The Stoning of Farzana P.

This story about a pregnant 25 year old woman, Farzana Parveen, being bashed to death with bricks by her brothers and uncles because she dared to marry of her own choice, is the kind of news that makes your heart drop and your stomach churn.  It’s being called an “honour killing” in the press, but it is murder – in fact, we should call it an execution.

Farzana was going to court in Lahore to testify that she had married her husband out of choice, in response to a fake kidnapping case brought about by her family, who were enraged that she chose to marry him instead of the cousin they’d picked out for her.  Thirty people stood and watched as Farzana was shot at and attacked with bricks, but nobody did anything.

It reminds me of the famous case of Saima Sarwar of Peshawar, who sought legal help from famed human rights lawyer Asma Jehangir, in fighting her own case against her family to divorce her chosen husband and marry a man of her own choice. Saima’s mother and uncle showed up in Asma Jehangir’s office while Saima was there, and her uncle shot her in the head. Saima died, and the uncle was never prosecuted because Saima’s family “forgave” him for the crime.

People in Pakistan get away with these kinds of executions of women because of weak laws, contradictory legislation, and the overarching power of jirgas, or extra-judicial tribal court systems which reserve the harshest punishments for women exercising their free will.

We have a Protection of Women ordinance, enacted in 2006, which amended the Hudood Ordinances, making rape a crime under the Pakistan Penal Code, and also made it illegal to force a woman to marry, kidnap or sell her into prostitution, and accuse her falsely of adultery or extramarital sex.  We also have a bill, enacted in 2004, which makes “honour killing” a crime. A Punjab law minister called for the crime to be tried in anti-terrorism courts in 2011, but I’m unsure whether this was ever enacted.

However, the 2004 law against “honour killing” is contradicted directly by the Islamic law of Qisas and Diyat, which allows a family of a victim to “forgive” the criminal and lessen the punishment or forgo it altogether. Most criminals use this loophole to get away with their crime.

Worse still is that attitudes towards women who marry of their own free choice as having stained the honour of the family still persist. Even the policemen at police stations often won’t register a crime against a woman in this case because they agree with or sympathise with the angry family who wanted her dead.  Combine this with a still-strong jirga system where men get together and condemn a woman (and sometimes her husband or partner, but he is almost never met with the same fate) to death for having acted out of her own free will.

They ignore the tenet of Islam that states any marriage must be enacted out of free will, and that a woman has the right to choose her own husband. This law in Islam is set in stone and cannot be argued with. But the tribal system, which is steeped in patriarchy, ignores this basic fact and still seeks to control the lives and bodies of women by forcing them into marriages they don’t always want.

I’ve often heard activists try to make the phrases “There is no honour in honour killing” and “dishonour killing” stick. It will take more than a few catchphrases to undo centuries of regressive, misogynistic thinking and attitudes, dearly adhered to because it suits the power structure that is already in existence. To get people to understand that an honour killing is murder, plain and simple, is the first step. For a man to understand that his honour doesn’t lie in a woman’s body may be the second step, but to get him to accept that she has her own autonomy and independence, and control over her own body is a final phase in the evolution of Pakistani society that may take generations to achieve.

In the meantime we’ll have people like Farzana and her unborn child, beaten to death with bricks grabbed from a construction site, outside a court in Lahore, while onlookers do nothing but watch and take photographs on their cell phones. We will have a nation where the laws do not protect women. We will have a country that people look at in disgust and horror, and grimace at, and thank God they do not have to raise their daughters there.

Farzana must not die in vain. We must use her death as a turning point in how we prosecute the executioners of women who exercise their free will. They are braver than all the men who sit in judgment over a woman like Farzana, condemning her to a death she does not deserve.

But do not rest complacent, even those of you who live in so-called civilised societies. All over the world, there is a war going on against women. In Pakistan, it takes the form of Farzana Parveen’s body, prone and covered by a sheet, battered and broken, in the ambulance, with her bewildered husband sitting next to her. In Nigeria, it takes the form of 200 schoolgirls kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery by Boko Haram. In the United States, we have three women and three men dead because of the revenge fantasies of a spoilt, rich boy who thought that he was owed sex by “blonde sluts”.

We’re already in the middle of the third world war. It is the war for women’s rights, safety, and dignity. We are not winning this war yet. I wonder if we ever will.

ADDITION: In a horrifying twist, we learned yesterday that Farzana’s husband, Muhammed Iqbal, had murdered his first wife – strangled her to death – in order to be able to marry Farzana, whose family approved of the match at first when money would exchange hands over the match. Muhammed Iqbal was “forgiven” under the Qisas and Diyat law by his son (or stepson, I’m not sure which), and then married Farzana. But then the deal with her family went sour, the money didn’t get paid, and Farzana’s family, enraged, waited for the couple outside the court, beat him and killed her. We also found out yesterday that Farzana’s sister was also killed by her family previously. This is starting to make all the people involved look like serial killers.

What we can clearly see is that “honour” is usually the pretext for murders that take place over money, property, or other family feuds. And then, after the “forgiveness” law is invoked, often a girl from one family will be offered in marriage to a man from the other family in order to end the conflict. It goes on and on, and only the women are made to pay the price for the machinations of these cold-hearted killers.

The real victims in this awful case are the two wives of Mohammed Iqbal. And the hundreds of women murdered each year in similar circumstances. Women’s lives are like currency to be squandered by the men who believe they own them – what a disgusting state of affairs.

Voluntary Segregation and Gender Apartheid

I’d heard a couple of months ago about an event at UCL London sponsored by the Islamic group Islamic Education and Research Academy. The event was a debate on Islam and atheism, but what made the headlines was the fact that the audience was separated by gender: men and mixed couples in the front, women in the back. This wasn’t forced – it was deemed “voluntary”. If you wanted to sit in mixed seating, you could; if you wanted to sit in women-only seating, you could. (I’m not sure where the men who didn’t want to sit with women went).

At the time, I shook my head and put it down to over-zealous students a little too fond of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan’s way of doing things. It’s both illegal and impossible to carry out that level of gender segregation in the UK, but this group and others like it were striking a little symbolic blow for the type of strict gender separation that they admire so much. Perhaps a little nostalgia for the way things are done in these countries, or “back home”; or some non-existant pinnacle of Islamic civilization to which we all belong whether we know it or not.

Yesterday, I saw someone called Mohammed Ansar, a British commentator on Islam, talking to British columnists David Aaronovitch and Sunder Katwala on Twitter about “voluntary segregation”. He was telling them about a summer BBQ he’d attended where it was “groovy” because it was all “voluntary” – “chaps talking to chaps and chapesses talking to chapesses” were his words. “It wasn’t scary at all! No monster under the bed!”

I have been told before that I should learn how to keep my mouth shut. I’m afraid I’m a bad student. I butted into the conversation and told all of them that I had grown up in a conservative Sindhi family (extended) where segregated social events were the norm. And that gender segregation is a travesty in all its forms.  I followed it up with a rant about the hideousness of gender segregation, the end result of what is usually women herded off into separate schools, hospitals, public transport, prayer areas at mosques. Their facilities are usually awful, neglected, and dirty, never given as much money or maintenance or quality as men’s only facilities. “The Quran tells believing men to lower their gaze, not put women in a box so that they don’t have to struggle with self-control,” I tweeted. “Segregating women usually means ‘out of sight, out of existence’.”

