Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Patriarchy the hijacker

Patriarchy is the worst hijacker of Islam, right up there with terrorism. And to think that a simple partition in a woman’s anatomy could be the real or imagined basis for horrific acts of violence is difficult to accept.

The Muslim male’s obsession with virginity, and by extrapolation chastity, plays out in conflict at the domestic level where fathers and brothers apply a standard to women that is flagrantly dichotomous. Muslim societies completely accept a young man dating, drinking and engaging in premarital sex. Some families just look the other way, in others it is open and accepted.

In the days of old chaste women were sequestered from prying male eyes. And now the tacit order remains in effect: female virginity can be proven and so it must be protected at all costs. Current day England is not free from honor killings or threats toward women. Afshan Azad a 22-year old actress in the Harry Potter movies has been assaulted and threatened by her brother and father in disapproval of her Hindu boyfriend.

Jamal Badawi in his book Gender Equity in Islam shatters patriarchal models as well as the propaganda that Muslim women are inferior to men. Most of all the distinction between equality and equity is brilliant.

Twenty years ago a young man in Pakistan was dining a young, brilliant corporate executive. Excitedly my mother persuaded him to propose to her. “No, no Auntie, one does not marry women like her, one just has fun with them” was the decimating answer.

This shameless patriarchy and double standard have become part of the genetic complement of the Muslim male. Contrary to Islamophobic hysteria, the only two points in which men and women are set apart, in Islam, is in the man being the head of the household and inheritance laws. The analogy of having only one CEO applies in terms of the head of the household issue. This is also part of the other Abrahamic faiths. Women in Islam inherit less than men as women are not required to share their earnings or wealth and when they become orphans, divorcees or widows they are deemed the financial responsibilities of first degree male relatives. If males do not fulfill their role here, it is their greed and irresponsibility; Islam cannot be bashed.

Spiritually men and women are treated as total equals and many a verse in the Quran addresses “the believing men and the believing women, the Muslim men and the Muslim women”. Men may not have physical proof of virginity but premarital sex and adultery carry the same punitive damages in the eyes of God, regardless of the gender of the perpetrator. That the reprehensible Hudood Ordinance and the deep corruption in Pakistan allow the man to go scot-free is an essay for another day.

Women outnumber men in Pakistan and somehow the number of marriageable Muslim women in North America also appears to outnumber male counterparts. This has served to strengthen patriarchy and deep hypocrisy in Muslim households. Men, even if they are drunks and nincompoops have a pick of the crème de la crème, while girls may have to weigh their options: go with a loser or witness the maddening inexorable ticking of the biological clock.

A strong premise in Islam is that of niyyah or intention. The reason for a Muslim man to sport a beard or a woman to wear the hijab may not be entirely a strong personal inclination toward Islam; it may well be multi-factorial.

But men seem to have this distorted sense that hijab equals holy. Some savvy families have latched on to the concept of market economics; knowing that the demand for hijab wearing girls seems higher attempts are made to increase market value by adorning the hijab. “I had to kick out my hijabi roommate because she wanted to bring her boyfriend to sleep over every third night when I was on call” said a disgusted young physician, adding that the hijab served as a great cover for the deep affectionate impressions he left on her neck.

Another manifestation of market economics melding with entrenched societal tradition is the effort to regain what has been lost. While the furious kill the one that stains their honor, other parents take no chances in ensuring that the necessary stain does occur on the wedding night and their daughter is not sent packing for promiscuity. Plastic surgeons in Egypt and Europe have been doing hymen reconstructions for young Muslim women for a while now.

Jamal Badawi repeatedly challenges Islamophobes to show to him which chapter or verse in the Quran speaks of 72 virgins promised in heaven for violent jihad. And yet out of context and weak Hadiths superimposed on tales of Western hegemony and imperialism are continually used to brainwash teenagers to make an explosive exit taking many with them.

And fair is fair. Deeply conservative and sexually uninitiated men wishing to marry their own kind should have every right to. But households where sons can come home at any hour, alcohol and drug use is no issue, premarital sex is considered grooming but daughters are monitored and cloistered, the expectation to marry a virgin half the man’s age is beyond reprehensible.

The most vital piece is educational and economic empowerment of women. Women must stop this cycle of abuse that they perpetuate against their own gender. The birth of a son is hailed and he is given preference in food, education and favors. These same women become economically and psychologically insecure mothers-in-law and generate horrific abuse toward the poor woman that sonny boy gets married to. And that daughter-in-law, herself marginally educated and disfavored, does the same to her daughters. And the cycle of abuse and disempowerment goes on.

“Say to the believing men and women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty” says Surah Nur (24:30, 24:31). Note that the exhortation is to both men and women-not to women alone.

Testosterone-infused patriarchs have knowingly and unconsciously vilified Islam and misinterpreted it to satisfy their virginity-obsessed lusts. To save family units, and indeed the world, a strong swift swipe must be made against the steel-webs of the mind. Either we accept promiscuity in our wives, daughters and daughters-in-law or work toward the simple standard of gender equity, spiritual and physical modesty. Either way, what’s good for the goose must be good for the gander.

