faith Posts

“It’s Not About the Burqa” edited by Mariam Khan

I am a woman, but I am also a Muslim and a person of colour, and these identities cannot be separated. I can’t set aside being a woman of colour when it comes to being a feminist and I can’t set aside being a Muslim woman when it comesto being a feminist.

It’s Not About the Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race is a superb collection of essays exploring what it means to be a Muslim woman today. The anthology has been edited by Mariam Khan. The idea was sparked off by British politician David Cameron’s comment in the Daily Telegraph which reported him to consider Muslim women to be traditionally submissive. It sparked off a Twitter storm where #TraditionallySubmissive quickly spread. While watching this annoyance unfold online, Mariam Khan realised she had to do something as she kept reading these perceptions “about” Muslim women. It resulted in this magnificent anthology. In her introduction Mariam Khan says:

It’s Not About the Burqa brings together Muslim women’s voices. It does not represent the experiences of every Muslim woman or claim to cover every single issue faced by Muslim women. It’s not possible to create that book. But this book is a start, a movement: we Muslim woman are reclaiming and rewriting our identity. Here are essays about the hijab* and wavering faith, about love and divorce, about queer identity, about sex, about the twin threats of a disapproving community and a racist country, and about how Islam and feminism go hand in hand. Every essay in this book is unfinished, because each one is the beginning of a very necessary conversation.

*It’s worth pointing out at this stage that though ‘hijab’ is now more commonly used to describe a scarf that covers the head, in the Quran, the word ‘hijab’ denotes ‘partition’ or ‘curtain’. ‘Hijab’ can also refer to a standard of modesty.

It’s Not About the Burqa is a magnificent book for the stories it shares are no different from any other feminist publication. The preoccupations of the contributors are like that of any other woman — challenges of being a single woman, voicing an honest opinion and facing the consequences of it, single parenting, childcare, sexuality, negotiating life while encountering patriarchal structures on a daily basis, cultural patriarchy and #MeToo. It even recognises the problematic challenges created by “Well-meaning feminists [who] are often the people who perpetuate an exclusionary feminism that centres their experience as universal.” Most importantly the contributors to this book do manage to address the ignorant remark made by David Cameron and one that is unfortunately echoed by many others too. The essayists do it magnificently by sharing their experiences and opinions. The essayists have strong voices that will resonate with many readers, not necessarily only Muslims. As Mona Eltahawy says in her essay upon discovering feminist books in her university library in Jeddah:

Those books were irresistible. And they terrified me. So much so that I would pick them up, read a few pages, put them down in fear and walk away, only to be drawn back again the next day. I was terrified because I knew on a visceral level that those books — that feminism — would unravel something that I needed, something that would change me forever.

It’s Not About the Burqa will do this for many more readers too.

5 June 2019

Elaine Pagels “Why Religion?: A Personal Story”

Renowned Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, Elaine Pagels Why Religion? is a moving memoir. It is not only an account on the devastating grief she experienced of losing her six-year-old son Mark and husband Heinz Pagels within a year of each other but also of her academic trajectory. A phenomenal academic Elaine Pagels is credited with groundbreaking work in Bible studies. She is one of the earliest scholars to have written on the discovery of the Gnostic gospels.

Why Religion is a memoir that is extremely moving particularly when she discusses the moments of intense pain and grief she experiences. And yet what is remarkable is how she pulls herself together as much as she is able to for the sake of her two younger children, even managing to complete the adoption process for her son David in the absence of Heinz, and making a career move to Princeton University.

She has been awarded some of the most prestigious grants — the Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Fellowships. And this for someone whose initial application to Harvard to do a PhD in the history of religion was rejected saying:

Ordinarily we would admit an applicant with your qualifications. However we are not able to offer a place in our doctoral program to a woman, since we have so many qualified applicants, and we are able to admit only seven to our doctoral program. In our experience, unfortunately, women students always have quit before completing the degree.

But the letter continued to say that if she was still “serious” about doing the course in the following year, the department would grant her admission. So she did.

Her interest in religion began after having visited a Billy Graham event when she was fifteen years old. She was a believer for about a year and a half but then quit it after losing one of her close friends, Paul, in a car accident. She bailed out of evangelical christianity after her friends came to offer their condolences but were unmoved about the incident after discovering Paul was a Jew and not a born again Christian and so he would be damned to hell. Elaine Pagels could not comprehend this as to her mind Jesus Christ was also a Jew.

