Towels for Your Head, Anyone?

Okay, I can ‘get’ (or as we say locally, ‘gitch’) many things that I don’t agree with or approve of, but this wholesale hatred-cum-fear of hijab is one that baffles me.  Why do people feel the need to call hijabis names? (Towel head, ninja, fundamentalist, oppressed chick, nutcase etc. etc.) I mean what purpose does it serve?

I could go on and on about it, but I don’t have the answer and I don’t think ranting will suddenly inspire me to find it, so maybe it’s better to look somewhere closer to home and seek out understanding of issues I actually have a chance of comprehending on some level.

See, a few days ago I had a conversation with another woman about hijab (there were other women watching us but they didn’t do much more than smile nervously and perhaps feverishly pray things wouldn’t get ugly since we both have what you might call slightly aggressive characters).

Now, usually I back down when the other person gets too hostile and in-your-face, but this time it was about hijab!  And there are a few topics in the world on which I will always state my opinion – wilayat (successorship of Imam Ali (a)), azadaari (mourning the Tragedy of Kerbala) and hijab.

So we were discussing a children’s event and the question came up about whether it would be okay to have boys above the age of buloogh attend together with the girls.  Personally, when given a choice, I avoid this – especially for events that are for purely social/entertainment purposes.

Call me an old fuddy-duddy or a narrow-minded traditionalist if you want, but I’ve struggled with the concept of hijab for over a decade and I know I stand where I do based on what I’ve read, learnt and understood. (Remember, I did mention this was my opinion).

This sister didn’t seem to believe it when I said I’d rather we didn’t facilitate a mixed-gender crowd and what threw me totally was that she simply looked stunned and asked “Why?”  I was sitting there in silence while the eternal seconds ticked past and thinking ‘Huh? Isn’t it obvious? Why do you even have to ask such an obvious question?’

Then I realised that perhaps she just didn’t know where I was coming from and explaining was only a natural thing.  So I tried.  She didn’t ‘gitch’ it.  For some reason, she (and I’ve spoken to others like her before) seems to think that if you uphold the fact that Islam asks you to refrain from doing certain things in front of na-mahrams then that is synonymous with promoting that fact that Islam is oppressive against women and forbids them to do those things altogether.

I don’t know why it’s so difficult to understand that yes, you can jump out of a plane and go parachuting, yes, you can go scuba-diving and jet-sking and yes, you can go bungy-jumping if you want to as long as you’re not doing it in front of na-mahrams.

Of course, all the problems begin with that last statement, because the general response is: “But I am in my hijab!”   My response: “Depends on how you define hijab.”

It doesn’t make sense to me that hijab should be this small strip of cloth that you tie around your head as a license to do what you want, when you want and how you want.  Hijab is a concept.  It starts from action – like most Islamic concepts do – and with time and practice it’s supposed to mature into something higher, spiritual and more pure.

To me, hijab covers the tone of your voice when you speak and the choice of your words when you convey a message. It defines the manner of your carriage and the expression in your eyes when you look at someone. It curbs the freedom with which you smile and pout, the suggestion in your silence. It comes from within you and encompasses every aspect of your manner. The scarf is only the outward embodiment of your inner purity.

So when I want to do something, I ask myself: “The one person who observed hijab as it should be, the one woman who knew and understood this beautiful protection – Fatimah al- Zahra bint Muhammad (a) – what would she do in this situation?”

And honestly I can’t see her shouting across the street at a friend, giggling at silly jokes, picking up her cloak and running down a lane… even the suggestion of these is preposterous!

You may say that we’re not and can never be like Fatima al-Zahra (a). Or you may make that dismissive noise (like the sister did) which says “Hello, sis, be real.  We’re in the 21st Century and you’re bringing 1400 year old history up?”

I know we can never be like her, but wasn’t the essential purpose of her existence on this earth to set an example for us to emulate?  So, regardless of what others say, you’ll be so kind as to excuse me if the next time you meet me across the street, I don’t yell back as enthusiastically or dash across to give you a huge hug and then bounce around and express my enthusiasm in breathless shrieks.

Unless we’re in an only female-zone 🙂

Bint Ali

Current Saying:  
Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without denying his roots. 
– Frank A. Clark (1911-)

The Ghost That Just Won’t Rest

Every once in a while, my past catches up with my present. Not in any grand consequential manner, just memories that rush forward as if the dam of time had burst and let them free in waves.

My strongest recollections seem to be of my pre-teen years. I often think that soon after that, certain events changed the course of my life so deeply that I literally became a different person from the one I should have been.

When I was around 12 or 13, I see myself as a geeky, shy kid – one of those who blooms into a sophisticated intellectual in story books. Having wordsmith-blood in my veins I should have known better than to trust the tales, eh? 🙂 Apparently, I wasn’t meant to do the blooming bit (:P) Instead, some very bad choices knocked me off the path and onto another one that in hindsight I wish had been barricaded to prevent me from ever venturing down it.

