I am a Muslim and a Feminist
'I am a Muslim and a Feminist'
Asma Gull Hasan, 29, considers herself an All American Girl. Her hobbies include collecting Barbie dolls, skiing and snowboarding. But she is also a serious-minded Muslim who continues to be in her faith because of the guidance and ecstasy she receives from it.
Two years ago she published American Muslims: The New Generation. Now she has a new book Why I am a Muslim, published by Thorson Element, a division of Harper Collins in England and America.
She wrote her first book as she was graduating from the New York University School of Law, where she was a staff editor on The Review of Law and Social Change. The book came out as she accepted an offer with the world's largest law firm, Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells, to work in international corporate law.
Senior Editor Arthur J Pais spoke to her recently.
How did you get to be known as the Colorado Muslim Feminist Cowgirl?
When I was submitting a proposal for my first book, I wanted to write a catchy cover letter. I described myself as the Colorado Muslim Feminist Cowgirl. Eight years later people still talk about that description.
I wanted to tell the world that I am a Muslim and I am a feminist. I wanted to show that Islam and women's right are not non-inclusive.
I grew up in a small city in Colorado. I went to Wellesley College, well known for feminist activities, before I joined New York University.
I ride horses and I am not scared of the outdoors. To me being a cowgirl meant someone who was spirited, independent, bold and at the same time someone who cared deeply about people.
So I called myself a Muslim feminist cowgirl and the term got attached to my name. Some traditional Muslims did not like me calling myself a Muslim feminist.
They thought Islam had enough provisions for women's rights. By explicitly declaring myself a Muslim feminist, they thought, I was telling people that the two terms -- Muslim and feminist --were not compatible.
How would you describe Why I am a Muslim?
It is part memoir, part guide and represents the side of Islam that is left out of daily newspapers and television.
And that would be…
A vision of Islam that is ethnically diverse, tolerant of others, and supportive of women's rights. The book is about my personal journey, of growing up in America, going to the best of schools, studying law, and being modern and Muslim.
Would you tell us about the readers you have in mind for your new book?
It is meant for mainstream readers everywhere, in America, in England, in France or any country. It is for people who want to know more about Islam. I also have Muslim readers in mind.
What kind of Muslims do you have in mind?
Those who know little about the faith they were born into. Also those who ought to know that religion is much more than a list of dos and don'ts.
What is your ideal concept of religion?
Every religion should feed one's soul and spirit in the first place.
Your book also extols Sufism. What does Sufism mean to you?
Sufism focuses on inner divinity that is in all of us. When Sufis sing and chant, it is electrifying. Sufis believe that one should keep an open heart to welcome the divinity.
How have you experienced Sufism in your life?
Let me give an example. I was thinking of writing a hard-hitting book following 9/11. I wanted to shout how wrong Islam's detractors were.
Suddenly I heard from a publisher that they wanted a book called Why I am a Muslim. They wanted a young female to write it. The book came to me, unlike the first time around when I had to look around hard and found a small publisher.
I decided to write the book in seven chapters. Seven because the number has religious and mythical connotations. Sufism also provides me with easy-to-remember life lessons.
What kind of life lessons?
For example, if one is open to God, we will know that bad things happen so that good things can happen, too. Sufis will tell you to remain calm amidst disappointments and setbacks. As I was worrying about my second book in response to 9/11, I got the offer to write Why I am a Muslim. Instead of a hard-hitting book, now I have a book that is more spiritual. Surely the world needed this book more.
What is the story we hear about you upsetting Catholic nuns?
(Laughs) I only know what I heard from my mother. I was about five or six when I heard a teacher tell the class that Jesus was the son of God and he was God himself. I had been taught otherwise at home, that Jesus was a revered holy man, a prophet. When the teacher stepped out of the class, I told my classmates that she wasn't telling the truth.
I kind of felt like it was a little secret I had to myself. She heard about what I had said, and I was reported to the stern nun who was the school principal.
My mother was promptly summoned to school and I was asked to go home. I could return the next day but that day I had to be punished. My mother scolded me but she knew I was a mere child.
You have also talked and written about halal dating. What is it?
Young American Muslims have come up with creative solutions to dating -- they fall into roughly three categories.
The first group is Strict Muslims who date halal (in an Islamically permissible style).
The second group I call Eid Muslims, because many are not strict in practice and attend mosques only on holidays. While technically they date haram (unlawfully in Islam), without chaperones, they keep physical intimacy to a minimum and parental involvement at a maximum.
The third group dates Sex and the City-style (definitely haram), openly and freely leading a non-Islamic lifestyle, having premarital sex sometimes in a series of monogamous relationships.
Halal dating is a practice gaining much popularity in the American Muslim community among Strict Muslims and Eid Muslims.
Why is that?
Halal dating is the first cousin of arranged marriage, with young people finding their mates -- within the guidelines of Islam -- instead of their parents arranging marriages. Because the Koran advocates equality between the sexes, it does not permit premarital sex.
Young Muslims who engage in halal dating seek a commitment first and are vigilant about staying true to their religion.
You have also spoken against certain traditions that have become part of South Asian Muslim communities. Could you tell us more about it?
Take the practice of six happily married women accosting the bride to meet the bridegroom. This is not mentioned in the Koran. Yet so much is made of this tradition even in America. At such ceremonies, when we ask for volunteers every woman wants to be part of the group because no one wants to be seen as unhappily married. No one wants to let others know she is having a rough or loveless marriage.
When did you first think of this arrangement?
When my sister married four years ago. I was in law school, and I wanted everything to be done with due diligence (laughs). I did my own search and I found six women who were genuinely happy in marriage.
