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Women in light of Ramadan

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

By Mirna Wabi-Sabi

Arbaeen procession, mostly observed by Shiites, which make up about 15% of the nearly 2 billion Muslims of the world. Photo by Mostafa Meraji in Mehran, Iran (2019).

In light of Ramadan, there are some considerations any non-Muslim can greatly benefit from. I have had very little experience with Muslims growing up in Brazil, the U.S. and the Netherlands. Learning about Islam has shined a light on several behaviors of mine I never realized were Christian. In the west, including places which are heavily colonized and aspire to westernize, like Brazil, Christianity is subtly omnipresent. We often take for granted how religious all our institutions and norms are, from the way we dress to the calendars and alphabets we use (pg. 418-421). Acknowledging the religious roots of these norms is helpful for anyone who wants to improve the social conditions in their own communities in westernizing, non-Muslim countries, because these Christian norms often are as oppressive as Islamic norms are perceived to be.

“As oppressive as” is tricky. Oppression takes many forms, and there is little use in ranking them. But it is possible that something we see every day looks less oppressive than something we almost never see in real life. There is oppression that becomes normalized, and we mistake that for it being “less oppressive”.

The hijab, for instance. In Brazil it is a rarity. Most Brazilians don’t know the difference between a hijab and a burka, and they see all of it as a symbol of female oppression. This is true for people across the right-left political spectrum. It’s hard to imagine these views being held by people who coexist in real life with happy, well-adjusted, hijab-wearing women in Brazil. Yes, it is possible, these women exist. And upon minimal further inspection, one would realize that feelings of unhappiness or lack of adjustment stem mostly from economic insecurity, which often stems from racist reactions to their hijabs — not from the religion or the hijab itself.

Mariam Chami, a Muslim Brazilian woman, which gained well over half a million followers on Instagram by fighting Islamophobia with humor.

Either way, aren’t all women sometimes unhappy and ill-adjusted? At one point or another, we deal with difficult relationships with others, with our spirituality, with work or with our sense of independence. We have much more in common with eastern women than we realize, and much to learn from each other.

The discussion around women’s head coverings and modesty can resonate with any woman, anywhere. As a woman in a westernized context, it’s impossible to avoid considering the level of modesty of our clothing every single time we dress. We do it so much, we do it automatically, without realizing. There is careful consideration about where we will be, how we will get there, and how much skin is “appropriate” for each step of the way. And by appropriate, I mean, how much to cover and in which context, literally due to fear for our safety (or as statements of defiance).

In the West, women are, at one point or another, on a spectrum between getting too much attention of the sexual nature, and not feeling desirable enough. So much of a woman’s value in the west is based on how sexually desirable she is, because our worth happens to often be proportionate to that of the men we are associated with. This is an oppressive paradigm we aren’t conscious of, or at least not as conscious as we are of hijabs and other head coverings when we see them. It may very well be us who are the toxic influence, as the west’s oppressive obsessions with objectifying women’s bodies, hyper sexualization of girls and luxurious plastic surgery are seeping into the Muslim world.

When I think of the values and practices of worship of Muslim people in general, I think of the unscrupulous behavior of so-called Christian men I encounter every day, and how hypocritical it is for western women to judge one more harshly than the other. Once I noticed an Uber driver staring at my cleavage then starting to ask me questions to see how drunk I was. People’s response to this story, including my own, was to never get in an Uber alone, drunk, with too much skin showing. We do this because it’s easier to control our own behavior than the behavior of strange men (when taking no control isn’t an option).

It’s not just the clothes, it’s also the obsession with alcohol. So many social interactions somehow revolve around having alcoholic drinks. And involve being exposed to music that can be less than pleasant, if not outright offensive.

Brazilian Carnaval is the ultimate indulgence in indecency, alcohol and provocative music. In religious theory, Carnaval is a pre-lent celebration, which is meant to be followed by an observance of how Jesus fasted in the desert and resisted all sorts of temptation. We celebrate that by dialing all temptations up to eleven. The word Carnaval even comes from the Latin Carnis levare, meaning to “turn away from the flesh”. Clearly, we take that and do the exact opposite.

The last Globeleza, name given to the “mascot” of broadcasted Carnaval. The tradition did not survive the pandemic due to accusations of sexism and racism upon its attempted return this year.

There is something special to refraining from music and alcohol, and beginning to dress modestly. It imposes a shift in paradigm and may force us to look at things that are perhaps more authentic in ourselves. How are we really feeling? Do we want to be in this place, with these people? What do we want in life, and what are our values?

There is power in music, drugs and clothing — Spiritual power. There is a reason for prayer and chants. There is a reason for religious dietary restrictions and sacred hallucinogenic substances. There is significance in religious garments. These may not hold meaning for everyone equally, but they have endured as practices for millennia in pretty much all human-occupied corners of the planet.

If we take a moment through fasting and prayer, or abstaining from music, drugs and alcohol, this moment may connect us to something a bit truer about ourselves — what do we worship? We all worship something, whether we are conscious of its divine nature or not.

To broadly state Islam is oppressive implies there is no room for Muslims in a world envisioned as equitable. This rhetoric implicitly aims to legitimize the extermination of a major, non-western segment of the world population, in a literal or epistemological sense. And ethnic or religious extermination is sort of an integral part of fascism.

Muslims are as diverse as Christians and have as much the right to practice their faith as we have the right to crack down on vile abuses of power which permeate all segments of society, everywhere in the world. Perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves how we can make room for Muslims in an equitable society. How to make room for all epistemological traditions to flourish into new eras.

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