Saturday, 20 December 2014

Interfaith Education - Esha Chaman on Diwali and Christmas

The following is a piece by one my dear, dear friends Esha Chaman who, as well as being my university housemate both in Leicester and Italy, was also kind enough to give me my first taste of an interfaith event by inviting me to her own away-from-home Diwali party one year. Here she shares her reflections of interfaith events at school and how Diwali and Christmas have shaped her perspective on interfaith and inclusion:

One of my earliest memories of school is when I was five years-old and, at my teachers request, I had to stand in front of my classmates, clutching a purple and turquoise Pocahontas lunch box which my parents had given me the night before as a Diwali present. As I stood awkwardly before the eager-eyed group gathered in front of me, my teacher asked me questions about how I had celebrated Diwali with my family, in attempt to incite some enthusiasm. I replied casually but was secretly thinking about how much I wanted to prise open my new lunchbox. 

In retrospect this was the beginning of my interfaith education in both my primary and secondary education, recognising and celebrating other faiths and religious festivals which were normally outside the school curriculum. Though at the time my interest in informing my peers of the glittering delights of Diwali and Rama’s gallant rescue of Sita was outweighed by the juvenile excitement of my new present, being encouraged to do so was an act of interfaith inclusion of non-Christian festivals.

Thankfully interfaith interaction and inclusion were not only students nervously standing before their peers and mumbling being encouraged to share vague information about their religious festivals. It mostly took a pro-active form in cooking and sharing traditional treats on the school premises, creating decorations for events such as Christmas, Chinese New Year, Easter and Eid Al-Fitr, donating food to homeless shelters for Harvester, and partaking in theatrical productions of the Nativity play. 
One of the biggest events of the school year was International Day; an after-school festival celebrating the plurality of ethnicities and cultural diversity of the student population through dance, feasting, music, and shaky attempts of swirling Henna patterns on many hands which occasionally fell under my responsibility.

As both my West London-based primary and secondary schools were populated with a diverse mix of students of various ethnic origins and nationalities, interfaith inclusion was integral for showing respect towards everyone’s cultural and religious heritage. A conscious effort to recognise other religious and cultural events such as St George’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, Hanukkah, Vasaki and Thanksgiving would be marked by morning assemblies and the school kitchen rustling up themed feasts for the school lunch. The importance of encouraging interfaith interaction within schools at a young age lessens the risk of marginalising non-Christian students, and dissolves barriers that threaten to create segregating binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’. 
If Britain wants to boast about its triumphant multi-cultural society, the practice of interfaith inclusion outside of Religious Studies within British schools and recognising non-Christian religious festivals is one of the solutions to encourage a cohesive awareness and understanding of the diversity that surround us. Taking into consideration an endless list of extremist groups worldwide who disparagingly dismiss interfaith inclusion through their sheer tyranny, it has become more important than ever for different religious and humanistic communities to converge and integrate with each other in the face of such adversaries.

The legacy of traversing across religious and cultural borders at school has become a normality in my adulthood. And for me in particular the celebration of Christmas is a testament to this. Despite not being a Christian it is normal for me to celebrate Christmas as much as it is to celebrate Diwali. And this is due to the inclusion of the festival I had experienced at school, as well as my own family’s willingness to partake in the festivities and permitting me to do so. Though some people have sneered at this and questioned my eligibility to celebrate Christmas as a non-Christian, the fact is that Christmas in Britain has increasingly become an inclusive and secular event. Also, who could resist the infectious merriment and prospect of gorging on everything from cheese to mince pies? 
 At school the excitement of Christmas parties and the daily distribution of cards never eclipsed the religious significance of the event. Partaking in the Nativity Play and daily carolling were amongst many other ways of recognising the religious story of Christmas, as well as embracing the British celebratory traditions. My own participation in celebrating Christmas has inspired me to encourage interfaith integration in my celebrations of Diwali as an adult. In my last year at university, unable to join my family back in London, I hosted a Diwali party and spent it with my friends, most of whom were non-Hindu. And last year I invited a friend of mine to join me and my family for our annual Diwali celebrations.

My education gave me an everlasting understanding of interfaith inclusion and awareness of different faiths and cultures, which is integral to British society today where differences often take precedence of being pointed out rather than the similarities. The same celebratory principles of gathering with family and friends, sharing, feasting, giving in both a charitable sense as well as presents and jubilation are central to all major religious festivals. Therefore why should we be reluctant to participate in some way, however grand or minuscule the gesture may be? We should be encouraged to listen, learn and participate just as my peers were when I was five, and projects such as Interfaith Ramadan provide much-needed space for this dialogue and practice to take place.

