Women & Islam:

Is independence a state of mind?

Story Created: Sept 2, 2011 at 10:56 PM ECT

Story Updated: Sept 2, 2011 at 10:56 PM ECT

  This past week, our country celebrated its 49th year of Independence while our
Muslim brothers and sisters celebrated Eid.

  After viewing a programme depicting women in Middle Eastern countries who were
striving to be viewed as independent in terms of privileges and activities, I intertwined
the two ‘concepts’ mentally – both of the aforementioned calendar events.

  Reference to religion is usually a sensitive issue so let me preface by saying that this
article does not seek to denounce one’s religion in any way.

I spoke with two Muslim Trinidadian women who, although they practise their religion, they also seek to adjust some of what is ‘supposed to be’, choosing instead to be somewhat independent of some statutes. These are only two of thousands of women so these accounts, of course, do not represent the view of the masses.

The complex relationship between women and Islam is defined by both Islamic texts and the history and culture of the Muslim spheres. The majority of Muslim countries give women varying degrees of rights with regards to marriage, divorce, civil rights, legal status, dress codes, and education based on different interpretations.

Let us now focus on *Donna who is in her 20s. Born into a Catholic family, she actually converted to Islam four years ago. “I converted because the concept of ‘being one’ spoke to me. I love that Islam speaks of every aspect of living – from hygiene to praying. It is the clearest to me when it comes to what is right and wrong.”

Donna, like many Muslims, devotes her time to mosque visits and relevant activities. However, she does not do so without what may be considered a little spirit of wanton rebellion. What she does may be considered taboo among loyalists. Donna loves make-up and wears it and I am not just talking lip gloss or eyeliner. It’s the full works, from foundation to blush, and the brands of make-up aren’t cheap either. She only purchases the expensive brands. However her make-up is not overly done.

Then there is the fact that she braids her hair. If you didn’t know, that is forbidden. She explained, “As a Muslim woman, you’re not supposed to use any artificial products in your hair. Your hair should be maintained naturally. If anyone knew that I braid my hair, that will be one big, big bachannal,” she confessed.

Confused, I asked, “How is it that they don’t know?” In response, she laughed and continued, “I wear the hijab all of the time so they can’t see the braids. When I wanted to braid my hair, I asked other Muslim women about it and they basically said that it is frowned upon but if I do it, I’d have to hide it.”

An admitted girlie-girl, she even has manicures and pedicures done as often as she can. She is well put together, impeccable by most standards. Her decorum is in keeping with that of a ‘proper’ young woman who can be taken home to Momma.

With a soft-spoken voice, she even revealed that bright colours are a no-no in some sects.”The revert sects would usually wear earthy tones but not the pastels and other bright hues,” she said. She recalled an occasion where she learned that lesson the hard way.

“I attended an event either around Independence or Republic Day. Anyway, red happens to be my favourite colour so I made a red dress and wore brown accessories. Wow, that was trouble. Even though it was traditional Muslim garb, the fact that I wore red was a huge problem. I got a lot of negative comments for that.”

Speaking of negative things, did she encounter any difficulties with her conversion? “Learning the language was somewhat of a challenge but that is to be expected. Some friends couldn’t quite understand or accept my choice but I stuck with it because I believe in Islam.”

So now we concentrate on Fazeela who is a practising Muslim in her 40s. She grew up in a Muslim home and still holds true to her religion in marriage. However, she describes herself as “more Westernised” with certain things.

Said Fazeela, “I dress in a westernised way. I do not wear any traditional Muslim garb, just the normal shirt and pants or whatever. I do wear skirts that may expose my legs to some degree and yes, I do wear dresses with spaghetti straps. I see nothing wrong with that but people like to judge you. I don’t feel that I have to prove ‘how Muslim I am’ by wearing the Muslim garb. I grew up dressing like this and my mother and sisters are the same way. Even on the beach, I wear a swimsuit.”

Unflinchingly, she declared her personal views. “I do not eat pork and I don’t drink alcohol. I live a simple life. I do not always visit the mosque because of my work commitments but if I’m on vacation, I may attend. The thing is, when it comes down to it, I am a bona fide Muslim, doing what practically any Muslim would do. Strangely enough, many of my friends who are Muslim wear the traditional attire.”

On another note, “The only time I felt as if my independence was threatened, was when travelling to the United States, you are automatically a suspected terrorist, it seems. They see the surname and assume an attitude. Other than that, I am fine with traditional ways within my religion but I am also fine with my personal choices.”

Assessing the stories of both women, whom I would define as ‘normal’ intelligent individuals, it is clear that like many other religions, there are sometimes exceptions to the rules. I guess that many of us make adjustments and our own exceptions to the rules, whether we are Muslim, Catholic, Anglican or any other religion.

Time also seems to be a contributing factor to some of the changes being made across the board so there may be some things that end up being revised or compromised within reason, of course.

 * Name has been changed to maintain anonymity


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