When I look back, I often kick myself for being so, so stupid. Or maybe I was so inclined towards the intellectual, I kinda missed the basics. At 12 I could easily discuss quasars and black holes, but I couldn’t figure out social interaction norms. Which often meant that when people bullied me, I actually thought that was their ‘popular’ way of being nice and when they were nice to me, it passed through me like water through a sieve.

It’s taken me a decade to turn around and recapture the essence of that girl. I’ve lost much of her I know, but deep inside I’m still her. I just have to figure how to reconcile her with the current me. Rub off some of the facade and allow some of the inner-geekiness to come forth. 

But every time I seek her out, I can’t help but think how different things might have been. That girl was an intense person, perhaps too intense for a 12 year old. They call it precocious, but I’ve never liked the word much. She wasn’t worldly-wise, she was just clear. She knew what she could understand and feel, but rarely analysed it in those around her.

When I step into her body again (a neat, very helpful, trick that writers can do) the first thing I notice about me is how little my environment actually affected me. I have vivid, distinct memories of certain people and events, but only when it was me reacting to them. I never registered their reactions to me. It was my world and I lived in it alone.

Perhaps it was better that way. I can’t afford to think otherwise. Sure I missed a couple of wonderful opportunities, but then I missed a lot of pain and hurt too.

Maybe that’s why I remember those years so well. They were pure in every sense. Un-tainted, un-polluted, sincere and because of all that – passionate.

Woven in every memory of those days is one of a person who may never know how much he influenced my life, and still does.  Once in a while, you make a friend who exists beyond the dimension of time and space. Not someone you necessarily keep in touch with, but someone who captures the Essence of Friendship and traps it in their personality, so that you carry forward their ideal as that of what a companion should be.

My biggest mistake may have been not realising or consciously (I’m hoping I did unconsciously) making an effort to reciprocate that offer of friendship. And maybe my bigger mistake is holding onto that regret. After all one person’s dream maybe another’s forgotten illusion.

Am I remembered as well as I remember? Is my memory simply the work of an overactive, creative mind? Or that of a desperate need to have something to hold onto from the past?

I’m not so naive as to think that the images in my head are true to the actual past anymore. I’m sure the features I imagine are softened by time. Perhaps the actual words spoken, or the glances and expressions I see in hindsight, have been tinged with a certain rosy-ness.  I don’t mind that, it’s natural for memories to be smudged over with the generous hand of Time – especially when they grow to be over a decade old.

But every once in a while, the ghost begins to restlessly fidget and I wonder once again. Did I ever manage to make an impact in anyone’s life? I‘m willing to credit my friend with the ability to positively influence my life, but my pride asks for the same favour in return.

I only ever wrote one truly inspired poem in my life. You know, the kind that requires you to grab a pencil stub and a scrap of a napkin and then sit down on the steps of a public building, while people pass you by and give you odd stares as you scribble away on available bit of the paper to get the words down before they are lost.

That poem was forced from my memories. I’ve typed it out and saved it on my hard disk, but I haven’t read it since – partly because it’s too close for comfort and partly because it makes me wonder if I ever inspired anything remotely poetic in anyone.

Chances are I’ll never know. Despite the shrinking of the world, people tend to get lost in it. And when enough time passes by, they are held at bay by the fear of rejection.

Which is perhaps why I have this friend’s telephone number, but I know I will never pick up the phone and call.

Bint Ali
(once upon a memory a.k.a WhizKid)

Yo-Yo Soul

I’ve fallen victim to the oldest trick in the Devil’s toolbox. The yo-yo soul. You know how when Allah (SWT) warns us against our selves in the Qur’an?  Where He tells us so clearly, “Hey, I created you, I KNOW your tendencies” and we still think we can work around them. Yeah. That’s what I mean.

I always say that I’ll stick to one frame of mind and be transparent in my intentions and my feelings, but I always seem to get caught up in the opposite. When things go even slightly funny in my life, I’m rushing off to the prayer mat and reciting du’as with intensity and feeling.

And when the storm passes, my soul becomes lax (even though I know that it’s always the calm before the next spiritual-tornado hits).  I promise I’ll be different from now and although I do manage to keep reminding myself to be constantly grateful and constantly talking to Him, I can feel the relief letting me off the hook, when it shouldn’t.

My hope lies in the knowledge that He knows how fickle I am and He also knows that I’m working towards changing that – I guess I just wish I’d succeed a little faster. I feel so hypocritical sometimes when I come crawling back and begging for help, and I was so self-possessed just a little while before that.

What would I do if God wasn’t so Kind, so Merciful, so Accepting of all my flaws? I think Imam al-Sajjad (a) said it more perfectly than anyone could when he stated in his du’as, “O Allah, deal with me not as I deserve to be dealt with, but as it befits You to deal with me.”

