Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Traditional Muslim Women

“Why do your disciples disobey our age-old traditions?” they demanded…Matthew 15:2a

Before arriving in Canada from Saudi Arabia for her husband's one year medical fellowship Hawa would not have envisioned she would ever leave the house without her abaya and niqab, greet men or look them directly in the eye, open the blinds in her kitchen, or learn how to drive. Her mother, grandmother and aunties all wear the niqab. Contrary to what westerners think Hawa is fond of her niqab because a sense of security, protection from unwanted male advances, and anonymity are felt. It is a cherished tradition carried on by the generations in her family. Stability is craved more than freedom. Fear of the unknown which is a by-product of freedom is frightening. I watched her slowly break free of some of her cherished cultural traditions. The blinds opened, she greeted my husband after a few months, learned how to drive, and wore only an abaya and hijab, not the niqab.  When she arrived in the west her husband asked her to remove the niqab and wear just a hijab and abaya. It was stressful as this was Hawa's first time going outside the home without having her face covered. Her extended family chose some of these cultural traditions even though the Qur'an does not spell them out directly.

There are some very positive qualities that come with being traditional. The more traditional a woman lives the more likely she will not be working outside the home, although it does happen. There is more time for hospitality, a value that Hawa loves and upholds diligently. When guests come she loves to show off her cooking skills and feels comfortable with men and women eating in separate rooms. The tradition of gender segregation makes her feel at ease. Hawa likes the way women are honored by secluding them from the public eye. She can depend on her husband to take her for doctor appointments and is relieved with not having to make independent decisions which is interpreted that her husband loves and takes care of her. In our minds Fatima wearing her outer traditional clothes for the public arena may be perceived as a woman who is oppressed and does not have any fun. But in reality she loves fashion and enjoys wearing the latest trends at women’s parties. We might be surprised how much she is in touch with women on her iPhone and searches the internet for information, movies, and pop culture music. Being traditional is not synonymous with being ignorant. It may seem like the traditional Muslim woman lives in two very opposite worlds and maybe so, but it seems she knows how to operate between them comfortably. It has not been easy for me to minister among traditional Muslim women because I am not very traditional.

The problem comes when religious questions arise. Tradition dictates that questions are not welcomed. Fatima, formerly a traditional Somali Muslim woman, met some Christians who helped her in her desperate need. Questions about the Christian faith arose. Today she is following Christ but she continues to struggle to break free of certain traditions. She is confused how to be a follower of Jesus and remain Somali. Which traditions should she leave or keep? What is a Somali cultural tradition and what is an Islamic tradition? Traditions gave her a strong sense of stability. Making even the smallest change has been stressful for Fatima. Yet the Holy Spirit is helping her to understand one day at a time. A new identity in Christ is slowly being formed. When we read the Gospels we can see that Jesus Christ understood the powerful hold of religious and cultural traditions among the Jews and how to speak into them. He is also speaking to Fatima about them.

Dear heavenly Father, there is no one too difficult for you to reach! Hallelujah. Amen.