The mindset of modern Muslimah
Weekender talks to four Muslim women who challenge the preconceptions about their religion.
By ROSE YASMIN KARIM
Countless films and literary works have been made to unveil the Muslim woman – but no, you don’t get many happy stories. More often than not, the women are relegated to the role of damsel under duress.
Muslim women aren’t homogenous, though. Some devoutly observe the pillars of Islam, others observe as many as they can and there are those who don’t at all.
Some leave nothing but their eyes uncovered, others wear brightly patterned pashminas, jeans, cropped jackets and tank tops. Some are still in shackles, others are done being rescued.
Four thirtysomething women share their views on being Muslim:
Sara Takieddin, 32
Freelance audio engineer/sound designer/musician
Annual income: RM29,540
A talented musician and devout Muslimah (Muslim woman), Sara is one woman who seems to have it all. Her music has been played at a church service in the US, an occasion she proudly cites as one of her highest accomplishments.
“It’s the most amazing thing because it shows that Muslims and Christians can coexist,” says Sara who dabbles in a fusion of different genres like rock and New Age.
“Lately, I’ve been into Islamic themes, with a twist of the New Age. My musical creations are inspired by Thikr (remembrance of Allah). I am also influenced by music from Evanescence, Carol King, Loreena McKennitt, Toshihiko Sahashi, Dawud Wharnsby Ali and Zara, just to name a few,” adds the musician who plays the keyboard and guitar.
Sara works from home, and her day begins in the wee hours while most are still tucked under their bed covers. Music is not her sole passion, though.
“Whenever I get the chance, I work with Palestinian refugees. Other than that, when there is war, I’d aid the refugees, for instance, in the Israeli war against Lebanon. I also volunteered to help the environment and plant trees. I sometimes offer my audio engineering skills if it is for the benefit of Islam,” says Sara.
Sara obtained her diploma in audio engineering from SAE Institute Malaysia.
“One thing I appreciate is variety, and Malaysia has a lot of that,” says Sara, who’s planning to spend her honeymoon here.
On what’s it’s like to be a woman in Syria, Sara says women, regardless of religion, have the freedom to do whatever they want as long it does not contradict social norms.
“However, this only applies when she’s single. The moment a women gets hitched, she loses a big chunk of her freedom and individuality, although I notice there seems to be an awakening within the newer generation. Women are treated equally – roughly. Salary-wise, it’s comparable.
“In Syria, I don’t think women are given all her Islamic rights, because the male-dominant culture is repackaged and labelled as Islam. In Islam, women enjoy certain privileges which men are deprived of. The man is responsible for the complete maintenance of his wife and family. All financial burdens are borne by him alone.
“In contrast, women have no financial responsibilities whatsoever, except for her personal expenses – for instance, should she wish to own luxurious things. She is also free to retain whatever she possesses before marriage,” Sara states.
Sara’s love life also mirrors her faith in Islam.
“I wouldn’t get involved in a relationship where I’m uncertain marriage is the aim. I’d rather have my family enquire about the man to determine whether he is a good person,” she says
If she is attracted to someone, Sara’s modus operandi is to get a third person to talk to the guy. This was how Sara and her fiance met.
“I told a friend to find a potential husband for me, and he did. Both of us already knew each other but had no idea the other was looking. Now we’re in love and soon to be married,” she reveals.
“After my partner and I tie the knot this June, we will be relocating to Los Angeles, California.”
In April 2005, Sara began to wear the hijab (head scarf).
“When I totally grasped the wisdom behind Islam’s command of wearing the hijab, I knew I couldn’t bear myself not wearing it,” she says.
When Sara needs to unwind, she enjoys soaking in her Jacuzzi.
“If I badly need to unwind, I read the Qur’an,” says this plucky lass who enjoys globe-trotting solo.
“I’ve been to Canada, Egypt, Lebanon, Switzerland, the UK and US. Next on my travel list is Turkey. I’ve been wanting to go there for a long time.”
Elham Gholami, 30
Customer Service Executive
Annual income: RM31,417
Today, very few Muslim countries adhere to the Islamic ideal in their treatment of women and place restrictions on women, something that has no grounds in the Quran, or the hadith, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad,” says Elham.