Thank God for Himself.

Bint Ali

I’m a Wordsmith

Sometimes, when I sit down at the computer and start typing or when I wake up in the middle of the night to scribble something down on the notepad that is always next to my pillow, I’m amazed at the fact that I write.

And I mean that on every level. The very act of being able to put down on paper these funny strokes – some curly, some angled – and make sense out of them is one of the most fascinating things I have ever come across. That I have managed as a person to memorise so many combinations (and still add to them when I’m inspired) and that they actually provoke images and ideas in my head makes me go *wow*

I think verbs and adjectives tend to tingle my spine more than nouns do.  A tree is an image you visualise in your head and it’s also something you can walk out and have a good word-association look at. But descriptive words – those are another lot altogether, aren’t they?

Does magnificent touch the same nerves in your soul as it does in mine?  What about tantalizing? Do you get flabbergasted by the same things I do?  When do you consider something as shimmering and when does it glitter?  What lengths will you go to sacrifice something for someone and what depths of your heart do you reach into when you adore a person?

Much as we use these words to suggest certain emotional situations, I think at some level what a writer feels when they write a passage and what the reader senses from the same are very, very different. 

Sure, once in a while you get those magic combinations where a certain quote or paragraph or even entire story seems to grab almost everyone in the same place and at the same intensity. Those are the works of the ‘great writers’.

I don’t know how they achieve it, but I like to think that it’s because they go deeper within than other writers. So deep that they break down through the structure of their personal character and bias and reach into that essential spirit that is within all things human. They go past the distinctions and find the similarities that all people share – a soul.

And the voice of the soul is so pure and so connected to God that when one speaks, can others do anything but listen?  Yet not all writers seem able to hold onto this voice all the time. Some of their books are great, some are not.  So many of them cannot handle the process of bringing up these pearls from their inner depths and their psyches get worn out in the exercise.

Psychologists suggest that literary geniuses are made that way. They must suffer to find the right words and their suffering destroys them, but because they are writers, they are compelled to undertake the hunt anyway.  A cycle of self-destruction.

I don’t believe that.  Yes, the process of learning to listen to the soul is a hard one, but I think if you follow the right channels and prepare yourself for the experience then it makes you a stronger writer and a stronger person.

Once you begin to hear the true voice of the soul, then hearing the Voice of God is only a whisper away. And how can anything Divine be destructive?

Bint Ali

Current Saying:

“Words, when written, crystallise history; their very structure gives permanence to the unchangeable past.”
– Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Have I Lost It?

People lose things on a daily basis. Well, at least I think they do – because I do. I lose keys, pens, books, notes – sometimes even clothes, all in the space of 1.5 rooms. It’s not that I have too much junk (can anyone have too many books or too much yarn?) or that my rooms are a mess (I prefer the term ‘organised chaos’). It’s just that sometimes I put things down without realising that I even have them to begin with.

Today I had to face the prospect of a far more serious loss thought. I was reading this wonderfully wacky blog – Hijab Sans Frontiers – and I realised that I used to write like that – fast, fresh and off-beat. Where then did I turn off onto the more introspective route?

Have I lost my sense of humour?

I’ve always had a slightly odd definition of what I find funny. I’ve never ever been able to understand crude or what they call ‘boy’ humour – it just doesn’t tickle me and I sometimes find it slightly offensive. That’s probably why those children’s comedies just don’t do it for me.

On the other hand, I do find wit very, very appealing. If someone is witty and can manage it on the run, then I’m totally impressed.

Thing is, I know I used to be funny and witty – I have written pieces to prove it. But for some reason, I seem to have ‘toned it down’ – could it be a result of trying to be more acceptable? More feminine? More ‘Muslim’?

Or maybe it’s just age. That’s scary – has growing up and facing certain harsh facts made me less able to laugh at things? People say that those who can laugh at themselves and at life tend to be happier and live less stressful lives.

In contrast, so many traditions from the Aimmah (a) state that we should be taking this life seriously and not over-indulge in laughter. One of the signs of piety is not laughing too much.

The way I’m seeing it, the difference is between ‘laughter’ and ‘happiness’. If you are happy, you don’t necessarily laugh. Remember Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and how she knew she was happy rather than feeling it? I think Muslims can be perfectly happy and content without necessarily showing it clearly all the time.

Have I lost my sense of humour? I don’t know. I’m inclined to think that it’s metamorphosized into something different. What I do know, however, is that the quality of my life and perspective has improved and for that I’m willing to sacrifice a little wit’n’humour 🙂

Bint Ali

Current Saying:
The observance of three directions saves man from remorse: 
a) restraint from being hasty
b) consultation (with others) and
c) trust in Allah (SWT), the great and Glorious.
– Imam al-Jawad (a)