Muslim Women Keep the Faith While Travelling — and Ziplining — Around The World
Markazi Refugee Camp, Djibouti - Hafsa* Says She Feels Trapped.
Meiliana Verdict Demonstrates Blasphemy Law's 'Injustice toward Minorities'
Compiled by New Age Islam News Bureau
Muslim Women Keep the Faith While Travelling — And Ziplining — Around The World
23 August 2018
by Kristin E. Holmes
Yes, Muslim women do have fun.
The notion that they don't, that their faith dictates a nearly cloistered life, was a stereotype that Munazza Muhammad set out to challenge. But the Philadelphia day-care operator never dreamed it would land her atop a donkey wobbling up a Mexican mountain in the company of nine intrepid Traveling Muslimahs. By day's end, the women — wearing lightweight, form-fitting "burkinis" that covered all but their faces, hands and feet — rappelled down a waterfall, went for joyrides on a tortuous water slide in a forest, and ziplined, four times, through the trees.
A travel club for Muslim women who want to see the world, the Muslimahs had booked an obstacle-course tour in Puerto Vallarta that turned out to be not for the timid. "There were real tears shed," said Muhammad, 35.
But they survived the adventure and, when it was over, celebrated their accomplishment, flashing the arm-crossing Wakanda salute from the movie Black Panther.
Najlaa Muhammad (in blue) and Ayisha Sims (in black), of the Traveling Muslimahs, rappel down a waterfall with an instructor in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, June 2018.
Founded by Muhammad in June 2017, the Traveling Muslimahs — from an Arabic term for Muslim women — has about 60 active members, ages 35 to 65. Among them are teachers, a chef, an accountant, and nurses, and although most are from the Philadelphia area, some live as far afield as Mississippi and California. What they share is a desire to travel without having to set aside their faith because it is inconvenient, or to be branded a killjoy when they opt out of activities with non-Muslim companions. Without fail, they pray five times a day. They do not go bar-hopping or nightclubbing.
In Muslim culture, "it's not common for women to just travel by themselves," said Khadijah Rashid, 40, a coordinator at the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson, Miss. "The world is a big, bad, scary place, and women are encouraged to have a responsible male in the family to protect [them]….But now we live in a modern world."
Trip by trip, the Muslimahs are seeing it, often decked out in color-coordinated and themed hijabs, or head coverings, and overgarments. They have ridden camels in the United Arab Emirates, shopped at spice markets in Morocco, skied in Vermont, and visited mosques in Spain.
"The media portrays us like we're just in the home, that we don't really have fun," said Muhammad, who operates the Creative Touch Learning Center in Nicetown. "We want to show the world there is more to us than being a wife and mother. We travel and explore."
Members of the Traveling Muslimahs celebrate the completion of an obstacle course in Mexico by flashing the Wakanda greeting from the movie Black Panther. June 2018.
The idea for the Traveling Muslimahs (initially called Philly Traveling Muslimahs) came to Muhammad after making Umrah, a minor pilgrimage to Mecca. She posted pictures on social media and the response was immediate, with many posters chatting excitedly about their own travel dreams. She began thinking that perhaps she had uncovered an entrepreneurial niche that she could fill.
"I had heard of black travel groups, women's travel groups, and Muslim travel companies, but nothing that catered to Muslim women," Muhammad said.
Soon, she was planning their first trip, a ski vacation in Vermont.
Muhammad charges an annual fee of $99.99, or $9.99 a month, and handles all travel arrangements; the cost of a trip typically ranges from $500 to $3,000, everything included. Members also accumulate points that can help defray part of the expense of making Umrah or Hajj, the trip to Mecca that is one of the five pillars of the faith and an obligation for all able-bodied Muslims.
Rashid and her friend Kameelah Wilkerson of Altadena, Calif., traveled with the group for the first time on a recent trip to Morocco and Spain. Noting that accommodation for Muslim tradition is rare in Mississippi (she once had to pray in a closet for privacy), Rashid said she appreciates the respect given to faith practices by the Traveling Muslimahs.
"Everything is laid out. You know where the prayer areas are. The tour guides are Muslim. The food was all halal," adhering to Islamic law, she said. "Your values are understood and known before you even show up."
Safiya Abdullah (right) and group founder Munazza Muhammad, of the Traveling Muslimahs, ride a camel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 2018.
Members must sign a contract in which they pledge to get along with others, making them free of "fitnah," an Arabic term used to describe forces that cause controversy or chaos. If the pledge is violated, the member could be expelled.
