What British Muslims Really Think: My Analysis

Firstly, I thank all those who have (and continue) to send me messages of support, following my appearance on Channel 4’s documentary “What British Muslims Really Think”. I appreciate this very much.

 A two hour interview reduced to a few seconds

In my opinion, my views on the topics raised in the documentary that I spoke on (polygamy and gender relations) were represented to a good extent, however it could have been extended further for this was only a snapshot of what was actually said by myself and my co-panellists (namely Hamza Andreas Tzortis, Amra Bone and Atif Nawaz).

The snapshot was part of a two-hour panel discussion on the issues raised in the documentary, which were discussed at a much greater length also including other topics which was not aired. One of those issues raised was gender separation. In this discussion, Trevor Phillips brought up the incident that happened at University College London, regarding the seating arrangements at a gender segregated event in 2013.

I mentioned that gender separation is something that indeed does have a basis in Islam, and how the understanding of gender segregation in the mind of Mr. Phillips and liberal society differs greatly to that of the Islam. The differences I highlighted were the fact that separate does not mean unequal, and that even within the wider society this separation occurs in various aspects of social life.

It is unfortunate that my points made and based upon orthodox Islamic teachings, were drowned out by the reformist voices complaining about being a “dying breed”, as if the breed were some WWF panda at risk of extinction.

 

 Muscular Integration and Liberal Inconsistencies

 “In my view, we have to adopt a far more muscular approach to integration than ever, replacing the failed policy of Multiculturalism.” – Trevor Phillips

Essentially, what Trevor means is that forced assimilation of the Muslim community is needed, which entails imbibing secular liberal values in place of Islamic values. In order to try and achieve this, it involves shaming the Muslim community into recanting their views and/or shaping these views to be in consensus with the opinions of secular liberal society. Of course one ought to raise an eyebrow at this suggestion for a myriad of reasons:

Firstly, considering that our society is a supposedly a liberal society, one of the tenets of liberalism is pluralism. Under pluralism this means you would have to tolerate people’s conceptions of a good life, and even allow these conceptions to flourish! Even if they are contrary to the prevailing norms of what society characterises as a good life, or in this case Trevor’s. Unification does not mean uniformity, and the key to achieving that unity amongst people is by accepting their differences. What Trevor has done is exposed the inconsistencies in liberal thought, liberal intolerance, and by default himself.

 

Second, the use of reformist voices from within the Muslim community is used to employ a divide and conquer strategy of Muslims.

Mr Phillips’ argument pretty much emphasised the fact that Muslims are different from the wider society, because Muslims hold more socially conservative views on issues that many in our society would hold with general liberality.

As Mr. Phillips prides himself on being a staunch liberal, this social conservatism of Muslim is heresy in a secular liberal society – therefore making Muslims “some distance away from the centre of gravity of everybody else’s”.  I find this problematic as the findings do not ONLY make Muslims “out of step” with the rest of Britain as Trevor may want people to believe. He could have equally conducted a similar survey on sections of religious communities such as: Roman Catholics, Mormons, Evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews, or any other religious minority. It is likely that outcomes of such surveys would produce similar results.

But of course Channel 4 would unlikely commission such a documentary to feature this as it wouldn’t be as newsworthy. Even if it did, it would be balanced with the spiritual benefits that religion brings to the individual.

In Mr. Phillips attempt to bridge the gap and close the ‘chasm’ between Muslims and the wider society, he’s failed abysmally instead alienating them and reinforcing a clash of civilisations narrative.

 

Final thoughts

The findings of the documentary served to only castigate Muslim for their views, and thereby place Muslims at a variance with British culture. Correspondingly, this can foster a climate of hate and fear to flourish and further the neo-conservative agenda intent on trying to reform Islam.

In order for Muslims to successfully counter these narratives, calls for reformation, and media scrutiny of our teachings and principles, this requires us to be unified and staunch in our faith and be unapologetically Muslim and practice our faith according to its teachings. This also includes each and every one of us, whether collectively or individually, making a voice for ourselves. One should never allow another to tell their story, because if they do, it is highly likely that it could be construed to your detriment.