Mo reared back and said that he had never grown up in or was in favor of “hard” segregation, but that there was nothing wrong with “voluntary” segregation. “Your experience sounds bad but it isn’t the only one!” he tweeted. Or words to that effect. We went back and forth like this for a while, and I asked him to read my essay on the niqab and the illusion of free choice, but he refused, stating that I was “rude”. Now where have I heard that before? Oh, yes, we uppity women, who don’t present our views with the appropriate respect and deference…

Well, I’m sorry, but this is nonsense, pure and simple. Because like the niqab, “voluntary” segregation, or the freedom of choice surrounding it, is also an illusion. Perhaps the segregated weddings I went to, the ladies’ bus compartments 1/4 the size of men’s, the one ladies’ compartment on the Dubai Metro, the mosques from Hong Kong to Northern Virginia where either women are not welcome or there’s one stinky room upstairs where women lie on the floor to nap or to eat their lunches, were my “poor” experiences, forced upon me rather than of my choice. And that “groovy” summer barbecue was the epitome of Muslim chic where everyone just automatically drifted apart (like many of my parents’ generations’ dinner parties where the men sat one one side drinking whiskey discussing politics and the women sat on the other and talked about servants and children).

But what proponents of “voluntary” segregation are so disingenuous about is that the “choice” comes about because of social coercion, as this followup article about UK university gender segregation so beautifully illustrates. The spoken and unspoken assumption is that a good Muslim woman would never want to mix with men: she will automatically want to remove herself from their presence and put herself in the back of the room. Any woman who doesn’t “choose” this for herself is cheaper, less moral, or even a slut. We Muslim women have absorbed this message and our own thinking has become warped, so now, we are quick to demonstrate our chastity to the men and women of our community before they can accuse us of having loose morals.

This results in what you see happening on PIA flights, where women will sometimes object if they’re seated next to a man and ask for the “chap” to be moved. It happened once at a segregated wedding I attended in the Memon community, where all the ladies were chatting and laughing. Suddenly they stopped in their tracks and grabbed their dupattas and chadars, covering themselves up because a twelve year old boy had entered the room. He didn’t even have any hair on his upper lip, but I was informed that he had reached the age of puberty and so everyone had to veil themselves in front of him.

I’ll never forget a religious lecture I attended: the sheikh was young, hip, had been born and raised in New York. All the women were so excited to see him; I too fixed a dupatta on my head and entered the room where he was to address all of us. Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw a curtain erected in the middle of the room and two speakers on either side. The sheikh did not want to be in the same room as the women, so he was going to speak from behind the curtain, on a microphone. Even though each one of us was dressed in the proper Islamic attire, heads covered, arms and legs covered, some even with their faces covered, the sheikh deemed his presence amongst us too sinful to submit us to even a glimpse of him! And in the end everyone raved about how “good” he was instead of how silly the whole exercise had been.

There are people who think that if you veil yourself or segregate yourself out of choice, that’s fine and dandy. I wonder what happens when you decide you don’t want to sit with black people, or Jewish people out of choice too. Someone on Twitter told me that was a very offensive comparison, and perhaps it is, but gender apartheid is as real a concept as racial apartheid. I’ve heard the term “separate but equal” before – from people in America who opposed the civil rights movement and the integration of blacks into white schools. Funny how that same term is used to describe how women and men should be treated.

What on earth happened to our beautiful way of moderation, the Islam of the Middle Path? As John Lennon said, “Woman is the nigger of the world”. I’ll remember that the next time someone tells me I’m supposed to be honored and respected that nobody wants to sit next to me.

PS. Please don’t waste my time asking me if I believe in separate bathrooms or changing rooms for men and women.

Adoption and Islam

Last night I was involved in a Facebook discussion/debate with someone, who I’ll call K, who was elucidating the rules of adoption as they stand in Islam. He was somewhat berating people for spreading misinformation that Islam does not encourage adoption. Instead, he said that taking care of orphans is a central tenet in Islam – but there are certain rules and practices in the Islamic position that stand in direct contrast to how it is done and thought about in the West. And Western cultural thought and practice on adoption has influenced Muslims to the point that they do not look upon adoption as positively and enthusiastically as they should.

Islam is clear on adoption. Orphans are given a very special status in Islamic society, as people to be cared for, cherished, protected, and adopted. However, you are not allowed to hide the fact of a child’s adoption from her, nor are you allowed to hide her parentage, or pass yourselves off as the child’s biological parents. Adopted children cannot inherit their parents’ property under Islamic inheritance laws, although the parents can gift up to 30% of their property or assets to an adopted child before their death. Nor can adoptive parents absorb the orphan’s own wealth into their own: they can only serve as trustees for the child’s own wealth (stealing the property of orphans is considered a huge sin in Islam). Finally, adopted children must look upon the opposite sex members of their family as na-mahrem and observe proper moral behavior around them – many believe this means an adopted girl must veil herself around her adoptive father and brothers, for example – and they can marry anyone in their adoptive family.

There is a complicated Islamic history related to the ruling that an adopted child can marry into his or her adoptive family which I won’t get into right now, but go here to read up on it from the Quran (it involves an adopted son of the Prophet peace be upon him divorcing his wife whom the Prophet then m married, and the verse revealed in the Quran which made this a halal act).

K, the person who was discussing this issue last night said that under Islamic mores, a case like Woody Allen marrying his adoptive daughter Soon-Yi Previn would be no problem whatsoever. It cannot be classified as incest as it has been in the West. K’s idea was that the West has built up “false stigma” around adoption, stating that adopted children are brought up to falsely believe they are biological members of the family and as such, cannot marry members of their adoptive family later in life.

While I understand and obey the unequivocal laws of Islam in this as in many other issues, I hesitate to utterly condemn the practice of adoption as it is done in the West. I do believe that a child should not be brought up to believe he or she is the biological child of adoptive parents – and with interracial adoptions and adoptions from other countries, this is getting harder and harder to do – but I can understand why it was done in the past. Many children in centuries gone by were born out of wedlock, and either given up or abandoned by single mothers who could not raise their own children – either by law, or because of society’s harsh judgment of such mothers and their children. They were bundled off to adoptive homes in the hopes that they would get a better start in life. The identities of their mothers and fathers were hidden so that privacy and confidentiality could be protected. And adoptive parents wanted to be sure that the child never felt discriminated against or treated any differently from biological children – a very different outlook than Islam’s, which necessitates that while adopted children should be treated fairly, they are treated differently than biological ones.

This was a decision of compassion, and while it can lead to terrible mistakes like biological children ending up marrying each other or having relationships with each other without knowing that they share DNA, it’s hard to condemn it outright when the intention may have been to protect the child from stigma (not “false stigma” as K calls it but real stigma). We know, though, that this can cause a kind of psychological trauma to a child when he or she “finds out the truth”, but most adopted children speak of a sense of knowing that they had different origins than the ones presented to them as truth. Let’s say that adoption in itself is a psychological minefield that has to be navigated with great care and sensitivity, even when all the rules have been followed to the letter.

I also think it’s a mistake to draw a false dichotomy between the “West” and the “Islamic” world. In Pakistan, hundreds of children are abandoned every week in Edhi cradles and at orphanages: these children are often the result of extra-marital relationships. There are single mothers in Pakistan even though we don’t admit it and don’t talk about it, and even though a child without a father has no legal status in Pakistan. These children are adopted, and while they know that they are adopted, they have no way of knowing their parentage. What do we do in this case, beyond making it clear that they are adopted?