“Women are accorded different rights and privileges depending on the government and customs in the area,” she opines.
“Pakistani women have political rights but are often exploited by men. Saudi women have no public role, yet they are extremely protected by their families and government and are offered dowries, often very high ones, and are entitled to keep their own wealth,” says Elham.
“In Iran, it’s somewhere in the middle.
“Not everything Muslims do is based on religious principles. In its original state, Islam gave women privileges and didn’t impose double standards upon them.
“Muslim women are entitled to inheritance, and allowed to choose or refuse prospective husbands. But in some Muslim countries, their rights have been taken away.
“In Iran, we are free to educate ourselves and seek jobs, but we have to cover up, and this is a strict ruling especially in offices and universities. Still, to me, it is bearable,” she shrugs.
The Quran, says Elham, teaches that men and women are equal.
“The only thing that makes one person better than the other is his or her character. Islamic legislation has given women unprecedented status, even if some don’t always live up to these standards,” says Elham, who is optimistic about the future for women in Iran.
“It’s improving and I’m certain that conditions will get much better.”
When she’s not working, Elham paints and does yoga.
“A big portion of my salary goes towards fees for these classes. I attend yoga lessons twice a week and painting class once a week. I’ve been staying in the same house with my family for over 20 years, but I don’t know my neighbours very well.
“Before a girl marries, she must also obtain her father’s approval,” says Elham who is still single.
“I’m lucky my father allows me to do what I like, and I’m free to marry the man of my choice, as long as he is Muslim.”
Dating in Iran is frowned upon.
“A man and woman who date are punished, but a lot of young people do it although it is forbidden.”
Amina Jamal, 36
Annual income: RM 14,767
What is it like to be the only female in a multinational company?
“It’s not easy but it’s interesting,” says Amina.
“At times, my male colleagues don’t take me seriously, which is exasperating. I lead a team of 14, and some of the men under me have problems taking orders from a lady boss.”
Her colleagues are like an extended family to her.
“Half the time we are arguing about one thing or another, but it’s normally all in good spirit. I enter the workplace on my own terms and I am grateful to Allah and my family for it. If it wasn’t for my mother’s support, I would not have been able to work nights or at odd hours,” she explains.
Amina’s previous employment was with an American company, and her hours were from 5pm to 3am.
“The company’s clients are in New Zealand and Australia, thus the late shift. I didn’t get to see much of my family then. Now my hours are more reasonable. I start work at 2pm and leave the office by 10pm,” she says.
Amina’s family is used to not having her around when breaking fast during Ramadhan and celebrating Eid.
“They’re accustomed to it as it has been that way for the past seven years,” she says.
Amina says she enjoys dining out and trying new eateries.
“I have been to all the restaurants in Lahore and whenever a new one opens, I make a beeline for it with my friends. A highly recommended place for good food is at Mirchi on M M Alam Road. In the old city of Lahore, Cuku’s Cafe is worth a visit.
“If you eat on the topmost floor in the evening, you will get a breathtaking view of Badshahi Mosque across the road. The food is brought from neighbouring roadside restaurants and pulled up using a pulley system.”
Pakistan, Amina argues, has surpassed even the US in gender equality, in that it has had a female head of state.
“Women are allowed to drive, vote, attend co-educational universities and hold paying jobs,” she adds. However, there are areas where Pakistan’s treatment of women isn’t very Islamic.
“Women have no control over their own property and are usually accorded minimal dowries. The norm is that the bride’s family has to provide all sorts of gifts to the husband and his family,” she says. Because of this, a large number of girls aren’t married.
“Men in Pakistan prefer prospective brides to be well-off in order to get high dowries. These women are the ones more likely to get married.
“In Islam, the man is supposed to be the provider of his family. Women are not obliged to go out and earn. If she wants to, she can do so, provided the job does not jeopardise her sanctity, honour and grace. Around 20% of the labour force is female.
“Women are also employed in the armed forces, are members of National and Provincial assemblies and are made ministers. In very traditional areas though, women are dominated by men because of ignorance and illiteracy.
So what does Amina look for in a guy?
“He has to be educated, open-minded and financially strong,” says the holder of a master’s degree in English.