Esha Chaman lives in London, and works freelance as an operator at Al-Jazeera and voluntary contributor for Words of Colour and The Culture Trip. She is a feminist, egalitarian, and culture and travel enthusiast, interested in social politics and international relations. Recent article: A Walk Around Bologna - The Best of Local Culture.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Reclaiming the Radical Feminism of the Qur'an

Several months ago, I came across a call for submissions by Trista Hendren to contribute to her upcoming anthology Whatever Works, an exploration of the relationships between feminism and faith in different traditions, including women's voices from Pagan, atheist, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. The following excerpt comes from my piece, an essay which explores areas where Muslim Feminism and Christian Feminism converge, the problem of complacency within the Muslim community, and why I consider the Qur'an to be a radically Feminist text. For the full text hop over to Trista's brilliant blog The Girl God.

“As a feminist, how could you willingly subject yourself to such a misogynistic religion?”

It's disheartening to think how many times I've been asked this question since I converted to Islam. However, given my own misgivings towards the status of women in Islam before I became one myself, I'm not completely surprised that some people think calling myself a Muslim Feminist is akin to being a meat-eating vegan. When the majority of Media representation shoehorns Muslim women into either victim or terrorist categories, persuading people that my feminist convictions are given wings by my Islamic faith, as opposed to being clipped by it, is going to be tough.

Feminism and faith have always been closely linked to one another in my mind. I was raised in a household where both of my parents were Protestant ministers and considered equals in their spiritual leadership roles as Salvation Army officers. I was surrounded and greatly influenced by women leading prayers, congregations, and even heading up the church on a national and global scale. Women leading the way in faith has always been my norm. So when I converted to Islam, I found myself at the receiving end of the question: why would you give all that up? 

For the full article, head on over to The Girl God blog.

Update: Later reposted at AltMuslimah. 

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Suraiya Jafari: An American President - An Interview with Author Cindy Moy

In celebration of the publication of Suraiya Jafari: An American President, I'm delighted to share an interview with author Cindy Moy. I was among the lucky few who were able to read advance copies of Moy's brilliant debut novel and offer my own endorsement on the dust-jacket,

"Moy places an American Muslim woman at the heart of a novel in which themes of nationality, gender and politics collide in providential ways. Worn out stereotypes and age-old predudices unravel as gutsy protagonist Suraiya weaves her own rich tapestry of identity, faith, and culture."

I'll be sharing a more detailed review later in the month but for now you can hear from the author herself as she speaks about the origins of the novel, the process of writing, as well as the inspirations behind her lively characters. 

Suraiya Jafari: An American President is available for purchase on Amazon. You can also have a sneak peek and find out more by reading both the prologue and first chapter of Suraiya Jafari on Cindy's blog

Author Cindy Moy

What led you to write Suraiya Jafari: An American President?

I was watching the election returns the night of the 2012 presidential election, when Barack Obama was seeking reelection and Mitt Romney was trying to get elected on the Republican ticket. As soon as Obama was declared the winner, the political commentators started debating who would be viable candidates for the 2016 presidential election. Could a woman, say Hillary Clinton, get elected? Was a Hispanic congressman such as Marco Rubio a viable candidate? 

Nobody was asking the question that I considered the most relevant: Who is the most qualified to lead the country?

I mentally created a character that would never be a viable candidate in America in 2016, and then figured out a way to get her into the White House. At that point, I hadn’t planned on writing a novel. It was purely an academic question for my own amusement. That character turned into Suraiya.

What were the most challenging aspects of writing your first novel?

When the idea of Suraiya first came to me, I pushed it away, thinking that there was no way that a white, Christian woman could ever realistically portray an American Muslim woman of Indian descent. Finally I realized that Suraiya is as much about the mindset of the mainstream American voter as it is about Suraiya.

I reached out to dozens of Muslim writers, artists, and leaders, but only a few chose to talk to me. I found a collection of essays written by American Muslim women, and those were very informative. I grew up in a conservative Christian environment. While reading those essays, I realized that many of the values regarding marriage, the role of women, and homosexuality was the same, although the religious basis for those views was different. Most people I know, regardless of religion, struggle to find the balance within their belief system. I had an Indian-American Muslim woman read the final draft, and she suggested a few tweaks, but she assured me that I had represented Suraiya well. 

Who or what inspired the main character Suraiya?

Suraiya is inspired by several people. Her personality and integrity are based on an Indian-American friend of mine from law school, Savita. Savita is one of the smartest, funniest, and kindest women I know. At first I was going to name the main character after her, but she told me that Savita is an Indian Hindi name, and that I needed an Indian Muslim name. That was my first inkling that my learning curve in creating the Jafaris was going to be very steep. It was Savita that came up with the name Suraiya Jafari. 