Also, in many Muslim countries there are children born to single mothers as a result of rape. Hundreds if not thousands of such children were born in Bosnia and the same thing is happening in Syria today. I can totally understand keeping the identity and origins of such children private and confidential in order to avoid the stigma of being a child of rape. Again, beyond making it known that the child is adopted, what is the more compassionate thing to do – advertise that the child was born to a single mother, and the father is unknown, or keep this to oneself?

When I mentioned these realities in the debate, I was told that we should be advanced enough in Islamic society to remove all stigmas related to rape and out of wedlock births. But the West is only just getting over these hangovers – Islamic countries are aeons behind in this respect. Women who give birth to children out of wedlock have even found themselves sentenced to death, as in the case of Amina Lawal in Nigeria (her sentence was declared invalid and she was later freed, but you can bet the stigma of having an illegitimate child will follow her and that child forever).

It is very easy to be unequivocal and dogmatic about anything, including Islam. But Islam is a religion of compassion and humanity, and we as its adherents are obligated to find creative ways to apply our religious obligations with those very qualities. I’m not confused about what Islam tells us to do. What I am confused about is how to implement that while still protecting orphans, which is also what Islam charges us to do. And shielding an adopted child, who is already the most vulnerable being on earth, from further censure, stigma, and discrimination, surely has to fall under that charge as well.

Your thoughts?

Easter in Pakistan

It’s Easter Sunday and we celebrate this religious holiday in Pakistan in many of the traditional ways it is celebrated in other countries with Christian populations. Even though Christians are in the minority here, there are masses and church services held to commemorate the holy day, hot cross buns sold in the Portuguese bakeries in downtown Karachi, and Easter egg hunts held for children, much the same across most of South Asia and the world.

The women are dressed in their brightest shalwar kameezes with dupattas on their heads in church, the services are said in Urdu, and there are guards and metal detectors set up outside most churches because of the volatile situation in Pakistan vis-a-vis religious minorities and violent attacks on Christian communities.

The most recent was the terrible attack on Joseph Colony in Lahore, where a hundred shops were looted and vandalized last month on the pretext of blasphemy. We now know after some investigation that the issue was actually one of land-grabbing; the land mafia encouraged several days of protests against the people of the colony that culminated in the violence and destruction of private property.

So in Pakistan, Easter is not just a day of joyous celebration, but a day of reflection for us all. We as Muslims are bound to honor Jesus, who we call Hazrat Isa, “hazrat” a word of deep respect for the Prophets of God and Isa being the Arabic name of Jesus. We aren’t allowed to think of him as the son of God, because that goes against the tenets of our religion, but the Quran specifically instructs us not to harass or harangue our Christian brothers and sisters for their beliefs, because Christianity is considered to be the closest to Islam of the three Abrahamic religions. Instead, we are reminded to revere Jesus’s holiness, his absolute devotion to bringing the message of God to the people of the world. We may not hold the same belief as Christians do that in dying, Jesus saved all of us from damnation, but we are bound to pray and send our respects to both him and his mother Mary, who has a whole chapter of the Quran named after her that is devoted to the events surrounding Jesus’s conception, birth, and early life.

And we as Muslims must also think carefully about how we are treating the Christian members of our community. Have we given them the respect and rights that they deserve, as fellow human beings? Have we treated them with kindness and compassion, as we ourselves would wish to be treated? Aasia Bibi still suffers in jail, Christian sweepers feel as hopeless as if they were still untouchables in the Hindu caste system, Christians live on a knife edge knowing that at any moment their neighbors can turn against them and tear down their homes and lynch them.

Just as we Muslims have the example of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom, Christians have the example of Jesus’s crucifixion to show that faith is not just about triumph, but about suffering and grief. Because Jesus suffered an infinite amount of pain and despair when he was crucified. Muslims believe that God took Jesus’s soul up to heaven before his death, in order to spare him that suffering (where he will wait until the end of times to be restored back to earth to join hands with the Mahdi and defeat Dajjal, or the anti-Christ).

Christians don’t give themselves this comfort. They believe that Jesus suffered at the hands of the Romans and died in the most bloody way possible, only to be resurrected three days later as proof of God’s magnificence and glory. They embrace the pain and suffering, knowing what it feels like to suffer, as they do at the hands of those of us Pakistanis who treat them in ways they do not deserve to be treated. The story of Jesus on the Cross gives them the inspiration and endurance to bear with patience and humility what we Muslims mete out to them on a daily basis — a drip-drip-drip of injustice and intolerance that hurts their hearts and souls but which they try to withstand while maintaining their dignity and faith.

I wonder which of us God will favour more on the Day of Judgment?

Hearing the Hopes of Pakistan’s Deaf World

Many of Karachi’s children go to school in the middle of the bustling Gulistan-e-Jauhar neighborhood of the city, but there’s one school located there that’s so unique, it might as well be in a different world. Walk through its doors and you’ll see the children learning their lessons, English, computers, art, math, and science just like in any other school, but two things strike you almost at once. First, there are no classrooms, just children grouped into different sections in a large open-plan space. And second, there’s no noise, apart from the occasional burst of laughter or wordless vocalization from the children and their teachers, because virtually all the communication is done in sign language: fast little hands waving in the air, forming letters, words and signs with their fingers, the children almost throwing themselves out of their chairs with eagerness to talk to you and show you what they’re doing and learning.

That’s when it really hits you: the world you’ve entered is the world of the Deaf, and you’re standing in the Deaf Reach School, a true center of excellence for academic and vocational training of hearing-impaired and deaf children (when writing about the deaf community, lower-case d – deaf – describes the medical condition, while capital D – Deaf – describes the culture or cultural group). This school is the brainchild of Richard and Heidi Geary, parents of a deaf child and foreign educators who have lived in Pakistan for over 25 years. Along with a whole host of both foreign and local volunteers and staff, they have created one of the most innovative educational networks in Pakistan today, Family Education Services Foundation. FESF is the umbrella that houses not only the Deaf Reach Schools, but also an active teacher training program, seminars and courses for teachers and parents of special needs children, community service outreach, youth leadership development, and a volunteer training program.


In Pakistan, the Deaf face challenges that start from birth and extend to every facet of their lives. Simply recognizing that a child is deaf may be the first challenge. Many parents don’t even realize their child is deaf until around the time when it’s expected that a child would start to speak, but doesn’t. Then, there’s the religious and cultural baggage that comes with that realization. A typical reaction is that deafness is a curse from God, or a punishment to the parents for some imagined wrongdoing. The embarrassment leads many Pakistani families to hide their deaf children away, particularly in the rural areas, treating the children as if they are mentally challenged, not deaf.

But awareness and education can do a great deal to combat the stigma, and reduce the deficits in learning that result from a physical handicap such as deafness. “The sooner a parent realizes his or her child is deaf, the more proactive you can be about providing education for that child at home in terms of language acquisition,” says Geary. “That’s the greatest loss – not hearing, but lack of language acquisition,  most of which takes place in the first five years. 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and thus communication is limited or non-existent. On the other hand, if a deaf child is born to deaf parents, there is in depth communication in their native tongue – sign language.  Hearing or deaf, a child will learn their native language,  whether via visual or aural input  – the impact is the same.”

