After the Indian Supreme Court’s historic ruling to recognize the legal and constitutional rights of transgender citizens, I noticed many people express surprise at the fact that this comes not too long after the same court upheld a colonial-era law making homosexuality a crime. In the United States, at least, social acceptance of the L, G, and B in ‘LGBT’ has generally preceded that of trans individuals, and we take it for granted that justice progresses in this order (and that such justice is linear). I think that underneath the surprise at witnessing the inverse in India lies an assumption that Western gender structures are universal; besides this basic misunderstanding, a knowledge of colonization’s pervasive impact on regimes of gender and sexuality in colonized lands could also lead one to believe that such structures in the Indian subcontinent would more closely follow Western ones (the anti-gay law was an artifact of the British colonial system, after all). However, non-binary gender has already been recognized by the governments of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal as well, while homosexuality is illegal in all but the last. Although ideals enshrined in law do not necessarily always reflect the views of society or the reality of marginalized groups’ experiences, from these facts we can sense that gender and sexuality may be approached quite differently throughout South Asia as compared to Western societies.
When I heard about the ruling in India and how these rights would not be extended to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, I was reminded of something I learned not long ago about another country we know to be regressive on the issue—Iran.
Two weeks ago, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum addressed a crowd of students at the Foreign Affairs Symposium. His invitation was unwelcome to those aware of his views on LGBTQ issues, women’s rights, and—broadly speaking—science. However, one of the most disturbing aspects of his speech was his half-hour lecture on “Islam” and the Middle East, which was, by all informed accounts, profoundly inane. In a discursive climate already prone to gross distortions, stereotypes and omissions about Islam and the Muslim world, that this man was brought to speak authoritatively on “foreign affairs” should be taken seriously—especially given how Hopkins fails to provide students an adequate academic environment to seek alternative, reliable information.
Despite numerous complaints over the years about the lack of a Middle East Studies curriculum, this school still lacks any specialized Middle East Studies professor, let alone a coherent program. We offer an ample variety of courses on the U.S. and Europe, and programs in Latin American, Jewish, East Asian, and Africana Studies, yet for the region stretching between North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, there is nothing organized.
This semester I’m taking a class called “Anthropology of Poetry and Prayer” for which I’m currently reading Carl W. Ernst’s Sufism: An Introduction to the Mystical Tradition of Islam. More than anything I learned from the bulk of the content about Sufism specifically, I was especially struck by certain facts he relayed about history and scholarship on Islam in general. For example, in the Preface (pg. xvi):
The Arabic term islam itself was of relatively minor importance in classical theologies based on the Qur’an; it literally means submission to God, and it denotes the minimal external forms of compliance with religious duty. If one looks at the works of theologians such as the famous Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), the key term of religious identity is not islam but iman, or faith, and the one who possesses it is the mu’min or believer. Faith is one of the major topics of the Qur’an, mentioned hundreds of times in the sacred text. In comparison, islam is a relatively uncommon term of secondary importance; it only occurs eight times in the Qur’an. Since, however, the term islam had a derivative meaning relating to the community of those who have submitted to God, it became practically useful as a political boundary term, both to outsiders and to insiders who wished to draw lines around themselves.
I have never heard of this before; this shocks me both because I grew up in a Muslim household and attended Islamic Sunday school, where the idea of “Islam” as such in defining what we were learning was never questioned, but also because I’ve been studying Islam through anthropology for a while and have yet to come across this fact—and perhaps never would have if I hadn’t read this text. To be sure, the fact of a word meaning “submission” defining the religion was never significant to my interpretation of Islam to begin with. But it’s fascinating to consider the implications of that word, as opposed to others, coming to define the religion.
In my head and through conversations with others, I’ve written this post a thousand times.
Almost anyone who visits Israel knows to expect a relatively hard time at airport customs. Google the subject and you’ll find an abundance of information on preparing for the occasion, as well as many blog posts on the innumerable times when the process went terribly wrong. Generally, Israeli customs officers glimpse through your passport and ask a few questions about the purpose of your trip; then, you are finished and set free. But many people become subjected to extra measures taken in security’s name. I don’t want to downplay the diversity of ethnic/national categories from which the singled-out come, but the Internet will tell you very clearly: if you are Muslim or have a name that sounds Muslim (whatever that means), you’ll probably face much more trouble. Stay calm and just answer their questions, they say; if you’re here with good intentions, everything will be fine. If your passport has stamps from other Muslim or Arab countries, they’ll ask about that too—but just cooperate and you’ll be finished in no time.
For the majority, it actually is that simple. Take note: both Mark Rosenblum alone and previous Ibrahim Project trips have brought Muslim students to Israel, and they rarely faced difficulties entering the country. But too often, it results in horror stories that reveal the absurdity of the airport’s practices. Before our program began, I’d read stories of people who were subjected to hours of questioning, some even forced to open their email inboxes to ‘prove’ that they weren’t planning anything dubious. El Al Israel Airlines is also known for humiliatingprospective passengers. I figured that I would be okay, though—after all, I was with a group of five other students and two other adults, my passport was empty except for unsuspicious visas from Oman and the U.A.E., and I am an American-born U.S. citizen. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not dangerous, and I figured the Israeli authorities would easily see that too. Boy, was I wrong.
