Veiled Promise

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
14 March 2002

Before I begin I would like to say, that for me this is not a DEBATE. I do not perceive this as something to win. It is, for me, a dialogue – to learn.

I feel honoured and blessed as a person, because I have the great good fortune to be equally at home, and authentically accepted by two worlds – worlds which are often an enigma to each other. As such I try and live my life as a bridge where dialogue can cross, for I truly believe that dialogue is absolutely vital for our little planet.

As I have thought and thought about what to say to you, I have mused over thoughts of secular fundamentalism (no religious morals in society), neo-colonial perceptions (OUR way IS best) and liberal paradoxes (free choice is THE ultimate, but not if you choose religion!) I have thought about discussions of revisionist Islamic scholarship, and female Qur’anic interpretations….

Ultimately, however I came to the conclusion that our discussions have to be about real people as well as ideas, because if we begin to see the human elements of the debates then we may begin better to understand and to construct dialogue in the future. Which is why I wish to tell you a story of a woman whom many would write off as a woman oppressed.

She was 4 ft 8 inches, she came to this country in her twenties without speaking a word of English. (sorry Blunkett!) She came from a Bangladeshi village. She was un-schooled, and she had an arranged (but not forced) marriage – seeing her husband for the first time on their wedding day. She rarely was seen by men and she rarely went out except to the doctor or the post-office. When she did go out she was covered from head to foot, often covering her face, and always covered her hair even inside the house.

In so many ways she was the archetypal oppressed woman – to me she was one of the freest women I had ever met – for beyond the archetype was another story…

Her husband had left her in Bangladesh with her eldest child – a son. He had come to England to work and sent money home. She never received that money, instead she went hungry so that her son could eat.

Eventually, she travelled to England to join her husband, and whilst here she gave birth to a daughter. Because her mother was ill, she returned to Bangladesh with her daughter whilst pregnant with her third child – also a daughter, leaving her husband and son here. Distraught by the separation from her husband and son, she persuaded her husband to return to Bangladesh.

Another child – another daughter soon followed. So there she was – in Bangladesh, one son, three daughters and no money, with her daughters in danger from malnutrition. Britain still needed workers – her husband could work, so another journey to Britain was planned. As was the way of many at the time – the male village elders came forward and told her husband: “Leave your daughters, take the sons of other men with you. Don’t waste the tickets on girls!”

This woman – she threatened to jump in front of the plane if her husband did this. He took her seriously, and brought over the girls! Another son and two more daughters soon followed.

So, what’s so different you may ask – she seems to have had a pretty miserable life so far, AND she was oppressed with constant child birth as well as everything else – five daughters and two sons!

Well, its what she did with those children! She made sure they were educated – all of them. Her two eldest daughters married young and had children – but their children… it’s education all the way – with her eldest granddaughter predicted 10 A* at GCSE from a Grammar School to which she won an assisted place. Her third daughter was the first girl to attend university in their small Midlands town. Later, she allowed this daughter to study abroad, and she is now a Maths teacher. Her fourth daughter is an English teacher, her fifth also a very successfully young woman, has just bought her own flat. She paid for them all to learn to drive out of her meagre funds.

She did all of this despite the mutterings of the community that it would all end in tears – that they would all leave the faith, and go off. However, all her daughters remain committed to the faith. Her courage and commitment to her daughters has meant that they succeeded, but more than that – her example has meant that other mothers from the community were encouraged – and in turn they encouraged their girls to go away to university. And the trend grows and grows.

What of her sons… They too are successful – her youngest son is one of the most hard-working, honest people I know. Her eldest son – a human rights barrister – was described by a newspaper recently as one of the foremost Muslim leaders in Britain! “What me,” he said, “a young boy from Bangladesh who used to run around naked and pee down snake holes!” Well, he may have done, but now he is my husband – and the woman of whom I speak is my mother in law.

She didn’t have the opportunities in life, but she made sure her sons and daughters did.

I tell you this story not to praise indulgently, but to make a point to you. She did what she did, not because of intellectual arguments, or fancy debates – she did what she did because of one thing: Islam.