 

Lastly, in engaging in discourse on Islam, Muslims and community cohesion this must come from a positive place not from the beginning point of Muslims being ‘the other’. Similarly it should not be born out of a preconceived notion (based on colonial undertones), that Muslims must conform to liberal thinking, and therefore need ‘civilising’.

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Hiatus

I have been away for sometimes, I admit that it has been ever so long since I blogged.

Over the last few months I have been involved so much in my work and been engaged in both personal and professional commitments. But not to worry! God willing, I shall be blogging more often and give you clips of my television appearance as well as posting my academic contentions on issues of debate.

Analysing World Hijab Day: Is it a form of Cultural and Religious Appropriation?

The 1st of February 2015 marked the world’s first “World Hijab Day”, with the aims to foster tolerance, interfaith dialogue and understanding to engage the wider society as to the daily trials and tribulations of Muslim women who experience Islamophobia due to observing the Islamic prescribed requirement of hijab. The idea for this day came from an American Muslim woman called Nazma Khan, in which she explained the reason as to why there was a need to create this day and campaign. It is common knowledge that for women who wear hijab, they are amongst the most vulnerable and are more likely to be victims of Islamophobic abuse in comparison to their male counterparts.

In the midst of the social media support that many have given for World Hijab Day, as exemplified in the numerous Facebook posts and hashtag Tweets trending the topic, it can make both the non-Muslim observer and fellow Muslims wonder as whether such day holds tenability in truly creating an understanding as to hardships endured by Muslim women. As much as one can sympathise and support the aims behind World Hijab Day, there are legitimate grounds for one to think that are elements of appropriation. Furthermore, this is an opinion shared by many, but voiced by few. In analysing World Hijab Day, it is in no way undermining the achievements of the campaign, neither is it a form of criticism. It is just simply exploring the other side of the coin: the alternative viewpoint others may have.

The first ground in which it could be argued that World Hijab Day does entail elements of appropriation would be the unrealistic results it may yield. Participating in such an event or practice in itself does not give you an authentic first-hand experience of the daily trials and tribulations that a veiled Muslim woman, (irrespective of race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic status) experiences just for wearing a hijab. Neither does it negate the fact that Islamophobic abuse, especially towards Muslim women, is a disconcerting and growing problem. Rather what would be more constructive would be to talk to a veiled Muslim woman (colloquially referred to a as a “hijabi”) and genuinely listen to her concerns, this would give a more valuable insight and understanding as to the realities of being a Muslim woman living in the West.

Additionally, for those who have been unfortunate in being a victim of Islamophobic abuse with all its emotional and psychological effects, why would such a person invite another to experience what this is like?                                                          In the instance that a non-Muslim participant in World Hijab Day incurs any Islamophobic abuse she could easily advance the excuse that she is just engaging in a social experiment, with the perpetrator backing off and perhaps apologising for ‘catching the wrong one’. Furthermore, the participant may equally appreciate the relief of not really being a Muslim woman and having to endure more abuse. Conversely, while the participant may have experienced what Islamophobia may entail, a Muslim woman may not be able to enjoy the same level of relief as she cannot deny being a Muslim but also because in the more than likely event the perpetrator of the attack would not stop their attack.

The effect that World Hijab Day may have upon the wider society, particularly in those living in Muslim minority countries, is that it diminishes the notion of hijab and the act of wearing it, to being something that can be casually worn by anybody any time they felt like doing so. It strips away the religious reverence it has and the reason as to why it is worn – because it is an act of worship (ibadah). By doing this, it may contribute to the ignorance that some members of society, and within the Muslim community, have about the hijab as a garment – further obscuring the lines of fact and fiction, culture and Islam. Although there is a margin of appreciation exercised for non-Muslim women and those Muslim women who do not wear hijab (and are considering wearing it on a permanent basis), the best way to find out first-hand what it is like is to not confine it just World Hijab day, but any other of the 364 days available in the year. If the intent is sincere and the consideration is one you have made for the sake of your Creator, surely you would not wait for one specific day to do this.

