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Heresy, hypocrisy and hear-say

The M1 was its usual unmoving self as I trekked north to Pretoria last week. The monotony of the staccato traffic flow on our roads is these days only interrupted by a generous helping of over-zealous football themed marketing. There’s no escaping it folks. The World Cup, like an untimely Armageddon, is drawing precariously close. And if it does happen to fall short on any of its lofty objectives at least it’s united us all- in gridlock.  My trip to Pretoria was however no footballing matter. A women’s forum from Laudium, a suburb to the west of the capital, had invited me to share my experience as a magazine editor and then discuss opportunities for the empowerment of women. I took the liberty instead to speak about the place of young women in South African Muslim society.

It was no call to revolution, a well worn topic, but one I feel that needs to be addressed from within South African Muslim contexts. The subjugation of women is not created by scripture or law it is created and maintained through ideology. Ideology is a lot like common sense, the sort of things we take for granted, care not to question. So, young women grow up desperately coveting the attention of men, equating their self-worth to their cup size, feeling less than whole unless they are made the object of a man’s attention because the pervasive ideology is one that promotes the looks and marriagabilty of a woman above her grey matter. I warned that in a society where the media is lambasted for everything from a rapacious taste for fast food to fast cars and even faster living, the media cannot alone be held responsible for spinning disconcerting ideologies . Social norms are not created on the back of a cover girl alone, we are all responsible, I argued, for the girl who is forced into a sexual relationship to maintain the farcical obligation of having a boyfriend.

I sought to stress the importance of education, of the re-evaluation of social norms and the dire need for critical thinking. When I stopped talking and faced a group of women who wore matching expressions of bewilderment, I was afraid I had misread my cue. But then, someone volunteered, ‘That was inspiring,’ and my traitorous head burst at the seams with such delectable food for vanity. My delirious glow of self-congratulations was however short-lived.

An Apa1 replaced my haze of complacency with a burning anger as she countered, ‘Well, if your girls don’t go to school then they don’t have to experience all these things,’ and someone else furiously asked, ‘ But how can you deprive them of an education?’ She replies, ‘The threat of peer pressure is worse than the lack of an education!’ I stepped in and tried to explain that peer pressure is unavoidable, manifesting itself in various places, including the home and in many instances can also be positive. She, though, was doggedly determined to be unmoved. I had to remember to bite my tongue being a guest of this forum. And a very inspiring woman, a spritely minded 70-something, said to her, ‘So tell me your daughter’s at home and does what?’ And she says, ‘You can spend 200 years learning Quran and Sunnah and you won’t be done.’ According to this Apa-at-large secular knowledge and Islamic knowledge are like oil and water, inadmissible by nature.

At this point, I think, everybody in the room was praying she just shut up. No one there agreed with her but everybody was too afraid to further engage her.  Someone else then asked me a question, deftly redirecting the conversation in an effort even the most astute diplomats would be proud of. While we were served cake and Pepsi, Apa got up, excusing herself citing a dentist appointment. The relief her departure brought was much sweeter than the finest confectionery. It is easier to believe people like her don’t exist. It’s easier, on the mind and purpose to believe women are uniformly unshackled of such ignorance. Yet she was there. Real. Proof that there is more than one ideology we need to be rid of.  Still, it amazes me that though she can lambast pursuits of ‘secular knowledge’, relegating it to the annals of impermissibility she remains a witting beneficiary of someone’s university-going. Because even though educational institutes are dens of iniquity and vice we need to have our teeth fixed.  But will the hypocrisy of it all ever be realised?

1. Apa: A kinship term from Indian parlance for an older sister, commonly also used to refer to female teachers in Indian Muslim educational settings in South Africa.

14 replies on “Heresy, hypocrisy and hear-say”

Bilal: I know that. What i mean is – we shouldn’t react impulsively to those attitudes; but rather consider where they’re coming from.

It doesn’t mean accepting those attitudes. It just means we have to choose our words and actions carefully – when trying to correct those attitudes.

It goes without saying, but well written piece as always!

@Dreamlife: while we must respect out elders, we should never accept or in any way tolerate their racist and un-Islamic views. They need to learn, the hard or easy way, that they need to respect everyone else…

Thank you all for reading and commenting.

A couple of days ago I was accused of being ‘too into the whole worldly affair’. In as much as I continue to feel the writer of that comment needs very much to look into a mirror before pointing out zits on other people’s faces, I realise her comment was in some part inspired by this post and requires a clarification of my position.

Like Mash, Zahera and Azra, I feel a distinction between secular and Islamic knowledge is foolhardy. The greatest accomplishments of Muslims in philosophy, science and the arts came at a time when such a distinction did not exist. Now that we beat ourselves up over keeping the Islamic sterile of the secular, we’re frustrated by our lack of progress, constantly reminding ourselves of the accomplishments of people passed yet failing to emulate them in any way.

Zahera, I agree as well that efforts to school ourselves in Islamic sciences must be increased. Too many of us leave madressahs and are never inspired to learn more about the faith we call our own. So yes there is certainly a prejudice in some sectors of our society against people who devote their lives to being students of the faith. What we all need to do is absolve ourselves of self-righteousness, realise that there is value in all knowledge, and there is an added value in approaching each other with mutual respect.