“I like reading books on contemporary religion, Islam, philosophy, history, biographies, comics and poetry. For ear candy, I enjoy bhangra, rock and roll, disco, Latin, and folk music.
“I like Red Earth products. My make-up staples are lipstick and eyeliner. When I go out, I put on brightly coloured shalwar kameez, the national dress of Pakistan.”
Amina has heard so much about Malaysia through her friends.
“They like it and say it is a modern country. I’m eager to visit it one day."
Nour Farouk Lambaz, 30
Annual income: RM48,705
Jordanian Nour has accumulated quite a number of stamps on her passport.
“I’ve travelled to Egypt, France, Germany, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, UK and US,” she says.
“Next on my travel list are Brazil, Croatia, Czech Republic, Iran, Italy, Lebanon and Mauritius.”
For the last 26 years Nour has been living with her family in a housing complex for Royal Jordanian Airlines employees in Amman. Her father is an artist and mother a teacher.
“When my family and I first moved here, the location seemed so far out. Now, Amman is growing rapidly and it no longer feels inaccessible. I like the area because it feels safe,” says Nour whose mother is Turkish and father Jordanian.
“My parents are practising Muslims. Both pray, fast, give zakat (alms) and perform the Haj. I try my best to pray five times a day, but I give out zakat, fast and hope that I too, God willing, will get to go to Mecca and fulfil the Haj one day.”
An archivist in a pan-Arab company, Nour is a stickler for detail.
“Because of the amount of sorting and listing I do, I’m trained to be organised and logical,” says Nour.
When she’s not busy cataloguing records and doing research, Nour treats herself to massages, facials, horseback riding, going on hikes and driving her car with some good music on.
“Horse riding classes are expensive, but it's worth every penny! I love the feeling when you're one with the horse. It makes me feel strong and able to go anywhere”
Nour has also been practising yoga for the past eight years.
“Yoga makes me stretch muscles I never knew existed,” says Nour who graduated from the University of Jordan with a Bachelor's degree in English Language and Literature.
In May this year, Nour will be getting married and she will be coming to Kuala Lumpur for her honeymoon.
“My family has given their consent. Although I make the final decision as to whom I marry, their opinion matters to me,” she says.
Speaking on the position of Muslim women, she says, “In most cases, when Muslim women are oppressed, it is by their men who are not very good Muslims. So it’s not Islam. Islam is a very fair and beautiful religion. It is the reason pagan Arabs became scholars at one point. It is the reason girls stopped being buried alive.
“In Jordan, we are moderate Muslims. But Muslim women, as well as Christian women, play a secondary role. Women are usually busy bringing up children. Men are the providers,” she explains.
Nour feels motherhood is one of the most important roles in society.
“Competent mothers who can run a warm and welcoming home and raise a family of happy, confident and well-disciplined children are becoming increasingly hard to come by.”
I find it strange too, judging from my own experience how low one 30 plus man's confidence compared to when they reach their so-called peak between 22 to 29. They (and so those typical malaysian ladies) have been setting in their mind that marriage and having family begin only when one is in their 20s. And if these 30plus malay men decided to marry, they will only look for those much, much younger girls and their female peers no longer in their quest list. So stupid some of them to think that women can only bear child when they are 29 and younger. A woman who has never given birth before would start to have some difficulties to conceive when they reach 40. However, with modern hi-tech medical and bio-engineering technologies, the impossibilities of the yesteryears can be denied or at least, much have been improved and so, such impossibility has reduced to almost nothing.
I am so glad to have known many 30-something single ladies in the malaysian blogosphere scene and they are still way cool and youthful, one would only imagine the gregarious Sex and The city girl or better to capture the idea of what they have become into. Mostly,it is about their exposure to the more wider horizon , being western educated and all that. Nevertheless, the local university graduates are also doing so much better in terms of embracing life as a single woman in their 30s.
And I also hope that once I marry, it will be mostly on fulfilling the other half of the sunnah nabi and with all the experience i have, marriage will be like a merge of two enterprises/empire or some sort of a consolidation. Sex is important and I am looking forward to doing it the halal way. I think I had enough of adding sins into my book.