Yet once a family knows its child is deaf, the next question is how to educate her. The large cities of Pakistan – Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar – have at least four or five major schools devoted to the deaf: ABSA and Ida Rieu in Karachi, the Lahore Speech and Language School in Lahore, for example.  But the rural areas have no schools devoted to deaf students; in the 48 special education schools in Sindh’s 23 districts, for example, they’re lumped in with other mentally and physically challenged students, the teachers are often untrained, many schools have “ghost attendees” – ten or twelve students in a school with a capacity for three hundred, for example.

The Karachi Deaf Reach School was created to fill the gap, starting small out of a premise in Regal Chowk where thirty students, including low-income children from Baldia town were accommodated at their small premises; today, the Karachi campus is one of a network across the country that includes schools in Hyderabad, Sukkur, Nawabshah, and Lahore, with plans to open in Rashidabad, a village in Tando Allahyar. Karachi’s school is split into a primary and secondary campus, with  140 students in the morning shift and  105 students and young men and women in the afternoon. There are 72 teachers working for the Deaf Reach Schools; 45 of them, or 60%, are deaf, and according to Geary, “they make the best teachers.”

The primary school educates students from KG to Class 4, while the secondary school goes up to Class  9. Afternoon students of the Deaf Reach Training School  receive vocational training in the fields of computers and information technology, tailoring and dressmaking, cooking, arts, and handicrafts under the aegis of the Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Youth Development Program. Across the five schools, eight hundred students are provided with education, uniforms, transportation, lunch, and all school materials at a cost of Rs. 5000 per month per child. “We don’t have fixed fees; we use a sliding scale – each family pays what it can, which averages out to about  Rs. 120 per month – far short of the Rs. 5,000 required. The rest we raise through donations.  In a year, the operating costs are upwards of Rs. 40 million a year,” says Geary.

With finances being one of their greatest challenges Geary is appreciative of the Sindh Government’s assistance to FESF. Having seen what the Deaf Reach Schools were able to achieve in Karachi and Hyderabad, the Sindh Government invited FESF to open schools in other areas of Sindh. Deaf Reach Sukkur was opened in 2010, and today has over 300 students, and a new school has just opened in Nawabshah. There’s also a large Deaf Reach School under construction in Rahsidabad, a model village in Tando Allahyar established by retired PAF officers, where a purpose-built building will to accommodate 500 children on two acres of land beside branches of other Pakistani philanthropic institutions such as The Citizens Foundation and the Leyton Rehmatullah Benevolent Trust.

“The government has provided startup and two years’ running costs for new schools, but it’s making the program sustainable in the long-term that’s the real challenge. Many people are willing to contribute to capital expenditure, but who underwrites twelve years of education? Because that’s the real cost of educating a child and making him a productive member of society,” says Geary.

Through FESF’s efforts, personal contacts, community outreach, and reputation for being honest and above board – the organization has internal accountants and external auditors – word of mouth has spread to other organizations, who have extended their support in various ways. Not only is FESF supported by the Planning and Development Department and the Community Development Program of the Sindh Government, but they have operated under the Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Youth Development Program for the last 3 years, providing six months’ training courses to hundreds of young men and women in Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur,  and achieving an almost unheard of 55% employment rate amongst their trainees. The Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund is a partner as well, and private corporations such as PSO, HSBC, and Standard Chartered also provide funding to the Deaf Reach Schools.

“We’d been freelancing for years, but we decided to formalize our activities, and that’s when we began to achieve a momentum, a tipping point, you might say,” explains Daniel Marc, a French-Canadian who serves as the FESF’s administration director. “We registered as a nonprofit under Section 42 of the Pakistan Companies Ordinance. We received a tax exemption certificate. We moved to our new premises in 2007, where we could offer more services in a better environment. The growth is organic, but it has to be controlled so it doesn’t outpace us.”

Marc illustrates the growing need for adequate facilities to teach the deaf with a telling example: the Deaf Reach school in Sukkur has grown from 30 to 300 students, a 1000% increase, in the 2 short years that its doors have opened. “And there are more than 150 children on a waiting list for admissions. And the need is similar in every district of Sindh.”

And there’s every possibility of being overrun by the demand: in Pakistan today, 9 million people are hearing-impaired, with 1.5 million out of those children who are deaf. This number comes from the recent National Task Force planning meeting, the Audiology 2020 conference held in Islamabad two years ago, where government officials, representatives from the main deaf schools in Pakistan, medical experts, United Nations officials and global activists in the deaf world met to create a five year plan to improve the situation of the Deaf in Pakistan.  Modeled on Vision 2020 and sponsored by CHEF, the Child Health Education Foundation, and the Pakistani Government, the task force gathered these experts at a large conference and then smaller subcommittees to make recommendations to the Pakistani government how to manage hearing problems from both the medical and early intervention side, as well as the educational side.

Like many big conferences of this nature, the initial signs were promising, but the follow-through has been less strong. Still, the Government of Sindh is showing a long-term commitment to improving the situation for Pakistan’s deaf. Pervez Musharraf’s 18th Amendment’s devolution plan moved the responsibility of special needs students from the Federal Ministry of Social Welfare and Special Education to the individual provinces. A Directorate of Special Education was set up in provincial government of Sindh, and its head, Imtiaz Shaikh was made Advisor/Minister Special Education Department. “He’s been very proactive in helping us,” says Geary. “He called a meeting at the Sindh Secretariat for all NGOS that deal with special needs to have a forum for discussion on the goal of making Karachi handicap-friendly by the year 2030, and he’s been active in the follow up and implementation.  He is presently working with Amin Hashwani of NOWPDP on a plan that includes city wide wheelchair ramps, a special CNIC window for special needs populations, and other tools of accessibility in the city.”

But the Deaf feel uncomfortable with certain aspects of the government’s 2% employment quota and the other benefits attached to holders of CNICs for special needs citizens: free primary school education in special education centers, special assistance in government entrance exams in certain professions, financial and equipment assistance, reduced travel fares on Pakistan Railways, for example. “The Deaf don’t like the card because they don’t consider themselves disabled. They consider themselves a minority cultural language group that speaks a different language,” explains Geary. It’s this attitude that is the key to their empowerment, a strong movement in the deaf world globally, which focuses less on the medical definition  ( referred to with a lowercase d) and more on the cultural definition of Deafness (referred to with an uppercase D), with its own culture, history, and rules.

Empowerment at Deaf Reach Schools comes from a powerful technological tool: the classrooms of the Deaf Reach School are connected to the Internet all the time, with the Internet and computer technology seamlessly integrated into the curriculum and teaching practices. Teachers use computer programs to teach sign language – a computer screen displays words accompanied by illustrative video clips of children signing the words and using them in everyday life for context, while the teacher stands at the head of the class and helps the children learn the signs. Teachers also use media constantly during school hours, to research curriculum, download lessons, find YouTube clips that will hep their students, and plan and organize lessons and timetables – anything and everything to make the learning environment more stimulating and efficient.