"This is a religion of peace. People are watching us, and we want to demonstrate the best of character," Muhammad said. "If you cause drama, you could be expelled. We don't tolerate that."
So far, one Muslimah has been suspended, but has returned on a probationary period, Muhammad said.
Zakirah Thomas of Northeast Philadelphia joined the group partly to find connection. She converted to Islam about five years ago, and is one of the few Muslims in a family of Catholics.
"Because I'm single, I'm always looking for something to do — to be able to travel, go out or have dinner, and interact with other Muslims outside of the [mosque]," said Thomas, 37, an analyst for a pharmaceutical company. "This group allows you to build sisterhood."
The club also supports the charitable efforts of members' projects on behalf of autism awareness and feeding the homeless.
"We are reinforcing that you can be unique and special in your garb and don't have to conform to society," Muhammad said. "You can be your unique self and be accepted. We are breaking the stereotype just by showing up."
Markazi Refugee Camp, Djibouti - Hafsa* Says She Feels Trapped
August 23, 2018
War forced her to flee her home in Yemen to Djibouti with her husband three years ago.
Little opportunities or hope of returning have left her restless in a remote refugee camp more than 200km from Djibouti's capital and just 32km from Yemen's western coast.
The situation has created tension between 36-year-old Hafsa and her husband. But because she is a woman, she says she has no outlet for sharing her struggles.
"Because of the frustrating mood in the camp and bad circumstances and weather and my jobless husband and lack of income overall it is a dispute," Hafsa tells Al Jazeera from outside the Markazi refugee camp near the fishing village of Obock.
The mother of three, including a daughter from her current marriage and two older children from her first who still live in Yemen, jabs her hand with frustration in the air as she describes her situation.
Her face, outlined by a pearly pink hijab (headscarf), is fair and unlined, making her look younger than her age, but her voice is strained.
"I cannot talk and express my feelings to others because the problems or the dispute between me and husband might become more complicated," she says.
She adds other refugee women are abused by their husbands, but fear speaking out due to the stigma associated with domestic abuse.
"We are suffering from tradition," Hafsa says. "Before the war, we were suffering many troubles, many problems from the society itself in Yemen, the people and the pressure from traditions. The war came just to push us out to come to Djibouti, but it is the wrong place," she adds.
"We feel weak and vulnerable and attackable."
afsa is one of the thousands of Yemenis who have fled to Djibouti during more than in three years of war between Yemen's government, supported by a Saudi-led coalition, and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. To date, more than 40,000 Yemenis have made the treacherous journey across the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait, known as the Gate of Tears because it has claimed so many migrant and refugee lives. It connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden along Djibouti's eastern coast.
At the peak, there were more than 7,000 Yemenis living in Markazi. As of May 2018, the number had dwindled to just under 2,000, less than half of the total 4,300 Yemenis in Djibouti.
The Markazi refugee camp is located near the fishing village of Obock on Djibouti's eastern coast [Mallory Moench/Al Jazeera]
The small tent city stained by dust rises from a landscape scorched barren in summer, where temperatures regularly rise to 40 degrees Celcius in summer. UNHCR and Djibouti flags convulse in the hot wind above the gate. Electric spotlights are strung up by rusted wires, but according to those in the camp, the electricity often doesn't work.
Afraid to report abuse
Refugees tell Al Jazeera the conditions are harsh - with limited money, food, employment or future hope - but for women, they can be even worse.
Aid groups and other NGOs in the camp say women can face economic, physical and even sexual domestic abuse.
There is almost no data on gender-based violence against refugees in Djibouti. UNHCR has no recorded incidents at the camp since it was started in April 2015. The head of the agency in Djibouti said that a recent report from a senior protection officer who interviewed a female resident found there was no sexual gender-based violence except for one instance of sodomy between children.
But professionals and refugees say women must first overcome cultural stigma and fear of repercussions to report violence and abuse.
"There are many cases of violence in the camp that happened, but the women don't like to complain because they are afraid when they return back to Yemen that nobody would accept them and their children as a divorced woman," Hafsa says.
A UNHCR report from October 2017 said that despite forming a refugee committee to address gender-based violence, the issue "remains a challenge among the Yemeni refugee community, mainly due to cultural predispositions and frequent appeal to the traditional legal codes instead of civil ones".
According to Dina Cihimba Rehema, UNHCR's protection officer in Markazi, the problem lies in the fact that women often feel like they cannot talk about their situations.