The Apa I’ve mentioned here, shocked me in many ways. It was a long time since I had interacted with someone like her. We tend to surround ourselves with people of similar values, tastes and interests so our world becomes sterilised, to a great degree, of people who are an affront to our world view. And I think some part of me has become complacent, believing that everybody lives to save the world of irrational ideologies. I respect her knowledge, her own education but I am deeply disappointed in the duality of her standards. She was determined that women should not see the inside of schools, yet she herself is a lecturer at the girls’ Dar ul Uloom in Laudium. And while she comes to work, she’s accompanied each day by her nine year old daughter, who deprived of a ‘secular’ education herself, follows her mum to classes all day. It saddens me that a mother could force her own life on a child to the extent that the child’s sense of individuality becomes stifled.

But Dreamlife’s comment, ‘My point here is that it’s unrealistic to expect the older generations to just drop deeply held beliefs like these – beliefs which us younger ones KNOW are flawed. They were born into societies in which these ideologies were the norm. They grew up with that – and most of the people around them grew up with the same. So, if everyone’s thinking and doing it – it must be right…right?’ is especially poignant.

I think it was Imam Ali (May Allah be pleased with him) who said, ‘Humility is the outcome of knowledge.’ I first learned this saying of his when I was twelve, it stuck with me not so much because of its meaning but that it taught me the word humility. As I grew up its meaning gradually dawned on me. That as much as we know, there’s much more that we don’t. As Saaleha says, To know is to know that you really don’t.

When I worked in Gauteng, I was taught a word that had multiple uses, depending on how it was pronounced or emphasised. Its seem completely apt here.

EISH!

Here Here Zahera.

I don’t get why it has to be either/or with people in our society.
I was having a discussion of this nature with a few friends. I know a girl (quite well actually since she’s the other neighbour) who left school in STD 6 or Grade 8 to pursue Islamic Studies. Four years later, while we were about to graduate from High School, she became an Aalima.

She’s an extremely intelligent woman and her ideas and views are all relevant in today’s society and she’s spot on in every discussion we have. But for some or other reason, she cannot articulate these ideas and views to the public and cannot hold her own in an argument. She often grappels to find the words to impart her knowledge in a comprehensive way. She also lacks the ability to articulate her solutions (derived from Islamic knowledge) to contemporary problems. So for all her knowledge, she has absolutely no communication skills to pass it on to others because of her “lack of education”.

My sister even told me: “Can you imagine the intellectual power she would have wielded had she gone to University? No one would even come close. She’d be unstoppable. She would have been a great asset to the deen in these times. It’s a pity, because we need women like that.”

As Muslims living in the Modern World, it is ESSENTIAL to seek out both to be able to maintain our identities while we move and adapt with the times. And in my opinion one form of education cannot exist without the other, not in these contemporary times. At the end of the day knowledge is knowledge (as Mash & Zahera mentioned).

I agree with the points you’ve raised. But at the same time, we must remember that it’s easier for us – from the younger generation – to accept the importance of so-called ‘secular’ knowledge; and how important it is in building our communities.

But for this lady – as well as many others of her generation – her ideas are deeply ingrained beliefs that she grew up with; and that’s something that’s difficult for a person to change – especially in old age.

I mean, look at racism. Apartheid is long gone, but our parents and grandparents grew up under it – with very strong racial divisions in their lives up till the fall of Apartheid (and perhaps even in the years after it). So that legacy remains with them in their thinking – regardless of what’s happened since 1994; and sometimes even regardless of the anti-discriminatory nature of Islam.

For example, older people I know – who’s are good, admirable, upright Muslims – still sometimes speak with derogatory undertones about the ‘karias’ (Africans). And I’ve seen others of their generation – whether ‘religious’ or not – do the very same thing.

My point here is that it’s unrealistic to expect the older generations to just drop deeply held beliefs like these – beliefs which us younger ones KNOW are flawed. They were born into societies in which these ideologies were the norm. They grew up with that – and most of the people around them grew up with the same. So, if everyone’s thinking and doing it – it must be right…right?

And us youngsters now come along with our ‘modern, modern’ ideas….what do we know?

We must – of course – respect our elders; but we must also be very aware of the backgrounds they come from. So, in dealing with sensitive issues like this, we’d do well to be respectful while still trying to get our point across.

Anyway, good post.

I guess she is entitled to her opinion as much as we are entitled to ours. Maybe her experiences validate her claims. Besides, education doesnt have to be in the school setting.. there are plenty of parents who i know personally who are choosing to opt for homeschooling rather than sending their children to state schools becuase of a number of factors; peer pressure only being the tip of the iceberg.

As far as the notion of conformity, acceptance and the need for a boyfriend/girlfriend goes.. i think alot of it is down to parenting. Like you said- the media is only responsible to an extent, we must also take some responsibility. I usually find that the more you “cage” a child or the more rigid you become in your rules and regulations, the more the child wants to rebel. Its a natural reaction isnt it? You try stop me doing X and i want to do X to prove a point to you.

By the way, although i am in no way against secular knowledge (my take is that all knowledge is good and its more about how you use it- like Mash says) but i do believe that as Muslims we are undermining the importance of Islamic knowledge. Its almost like those who wish to seek it are somehow less intelligent or seen with contempt. Its ridiculous.. do a survey of muslim women and ask them the correct procedure of ghusl, or the rulings regarding menstruation and nifas. Why do we not know these things? Are these things not as important as the things we are taught in University? To be honest, i think muslims need to get a little more perspective.

at the risk of sounding like a twat :

all knowledge is holy. this secular/religious divide she speaks of is a construct of her mind and her upbringing

i.e anything not religious is bad

but all creation is from God.

All knowledge is holy. What makes the difference is what we do with it.

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