World Hijab Day arguably plays into the hands of Islamophobes and the never-ending media sensationalism of the hijab with its negative connotation to oppression. Have you not noticed how other faiths do not have an “[insert whatever faith related topic/issue or garment] World Day”?  Anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic hate crime is also another issue faced by members of the Jewish community (especially Orthodox Jews), yes, even in the 21st century Britain we reside in. But you do not see the men of the wider society dressing up in the Jewish tallit (shawl) or kippah (headcap) or the women in a tischel (headscarf) to gain an experience of those Jews who are recipients of anti-Semitism. The issue with this is that it breeds a culture of seeking validation in order for veiled women to be also seen as “normal” and therefore accepted by Western society. This exemplifies the idea of Muslims as being the “other” category – different by default.  The fact of the matter is that a veiled woman are just like any other woman; the difference is that she does not look to society to validate her choices of clothing; rather she seeks it from a higher power – despite being socially ostracised and receiving abuse for it.

The bottom line is that in order to gain an insight into the experiences of Muslim women, society is going to have to do more than have a World Hijab Day to understand the hardships and struggles endured. It is through active engagement and giving these women a platform to speak, as opposed to the media and other non-Muslim members of society telling them about the issues that affect them, that the problem really be tackled head on.

Piers Morgan & The “N” Word: Who can speak on the issue of race?

As I sit here pondering my life, my contempt for the recent decision in the Ferguson case, and whether I should have an extra slice of carrot cake before bed– I couldn’t help by contemplate the issue of race in America and the UK.  Recently the British journalist and television host Piers Morgan, made some contentious comments regarding the use of the “N” word being commonly used both on social media, entertainment and within society – especially amongst African-Americans. Before some people question as to whether I have standing in this issue, or whether I am “qualified” to give my two cents (or dirhams, pennies…whatever) on this topic, I’d like to state that indeed I am a black female and also Muslim. I guess I’m what my mother would call me “double jeopardy” (largely in her opinion regarding the stigma I’m likely to incur due to my race and religious identification/manifestation).

The “N” word is a word that bares so many connotations to me depending largely on context, both in the historical and contemporary sense. It is a word I know for certain my grandparents generation certainly wouldn’t have used, they didn’t know what rap music was and if they heard it they found it a nuisance.  The most plausible explanation is that people in Oman or Uganda don’t usually label people according to their race as they lived in a society that was not as multi-cultural like the Western Europe or the USA (people in those places identify by order of tribe. I have a tribe, but in the interest of not wanting to encourage nationalism or sectarianism I will not state this. Regrettably, it is a word that first I came to know by way of rap music and film during my early years prior to developing my knowledge of self and socially cognizant outlook on life – which I very actively promote.

In the light of Piers’ comments and the fierce criticism it has attracted, this has made me think of several issues within this storm along with questions, that Piers and many other people may not have asked or pondered. Of course these questions and the analysis that come packaged are subject to scrutiny and may spark debate – I’m ready for that:

Can you actually kill a word though?

Perhaps the amusing aspect to Piers Morgan’s suggestion is the notion that a word can be banned, eradicated or killed. One could easily beg to differ.

While I have a small margin of appreciation for the fact that some people (or even a majority of people in society) may find certain phrases and term socially undesirable, the “N” word, like any other racial, ethnic or sexually derogatory words is not one that can just be “killed” or phased out as and when Piers or any public figure pleases. Words are not like garbage that can easily be disposed of whenever one feels like it. I mean I couldn’t wake up one day and decide that a slang term or meaningless word should suddenly be banned irrespective of how compelling the reason is (well, perhaps in my own house or bedroom).