Mahjabeen Islam is a columnist, family physician and addictionist. She can be reached at mahjabeen.islam@gmail.com

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Surging suicides in Pakistan

VIEW: Surging suicides in Pakistan —Dr Mahjabeen Islam

It is true that there have always been suicides and always will be, in any society. But to relegate it all to mental illness in current day Pakistan is representative of the mental insulation that typifies any party that acquires power
Fauzia Wahab, the PPP information secretary, and her government are fast becoming the Pakistani versions of Marie Antoinette. The Queen of Louis XVI of France, when told that the population could not afford bread, is reported to have said, “Then let them eat cake!”

Suicides are surging in Pakistan and now there is an increase in murder-suicides. Surviving relatives detail their financial desperation or crushing debt. And when fathers, like the rickshaw driver, poison their entire family and then kill themselves, it seems to take the whole nation’s breath away. The many stories are essentially the same, the characters and details a bit different. The refrain is invariably poverty and the frank inability to feed, clothe and shelter a family.

But Ms Wahab’s take is different. When asked about this issue, she felt that it was related to “despondency, mental illness and the media glorifying suicides”. She went on to say that “these people need to understand that there is no namaz-e-janaza for the one who commits suicide, that suicide is haram and that suicide is cowardice!”

This is a classic case of mental insulation; how can one live, drive, watch and hear and still not sense the screams of desperation of a populace? The poor kismet that I have of living thousands of miles away and just watching the news, even I can sense the pervasive economic desperation in Pakistan. It is adding insult to injury for the many dead of so many households that the powerful in Pakistan speak in such contemptuous terms of such a grave situation and offer no solutions except finger-wagging admonition.

The Quran does say in Surah Isra and Anam (17:31, 6:151), “Kill not your children for fear of want: We shall provide sustenance for them as well as for you: verily the killing of them is a great sin.” In the vicissitudes of life though, the most comforting is Surah Zumar (39:53): “Do not feel disconnected from the Mercy of God, for God is Oft-forgiving, Most-Merciful.”

And yet, to understand this sad scourge of suicides, one must understand that it is not abrupt but rather very slowly sequential. The onset of trouble is with a situational depression, precipitated in this case by economic burdens. The person tries to deal with it and if there is relief, the situational depression resolves. If there is none, the person’s depression progresses, thought processes start to fuzz out and major depression sets in. The hallmark of major depression is suicidal ideation.

It is only in the very early parts of a person’s emotional decline that they are able to understand and value the importance of Quranic injunctions and societal condemnation. After major depression sets in, the decline begins so precipitously that unless there is immediate removal of the precipitating factor as well as medical treatment of the depression, the person is liable to proceed down the path of suicide.

The actual rate of suicides in Pakistan is not available or accurate for suicides are not always reported due to the attendant shame. It is true that there have always been suicides and always will be, in any society. But to relegate it all to mental illness in current day Pakistan is representative of the mental insulation that typifies any party that acquires power. I have named it the ‘Kursi Syndrome’ in past articles; even if a Sufi acquired power in Pakistan they would become arrogant, delusional and disconnected from the very people that elected them.

Major depression, or like Ms Wahab puts it, “despondency”, is an equal opportunity disease. If, in their Marie Antoinette supercilious arrogance, the ruling elite seriously believes that they are somehow inured to the ravages of depression, or the turning of fortune, a reality check is immediately in order. It would be the ultimate irony if, God forbid, one of them had to be declined for a namaz-e-janaza.

The insensitivity of calling such a tremendous societal tragedy an act of “cowardice” is beyond my ability to condemn adequately, especially when the government has devoted more money to the war against terror than economic and educational uplift.

The dichotomy of the ultra-right in the face of these suicides is also sad. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and other similar groups brainwash teenagers to commit suicide, convincing them with perverse and unfounded logic of reward in the afterlife. In Islam, a male is classified as an adult when he comes of age biologically and a woman when she menstruates; and both at adulthood become responsible for their actions. “Killing one person is as if he has killed all of humanity,” (Surah Maidah 5:32) says in the Quran rather directly. And regardless of the brainwashing by men who themselves stay away from suicide vests, the young perpetrators of these heinous crimes are in full control of their mental faculties.

The only individuals who are exempted from accounting for their five daily prayers are the insane and mentally challenged. When a person has crossed over from the blues to major depression with psychosis, they would not be considered mentally competent in a worldly court of law. So what is one to think of the Oft-Forgiving and Most-Merciful?

Ijtihad, or re-interpretation of Islam in the light of modern knowledge, is dead. It is no wonder that religious scholars in Pakistan do not have the vaguest clue of what depression is except 'a weakness of faith’. The government gives monetary support to families of murder-suicides. Should not this monetary help have arrived sooner?

Rapid and effective economic and health relief needs to be provided to the people of Pakistan. Suicides as a whole are preventable and those based on financial desperation, completely so. Food, clothing, shelter, education and health are basic rights and need to be provided urgently and across the board. Human rights activist Tahira Abdullah said rather forebodingly: “Some of the hungry are committing suicide now. The government needs to fear the day when the rest of the hungry come onto the streets and demand justice.”

Mahjabeen Islam is a columnist, family physician and addictionist with a practice in Toledo Ohio. She can be reached at mahjabeen.islam@gmail.com