“I have so many mixed feelings about this…Disclaimer… I love hijab…
I love my sisters… I respect quality work… Please discuss…”
These were the words of my friend and colleague Ridwan Adhami and my introduction to the now infamous video “Somewhere in America” video created by a group called Mipsters…
I recall replaying the video three or four times. The lush piano and deep strings drew me in. Words by Jay Z that I had before considered repetitive and mundane took on deeper life when matched with the visuals. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is pretty dope.” Perhaps it just struck a chord with my rebellious side, but the video also created internal conflicts which caused me to self reflect.
I did cringe when I heard cursing and reference to twerking. Not because Ive never listened to music
with profanity, but I wished better for the public representation of the sisters featured in the video. As a music producer myself, I believe in offering alternatives to what musicians like Jay Z stands for morally, despite how talented I think Jay Z is artistically.
You see, life is complex like that. And like life, art too can be complex. Art and life have layers; thus, any judgments we pass at first glance should be taken with a grain of salt. Once we learn the intent and story behind the art and life being judged, we can then, update and change our perceptions after we know better.
But these mixed feelings were ones I’d normally share with only a few friends, like those in Ridwan Adhami’s Facebook discussion. Because overall, the video was cool; it was a nice production. And knowing what I know about video editing and production, I knew it was most likely the director who made the final decision on the background music anyway.
As the Facebook discussion continued, I shared my thoughts on the video, sure this would be merely a light conversation amongst friends and colleagues. But there were points where I felt it got a little deeper. The famous fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, one of the many faces in the video itself, commented about the general tendency of Muslims toward “hating” as opposed to supporting the good. I remember replying and reassuring her that discussions like these were relatively harmless and allowed Muslims to express their concerns in a beneficial way.
But I was to learn I was wrong. Ibtihaj Muhammad had sensed what had already begun to take form—the unfolding of a social media nightmare. And, once again, Muslim women would become the scapegoats and the center of attention, while we(men) offered them nothing but our harsh judgment in the name of championing “Islamic behavior.”
And I would soon understand on a personal level just how horrific this was…
Six years ago was the first time I heard there was a problem with homelessness amongst Muslim women. Stunned at what I learned, I recall seeking out Asma Hanif, who at the time was tirelessly looking for any support she could find for the Muslim women’s homeless shelter. I recall listening to story after story about women seeking free medical care to heal from physical wounds suffered from attacks by their husbands. Women had been kicked out of their homes, and since these women had relied primarily on their husbands for income, they were in a serious crisis.
Asma Hanif shared with anyone who would listen, a 400 + page binder consisting of a plan and budget to help these women. At the time, she had no money and very little support for the project. She spoke of how the vast majority of men showed very little enthusiasm or interest. Some told her she was in over her head. She was told that shelter projects had been tried before but they were not sustainable. In a nut shell, the overall position of men on the issue of homeless and abused Muslim women was dismissive. This stance was crazy to me, and it was then that the inactivity and nonchalance of males in the wider Muslim community really caught my attention.
My studies of the Quran taught me that Muslim men are leaders and that our primary role is to protect our women and to assist them in maintaining dignity and respect. The Qur’an taught me that Allah Himself cared so much for women that He revealed verses in the Qur’an itself to clear up slander and attacks on the character of Ayesha, the beloved wife of the Prophet, peace be upon him. This story alone taught me how serious Allah was in His instruction to care for the dignity of women.
Before my conversations with Asma Hanif, I had taken for granted that other Muslim men understood this momentous responsibility as well. Ultimately, Allah blessed me with the opportunity to begin volunteering with her organization, Muslimat Al Nisaa to help with the mission of sheltering Muslim women in need.
As I witnessed the social media fiasco about the video “Somewhere in America,” I thought of my reflections and experiences these last 6 years. Imams who would send abused women back to their homes after the women pleaded for protection from physical abuse. I thought of Muslim leaders telling abused women, “Maybe you should stop annoying your husband.” I thought of all the women we picked up from hospitals—women beaten to the point where they needed assistance just to walk. These women were Pakistani, Syrian, Egyptian, Nigerian, Sudanese, African-American, Caucasian and more. Yet nearly all of them were dismissed by men who called themselves Muslim. And ultimately Asma Hanif, a woman, was working around the clock to fill a void men had left by not taking our commandment to maintain and protect seriously. Do we pick and choose only that which is convenient of what our lord asks of us? Then have the nerve to focus major energy and attention on the possible sins of the ones we’ve been assigned to protect?