Words just like the views held by members of society are not something that can be changed overnight nor magically like the swish of a wand in Harry Potter; rather they have to go through socio-cultural evolution. This is where many people or the particular group acknowledge the history of the term, actualise the fact of and how it is degrading or offensive to the a specific person/group of people, and find measures to raise awareness and discourage its usage from the public domain – which may filter down to its non-usage in private settings. Such a process takes time to eventually discourage the usage, the example of the Afrikaans “K” word that was widely used by many white South Africans to disparage Black South Africans during the apartheid era, is an apt example of a word being gradually phased out using the above process – but even so, this has taken over two decades to be phased out. From this one can make the deduction that it is easier to change the institutions, labels and books but indeed it’s a battle to change the hearts and minds of a people.

Looking at the bigger picture: The role of the Corporations

The role of media and entertainment corporations is something that Piers Morgan (understandably) and some members of the public subconsciously (or out of financial expedience) ignore is the role that media and entertainment corporations play in the widespread usage of the “N” word. Again, by placing the burden of “killing” off the “N” word on black people, whilst dismissing the corporations’ role is looking at the situation very myopically.

Within the record company structures, the image often presented to the consumer is that the artists have full creative control over their content and have some level of influence under the label there are signed to. After all, it’s their music and artistry that generates money for the record label right? While this may have some elements of truth, nevertheless there has been some frugality on the part of the label. In the world where supply meets demand and business interests meet (and are subject to collision with morality and ethics), it is more lucrative and financially expedient to encourage an artist to write/produce music that glorifies violence, degradation of women, promotion secular liberal values and the manifestation of individual liberty etc.

Of course this is juxtaposed with the production of socially conscious music that encourages people to have self-knowledge and enjoin in the good, as exemplified in the disparity in media promotion given to contemporary stars such as Nicki Minaj and French Montana as opposed to the socially conscious artists such as Public Enemy, LowKey or M.I.A.

This is exacerbated by the fact that even in the acting industry; the portrayals of black people are usually ones that perpetuate stereotypes endorsed by largely white-owned media executives and directors along with actors, that give more weight to the size of their pay check than to the ramifications their depictions have upon members of the black community or the wider societal perception of blacks. Basically Piers, if you want the “N” to be banned from usage in the public domain, also make an appeal to the media companies and artists who give a platform such words to become common.

Does being white preclude a person(s) from participating in racially contentious discussions?

Being white should not be treated as an automatic ban or preclusion from engaging in discussions pertaining to race/ethnicity. I very much dislike the view (often held by some black supremacists and separatists) that white people should be barred from engaging with blacks on in issues affecting them. Such a mind-set does little to encourage cohesion and further widens the gap of understanding.

If anything, it is usually very helpful to engage with white people (who in many western countries are the ethnic majority) in gaining insight into how best to ameliorate the problem of racism, and foster a climate of peaceful coexistence in a racially and ethnically heterogeneous society. However with that being said, the comments made by Piers Morgan (albeit with the best of intentions) seems to only exemplify his lack of touch with everyday members of the African-American community – a demographic he fervently tries to “advise”. How? In explaining how Piers Morgan demonstrates the above, two points that are interlinked will have to be made here: white privilege and the attempt to absolve responsibility.

In addressing the issue of white privilege both in a general sense and specific to the proposal made by Piers Morgan, it is common knowledge (especially for people of colour) that whites incur many privileges upon the basis of their skin colour alone. This is seen in various aspects of life including education, employment, the criminal and civil justice system, media and travel – all of which filter and affect our perceptions and course of dealings with one another in both private and public settings, across various cultural contexts.

Homing in and relating this back to the topic at hand, due to Piers Morgan being a white, middle-class, middle-aged male, he incurs the benefits of not having to bear the brunt of racial superiority being exerted onto him nor the experience of being discriminated against due to his skin tone (whether systematically through oppressive government policies such as South Africa’s former apartheid system, Pre-Civil Rights America…or even colonialism!). Oh, and let’s not forget having to deal with the constant negative media portrayal of his race, culturally biased exams and school curriculum, stop and search/stop and frisk policies, living in low income neighbourhoods where crime rates, drug use and unemployment rates may be high – the list goes on.

