Closing the Cultural Gap—Focusing on Similarities Rather than Differences
By: Bazal Morani
So for those that don't know, I am an Ismaili Muslim and, like the Christian concept of Sunday school, we have religious education on Saturdays. Now the teachers are expected to go through training to ensure that we teach the students facts and accurate information, rather than opinions or perspectives. However, when I went into this training I realized that there was a fault in the training itself. Within teaching the facts, we somehow twisted the perspective based on emotional bias. When I was pitted against the trainer and the other teachers trying to explain my perspective, I felt something inside of me shift. The perspective you teach the students, regardless of the intent, does impact their view and emotional outlook on life because your emotional outlook on life will end up showing.
Now why am I mentioning this on my blog today and what does it have to do with anything? Well, as women we end up separating "our" problems with "their" problems based on race, culture, or ethnicity, thinking "Well, they don't know what I've been through." I want to take the time to build a bridge for that cultural divide, and yes I will be using religion as an example, so to my atheist readers please keep an open mind as you will also be included in these examples I promise.
Let's start with the concept of a religious leader. Each religion has a leader that guides their teachings and concepts...this is something we have in common. Atheists do not have a religious belief but they have a belief system all the same. Sufis speak directly to God and do not need a leader. Now why does this matter? Because it is important to see commonality and focus on those rather than differences. Some of my readers are already going on a tangent on how we are different and how dare I compare one with another, while others are already excited about listing all the things we have in common. You can tell which one you are by how you live your daily lives. In our training we were discussing the comparison of the Pope and our religious leader, Prince Aga Khan, and the question was are they similar or are they different. Everyone in the room said different and started listing all the things different about them. I, on the other hand said they were similar and that idea wasn't taken to kindly to. But you can judge my argument for yourself. Yes, the Pope is an appointed leader chosen for his position while Prince Aga Khan is chosen by his predecessor and comes from a lineage of family bloodline that trails back to Muhammad, back towards Ibrahim, all the way back to the very first Adam. But do we focus on this difference? Or should we focus on the fact that they both strive for pluralism, unity, and creating a better world for all people and not just for those that follow their religion? That one change in focus can make all the difference for a child and how they view others. Currently the world is separated due to religions teaching perspective of differences rather than similarities and Atheist are no better teaching problems within religion rather than problems within people.
Now my blog today is not about religion or is no way advocating a religious belief, but to make my point I will be using the examples as it is the best way to lead into the main conversation. Now what most people think of Islam is Muslims. However, in the Quran (the holy book of Muslims) it actually states the three pillars of Islam, and those being the three main monotheistic religions Christianity, Judaism and Muslims. Now monotheism is beyond simply believing in one God it is believing in one reality. In other words, the world and every individual soul within it is part of the same whole. We may be different and we may come from different cultures and different places, but we are still one and the same. There is no you without me and there is no me without you. So now with that perspective in mind let us ask this: When we bring each other down or try to hurt each other are we really hurting outside of ourselves or are we simply spreading the hurt further within ourselves instead of trying to heal the hurt that is already there?
Too deep? Ok, let's put a bookmark on that concept and move on to culture. My community is mainly of Pakistani and Indian heritage with some African heritage as well. Now, the problem with our international community is that, while our religious leader believes and advocates for women empowerment and leadership, our community as a whole is stuck in a traditionally old school mentality that women are always below men in status. Unfortunately, even in the US where things are far more progressive, you still see this occur. I was recently told that I was too intimidating for a woman because I know my own voice and speak up and know how to do my job well. Basically, because I show attributes of a leader, I am a problem to society. Which clearly doesn't bother me because I'm a proud feminist and don't mind making weak men squirm. But that's the point isn't it? The religion itself doesn't undermine women, the culture does. Now I am going to reference Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie and her TEDx talk "We Should All Be Feminists," because I believe it has the best examples. Keep her in mind though as I will be bringing her and her books up in a later blog as well.
