they run from the battle and don't dare defend national sovereignty. These tigers, that roared at home and terrorized own people, turned out to really be mice.

Where change has been slower is social practice. The community's failure to stand with Shah Bano, the illiterate stabbing of Naguib Mahfouz, Salman Taseer's assassination by his naat-singing bodyguard all tell the story of social darkness. Honor killings happen even in the West, Saudi women still can't drive, Ahmadis cannot exhibit the Quran in India, and raped women are still put in prison. The 2002 Arab Human Development Report drafted by distinguished Arab intellectuals is a stunning and powerful lament on the horrendous state of that society.

This sad circumstance is partly due to a community frozen in the glare of excruciating scrutiny. Also, Wahabi and Salafist financing of mosques and madrasas is a major problem, even in secular societies. Finally, the men in this male-dominant community - with rare exceptions - have failed to champion change.

In response, non-Muslims have either taken the multicultural view of "respecting" the community's practices, looked to "moderate Muslims" to make change happen, or (in bigotry) claimed that Islam is somehow incompatible with modernity.

But none of this has led to change.


Then, Manal al Sharif decided to drive a car in Saudi Arabia. Prof Amina Wadud led Friday prayers in America. Shaista Ambar released a model nikahnama to protect women's rights in India.

And, yes, Veena Malik, Aliya Mahdi, and Nadia Bostah boldly defied the purdah.

These may seem like acts of small defiance but they are no less significant than an old man making salt to challenge the empire in which the sun never set.

We may be witnessing a nascent social revolution in Islamic societies. Their women have wept through vicious wars and suffered through brutal suppression. Now they are leaping to lead.

This is perhaps the most promising development of the last decade of war.

Social change won't be easy. Entrenched tradition and extreme misogyny are hard to overcome. But, such change is surely an idea whose time has finally come.

It's not our wars or diplomacy or aid that will make this happen. It's not moderate Muslims or reformist Kings who will make this happen. It's the humble Muslim woman in all our communities who will lead this change.

Standing with her as she fights to honor her faith, community, and society is the most important thing non-Muslims can do.


Unknown said...

How come this has become a Muslim issue? MF Hussain can't exhibit a nude in India; girls can't celebrate valentine in a bar in Mangalore; women need exclusive trains in Delhi; inter-caste marriages can lead to death. Where have you been?

Anonymous said...

Exaggeration is how Indian arguments happen.
Nobody is up in arms against many nude paintings or actresses being bold in India. His painting received flak because he painted nude gods not just any girl. And really, how does occasional opposition to valentines day equate to being forced to live without being able to drive or sing rock songs legally; this is important consideration. There are no laws preventing women from doing above things in India. Progressives can do if they wish. But misogyny is legalized in the cases author mentions. It is not about India or Pakistan only. In India honour killings happen among uneducated masses, but as author mention even well educated Muslims settled in west do these.

KayEm said...

Secular right - is it possible for me to email you? If okay, please email me at so I can reply. Regards, K.Mathur

KayEm said...

You consistently produce really good articles and I was wondering if you would accept an award - The Leibster Blog Awards - from me. In turn, you'd have to nominate 5 bloggers. (It'd be interesting to see who you nominate) If you are nominated twice you have the hard work of nominating five more! :-)
The only condition - the nominee should have less than 200 members.
I'll put this in an article within a fortnight on my blog. Please respond before that.