One of the most exciting technology projects being worked on today at Deaf Reach is the development of a “visual video dictionary” for deaf people to learn sign language. It’s being professionally filmed at the Deaf Reach School studio, and teachers and students alike are involved, acting out the signs as their written equivalent is flashed on the screen in both Urdu and English. “We hope to include about eight to ten thousand words in the dictionary, and students will learn three languages at once: Pakistani sign language, English, and Urdu. This will make Pakistani Sign Language accessible and available across the country, and also enable families to learn sign language in order to communicate with their deaf children,” explains Marc.

With no specialist training existing in Pakistan for teachers who work with the Deaf, Deaf Reach has trained their most apt students and provided them the opportunity to teach the next generation of deaf children. Sixty percent of the teachers in the Deaf Reach School are also deaf, but their deafness actually makes learning faster, according to Daniel Marc. “They understand the world these children are coming from.” That understanding and trust is a key issue in the deaf world, with the deaf population feeling somewhat mistrustful of the hearing population because they have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous people. But, according to Richard Geary, the Deaf are “very resilient, very independent, self-reliant. They don’t have a poor-me attitude. They’re happy and positive, they’re over-comers, even the girls. They’re not ashamed or embarrassed by their inability to hear. They write notes if they’re literate, or they sign or lip-read. They go out of their way to be heard.”

And the students of the Deaf School have ambitions beyond the classroom walls.  Working in partnership with other organizations that serve special needs populations, such as NOWPDP (Network of Organizations Working for People with Disabilities), FESF has managed to place their students in employment programs such as in KFC Restaurants, modeled on a similar scheme started in Cairo 20 years ago, where deaf students are working in five branches of the fast food chain in Karachi and Lahore. FESF has trained 45 students and placed them in jobs at petrol stations under the Shell Petroleum’s Awaaz program; NOWPDP helped place 15-20 deaf students at Artistic Milliners, the clothing design company in Karachi. Other former students work at United Bank Limited, DHL, and Allied Caterpillar; several deaf women who studied at the school’s Lahore campus are employed with Khawaja Electronics, where they make Fuji capacitators.

“As you can imagine, employment opportunities for the Deaf are very limited,” Geary says. “So we’re now exploring a business model for an income generation scheme. A job isn’t the only way, it’s just one facet. We want to create a line of products that can be marketed locally and internationally, and run as a company in which they will have a stake in the business. This is financial inclusion, which will eventually make them self-reliant, no longer dependent on society, their parents, or the community.”

In the end, what the Deaf Reach Schools deliver is twofold: quality education for an underserved population, and a legacy for the future. “We have a teacher working with us from Baltistan,” says Daniel Marc. “His wife came down here with their children all the way from Skardu, just for a few months so that she could get some training. He’s teaching here with us now, but they want to eventually go back to Baltistan and open a Deaf Reach School there. We worry about the future, about how the project will continue after us, but we are hopeful.”  With the intelligence, resilience, and positivity on display at the Karachi Deaf Reach School, there’s every reason to believe the legacy FESF has created for Pakistan’s deaf world will not just continue, but thrive in the years to come.

Find  Family Education Services Foundation online at:

Does Islam Allow Wife-Beating?

Today I read an article by Qasim Rashid called “The Islamic Solution to Stop Domestic Violence”.  Cogently argued by the author, who is an American lawyer and member of the Muslim Writers Guild, the essay attempts to analyse the contentious verse 4:34 from the Quran, which has been interpreted for centuries as permission for Muslim men to strike their wives if those wives are rebellious or disobedient, to God or their husbands.

The verse translates to something like this:

Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.

Here is a little background on the verse.*

Historically the revelation of this verse happened when Sa‘d ibn al-Rabi‘  hit his wife Habiba bin Zayd on the face because she rebelled against him. Her father went to Muhammad and said: ‘I gave him my daughter in marriage and he slapped her.’ So the Prophet said: ‘Let her have her retaliation against him.’ But as she was leaving with her father to go do this, the prophet called them back, saying, ‘Come back; Gabriel has come to me’ and 4:34 was revealed (1).

Daraba has many definitions some of which are to beat, strike, hit, to shoot, fire, shell, to separate, part, to turn away from, leave, forsake, avoid.  Different translations can give insight into the ways these translators view the word.  For example, Yusuf Ali writes “(and lastly) beat them (lightly)”, Shakir says “and Beat them,” and Haleem marks “then hit them.”

Rashid says that the verse, with its layers of conditionality, and then taking into account the way Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, treated his wives (He specifically instructed his ummah, “Do not beat your wives”), cannot be taken as open season to beat up your wife in a violent way. Instead, the Muslim man must consider all his options, “actively foster reconciliation”, and then consider the final option, which still remains “chastising” your wife. And if you decide, not in anger, of course, but with rationality and reason, that you must still hit your wife, then do so only in a humane way, a way that will not leave marks upon the face, and that is in fact “healing”, as that’s one of the meanings of the word “daraba”, which people more commonly translate or interpret as to strike.

Now, I must at this point state that I’m a practicing Muslim who accepts the Quran as the literal, spiritual, and metaphysical word of God. The reason I don’t have any problem with verse 4:34 is because the word “daraba”, which has been translated and interpreted as “to strike”, has NINETEEN different meanings. One of which is “to heal” as pointed out by Rashid, but another is “to separate” as we see from the text I quoted above. And it’s that one that makes the most sense in the context of the entire verse: if you have problems with your wife, admonish her, do not sleep with her, and then, if the problem continues, separate. I do not accept at all that this verse meant that you can strike your wife, whether gently, forcefully, or anything in between.

It’s very telling that Muslim men, on the other hand, have accepted the most violent meaning of this word, and then twist themselves into pretzels trying to justify it, qualify it, conditionalise it (okay, I know that’s not a word, but forgive me), and propagate it. If the Prophet himself said “Do not beat your wives”, why on earth are you trying to contradict that? And then you embarrass yourselves and all of Islam by talking about this verse as a solution to domestic violence while advocating that women can be struck as a corrective measure for bad behaviour?

Why do you have to engage in mental gymnastics (to quote Urooj Zia, Pakistani journalist) so that you can feel okay about beating your wife? How can you beat your wife in a way that heals her or the relationship? Why must we always deal in irrationality to prolong our bloodlust for the patriarchy? As Asra Q. Nomani says, Indeed, Muslim scholars and leaders have long been doing what I call “the 4:34 dance” — they reject outright violence against women but accept a level of aggression that fits contemporary definitions of domestic violence”.

Instead, why don’t you read Muslim female scholars on the subject of verse 4:34, and their interpretations of the Quran, which I have to say are much closer to the spirit of Islam – the progressive, anti-establishment, anti-traditionalist revolution that came roaring out of the desert to challenge the accepted way of life amongst the Arabs of Mecca in the 7th century?

Here’s Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation of 4:34, taken from her 2007 translation of the Quran:

“Men are supporters of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others and because they spend of their wealth. So the ones who are in accord with morality are the ones who are morally obligated, the ones who guard the unseen of what God has kept safe. But those whose resistance you fear, then admonish them and abandon them in their sleeping place, then go away from them; and if they obey you, surely look not for any way against them; truly God is Lofty, Great”.[41] “

And lest you think this verse in any way justifies men earning money while women are at home prohibited to work and earn their livelihood, I’d just like to ask you who was earning the money in the marriage between Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and his first wife Bibi Khadija (may Allah be pleased with her)?

Here’s a list of women you should read, and their thoughts on 4:34 based on a quick search across the Internet.

