28 September, 2008

Breaking the Fast and Challenging Media Myths About Muslims

I put my recipe for culturally competent reporting to the test last night, at a Ramadan feast staged at the Canberra Islamic Centre.

There was competition for seats in the jam-packed community hall where hundreds of people gathered to break their fast at sunset. Traditionally, Muslims fast during daylight hours in the Islamic calendar month of Ramadan as an act of submission, solidarity, and to reflect on the suffering of others. The daily breaking of the fast is a time of replenishment, community and celebration. And yesterday was a particularly significant Ramadan date – many Muslims mark it as the day on which the Quran was revealed to the prophet Mohamed. So, a special feast was organised by the Canberra Islamic Centre and I was invited to attend by a young Muslim woman – a former student, Fatima Ahmed – to experience the event first hand.

My first impression was a revelation: it was essentially like a multicultural version of a Catholic Church-sponsored World Youth Day event I attended with friends in a Bungendore school hall earlier this year! It was a friendly and open crowd where people, speaking in their mother tongues and dressed in traditional finery, blasted away the stereotypical representation of Muslims as mono-cultural and ubiquitously veiled. They came from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Subcontinent. Young and old; men and women; family groups; friends and strangers; they talked animatedly as they jostled for space and waited for the call to prayer that would signal the end of the day’s fasting. Children sat patiently in front of their rosewater-infused lassis and individual plates of foods traditionally eaten to break the fast – predominantly dates and portions of fresh fruit.

Then came silence, with the signal of the call to prayer. A man with a beautiful, resonant, voice that filled the hall and sent shivers up my spine, began singing - arms raised heavenward: “Allah u akbah…” The prayer, recited in Arabic, is called the Adhan and it’s words are translated into English like this:

God is the greatest
I bear witness that there is no deity except God.
I bear witness that Mohamed is the messenger of God.
Make haste towards prayer
Make haste towards welfare
God is the greatest
There is no deity but Allah.

The words Allah u akbah (God is the greatest) have been associated in Western media discourse with the September 11th attacks, due to the adoption of the mantra by the terrorists as a call to battle. But last night, hearing those words sung was a soul-soothing, calming experience. The chant evoked peace, not hostility. When the prayer ended, the chattering resumed and people began eating the food on their plates. When this ‘first course’ was polished off, they made their way to the first prayers of the evening.

This is a progressive Muslim community on Canberra’s southern outskirts, but the prayers were sex segregated. The men prayed together in the main hall, while the women and children moved to a private prayer room. And I have to confess, it’s hard for me, a Feminist who, in a ‘previous life’, campaigned for women’s ordination and equality within the Anglican church, to accommodate such gender based separation – it makes me uncomfortable…personally and politically. But many of the women I spoke to last night appreciate the female solidarity and spiritual space provided by segregated prayer.

My reaction to sex-segregated food lines for the feast that followed was similar. But I had more trouble appreciating the benefits of this approach for women…their line was longer, swollen by the children in their ranks, and I couldn't help but ask the friends I was sitting with: “What would happen if I joined the male queue?” Although they encouraged me to feel free to do so, it was clear to me this would be perceived as provocative and potentially insensitive behaviour.

My young friend’s mother generously lined up and brought me a plate of delicious Iranian stews which I ate with my friends at a table where the conversation moved from the stuff of life, to politics and an academic discussion of Muslims and their relationship with the mainstream Australian media. The discussion was intelligent, thought-provoking and entertaining. Children ran back and forward from the table excitedly, and strangers came to meet and greet me. There was much laughter and I was warmly welcomed, being shown great courtesy and respect by everyone I met. I report this, not because I expected it to be otherwise, but because of the fears haboured by some, that such gatherings would be bastions of Islamic extremism.

After dinner, I joined the women in the prayer room for their next devotional session. After nearly inducing a heart attack in my friend, fellow writer and academic, Shakira Hussein, by absent-mindedly heading towards the door to the prayer room with my shoes on (I reassured her that, of course, I intended to remove my shoes in deference to tradition. But I suspect she still believes she narrowly averted a major faux pas committed by a journalist promoting culturally sensitive reporting :). I slipped off my heels and sat against the wall of the prayer room with camera in my lap. I was invited to photograph the women as they prepared to pray. While many of them don’t wear headscarves in everyday life, most of them choose to cover their heads for prayer. They lined up quietly, variously standing and kneeling in prayer on cue, with signals emanating from the men’s prayer gathering outside. At the back of the book-lined prayer room, children played quietly and posed for my camera.

There’s something beautiful about this style of prayer and devotion. It’s in the supplicant faces; the synergy of words and movement; the quiet unity.

Frequently, stories about terrorism are inter-cut with, or accompanied by, images of prostrate men engaged in Muslim prayer. And this constant association of religious practise and violence has undermined the peaceful nature of this basic devotional activity – the hallmark of daily lived religion for millions of Muslims around the world. I was glad to experience the sense of peaceful spirituality which accompanied these women as they prayed.

They met one more time for prayer before the social gathering in the main hall was replaced by a shopping bonanza, as market stalls were set up in the courtyard outside. There were brightly coloured and beaded kaftans and Salwar Kameez from Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Middle East; beautiful, soft pashminas; handmade leather shoes colourfully decorated with pom poms and embroidery.

And, in one corner were women queued for henna tattoos to be painted on their arms and hands. I’ve always admired the henna coloured swirls on other women's bodies, and I’d never be brave enough to get one done in permanent ink, so I joined the line and chatted with other women as I had my arm laced with paint. The tattoo I chose begins with a dove on my left forearm and heads down to the middle knuckle, flourishing with floral emblems, feathers and curls.
On my ultra-white skin, the orange ink is stark and beautiful in the light of day. I could get addicted to this beauty regime!

In my experience, and according to my research, the best way to subvert media stereotypes, and encourage culturally sensitive reporting, is to expose journalists personally to alternative perspectives, practices and experiences. At a human level, it’s much easier to empathise with people and circumstances through lived experience. Empathy breeds sensitivity, and insensitive reporting is a problem frequently highlighted by journalism scholars in connection with the coverage of complex social issues.

My aim, last night, was to briefly embed myself in Muslim ‘culture’ and experience the religious practice of this community. I thoroughly enjoyed the exposure and learned things about myself in the process. I was more unsettled by the sex segregation than I expected to be…it was confronting for this Feminist. But no where near as confronting as being told by the minister of my former church that I should stop asking impertinent questions during sermon Q & As. He also told my husband "It's time you learned to control your wife!".

There was open-mindedness, and tolerance expressed towards me by people with open hearts, last night. And my overwhelming feeling was of being embraced, rather than repelled. I felt joyful, rather than fearful on the long drive home.

1 comment:

Tracey said...

This is a beautiful story full of insight and acceptance. If we as a society were more open to experiences such as this, I feel we would live in a world that was more capable of understanding and tolerance. Thank you for sharing.

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