If you look at Asra Q. Nomani as a human being, she is an outstanding success story. Born in Mumbai, she is today a respected journalist who has worked for publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times; she covered Pakistan in the aftermath of 9/11 for Salon.com; she was a visiting scholar at Brandeis University and a fellow at Yale. She was even portrayed by Archie Panjabi in the Angelina Jolie starrer, A Mighty Heart.
If you look at her through conservative Islamic eyes, she is a once-divorced Muslim woman guilty of zina, “illegal sex” i.e. sex outside the bonds of matrimony. The strongest evidence against her is her own son, Shibli Daneel, born to a Pakistani father who abandoned both mother and child because he deemed her too immoral to meet the standards of his family. After all, she slept with him.
The dichotomy appears so stark that it’s almost a no-brainer to say that she would have to choose one identity over the other: she’s either a working American mom or she’s a fallen Muslim woman. Between the two is a chasm with no resolution in sight. Nomani, however, did not feel inclined to let any one part of her wither and die.
Her book, Standing Alone in Mecca – A Pilgrimage into the Heart of Islam, is the result of her efforts to balance the two aspects of her life.
Nomani’s story begins in Mumbai in the 1960s when she migrated to the United States with her parents. Her scientist father and businesswoman mother were fairly liberal and the world was her oyster insofar as she allowed it to be. However, the immigrant experience is bound to have its problems and her earliest struggles were to stay faithful to her parents’ culture while growing up in another.
She went to college and became a journalist, she did not wear the hijab, traveled the world on her own and religion was not a strong force in her life. She had premarital sex and tried to be open about it to her mother. Along the way there were concessions: a natural athlete, she says she gave up her hopes of making the swim team because her conservative grandmother did not approve of the costume. She learnt to live with the segregation of men and women at the mosque and at informal gatherings. When the time came for her to marry, she turned her back on the white American man who loved her and chose a Muslim man of Pakistani origin instead because he was of the right culture and the right religion.
Then came 9/11, her assignment to Pakistan for Salon during the course of which she fell in love with the father of her son, and the kidnapping of her friend Daniel Pearl for the twin “crimes” of being born a Jew and an American.
Shocked by what she’d witnessed, pregnant and abandoned by the man who’d once swept her off her feet, Nomani returned to America and gave birth to a son she named Shibli Daneel in honor of her slain friend and the larger implications of the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den. Somewhere in this tumult came a need to examine her own faith, in God and the percepts of her religion. She decided she would go to Mecca.
Standing Alone in Mecca is the story of her trip, but it is also the story of a journey Muslim women have taken over millennia. It is the story of Hajar (Hagar), the slave girl who gave birth to a son of Abraham and was abandoned in the desert with her child. It is the story of women who travel all the way to Mecca for a pretty basic right: to stand equal before God.
If Nomani rambles a bit in her attempt to weave religious history, social commentary and personal narrative into one cohesive whole, I’m inclined to overlook it because it’s a good read that didn’t just give me a look into the life of a modern day Muslim woman but also made me feel included.
I don’t usually throw around words like “universal sisterhood” and I don’t think my strong reaction to her book can be solely explained by my gender – what Nomani does here is something a lot more complex than just ask for empathy. Instead, she relates her experiences with other cultures to the one in which she grew up.
She says her inspiration was the Dalai Lama – a chance encounter made her realize the value of understanding the alien in order to better appreciate the familiar. Nomani, whose first book was Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love, tries to relate her experiences with Islam to the larger experience that we have each had with religion.
Thus, when she writes of parties where everybody sits segregated according to gender, I know what she is talking about – and I can imagine the psychological effects of that invisible line between male and female. Some of us in South Asia still live with that kind of mental-turned-physical barrier, where there’s a distinctly male section and a female section when large groups gather – others have grown up in homes where the older generation, at least, practices this segregation. Her ability to make the reader relate is her strength.
Ever since the book came out and she joined hands with other Muslim women and activists such as Amina Wadud to buck the conservative trend in today’s Islam, she has been the target of death threats, abuse… and a lot of support. Her response? She came out with the Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Mosque, Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom and sicced the FBI onto the men who were sending her hate mail, trying to stifle her rights as a woman and a Muslim through intimidation when she used the Koran itself to bolster her arguments.
There is a story here beyond the hijab and the honor killings. If you only ever read one book on women in Islam, let it be this one.