Unfortunately, for many African-Americans living in the U.S. what I have just cited is a reality that many, especially those indoctrinated with the provincial view of American society espoused by Fox News, choose to ignore – because it serves as an opiate to placate the sensitivities of those who are not victims of such circumstances.

Furthermore, in Piers suggesting that “If black Americans want the N-word to die, they will have to kill it themselves” this only serves to alienate and irritate many members of this demographic – in turn, earning more criticism. Predictably albeit unintentionally, the likes of Bill Maher, Elizabeth Hasselbeck and Bill O’Reilly et al. will likely twerk to this tune as this suggestion is a poor and unviable attempt evade the guilt and accountability from the those that invented and used the “N” word as means of asserting racial superiority and dehumanising an entire race, and place the burden of policing the “N” word on Blacks who try reclaim the word from its oppressively negative connotation to one of empowerment. In other words Piers is absurdly attempting to place the onus on African-Americans (and the Black global community as a whole) to police a word that we didn’t want ourselves, rather foisted upon us by an inherent and systematically racist society.

For Piers Morgan, a white male who has never had to bear the brunt of such a term being used to denigrate his self-worth, nor the brunt of racism or the negative experiences that faces many African-Americans, to advise that black people should be responsible for “killing off” the N word reeks of hypocrisy and white-saviour-complex under the façade of “advice”. That’s like me advising members of the Indo-Pakistani community in the UK on the issue of the “P” word! That’s absurd!

The question as to if any success has been achieved in making the “N” word one of empowerment, endearment or in any way less threatening is not the issue here, and if this discussion is to take place, it is preferable that it is done in a way that is balanced and fair instead of being one-sided attributing the burden of responsibility to a particular group of people.

When Compromising Becomes the Norm….

Under the banner of secularism, some members of the Muslim community (both in the West and also in parts of the Muslim World) have been made to compromise irrefutable principles, rulings and teachings of Islam in order seek acceptance from Western society and appear “open-minded”. This inferiority complex not only exacerbates the social situation of the Muslims, but also reinforces the Orientalist narrative. It reaffirms the commonly held notion propagated through the media and by secular governments, that Islam is inferior to Western world-views and ways of life. Among the greatest challenges that stares in face of many Muslims, especially those raising children in these very strange times, is how to win the hearts and minds of our children and remain steadfast despite the demonisation incurred. Seeking knowledge with a view to implement, imbibing Islamic values and knowledge of one’s self are among the many ways in which the Islamic identity can be correct preserved and remain free of any impurities. 

Can I touch it? Erm… : The Hair Conversations and the Politicisation of Black Hair

“Can I touch it?”, “Oh my God, your hair is so nappy!!”, “Wow *awkwardly smiles/fascinated stare* your hair is so different – I want an afro!”…or “Does the drapes….”  (There are other questions one can be asked, but due to Islamic etiquette I refuse to divulge the entirety of those questions).

These are among the many questions received by many black women and girls (including myself) at some point in their lives by a non-black peer, colleague or person generally interested in “the unknown”. Such individuals manifest an often genuine degree of fascination and feelings of shock and awe when analysing afro-textured hair. Of course in some instances, some people (normally those who exhibit a lack of home training in having regard for one’s personal space) may demonstrate the type of courage (rather ignorance/stupidity) you can’t get from a bottle of Jack Daniels and actually go there i.e. proceeding to touch, feel and quite frankly molest the hair of the afro-textured haired person in question. In some cases, albeit not all, this can occur with or without the permission of the recipient. Although, it is understandable that Caucasian and other non-black people of colour may have a well-meaning sense of curiosity with a hair type that is radically different to their own. These instances, in addition to the unintentional/intention comments made are forms of micro-aggressions, which can serve to alienate such groups from black people. As a result, hindering the efforts made to foster understanding and cohesion.