Suraiya’s family background in Africa is influenced by another Indian-American friend, Chux. He was born in Mozambique, and his first memory as a child is being in the internment camps there. Chux is also known for his avocado ice cream and masala chai recipes. Suraiya’s military career and initial political campaign is based on the 2008 campaign of J. Ashwin Madia, a Marine Corps lawyer who ran on the Democratic ticket. Many of the political attacks on Suraiya, including the darkening of her skin in her opponent’s campaign ads, really happened to Madia.

Are any of the storylines in the novel based on events or people in your own life?

My husband’s grandparents emigrated from China, my children were adopted from China, and my background is German and Scandinavian. Some of the questions that Suraiya gets about where she’s from or her native tongue are questions that my husband and kids have faced. The conversation about whether Suraiya should go to a college that offers free tuition to students of color is a conversation that we had in our own household.

The majority of the events that take in the book are based on real-life events from history. My background is in journalism and law, and my college minor was Political Science, so I had a solid foundation on which to begin my research. Suraiya’s political rise to the White House is directly based on the rise of former President Gerald Ford. Ford was a congressman from Michigan serving as the House Minority Leader when he was tapped to take over the vice presidency from Spiro Agnew, who was indicted on bribery charges in 1973. Before Ford moved into the vice president’s residence, President Richard Nixon resigned and Ford was sworn in as President. Suraiya’s service in Afghanistan, and the Christmas Day incident that cements her friendship with the younger soldiers, is a conglomeration of events that happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam.

The attempted coup is based on what is known in American history as the Business Plot, although historians disagree on how close the plan actually was to success. It was foiled by the most decorated Marine of that time, Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, who the industrialists tried to recruit to lead the coup. Butler gathered evidence against the conspirators, then alerted the Franklin Roosevelt administration of the plan. 

Have initial reactions to your novel surprised you?

I’m always surprised when people mention a scene from the book, and tell me that it’s too far-fetched to ever happen in real-life. The more preposterous the scenario, the more likely it is to be based on a real event.

Which character did you most enjoy bringing to life?

Cala Jafari, Suraiya’s mother, is the most wonderful character, because she embodies the maternal relationship we all strive to escape and emulate. Her temperament is based a bit on Madhuri Kumar, from The Kumars at No. 42, but the interactions come from my relationship with my own mom, who passed away while I was writing Suraiya.

Indian women always ask me how I managed to describe their relationships with their mothers so accurately, and I always get a chuckle out of that. The mother/daughter relationship is universally difficult.

What message/s would you like people to take from your work?

As voters, we like to put people in boxes. Democrat or Republican. Christian or Non-Christian. Pro-life or pro-choice. That creates an us versus them mentality, and no one wins in that situation. We are human beings, and humans are not so easily defined. We need to look beyond a few boxes to really get to know our family members, our neighbors, and our leaders. Only then will our ballot decisions be truly informed.

Alternate answer: You don’t have to be a white Christian male to be a hero!

What are your expectations for the book?

My hope is that people will get to know Suraiya and reconsider how they view people who are different from themselves. Readers who are Caucasian tell me that for the first time, they are aware of their use of the hyphen to describe people who are not white. Readers who are Muslim or Indian are happy that someone like them is portrayed as a leader and champion, rather than a terrorist or a victim.

Which authors or writers have inspired you in your writing?

I read mostly nonfiction, and am partial to historical biographies, which probably explains the shape of Suraiya’s story. As part of my research for Suraiya, I read Soldier Dead by Michael Sledge, about the recovery of soldiers’ remains. It was a difficult read, emotionally and mentally, and I thought Sledge gave the subject the respect and objectivity it deserved. When it comes to fiction, I like to get lost in detective novels that delve into why people behave the way that they do. P.D. James is especially brilliant at crawling around in the minds of her characters.

What are your current projects?

Before Suraiya, I was working on another novel, a screenplay, and a modern philosophy blog ( Then Suraiya rather consumed me, along with helping to take care of my mom during her illness. I managed to keep the blog going until the end of 2013. It’s still live, but I’m no longer adding posts.

Now I am back to the original novel, a farce about two badly behaved women searching for meaning in their families and careers. It is far more irreverent and profane than Suraiya. All the confines placed on women, by society and ourselves, get acerbically skewered. The main characters get to say all those things we think to ourselves but never say aloud for fear of offending others.

★ ★ ★

You can buy Cindy Moy's novel Suraiya Jafari: An American President via Amazon and you can get a flavour for the novel by reading both the prologue and first chapter of Suraiya Jafari on Cindy's blog
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