"We have to reinforce sensitisation for women to feel free and make it easy for them to talk about what they're facing," she says. "We have to try to change the mentality."
Women taking the lead
Every day, Muna Khalik, another refugee living in Markazi, opens a counselling centre housed in a metal trailer just inside the camp entrance. The centre is run by UNFD, the Djiboutian NGO in charge of women's protection in the camp. The centre has one staff member and trains and employs refugees like Khalik as counsellors. They intake at least four domestic violence cases each month and report directly to UNFD's head office.
The organisation said abuse is primarily economic - when the male breadwinner withholds money from his wife and creates tension in the family - but can also be physical or sexual. Their reports are confidential and details about cases could not be shared.
Asma Moustapha, Markazi's director who works for the government refugee agency, said that when the counselling centre first opened three years ago, no women came because of the stigma.
"In their mentality, they think the office is only for divorce matters. They don't think it can help them and their problems," Moustapha told Al Jazeera. "Before the husband wouldn't accept them to go to the office because he thought it will break his marriage and his family."
Because women feel more comfortable sharing in their own community, UNFD trained refugee women as counsellors.
Khalik has lived in Markazi since she fled her home in the Yemeni city of Taiz, which was destroyed by bombing three years ago. Last year, she began working with UNFD counselling and conducting gender sensitisation activities for men and women.
She sits under a whirring fan inside the community centre where women sew purses to sell and children learn martial arts. Draped in a silken black veil with beaded gloves, Khalik's sharp eyes emits empathy.
"When we started, especially men, they were not comfortable with those sensitisation activities," Khalik tells Al Jazeera. "They were feeling that it's something coming to separate them from their wives because they also think that once women know their rights, they will use it for everything. But with time, they come to understand that it's something which is helpful for all the community."
Community workers disseminate national and international text related to sexual violence and conduct outreach awareness sessions with men, women and youth on gender, human rights and sexual violence.
Counsellors at the centre give women options about what to do when facing domestic violence. If the situation is serious and the woman requests more intervention, the counsellor visits the family to talk to the woman's husband. In the most extreme cases, a counsellor can help a woman go to the justice system - although the management said that no woman has ever requested to do so.
"It was really difficult for women to express and talk about such problems, but it was of culture. But there is a good impact and now they are feeling more free to talk about what is happening," Khalik says.
She acknowledges, however, that sensitisation is slow and women may still not speak out.
"There are always things that we can't know about in the families," she says.
For Markazi's women, domestic violence is one trouble among many that they say makes life nearly unbearable in the refugee camp.
Many want to resettle in Canada or Sweden or return home to Yemen - even though it is still too dangerous now because of the conflict. As families enter their fourth year in the remote camp with no end in sight, many say they have lost hope.
"We have a vague future here," Hafsa said. "We feel that we are dying in Djibouti."
*Name has been changed to protect the individual's identity.
Meiliana Verdict Demonstrates Blasphemy Law's 'Injustice toward Minorities'
August 22, 2018
The Jakarta Post
Tri Ratna vihara in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra on July 29, 2016. The vihara was damaged after angry mobs attacked the it and several other Buddhist houses of worship. (Antara/Anton)
The blasphemy conviction of Meiliana, a Buddhist resident of Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra, for complaining about the volume of adzan (call to prayer) revealed the law's unfairness toward minorities, residents and activists said.
The Medan District Court found Meiliana, 44, guilty of blasphemy under articles 156 and 156a of the Criminal Code on Tuesday and sentenced her to 18 months' imprisonment.
She reportedly said that the adzan was "too loud" and it "hurt" her ears in July 2016, triggering an anti-Chinese riot in which offended Muslims burnt several Buddhist temples in Tanjung Balai.
Tony, a fellow resident of the city, said Meiliana's sentence was overly harsh compared to those received by the rioters.
"Meiliana is punished with 18 months, while the vihara desecrators were only punished with two months, while some were even freed. This is unjust," he told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday. "The law is not on the side of us minorities."
Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR) executive director Anggara echoed Tony's sentiments and urged the government to revoke the blasphemy article.
"Once again the blasphemy articles [are used] to attack minority groups," Anggara said in a statement on Wednesday. "From ICJR's records, the blasphemy articles are always used in a context where the defendant is considered to insult the majority religion."
He added that the revision of the blasphemy articles in the draft Criminal Code bill currently being deliberated in the House of Representatives were even more vulnerable to abuse.
"Articles on blasphemy have to be formulated very carefully because they are closely tied to the subjective whims of the majority," he said. (ahw)
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