While the latter experience of touching a person’s hair without permission may not be particularly common in the UK, nevertheless it is an issue that is part of a wider conversation pertaining to the Eurocentric notions of beauty, race and the challenges they present to minority groups.

The politics and never-ending phenomena of Black hair (and at large the image of black women) is something that is contentious and often arouses feelings ranging from anger and frustration to joy and confusion – and all shades in between. The topic has been discussed by many cultural critics, black feminists and image activists including Michaela Angela Davis (not to be confused with the Black Panther member Angela Davis) and Professor Melissa Harris-Perry. The topic was even the subject of the 2009 documentary by comedian Chris Rock entitled “Good Hair”. Furthermore, black hair has gained mainstream international media attention when in 2013 South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma urged African women to embrace natural hairstyles, and back in 2009 when  US President Obama’s 11-year-old daughter, Malia Obama, incurred negative reactions because she wore her hair in natural African twists while accompanying her family on a visit to Italy.

In order to understand how and why this is an issue to be explored and discussed, one cannot talk about the politics of black hair without putting the conceptions and notions of beauty under the microscope.

Why y’all so touchy?

Caucasian and non-black people of colour often wonder as to why hair is such a contentious issue in the black community. It is fathomable when assessing the situation on a superficial level, the subject of hair is something that is ordinarily considered quite trivial in comparison to bigger problems plaguing society as a whole and their respective communities. However, in deciphering the issue, it may be sensible to start with a quote to put things into context:

 “It’s amazing that it’s considered revolutionary to wear my hair the way it grows out of my head!” Tracie Thoms (actress).

Historically speaking, black people and their hair has long been an issue dating back as far as the days of slavery in which a slave who had physical features that resembled that of their Caucasian master was in some cases favoured in terms of receiving an education and spared from doing backbreaking menial work under the sun, compared to the slave that most resembled black African ancestry. Since then, the phrase “good hair” which has its roots in being used as a survival term, is commonly used today to denote the preference, along with the constantly promulgated notion of long, straight, silky hair being made a socially acceptable norm (at the expense of kinky, afro-textured hair being socially rejected). In turn, many black women and girls opt for the use of a relaxer made of chemicals that straighten the hair to fulfil the ideal of having “good hair” with children as young as six being subjected to regular treatments. For those that choose to wear their natural hair in styles such as an afro, twists or dreadlocks, they may have to endure negative stereotypes attributed to such styles, e.g. the notion of those who wear dreadlocks being synonymous with recreational marijuana usage or the afro being tantamount to “setting off the revolution” – with reference to the civil rights activists such as Angela Davis from the Black Panthers.

Of course these stereotypes are wrong and correspondingly, this has a profoundly negative effect upon black women and young girls growing up in a Western, Eurocentric society in which tells them, whether overtly or covertly, that their form of beauty is not highly valued. This culminates in many having an inferiority complex as to their race, heritage and place in the world. Many Children’s books, television shows and toys such as Barbie perpetuate the narrative of Eurocentric superiority in beauty, and even when Barbie did have a black doll called Christie – she had long straight jet black hair that resembled that of an Oriental or Indo-Pakistani woman as opposed to a sub-Saharan African girl! Where was her afro? Or twists or locks?! At least give a variation.

To add insult to injury, when I recall my days as a child I also struggled to find a doll that resembled myself – the fact that I was (and still am) overweight and black made the search all the more difficult in my quest to find that elusive “fat black doll”. However, in the end I did find my doll and to this day I still keep it as a reminder of the various types of beauty that exist – but also the refusal for the society I live in to accept natural African hairstyles and fuller figured women as also encompassing the many notions of beauty.

It is easy to look at the issue simplistically and point fingers at certain people, corporations and/or society as whole etc., but doing so would just be that: simple. The problem is much deeper, and by pointing fingers and not postulating ideas to solve the problem, one just engrossed in this sad and confidence-waning cycle.

My black is beautiful, so when did I cease to become black?