Now one of the things she said that I found so interesting is that in Nigeria, the word "feminist" had a negative connotation, to the point where she had to clarify that she was a "feminist that didn't hate men," which was elaborated upon based on the fact that it was believed that feminism was against the African culture and so on and so on. The most interesting though was that even as a born and raised American, I could relate to this because in my own community I had faced the same push back. "Too loud, too proud, too strong, too opinionated," but unlike most people I was very lucky to have strong parents that encouraged me to be a feminist, to be my best self, to transform into the Queen I am today. But then she gave examples from her life story that sounded oddly familiar and recent. I will tell both stories together and tell me what you think. She mentioned that she was in Nigeria and went to dinner with a male friend. I too went to a restaurant with a male friend recently here in the US. The waiter ignored her and asked the male what they would be having and throughout the night would check with him to see if everything was alright, not ever addressing her directly. I too watched the waiter speak to my friend never addressing me directly or seeing if I needed anything or if everything was ok with me. At the end she was quite pleased with his service and chose to tip him. She took out her hard earned money from her purse and handed it to him. I too decided to pay and added the tip in to the check. The man ever so grateful turned to her male friend and said "Thank you sir" assuming that the money she pulled out from her purse had to have come from him. When the receipt was returned, the waiter turned to my male friend thanked him for the tip and asked if there was anything else he needed. Let me remind you that this was recent not years ago or in ancient times, this was today.
The reason I share these two stories is to compare two very different cultures with the same experience. We as women tend to break down each other comparing our scars, arguing who has been cut deeper and teach our kids the same inequalities and behaviorism. I will quote Pauline Holmes, the organizer of Queens and Future Queens, and say that we as women grow up feeling "displaced." We all have felt it and we raise the future generations feeling it as well. But what if we taught the boys better? Taught them to respect women, taught them HOW to treat women as equals rather than just telling them to? What if we set a BETTER example for our girls? What happens then? Revolution is beyond talking, it is acting upon what we believe. No more band aids on the problems, but let's actually mend the issues before they arise, let's start the lesson young so those issues we've faced growing up and as adults simply don't exist for our future generations.
Now I want to share an interesting story I learned not from my religious school but from Samina Ali, who spoke at another TEDx; she was addressing the beliefs of Muslim countries of suppressing women and regarding the Quran and its teachings. The most interesting thing she said was, and I paraphrase, "the men want to bring us back to the time of Mohammad, but his first wife was what we would now consider a CEO of her own company, and his second wife went into battle on a camel's back, fearless." Women weren't kept at home to please their husbands back then, they were not slaves to the men, they were more powerful thqn the women today, they were the ones that proposed and they were they ones that determined if they wanted divorce. She addressed the issue of dressing of women in the Quran stating that there are only 3 versus in the Quran on women, and not one mentions what specific parts of the body women must cover, in fact that was something interpreters added in later on. I will go deeper into this talk in my later blog.
But what does this have to do with culture? Well if the very bases of women's suppression is based on lies men made up and women blindly believed, what other injustices are we accepting for no other reason then because men said it was so? And why do they have a say in our rights and our lives? Is it not ours to decide? But readers tell me this, why do we let them get in our heads and why do we tear each other down?
The most natural and basic question in human nature is "Why." We ask this question as children more than 5,000 times a day and while that number is reduced as we get older, it still remains pretty high and if we count the times we silently ask it in our heads, I'm sure the number would be much higher. So let's ask that question—why do we bring each other down? why do we hurt others rather than helping them heal? Why can't we come together to help each other and the future generations to change the narrative? Why are we silent?
Do you have an answer? Here is another one... Why not start now? I want to end today's blog with a message one I hope came out loud and clear in what I said, Queens and Future Queens don't let society tear you down and don't become a part of the problem. Rise up and stand strong and hold the hands of your fellow women and help them rise up with you. We are stronger together. I had started off with the concept of monotheism and the idea that every individual is part of the same whole. Without me there is no you, without you there is no me. We are each the voices of the others and we each represent another. Are you representing what you believe or what others want you to believe. We are one and we will make a difference when we come together as one.
I will end with a quote from the book Dear Ijeawele or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: "Teach her the idea of 'gender roles' is absolute nonsense. Do not ever tell her that she should or should not do something because she is a girl. 'Because you are a girl' is never a reason for anything. Ever."