I started paying more attention to “Islamic” lectures by men about women’s issues. I found it odd that I rarely heard anyone speak of psychological or spiritual abuse. During my travels, I observed more closely male-female interaction, specifically those who acted as strong practitioners of the religion. I interviewed accomplished women, and I listened closely to their stories.
Worldwide, women spoke of how they struggled to get basic human respect from men, especially from men with high status. The more status a man had, the women said, the more he was dismissive of women’s issues. In some predominantly Muslim countries, there were actual debates amongst Muslims scholars about whether they should address the sexual abuse of women by mandating that WOMEN adjust their already-Islamic dress, even going as far as to mandate that women cover their eyes or that young pre-puberty females wear full hijab, in order reduce the amount of fitnah that WOMEN CAUSED to men.
It was as if these women didn’t have souls to fight for themselves.
Thus, not only were these women responsible for their own personal struggles, they now—in the name of Islam—were responsible for the personal struggles of MEN!
Allah says in Surah 33 ayah 35:
“Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.”
In other words, both men and women are responsible for their own lives souls.
As the social media nightmare in response to “Somewhere in America” continued to unfold, I watched a “Muslim” culture that was apparently obsessed with women’s clothing and behavior while domestic tyranny continued to slowly at a snails pace, become worthy of being mentioned let alone passionately fought against.
Where was our compassion and our love. Where was our better judgement and foresight? We could speak all day with pride and puffed chests about specific rulings on women’s dress or whether or not women should appear on a video at all. But when real opportunities to show basic compassion presented themselves, we seemed dispassionate and disinterested. This certainly was NOT in the spirit of the Sunnah of the religion we claimed to uphold…
Perhaps our women feel the need to express their individuality because we haven’t cared about creating spaces that nurture their natural need for expression and self-actualization. Perhaps these women know we have failed them—psychologically, spiritually and physically.
Perhaps they know all too well that we will take every opportunity to put them down if they appear to violate something WE say they should be…
And maybe that was the significance of the background song itself.
Yes, in this social media fiasco, there were men who immediately jumped to the defense of the women in the video, and that should be noted. And overall I have observed a decent amount of men who genuinely care and show with their purses and their passion, that this issue is important. And may Allah preserve and protect them.
But as a collective group, we have shown very irresponsible behavior. We have a lot to say about what women need to do, but we are doing very little ourselves. It’s time to overhaul and rethink how we handle these matters, myself included.
As proven by the many articles written about the video, women have shown that they have the ability to intellectualize and critique their own matters. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe for a second that the arguments made on either side (for or against the video) could have been written by men as balanced and superbly as they were written by women. And maybe if I could say I’ve observed men jumping to the aid and defense of women in need with the same or more fervor than when we jump down their throats with criticism , I would be able to justify our critique as fair concern.
But it seems we(men) have lost the bigger picture. As men, it is not our job to rewrite (or revise) the solutions to the struggles of women, Allah has already done an expert job on that (as He has for the struggles of men). Rather it is our job to support our fellow believers—MAN or WOMAN—to develop their own relationship with Allah. The One WE ALL will ultimately have to meet ALONE.
In my view, a leader and protector has two primary roles: to create a physically, psychologically, and spiritually safe environment for those under that leadership, and to foster the ultimate independence of those under us should they CHOOSE independence over our leadership—or if we as leaders ever LOSE the ability to lead.
And right now, everywhere in the world, we are failing in this role.
Khalil Ismail is an award winning independent recording artist & record producer. He has traveled, spoken, and performed internationally connecting with the hearts of people of many faiths, and backgrounds. His universal appeal has landed appearances on Discovery Channel as the voice of one of its acclaimed series “the oddities” and he has shared the stage with artists such as Mos Def and Brother Ali. He’s charted as high as number 3 on independent radio, and landed producer credits on hit nasheed tracks such as Zain Bhikha’s “First We Need the Love” and “One God”.