Questions relating to black hair are not helped when dividing opinions permeate within the black community, namely between two groups: those who are “pro natural” (those that advocate and opt to wear their hair in its natural state, also known as the “natural hair movement”) and those who choose not to wear their hair in the natural state (i.e. the way in which their hair grows out of their hair, for example weaves, wigs, chemically straightening). It is argued by some in the former category (and by some conservative non-black social commentators) that wearing hair in its natural state shows pride and acceptance in one’s racial and ethnic identity, with claims also asserted by some who are pro-natural that the altering of hair from its natural state may constitute the denial of one’s racial or ethnic identity. Such arguments presented can often be regarded as reductive as there are a range of reasons why an individual opts to present themselves in the way that they do, and in turn should not feel obliged to justify this to the rest of society.

The issue is not how one chooses to wear their hair (or whether one’s hair is store bought or naturally grown) but rather the idea that black racial and ethnic identities are only limited to one type of way or look. This is completely wrong as black hair is not one monolithic type; rather it represents a range of fashion styles, lengths, levels of versatility and textures – and yes, this includes extensions. One doesn’t stop being black because they have a weave or lace-front wig nor does one become “more black” because you wear sport an Afro or dreadlocks with a dashiki shirt, rather this contributes to disunity within the black community at large and does help in the quest for unity.

Where beauty and blackness are concerned, black women constantly find themselves in a position where they have to fight and defend to the rest of society why their features should be legitimised and accepted. For me as a black woman, I find it disconcerting that something as trivial as the way my hair grows out of my head is considered defiant or “revolutionary”. What makes this situation more disheartening is that anti-blackness, shadeism, colourism, sectarianism and nationalism are all forms of mental colonialism that continue to permeate within the Muslim Community.

It is until Black women and other non-black women of colour emancipate themselves from the shackles of mental colonialism by starting to accept, embrace and promote their natural beauty by abstaining from using terms that normalise inferiority and self-hatred emanating from their past, that the struggle for promotion and acknowledgement within Western society will get easier.

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For those who are unfamiliar with the terms used in this piece. Here’s a brief glossary:

Good hair = A popular term in the black community (most especially African-American community), used to describe an black person’s hair that closely resembles the hair of a typical white person (i.e. soft, manageable, long, as opposed to “nappy” or “bad” hair). The closer your hair is to a white person’s, the “better” your hair is.

Nappy = tightly coiled / curled unaltered hair. Coiled hair in its natural state

Non-black people of Colour (NBoPoC) = people who belong to racial/ethnic groups that are neither Black nor Caucasian i.e. people who are Latino, Middle Eastern/Arab, Indo-Pakistani Asian, Oriental Asian, mixed race (be this mixed black and white or otherwise) or any group in the “other” category.

People of colour (PoC) = normally and mainly used to mean black people (African or Afro-Carribean), although one could count non-black and non-Caucasian racial/ethnic groups as being also people of colour.

Relaxer/Perm = a creamy substance made from hydrochloric acid and other alkhalis. For the most part it is applied mainly on Afro-textured hair in order to chemically straighten the hair. Another name for the relaxer is called a perm. Thus permed or relaxed hair is hair that is chemically straightened.

The Unspeakable: HIV/AIDS in the Muslim Community

The health issue of HIV and AIDS is generally one that evokes emotion amongst those affected, their families and the wider society. Similarly, it is not one of the topics, themes or issues I usually discuss (perhaps due to its highly personal nature). This topic is especially sensitive and considered a cultural taboo by some members of the Muslim community, which is largely due to the stigma and stereotypes attached to those who are living with HIV. The unwillingness to discuss this issue may result in some sufferers hiding from their loved ones the fact that they have the virus – in turn living with the disease in silence.