Our exploration of Dubai started in a traditional community that seemed out of place among the surrounding fast cars and glittering skyscrapers. This was al Bastakiya, one of Dubai’s oldest villages that has managed to preserve itself in the face of industrial expansion and development.
Before departing for Abu Dhabi, Mark made sure to give us a good briefing on the Emirates and the broader region. Disclaimer: this is generally the case, but I don’t mean to relay everything here as fact—it is largely Mark’s interpretation, and my own interpretation of his account of his interpretation—thus not only may I misrepresent something he’s said, but there are always alternative analyses of the complicated events still unfolding in the region. And oversimplifications may arise from both mine and Mark’s need to quickly summarize. Basically, I am still learning and trying to wrap my head around the important intricacies of Middle East politics, so forgive me (and correct me) if I get something wrong—and if you’ve interpreted events differently, please share your own thoughts. Anyways…
[Note: After a long hiatus for the fall semester, I am finally resuming writing about my experience this summer; what our group saw and learned is as pertinent as ever, but as I’ve mentioned I also write largely in order to consolidate my own memories. Thanks for reading!]
During our final morning in Oman, we had one last meeting—breakfast with Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Salmi, who works at the Ministry of Religious Affairs and is one of the leading experts on Muslim-Christian relationships in the Middle East. In our discussion about interfaith issues, Dr. Al-Salmi described how Oman’s Port of Sohar was once a “Gate to the Oriental,” facilitating interaction and trade between Oman and various other countries and cultures during medieval times. He noted how, at that time, the country used to have a Jewish population that is largely absent now—although there is still considerable diversity in terms of Muslim sects. He also claimed that the Muttrah souq is emblematic of Oman’s diversity, as its shop-owners come from a large variety of religious backgrounds.
The mountain at the top of which our hotel sat is called Al-Jabal Al-Akhdar, Arabic for “The Green Mountain.” After breakfast the next morning, we explored the area. It contains various villages, one of which we walked through: Al-‘Ayn. I took a LOT of pictures that day, and you can check out my Flickr if you’re interested in seeing the rest of these (or any other) photos—but I’ll just post the highlights here.
After the concentrated, constant influx of information we’d received the previous day, our next excursion felt like the perfect repose. On our second day in Oman, we drove further into the interior to have lunch with some students and faculty at the University of Nizwa. The first non-profit university in Oman, the University of Nizwa is almost eight years old now. It was initially put in the place of an old school, but is currently building a new campus in a different location. Aesthetically, I think the original campus will do, but the plans for the new campus look amazing too.
We were greeted by some faculty members, Amanda andBrian, who took us to the place where we’d be eating lunch: the “male cafeteria.” It was a little surprising to see that there were two different cafeterias for men and women here—it’s probably not an unusual occurrence, but I had never considered eating arrangements in an Islamic context before. Later we noticed that in many rooms there were also separate entrances for men and women. I don’t know the reasons behind this design, but I’m inferring that it’s pretty representative of the people’s religiosity—measures like this probably reduce mingling, or, for the entrances, unnecessary physical contact. I wonder how strictly this separateness is observed (has anyone dared to sit in the wrong cafeteria, or do some people use whichever entrance is most convenient?), and it’s possible this just exists to respect the wishes of the people who are more strictly observant. But the select group of female students that we met, who sat in the male cafeteria with us, were clearly willing to talk and open up to the boys in our group. Also, men and women still sit together in classrooms at the school—though that situation may be viewed differently, as the classroom is primarily for learning, and having men and women in the same classes probably assures that they get the same quality of education. And that’s great—I think that’s a very realistic, moderate application of those values.
As the baisa bus drove us to our next meeting, the rest of the students and I were a bit confused about what was happening. The itinerary wasn’t set in stone to begin with, but some things had just been moved around, leaving us pretty unaware about what to expect of our next stop. The driver pulled up to what looked like someone’s home—a very large home, at that—and we were greeted by an Omani man who gestured for us to come inside. Our eyes grew huge in amazement at the palace before us. I’ve seen many large homes and mansions, but this was practically royal in its grandeur. We later learned that we were sitting in the home of H.E. Sheikh Abdullah bin Salim Al-Rowas, a former minister in the Omani government. Joining us was Richard Baltimore, former U.S. Ambassador to Oman, and Jihan Abdullah Mohammed Al Lamki, a news anchor on Oman TV and member of the National Human Rights Commission (Jihan’s adorable son joined us as well). After introducing ourselves and enjoying a few fresh fruit smoothies, the other girls and I moved to the other side of the room to converse with Jihan.