Would you have six women leading you to your would-be husband?
I am not sure I will marry in the South Asian community.
Imagine you marry a South Asian. What happens?
If my naani insists, I will go through it. It will be for her sake. But I will find out if the women are truly happy with their spouses.
And will they be Muslim women?
They don't have to be. Remember that the tradition is not part of Islam, to begin with.
What is the next book?
I am thinking of a couple of books. One could be a book about how religion has often united people and led to much good.
The second one could be a novel based on some experiences of my father and his parents when they migrated from India to Pakistan and then to America. It will have a lot of fascinating and life-affirming stories.
Could you tell us about one or two stories you cherish the most?
My father was about eight when he was living in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Everything was scarce: food, medicine, clothes. Every time supplies reached the camp, one person got the provisions first. My father wondered who he was. Even at age eight, my father told himself that he would want to be like that man. He soon discovered that the lucky man was a doctor.
My father decided he too would become a doctor. He achieved his goal.
Asma Gull Hasan
Asma Gull Hasan, calls herself a "Muslim Feminist Cowgirl" reflecting her upbringing in Colorado . The daughter of Pakistani immigrants and born in Chicago, she considers herself an all-American girl. Hasan graduated from the New York University School of Law in May 2001. She is also a 1997 graduate of Wellesley College
Hasan has been a columnist for The Denver Post and The Pakistan Link newspapers, and has written op-eds for the New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News and beliefnet.com. She is a frequent guest on the Fox News Channel, particularly Hannity & Colmes, From the Heartland with John Kasich, and The O'Reilly Factor. Hasan has also been featured on: Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition on National Public Radio, CNN, CNN International, C-SPAN, and Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher on ABC. She has been profiled in USA Today and interviewed in The New York Times. In September 2002, Hasan appeared in the History Channel documentary Inside Islam.
The US State Department selected her as an ambassador in the public relations campaign with the Islamic world. Her paper on full-time Islamic schools, entitled "The Social Problems of Educating Muslim Children in America " was published in the book Islam in America: Images and Challenges. She speaks frequently at universities and other organizations.
Her fictional short stories have been published in the youth literary publications Merlyn's Pen and The Sussquehanna Review. One of her short stories was published in the book Taking Off: Coming of Age Stories. She has also contributed to several essay collections, including the books Taking Back Islam, I Like Being an American, and It's a Free Country. Hasan also serves as an editor of the monthly online publication The American Muslim.
Asma Hasan's own website has much more information. http://www.asmahasan.com/
Her Pen is Mightier than the Sword
Asma Gull Hasan is a young, sparkling ambassador of her faith. Her simplicity is disarming and her sentiments tug at the reader’s heartstrings. Using an odyssey of personal anecdotes, she brings home the essence of Islam and its bond with Christianity and Judaism to Americans, Europeans and others who may or may not be Muslim.
Many Americans, she says, believe stereotypes such as “All Muslims are terrorists.” Others believe Muslims silently approved of 9/11 and are against the War on Terror, that Muslims pray to a different God than Christians and Jews, and that Islam oppresses women!
In distinguishing fact from myth, Asma Hasan, a lawyer and practicing Muslim, maintains the core values of American society are strikingly similar to the message of the Koran, which makes her proud to be one of seven million Americans who are part of the billion-strong community of Muslims around the world.
Part memoir, part guide, Why I Am A Muslim presents Islam as it is seldom seen on the evening news. Asma Hasan refutes the terrorist image of Muslims perpetuated by Osama bin Laden, Al Jazeera and other fear-mongers; instead, she puts a fresh face on Islam in hopes that non-Muslims will see it as a religion of peace and know that Muslims are peace-loving people.
Born to Pakistani immigrants in Chicago, this 29-year-old all-American feminist cowgirl who grew up in Colorado is out to dispel the darkness of ignorance surrounding the Muslim way of life amid hostile press, media and government propaganda about America’s own holy war on terrorism since 9/11.
Asma Hasan is a Muslim, she says, because “I can’t imagine being anything else.” To her, “Islam is a simple religion” and her book dwells on how Islam gives her a direct relationship with God and how the simple message of the Koran leads to the rich Sufi tradition of finding God within oneself. “Sufism is not a specific sect or branch of Islam but actually cuts through all the various schools and sects,” she says.
Since no one is perfect, Islam allows and expects one to make mistakes, and teaches one to struggle toward perfection through a process called jihad, which is “a challenge from God to improve oneself constantly.” What’s more, she goes on, her religion stands for diversity. Muslims believe in God and the revelation given to Abraham and Moses and Jesus... “we make no difference between one and another of them, and we bow to God (in Islam).”
It is interesting how Asma Hasan calls Islam “a woman’s religion” that is against coercive proselytizing and defends women’s rights, including the right to marry or divorce a man, and how cultural practices sometimes do not reflect the true essence of Islam. Not one to deny her Americanness, she believes that being a Muslim makes her a better American and being American makes her a better Muslim. Her simplicity is disarming, to say the least.
Asma Hasan writes in an easy, breezy style. A graduate of New York University’s School of Law with a deep-rooted love of literature, music and the wisdom of Rumi and Hafiz, her stint as a columnist for The Denver Post and Pakistan Link, with op-eds published in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Beliefnet.com, and The Dallas Morning News, among others, has no doubt prepared her to speak her truth softly and succinctly in stark contradistinction to loud-mouthed diatribes such as Irshad Manji’s The Trouble With Islam. The positive tone and exuberant message of Why I Am A Muslim has a winning edge to it. Her pen is mightier than a sword as it cuts through all the theological and political trappings.
You should read it.