Thursday, April 08, 2010

Adventures in Islam, Part VI

In which I finally get to talk to a Muslim woman :)

Faisal had given me the number of a sister who was willing to talk to me, and so one evening I telephoned her, and we arranged to meet Sunday afternoon at her family's store. This was how I found out that she and her husband run one of the halal markets in town. She is a lovely woman, kind and friendly, and welcoming as she wrangles her children while we await their father. Her name is Asifa, her husband is Amir, and they opened the market in February. Before that, they ran a gas station, here in [town], and previously in Revelstoke. They also lived in Windsor, Ontario, and Calgary. Asifa immigrated to Canada from Pakistan at fourteen years of age in 1992 with her father and siblings; her mother died when she was 7 or 8. Amir came to Canada in 1997, his immigration sponsored by Asifa's family, and they married three days after his arrival, their wedding day the first day they met. They speak Urdu in their home, the native language of Pakistan, and encourage it so their children can communicate easily with grandparents. Asifa is happy in her marriage; she says her husband is a good companion. The marriage was arranged between their families, and Asifa said that arranged marriages are largely based upon family reputations. She said that she trusted her family's judgment, as they knew her well, and “God is planning everything”. Even with arranged marriage, she said, the bride and bridegroom have the right to refuse. The couple has a fairly traditional division of household labour, at least from the Western view: she does the inside jobs and he takes care of outside chores such as garbage, lawn mowing and the like. He runs the store, and she is focused on child care. However, they will fill in for one another as needed, and Asifa stressed the nature of the relationship as companions and partners in raising children. For example, Asifa will mind the store on Fridays when Amir goes to prayer, and Amir was in charge of minding the children while Asifa and I spoke; he also served us some delicious samosas to snack on.

Asifa and Amir have four children, all boys and all under the age of 10. Though they do not practice any birth control beyond what Asifa called “natural measures”, she does not plan to have any more. Birth control is not strictly forbidden, she said, but definitely frowned upon, and abortion is only allowed if medically necessary to the mother's health. When I asked her if she felt she'd been well prepared for the intimacies of marriage, especially with her mother dying at a young age, she smile and said she had married older sisters and a very open relationship. This openness made Asifa very easy to talk to, and very informative about details of being female and Muslim. For example, I was surprised to learn that women are not supposed to pray during menstruation. They may go to the mosque – Asifa has, and the other women wondered why she didn't join in prayer, because her whole family was going – but not pray. Also, Islamic law says that a child must be weaned after two years, pregnant or nursing women are exempted from fasting during Ramadan – the days may be “made up” later if they are able – and the details of cleanup after accidents by young children is determined by whether or not they are nursing. Asifa covers her hair when in public, but said her sister follows very strictly, showing only her eyes, and wearing gloves. Makeup is permitted, Asifa said, but only when it will be seen exclusively by other women or her husband. When I asked Asifa about her views on polygamy, she said she would be alright with a second wife, and when I asked about the possibility of jealousy, she said that both wives would live together like sisters. But, she said, though everything must be equal, the husband would always love his first wife most.

I also asked about her knowledge of halal foods, as she and Amir run a specifically halal market. Halal meat, she told me, must be slaughtered in a specific way: the animals may not be shot, but slaughtered with a knife, and the takbir (“Allahu Akbar”) must be said as they are killed. Upon the birth of a child, an animal sacrifice is to be made by the parents of a goat or a lamb, two animals fora boy and one for a girl. Pork is definitely haram, and in fact they may not even say the word “pig”: when we spoke, Asifa spelled it out one letter at a time. If she were to say it, she explained, she would have to wash her tongue three times. Other very specific ablutions must also be performed by the devout Muslim. Before prayer, one must wash the hands to the elbow, the mouth, feet and face. The face may be washed a maximum of three times, and this must all be done with the right hand, right side first, except for the nose which must be cleaned with the left hand. This is called wadhu, and the purified state can last between prayers, unless one comes into contact with the genitals (one's own, or when aiding a young child with the washroom or diapers) or the bodily fluids of a child who is no longer nursing. The mosque in [town] is currently working on building new wadhu facilities for their members to use.

When the female members come together for “female circle”, Asifa said, there are usually 6 or 7 ladies, often with small children. Larger mosques, she noted, will provide childcare. They spend time memorizing scriptures, translating, or praying. They recite the second daily prayer at around 1:15pm at this time of year, then eat. When I asked her about Dr. S___'s theory that women were more comfortable praying at home, she thought perhaps it was more likely due to responsibilities of child care, including nap and school schedules and potty training. The “female circle” though, is a fairly important part of a [town] Muslim woman's social life, if she can make it. Asifa met one friend at the mosque who has children of a similar age, so they meet for the children to play and the mothers to talk, and that friend introduced her to another, and so on. Also, she mentioned that she has come upon new friends by seeing a woman with her head covered shopping in the large supermarket, approaching her and starting a conversation.

Still, for both the men and the women, the mosque seems to play a highly significant social role, and most interactions appear to be with others of the Muslim faith. This may be easier partially because many people are immigrants and relatively new in town, and also it would help to avoid somewhat awkward social situations. For example, I did not learn it was inappropriate for a Muslim man to look a woman in the eye until saying goodbye to Asifa and Amir after conducting my final interview. Finally this explained why none of the men arriving at prayer at the mosque for my first contact would make eye contact!


Want to start at the beginning? Part I is here.

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