  • Dr. Riffat Hassan – who calls the Quran the Magna Carta of Islam and believes that  the meaning of the Qur’an should be determined through hermeneutics — examination of what its words meant at the time it was written. She interprets 4:34 as being addressed to all men and women, and translates “qawammun” as anyone who earns money, regardless of gender. 
  • Dr. Amina Wadud – Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, She says that the word “nushuz” in 4:34 means “disharmony, neutral in gender”. She also says the word “daraba” means not that you have permission to beat your wife, but the verse was intended to severely restrict practices already in place during the time of the Prophet. 
  • Dr Leila Ahmad, who teaches at the Harvard Divinity School (I can’t find any references online, but they’re in her book.
  • Fatima Mernissi, author of The Veil and the Male Elite

(thank you to Poppy Afzal Khan for this excellent list)

These feminist scholars who all know Arabic and have made it their life’s work to study Islam and the Quran and gender, argue that the verse is only one of many that have been interpreted in a way that is misogynistic, unfair, and against the intent of Islam to equalize men and women’s status. They argue that the Quran, the hadith and Shariah can be interpreted in a hardline way or a liberal way or a progressive way or a moderate way. And that there is a way to practice Islam that gives women full rights and respect, without reducing them to second-class citizens who must obey men, surrender their autonomy, agency, and bodies to the patriarchy.

In conclusion, I’d like to address my Muslim brothers and ask them why they just can’t come out and stand side by side with Muslim women, instead of continuing to keep them in second place? Why do they continue to insist that Allah subhana wa’taala meant for women to be inferior to men, when we all know that Allah created men and women of the same materials, imbued them with the same souls, has the same amount of reward and same amount of punishment for them in the afterlife? We can’t blame the Quran for its oppressive reading, says Asma Barlas. We can blame men and also women for those oppressive readings, that insistence on sticking to a system of slavery, that refusal to be courageous and accept that Islam means liberty and justice and equality for all.

*The verse has also been taken by most Muslims to show that men are breadwinners and are therefore in charge of women, who are by default childbearers.

The Arabic words in the verse most hotly debated over are:

Quwummun: breadwinners

Faddala: more excellent than, superior to (in the context of the translation above)

Nushuz: in the context of the translation above, “arrogance”, but also “rebellion”, “disobedience”

Daraba: in the context of the translation above, “to strike”

Reserved Seats for Women in Pakistan’s Parliament

So according to this news report in the Express Tribune, Imran Khan has announced that he opposes the way women in Pakistan enter the National Assembly on reserved seats. At a seminar called “Justice for Women” hosted by the PTI, Khan said that women should not be “nominated from a list” for those seats, but should “contest direct elections” the way the rest of the seats are contested for in the Assembly.

Currently, there are seventy (70) seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly reserved for women (60) and for minority members (10) of Parliament. A woman or a religious minority can fight an election for any other seat, but these seats are exclusively for them. These seats are allocated to political parties based on proportional representation, meaning that the largest party gets the largest number of seats, and so on.

So you don’t have to be elected to hold one of these seats; you get one of them assigned to you after your party holds an election to select you for the seat.  Imran Khan says he wants to do away with this indirect system and make the women fight for those reserved seats directly like everyone else has to do in the general Assembly seats. This is the way forward to a more democratic system, says Khan.

Another criticism of this system is that the women in these seats (it is claimed) don’t actually do anything useful in Parliament; they are “placeholders” for their husbands and cannot act on their own.

Let’s deal with the first issue first: that women should fight directly for these elections, not be elected within their parties and then be nominated for the seats. Imran Khan says, “How can some women be representative of women when they haven’t even contested elections? In some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections.” 

Okay, Mr. Khan. If this is true, that in some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections in general, why are you are insisting that they should contest direct elections for reserved seats?  I find this to be a highly impractical, if not downright contradictory, stance. There will be a complete failure to find enough women to contest all these elections throughout the country, especially in the more conservative areas of Pakistan. There is even the danger that these seats may eventually be taken off the reserved list if there aren’t enough women willing to fight direct elections, and go back to men.

Imran Khan also says, “Political parties should hold elections within their ranks and promote women into higher leadership positions.”

You mean, like when women are elected by the political parties and then nominated for reserved seats in the National Assembly?

I quote the wise Marvi Sirmed on the issue of women directly contesting elections.

The matter of contesting direct elections has so many other factors involved, that do not favour women’s participation. Also, contrary to general perception, not all of the women in legislatures come from elite / feudal classes. There are so many women who have come forward from rank and files of parties. And there are many more who are ready for next elections. We have parliamentarians who have been part of women movement in Pakistan. Do you think they would be able to contest elections if snatched [from] these seats? 

Also, not many parties are going to give tickets to women from winnable seats. That’s why we raised the issue before the election commission that at least 20% tickets should be given to women candidates. The Election Commission agreed to make it 10% tickets and include it in the Political Representation Act that governs political parties. But political parties (the right wing parties, Q-League, PTI, PMLN, JUI-F etc) did not even agree to 10%. 

The problem, Mr. Khan, is that women in Pakistan are nowhere near achieving the equal status that is required for being able to participate in large numbers in direct elections, even for reserved seats. As you yourself have acknowledged, our society and customs discourage women from appearing in public, from campaigning, from going door to door and meeting their voters. They can’t imagine doing this for all the general seats of the Assembly; they can’t even imagine being able to do this for the 60 reserved seats for women.

The reserved seats system may have become a way for women to be inserted into the political scenario as “placeholders” as people so cynically put it. But I’d like to argue a different angle: that the reserved seat system, though it seems to go against democratic principles, serves as a way of getting women in greater numbers into the Assembly FULL STOP. This type of affirmative action for women in itself is empowering and visionary, and a great example for all the people of Pakistan. To do away with this system at the moment would be setting women back many, many decades.

When we have reached much closer to our goal of equality for women in Pakistan, equal rights as citizens, with justice and concern and empathy for our struggles and our obstacles, then perhaps we will be ready to take the step of having women contest directly for those reserved seats. That day is many years away. I would say it is still several generations away.

Marvi Sirmed says that it’s time to instead start thinking about the second generation of affirmative action in Pakistan’s parliaments, and the modalities of how to achieve this. “The world has evolved many modalities, e.g. direct elections on reserved seats while expanding constituencies for women candidates”.

It’s certainly reasonable to place greater scrutiny on the women in the reserved seats, to ensure that they are actually serving as they are meant to, and not just enjoying perks or furthering the individual needs of their family members. But that is not a problem limited to women in reserved seats; in fact, it’s a problem that all Assembly members and ministers and army chiefs and elected officials and bureaucrats have contributed to for the last sixty-odd years of Pakistan’s existence.

But above all, we must protect the tradition of reserved seats for women, and never, ever eliminate it: this will drive us back to pre-1973 conditions (1973 is the year they were created), according to Marvi Sirmed. She says,

It is such a shame that even ‘educated’ people are discussing whether reserved seats should be there or not. That points to a serious lack of knowledge and insight into why women of Pakistan have been striving for these seats for decades. The fact that farmer and peasant women are not represented in parliament should not be used as pretext to scrap these seats. We don’t have farmer and peasant men also, so should we scrap men’s seats too? That the nominations are given to the influential women is also a myth.

Hands off our reserved seats! We have fought long and hard for them, and we will not give them up easily. It’s very easy to destroy systems, Mr. Khan, but it is very difficult to build them – and you should know better than to attempt this particular “reform” in the name of your election campaign.

