Sunday, November 11, 2007

If We Grow Old Alone...

I hoped to work on this a little more, so as to be a more presentable piece, but it's not happening. So here are my loose thoughts on a very broad topic:

The scene still haunts: an old Asian woman, tiny, frail, her back hunched over, a kind-looking face, digging in the trash cans of a San Francisco park. She must have been at least 70 years old, perhaps a mother, maybe a widow. She pushed a shopping cart in which she stored the bottles, cans, and recyclable items which she would then exchange for a few cents apiece.

While we sat in the park enjoying the community picnic, we saw four or five such elderly women foraging the trash bins. One of them looked self-consciously at us and other people in the park before putting her latex-gloved hands in the trash, ashamed.

The older I grow and the more of a "woman" I become, in terms of experiencing the various stages of a woman's life, the deeper my understanding of Islam's honoring, protecting, and empowerment of the female half of mankind. I always knew that Islam honored women, uplifted them and appreciated them, but the longer I live the more I am wordless to describe the harmony of this system with the human being's natural constitution. I am sure many other Muslim women journeying through life share that same realization.

The American discourse around the rights of Muslim women is largely dominated and addressed to the needs of the young, educated, middle-class population, only we don't see it. It is perfectly fine to discuss the rights of women with status, youth, and education, but some provisions in Islam just don't make sense unless they are considered from the viewpoint of all women and from the perspective of all stages in a woman's life. The presence of this discourse specific to our circumstances is good, but should not ignore the needs of all women.

Islam says to all women, "I don't care if you are elderly, poor, or unknown. I don't care if you are 15 years old or 90. I don't care if you had ten children, or none. I don't care if you are a businesswoman or are illiterate. I don't care if you are a divorcee, a widow, or unmarried. You do not need to be loved by a man to be valued. You, as a woman, are to be honored, respected, and provided for if you wish, and all society is responsible for ensuring that you are so."

Sometimes, we—and I'm assuming the few who will read this are American, educated, middle-class Muslims—look at Islam's provisions for women as overbearing. We go out of our way to demonstrate that a woman can work, that a woman is as competent in the workplace as a man, that she doesn't have to stay home with her children, that polygamy is not the norm in a society like ours. We forget that, for the overwhelming majority of women in the world, those provisions are life-savers and incredible sources of mercy and relief. Those provisions may not be the choice of every woman, but their existence in Islam is a source of empowerment for our gender, keeping women out of the dog-eat-dog struggle for survival alongside or against men.

I sometimes picture myself as a single mother, wondering what it's like for the millions of American mothers out there. Ya Allah, the job of motherhood is tough enough as it is, what if I had to play the role of breadwinner too? And then I imagine that I didn't graduate from college, that I didn't have a family to help me, that I was all alone—like most single moms. That I was forced to work a 12-hour workday at minimum wage, so that I could afford our rent in a dingy apartment and be able to pay the tuition at a dismal daycare with substandard health conditions. I could not watch my kids grow, nurture them, because I was so busy trying to feed them and clothe them. Because in her culture, it is survival of the fittest and no one, not even mothers or grandmothers, are entitled to more than any one else.

Most women are dealing with those issues. Many African American women don't marry period, because it is so difficult for them to find men who will care for them and provide for them (read this article from the Washington Post). Should women who are poor, unable to find a suitable husband for whatever reason, disabled, or widowed just give up on marriage and raising families? Or does Islam give them a way out?

By shifting our framework and forcing the discourse to take into consideration the situation of all people, maybe we can understand more deeply the way the Islamic system works for women. We can begin to appreciate that in Islam, a woman is entitled to provision by the closest male relative, and if he refuses, the government should take her right from him by force. If she has no relations, then providing for her becomes the responsibility of the state, which must ensure that she is safe, sheltered, and honored.

I know the Islamic system is not being implemented in totality anywhere in the world. But how comforting to know, that if it ever is, women would not be reduced to the situations they find themselves in today. And even within our daily lives, Islam intervenes to make sure we are living a full, valued, meaningful life. Islam's got your back, sista.