HIV is an acronym for Human Immunodeficiency Virus; it is a virus that weakens the body’s defence system impeding it from being able to successfully fight infections and diseases. It is the virus that exists in bodily fluids such as blood, vaginal discharge and semen which leads to AIDS. AIDS is acronym for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, in which the person who has developed AIDS is affected by certain infections and cancers because their body’s defences are weakened. According to statistics from the UNAIDS Global Project (2013), in the MENA (Middle East & North Africa) 260,000 are living with HIV in which 3,000 of new diagnoses are amongst children. In South & South East Asia there are 3.9 million people living which HIV positive with 21,000 new HIV diagnoses amongst children, and 222,000 AIDS-related deaths.

Contrary to popular misconceptions regarding HIV, one will not be infected with the HIV virus through everyday actions such as: handshaking, sneezing, coughing, sharing cutlery and crockery nor kissing. Rather HIV can be obtained through more intimate contact such as from an infected mother to her baby (womb, through breastfeeding or during labour), unprotected sex or through sharing unsterilised injection equipment. Likewise it is a disease that is not limited to people who are homosexual, those who are heterosexual can also be capable of contracting the virus.  

 

Why HIV/AIDS is not discussed much within the Muslim community?

Generally speaking sexual matters are not something that is widely and openly discussed within the Muslim community for a plethora of reasons, but the main reasons are due to cultural sensitivities and cultural perceptions of modesty as opposed to Islam as a religion.

Under the guise of causing “controversy”, “temptation” or “distress”, there has been reluctance amongst some members of the Muslim community to discuss sexual matters such as HIV that affect Muslims not just in the Muslim world, but also here in the UK. This does nothing to ameliorate the condition of those who suffer from the virus, but rather fosters a climate of fear, desolation and apprehension to manifest, therefore making it harder for those vulnerable to gain support and medical help. While it is accepted that when discussing intimate matters such as sexual health modesty should be ensured, this should not be used as a shield to restrict people from giving attention to such issues in order to placate the cultural sensitivities of a few. Additionally, stigmatising and developing a judgmental attitude towards those who have contracted HIV does little to give them support – by judging these people you do not define them, but rather yourself. Within the community it is unfortunate that some people have just about as much sympathy as a school of piranhas, it seems that the Islamic teachings of mercy and compassion as exemplified in the character of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) may have slipped their memory and practice.

Modesty in Islam does not negate the discussion of intimate and sexual matters. Evidence for this can be seen within the life and ways of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), in which both men and women alike did not feel embarrassed in discussing sexual matters and personal hygiene issues in order to obtain beneficial knowledge. During the times of the Prophet, there were instances where women would come to the Prophet in private regarding personal matters pertaining to menstruation and female personal hygiene. The Prophet (pbuh) has said, “Blessed are the women of the Ansar (citizens of Madinah): shyness did not stand in their way for seeking knowledge about their religion.” (Bukhari & Muslim)

 

What can the Muslim Community to help?

Although Islamic teachings make sexual contact between married couples permissible, one should not be oblivious or develop selective amnesia to the fact that there are people within the British Muslim community who are not as practicing in comparison to others. There are Muslims that have premarital and extramarital relationships. These practices are apparent and they do occur, such actions are contrary to Islamic practice and should be abhorred. In our behaviour towards Muslims living with HIV and AIDS we should show compassion towards these individuals, and should not be shun, condemn or socially ostracise them. In helping those affected, further information can and should be provided to their loved ones and the wider community on ways to support them medically, spiritually and emotionally so they also can feel part of the Muslim community. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once said: “It is compassion which Allah has placed in the hearts of His slaves, Allah is Compassionate only to those among His slaves who are compassionate (to others).”

Education amongst members of the Muslim community, especially amongst the elders, would be immensely beneficial in dispelling misconceptions concerning those with HIV but also gaining a generational understanding – perhaps in their time it was a virus not widespread. Additionally there should also be appeals made to Muslim religious community and public figures such as scholars, speakers and imams in raising the much needed awareness as to those living with HIV and AIDS through their lectures and publications.

As the issue is something that cannot be hidden, it is only hoped that by initiating discussion and actively supporting those affected that the situation can be alleviated – unless we initiate dialogue the cycle continues.