Here is a list I found on Wikipedia (updated on December 12) that breaks down the reserved seats and who is holding them at the moment, by province:

Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (8)

  1. Ms. Bushra Gohar ANP
  2. Ms. Jamila Gallani ANP
  3. Ms. Khurshid Begum Saeed ANP
  4. Ms. Asma Arbab Alamgir PPPP
  5. Malik Mehrunnisa Afridi Advocate PPPP
  6. Mrs. Farhat Khan PPPP
  7. Dr. Imtiaz Sultan Bukhari PML(N)
  8. Mrs. Farzana Mushtaq Ghani PML
  • Fata (0)
  • Federal (0)
  • Punjab (34)
  1. Begum Ishrat Ashraf PML(N)
  2. Ms. Qudsia Arshad PML(N)
  3. Ms. Tahira Aurangzeb PML(N)
  4. Begum Nuzhat Sadiq PML(N)
  5. Ms. Nighat Parveen Mir PML(N)
  6. Ms. Khalida Mansoor PML(N)
  7. Ms. Shahnaz Saleem PML(N)
  8. Ms. Parveen Masood Bhatti PML(N)
  9. Ms. Sabeen Rizvi PML(N)
  10. Ms. Shireen Arshad Khan PML(N)
  11. Ms. Surriya Ashgar PML(N)
  12. Ms. Tasneem Siddiqui PML(N)
  13. Mrs. Nisar Tanveer PML(N)
  14. Ms. Shaheen Ashfaq PML(N)
  15. Mrs. Anusha Rahman Khan Advocate PML(N)
  16. Ms. Rukhsana Bangash PPPP
  17. Ms. Shahnaz Wazir Ali PPPP
  18. Miss. Palwasha Khan PPPP
  19. Mrs. Belum Hasnain PPPP
  20. Ms. Mehreen Anwar Raja Advocate PPPP
  21. Ms. Farzana Raja PPPP
  22. Justice (R) Fakhar-un-Nisa Khokhar PPPP
  23. Miss. Fouzia Habib PPPP
  24. Mrs. Shakeela Khanam Rashid PPPP
  25. Mrs. Yasmeen Rehman PPPP
  26. Ms. Samina Mushtaq Pagganwala PPPP
  27. Begum Nasim Akhtar Chaudhry PPPP
  28. Ms. Nosheen Saeed PML
  29. Ms. Kashmala Tariq PML
  30. Begum Shahnaz Sheikh PML
  31. Dr. Donya Aziz PML
  32. Mrs. Attiya Inayatullah PML
  33. Ms. Bushra Rahman PML
  34. Mrs Tanzila Aamir Cheema PML
  • Sindh (14)
  1. Mrs. Surraiya Jatoi PPPP
  2. Mrs. Farah Naz Ispahani PPPP
  3. Dr. Mahreen Razaque Bhutto PPPP
  4. Ms. Fauzia Wahab PPPP
  5. Ms. Rubina Saadat Qaim Khani PPPP
  6. Dr. Nafisa Shah PPPP
  7. Miss. Shagufta Jumani PPPP
  8. Dr. Nahid Shahid Ali MQM
  9. Ms. Kishwer Zehra MQM
  10. Mrs. Fouzia Ejaz Khan MQM
  11. Mrs. Imrana Saeed Jamil MQM
  12. Mrs. Shagufta Sadiq MQM
  13. Ms. Fiza Junejo PML
  14. Ms. Reena Kumari PML(F)
  • Balochestan (3)
  1. Mrs. Zubaida Jalal PML
  2. Dr. Zil-e-Huma PPPP
  3. Mrs. Asiya Nasir MMAP

Is Music Haraam in Islam?

The other day a friend told me of someone who tried to convince her that music is Haraam, or forbidden in Islam. There are many people like that in Pakistan, who have listened to Wahaabi or Salafi thinking on the subject and have exchanged their own ability to think for themselves for the extremist ideology of a nation that has done much to erase every pleasure and source of relief to all human beings on the planet.

What a pity that person, a medical professional, was unaware that music was used by great Muslim medical scientists to promote healing in the body and mind. According to Kamran Pasha, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and writer, and also a practicing Muslim, who posted this article on Facebook about Music Therapy in Islam, “Whenever you hear a foolish Muslim tell you that music is haraam (forbidden), you should let them know that historically Muslims were the leaders in music therapy and considered music as a divinely blessed means of using sound and vibration to promote health and psychological balance.”

In the article, we are told how Turkish doctors have revived the ancient Islamic science of playing music to ailing patients in hospitals in Turkey. There is a scientific explanation of the different types of Arabic scales and what effect the early Muslim scientists felt each had on the body. No less than the great Muslim thinker Ibn Sina appreciated and used music for its beneficial properties. Just reading this piece opens your mind to the endless possibilities and blessings that music holds for us – surely something our Creator intended us to enjoy but also to use for the good of humanity.

Pasha goes on to share with us a modern Muslim scholar’s analysis of music in Islamic science and medicine, and says “The fanatics who speak out against music are out of touch with Islam’s great historical and scientific legacy.”

In this article, the PhD and scholar Ibrahim B. Syed says, “Currently there is an aversion to music by some of the Ulema (religious scholars) in the Islamic world. This paper analyzes the Islamic perspective on music and singing. It concludes that utilization of music as a therapeutic agent in Medicine is not haram or forbidden.” 

Syed goes on to say:

[Medical and scientific journals contain] dramatic accounts of how doctors, musicians, and healthcare professionals use music to deal with everything from anxiety to cancer, high blood pressure, chronic pain, dyslexia, even mental illness. During childbirth, music can relieve expectant mothers’ anxiety and help release endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, dramatically decreasing the need for anesthesia. Exposure to sound, music and other acoustical vibrations can have a lifelong effect on health, learning, and behavior. They stimulate learning and memory, strengthen listening abilities. Music has been used as a treatment or cure from migraines to substance abuse.

This paper is very long and detailed and contains tons of scientific evidence quoted from many sources about music’s benefits for the mind and body. It is worth a read, especially if you are unsure whether or not music is haraam or halaal.

Certainly music that promotes haraam activities such as drug taking or violence or promiscuity would fall into the former category, but anything that has such a great positive effect on human beings, animals, and indeed all of God’s creations cannot be categorically forbidden. If you are opposed to “Western” or “Eastern” music or music with instruments, you could listen to the singing of Islamic songs using only the human voice, or the recitation of the Quran, which is also a type of music on many levels.

But to ban music altogether is unbalanced, extreme, and makes something “haraam” of what is one of Allah’s many favours to us (“Which of his favours will you deny?”) which is expressly forbidden in Islam. Furthermore, it shows ingratitude to Him in the extreme.

Don’t close your ears and eyes to the many of Allah’s signs. He did not create us with the faculties of vision and hearing so that we could blind ourselves and pierce our own eardrums in order to please Him.

Update: one of my very kind readers has posted a link to another alim’s viewpoint on the permissibility of music in Islam here.  This sheikh says, very wisely: “To say that all music is forbidden in Islam doesn’t seem to agree with the balanced approach of Islam to issues of human life and experience”. 