There are many, many nuggets of wisdom she shares in her memoir. Never is she didactic in her tone but it gives much to think about. Given that she was the product of her times when women were being recognised as individuals in their own right and had much to contribute to society and of course academics, Pagels began questioning the very texts she was studying. Texts that she began to question as being a construct of their times imbued with patriarchy.

One of the earliest passages in the book is:

…the creation stories are old folk tales, they effectively communicate cultural values that taught us to “act like women”. Besides revealing how such traditions pressure us to act, these stories also taught us how to accept the role of women as “the second sex,” a phrase that Tertullian coined in the second century. The same Christian leaders whose scriptures censor feminine images of God campaigned to exclude women from positions of leadership, often hammering on the Bible’s divine sanction of men’s right to rule — views that most Christians have endorsed for thousands of years, and many still do.

This questioning spirit has kept her mentally agile. Consequently the body of work she has published has been pathbreaking not only for Bible studies but also how religious studies are meant to be viewed. She insists upon being a student of the history of cultures that uses faith as a tool to dissect and understand social structures through the ages. “Why Religion?” is also a critical question to be asked today when the world is increasingly polarised along communal lines, making this book even more relevant.

Here is a fascinating conversation with her recorded on 30 November 2018. Pagels is in conversation with Dr. Eric Motley, executive vice president at the Aspen Institute and author of the memoir Madison Park.

Why Religion? is a book that will move you irrespective of whether you are a Christian or not. This is meant to be read by all faiths and non-believers. It is meant for all readers — a fascinating testimony on a life well lived. A life that many folks, ordinary folks live — of living and believing in one’s faith and how these threads co-exist in one’s life, it is impossible to compartmentalise these aspects.

Read it.

3 Feb 2019

Further Reading:

Memories of Heinz Pagels by Jeremy Bernstein ( LRB, 3 January 2019)

After her son and husband died, Elaine Pagels wondered why religion survives” by Ron Charles ( Washington Post, 6 November 2018)

“The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses”

The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses is a nifty introduction to the prominent gods of the Hindu pantheon. It is a peppy reference to the gods and goddesses one encounters often in Hindu mythology. These are the ones such as Vishwakarma, Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Saraswati, Parvati, Lakshmi, Ganeshea, Hanuman, Durga and Kali whom one hears of often. There is a neat catalogue with short descriptions of the prominent gods and their avatars such as Shakti/Sati ( Durga, Kali and Meenakshi); Vishnu ( Matsaya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Rama, Krishna, Balrama, Kalki, Jagannatha ); Shiva ( Rudra, Bhairava, Nataraja, Lingam)  and Ardhanareshwari ( Shiva + Shakti). In the opening pages describing the Vedic gods the authors — Neelima P. Aryan and Ameya Nagarajan — have tried drawing parallels between the gods of Hindu and Greek mythology. For instance, Akash with Zeus — both are considered to be the father of gods. Each description is accompanied by a full-page illustration created in bright colours by Priyankar Gupta that are charming but have done little to break out of the mould created by Anant Pai decades ago.

The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses is the kind of book which will forever be in demand. It is a beautifully produced four-colour book printed on good art paper allowing for rich reading experience in print. A good production will also ensure that despite being flipped through often the book will withstand any rough use. Creating a reasonably priced book as an in-house department product by the Puffin team will definitely ensure a steady stream of revenue for the firm — a classic formula used often by other firms as well. It is also a fine example of sharp commissioning that straddles the hyper-local and diaspora markets.

Having said that there are a few more examples of illustrated books on the Hindu gods and goddesses that have proven to be extremely popular — Bhakti Mathur, Pixar’s Sanjay Patel‘s series, a wonderful series of cut out board books for children by Om Books editorial team and splendid books on Hanuman and Krishna by
Mala Dayal and on Shiva by Subhadra Sen Gupta published by Red Turtle.

Now for some enterprising publishing firm to create books on gods and goddesses of other religions as well. Puffin India, Juggernaut and Om Books have opened the innings with collection of stories from the Quran and the Bible with their retellings. Goodword books creates phenomenal Islamic books for children. In the past Penguin India had also published a beautiful anthology of greatest stories ever told from various faiths edited by Sampurna Chattarji ( 2004). Maybe it is time to revive some of the backlist publications once more.

16 March 2017 

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