A sense of justice, a sense of freedom, inspiration… These can come from a variety of sources – for many, they come from education, for her – the inspiration came from Islam. And for many – with our stereotypes of Islam this may seem surprising. Even though she was un-schooled, she knew what Islam says: “It is a duty on every Muslim male and female to seek knowledge.”

Even though the culture from which she came is steeped in female oppression, she knew that Islam says that a man is not better than a woman, and a woman is not better than a man, except in their commitment to God.

Even though her community and all the pressures around her said otherwise, she knew that Islam regarded her daughters with dignity, that Islam regarded her daughters as equals. And even without knowing the words of freedom, emancipation and liberty, she was mentally and spiritual free – and she was free because of Islam.

She was not oppressed by the fear of what other people would think. She cared not a jot about how things had been done before – and she did not care because she knew that Islam says: “Woe unto you who say I did so and so, because every body else did it, or because I found my forefathers doing it.”

And what of her now? Is she enjoying the fruits of her struggle and sacrifice? Do her children tend to her every need as she tended to theirs. Are they repaying her out of the opportunities which she ultimately gave them? No, she’s dead. She died a painful death, but even as cancer gripped her body she showed the same fortitude in death as in life. And her last messages to her children enabled them to let her go, and to live the lives that she wanted them to. And her legacy lives on.

To our minds – as Westerners – this may seem a tragic and miserable life, one that doesn’t even have a happy ending. But to a Muslim mind and heart she lived a heroic life, a life of jihad (for jihad means striving, not holy war). And, ultimately, because Islam takes a very long-term view of things, she is living a very happy existence. Because her spirit, her soul, her inner light – call it what you will – that bit of her which made her alive – is contented.

Her life is so far removed from my Western one, from my experiences and expectations, my demands and my view of my own rights. But when I think about it, her early life of poverty reflects the life of more women than my life does.

And this is one of the central arguments for so many in the Muslim world. For those that set the agendas at these UN women’s gatherings, those that say “These are the list of rights which you shall be judged by”, have absolutely no idea of the life of poverty and hardship that so many women live.

We look at the burqa and say – “this is the ultimate symbol of oppression”. NONSENSE… having no food, freezing to death in a refugee camp, being bombed out of your home, watching your children die of hypothermia and starvation – THESE are the ultimate symbols of oppression.

So, when someone says to me: “Islam, pah. You wouldn’t want to go and live in Afghanistan.” No I wouldn’t… not because they are Muslims, but because this is my home, and because I have untold reasons to be grateful that my soul was not placed in the body of someone suffering abject poverty.

And this should make me grateful, and this should make me contented… This should make ALL of us grateful, and all of us contented. Does it?

No – we – we women in Britain… We are not a contented lot…

And this is the final point from my story that I wish to make… My mother in law was always contented… not content to sit by and do nothing, not content to let her children live the same life she did… But contented to have little furniture, few clothes… And in this way too she was truly free…

She was free from looking at Wunderbra ads and feeling inferior… She was free from the cosmetic surgery ads that ask: “Not happy with the way you look?” She was free from Armani or Gabbani, Joseph or Next. She was free from constant DIY and the latest home trend. She was free from designer gardens. She was free from Mercedes or BMW. She was free from size 10 aspirations (saris only come in one size!).

How content are we? We are rich – as a nation we are rich – but how content are we?

Now that so many of our struggles have gone – are we using our lives productively?

Women in Britain…

It saddens me that we are not as vibrant as we could be.

It saddens me that less than one hundred years ago women died so I may vote, but that almost half of us don’t even bother to.

It saddens me that none of us want for food, but we deny ourselves sustenance with one diet after another.

It saddens me that we are physically healthier and fitter than ever before but we are distraught by our own body image, turning to all sorts of enhancements or surgery.

It saddens me that we live longer and longer but our grey hair and wrinkles are what preoccupy us.

As a Westerner I do wonder about our approach to the world, and I do think that we could learn from the philosophies of Islam.

As a Muslim there are many questions that I have to ask of the way Islam has been interpreted over the years – and I am asking them. Not just me – Muslims are reflecting, and exploring a historic legacy.

But Islam has given me two things which I find beautiful: the reflection on the inner not the outer, and the status accorded to it; the requirement that society be built on principle not utilitarianism.

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