Amazingly, after I posted the original link of this blog piece on Twitter, someone actually tried to argue with me that my post was invalid because I had not consulted any “alim” or “mufti” on the issue. When I told him that I had included the opinion of a Muslim scholar (the PhD holder Ibrahim Syed), he told me in all seriousness that an alim is not a scholar. 


Another young woman told me that I had mentioned Wahabi thinking but said, and I quote, “kan u even explain wat it is?” 

It’s very simple. I quote the very knowledgeable Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy on the subject:

“Wahabism, which originated in the eighteenth century in Arabia, is a revivalist movement initiated by Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahab (1703-1792). Wahabis are ultra conservative in their outlook and believe in a strictly formal and ritualistic religion, prmoting a view of Islam that is diametrically opposed to the Sufi view, which considers religion largely a matter between Man and Maker. In its early years, Wahabism succeeded in destroying almost all shrines, together witih historical mnuments and relics dating to the early days of Islam for fear that they might take the status of shrine worship.” 


And, hand in hand with Wahabism is the school of thought of the Salafis, who

“seek the ‘purification’ of Islam by returning to the pure form practiced in the time of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) and his Companions. Among the most extreme manifstation of Salafism is Takfir-wal-Hijra. In 1996 the group is said to have plotted to assassinate Osama bin Laden for being too lax a Muslim. Pakistani Deobandis, most close ideologically to the Wahabis and Salafis… do not condemn suicide bombings, are strongly pro-Taliban, and many hard-core ones are heavily armed.”

*Please note that I am not an Islamic scholar. I am not giving a fatwa, nor am I authorized to do so. What I am doing is quoting alims/Islamic scholars who have given fatwas on the permissibility of music in Islam. 

Rape Culture

This morning I read an article, “The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture”, which relates to the iconic photograph of the sailor bending a nurse over and kissing her passionately at the end of World War 2. While this photograph is beloved of many, the article actually says that it is a marker of “rape culture” because in all the interviews post-kiss, the woman in the photograph says that the sailor was actually drunk and forced himself on her, a far cry from the scene of romance, passion, and triumph over Nazi Germany that it was originally meant to symbolize.

You could almost make the troubling assertion that knowing what we know about how it came about, it’s actually a scene of triumph over a woman’s body, the sailor as conqueror of her being, representing America’s victory over the Axis powers. But that is a topic for another essay altogether.

Yet while I found the article to be an interesting commentary on the photograph, and it definitely gave me food for thought about how women’s voices are overridden by men’s, especially in war narratives and historical accounts of war, it made me wonder whether the term “rape culture” and how it has come into common parlance in the feminist discourse has been beneficial for women’s empowerment, or whether it has hampered women in the fight to move away from permanent victimhood.

Rape culture is the feminist concept that “rape and sexual violence are common and that prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalise, excuse, tolerate, or even condone sexual violence.” It is not a physical place that you can find on a map, but a state of terror that exists everywhere, according to its experts. The concept has been discussed in feminist academics since the 1970s, where second wave feminists declared all of America to be a rape culture, but it has only become a popular term since 2011’s SlutWalk movement, a worldwide protest against women being blamed for getting raped because of the clothes they wear.

The elements identified in creating a culture of rape are hard to deny: victim blaming, sexual objectification, the trivializing of rape. It’s explained well in the extract from the book Transforming A Rape Culture:

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

This culture of rape is not exclusively a Western problem, either. India’s own Besharmi Morcha, or “Protest Action of Shameless Women” was meant to take place in coordination with similar protests in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong (but was stopped by the government). Before that, the Pink Chaddi campaign specifically addressed the same idea, with activists sending pairs of pink panties to government officials in Mangalore to express their disgust at the moral policing taking place in 2009.  It has its parallels in Muslim countries, including Pakistan, where women are encouraged to stay silent about sexual assault or commit suicide if it happens to them; where they can be raped if they go to a police station to report sexual assault; where sexual molestation is given the euphemism of “eve teasing” and women who don’t cover themselves head to toe in burqas, veils, and chadors are blatantly seen as inviting sexual assault.

Rape culture concerns itself not just with the physical act of rape, but with the conditions that allow it to be perpetuated and even encouraged in society. You could say that all of Pakistan, too, is a rape culture, with columns appearing in the newspaper questioning whether marital rape exists in Islam, where four eyewitnesses are needed to substantiate a woman’s claim of rape, thanks to the Hudood Ordinances and their remnants in our society; where girls and women are exchanged as compensation in feud settlements; where underage girls are married; where women are married against their will.

Rape Culture 101 is an excellent place to start if you want to delve deeper into this examination. And Rape Culture 5105 picks up the discussion and expands it even further.

But here’s where my first question arises: Where in the world, our physical space – or in minds, our psychic space – does rape culture not exist? There is no neighborhood, community, society, country in which rape does not take place. It is not a question of laws and attitudes, because even in places where anti-sexual assault laws are strictly enforced, and where violence against women is treated with the contempt and punished with the severity it deserves, rape still happens. Witness the Julian Assange case, where Sweden, one of the most progressive countries in the world, was the setting for two rapes (I am not going to discuss the political ramifications etc. here) committed by the same man. Pornography, sexual trafficking, domestic violence and all other forms of violence against women also take place in Scandanavian countries, which are the best places in the world in terms of legally guaranteeing equal rights for women.

Prominent feminist and scholar bell hooks makes the argument that looking at rape culture in isolation is unhelpful because we are divorcing rape from a more expansive culture of violence, and rape does not happen without a background or a context. If transformation of rape culture is to occur, it will happen within a larger movement of transforming culture from violence to non-violence.  I remain unconvinced that rape culture is a distinct and boundaried territory, either in the physical world or in the phenomenological one.

My second problem is with the actual phrase “rape culture”. There is something within me that rebels against its use. It brings to mind the idea that rape is so prevalent in our cultures, our ways of being, that rape is inevitable. That all women are fated to undergo some experience of rape, just by the default of living in a rape culture, even if they are not technically or physically raped. (Some feminists have held in the past that all sex is rape and all men are rapists. I do not agree with this notion.) There are huge problems with this assumption; it is meant to evoke anger to the point where people are inspired to transform the rape culture. But before it evokes anger, it evokes something larger and more immediate: fear. It turns all women into victims, in potential and in reality. We are all rape victims; it’s just a matter of time before the theory of rape turns into a physical reality, and we can do little to escape it.

This way of thinking is both defensive and damaging. It places women squarely back into the role of victim, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve: empowerment, strength, transcendence of victimhood. I understand that rape is always a possibility for any human being, man or woman. Depending on where you live, it is a probability – if you live in the Congo, or you were a woman in Bosnia during the Yugoslavian war, or if you are in Syria today. But it is psychologically unhealthy to restrict and define the world according to the paradigm of rape. On the other hand, we are all going to die, but if we were to see the world in terms of that physical inevitability, we would completely break down and be unable to live our daily lives.

So, for these reasons and probably more that I haven’t been able to articulate just yet, I am opposed to the unconditional use of the term “rape culture”. Rape doesn’t happen in a vaccuum, nor was the concept of rape created in one. We will probably never know who the world’s first rapist was. According to some feminists, it was the first man. But to condemn all women to the role of rape victim, either by a man or by culture or society, is a chilling indictment of the potential of humanity, and a prison that women do not deserve to be placed in by any academic, no matter how visionary or passionate about feminism and violence against women.