Thou shall not judge…

July 29, 2013 11:57 pm0 comments by:

I spent the first two weeks of July in Ouagadougou attending APSA Africa Workshop on Religion and Politics in Comparative Analysis. This workshop focused on the research and study of religion and politics in Africa. Religion has always been integral to the lives of Africans and it is a force to reckon with in Africa.

Each morning and evening when driving to and from the hotel and workshop venue, we had a glance of life in Ouagadougou. What seemed to amaze most workshop participants is the intense use of motorcycle as a means of private transport. As a result there is no traffic jams in Ouagadougou unlike other cities in Africa.

Of course motorcycles are becoming the most reliable and fastest public transport means in developing countries’ cities and towns. This is partly due to their relative low-cost operations and efficacy. The Chinese have made available affordable motorcycles that most youths can afford to start up a transport hire business.  There are many names for this emerging transport such as ‘bodaboda’ in Tanzania, and ‘…………….’ in Uganda. However, unique features about this means of transport in Ouagadougou are  (a) motorcycles are used for private and not for business purposes; (b) women and girls ride them for work and leisure. In the morning, we saw many women and girls riding motorcycles as they were going to work in the morning wearing formal/professional attire, and in the evening we saw women riding them with school children at their back. I saw a woman riding one with a cooking gas tank at the front and a bag (I guess it was groceries/foodstuff) at the back. I was sad to miss a picture of that ‘strong’ lady.

At the University of Burkina Faso, many students both males and females, use motorcycle to go to the campus.Well, one scene that struck me hard is the above picture. When I saw this woman, wearing an Abaya with Hijab and holding a toddler on her back while riding a motorcycle early in the morning, my mind started running. It was a marathon. I thought of media stereotypes, academic/scholarly biases and assumptions, theories of feminism, and many other assumptions that we may have.  Here are some of my thoughts in brief paragraphs:

As a result of media and scholarly assumptions based on evidence that cannot be generalized together with other biases, it is almost a ‘conventional knowledge’ that Muslim women are not free and that they need to be liberated. When it’s Muslim and African, the stereotype is even worse. As women who fell in these two categories are thought to be dependant and lack freedom.

For those who argue that Muslim women are not free, often use an example of the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia where they cannot drive or leave the country without male guardian permission. . However, the picture above is one molecule in the waters of hidden evidence that shows a free and an independent Muslim woman.

Something also to consider is that the picture was taken during the Holy Month of Ramadan. I am not an expert on Islamic Studies, but Muslims and Islamic scholars can probably say something more about this. All in all, the woman kept reminding me of Tariq Ramadan’s argument that ‘for a fruitful discussion (on the issue of women in Islam) it is imperative to change the terms of discourse. And as a first step, it is necessary to recall that the Quran was revealed over a 23 year period and in a specific historical context: it is important to take these two factors into account.

The first helps us to avoid a literalist reading of some verses by being cognizant that they have to be understood through a sequence of different verses leading us to the global message. The second forces us to consider the cultural environment within which the Quran was revealed and alerts us not to confuse some cultural contextual features (whether historical or contemporary) with the universal Islamic teachings. These are indeed the two main problems we find when it comes to the women issue: literalist reading and cultural understanding.’

With regards to feminism, which I must admit that I am not an expert of neither a 100% follower of its ideas, perhaps this picture can help generate more questions for the feminists. For example, how would a feminist describe this picture?  I will leave this question as it is as I am not very comfortable discussing a theory that I have never managed to grasp it entirely. But I think there are many cultural aspects that must be considered by different schools of feminism.

Other issues that I thought about are with regards to health and safety of the child. I kept asking, how she could dare riding a motorcycle in the highway with a toddler on her back. The baby was tied used a simple cloth.  But I then asked myself, do I know better than this woman? I challenged my thinking, that why do I assume that I know about the safety of this toddler than his/her mom? Such critical analysis of our own ‘conventional knowledge’ is imperative.

I don’t know where this woman was going to in that early morning, but what I know is that she confidently left her house, with her very young baby, wearing her religious inspired attire, and riding her own motorcycle.  She seemed confident. In all aspects, this picture is a display of a free, hardworking, and independent Muslim African woman.

In all these, I settled into one Biblical principal, ‘thou shall not judge’. Through the so-called ‘conventional knowledge’ that is produced through the process of globalization to exert influence and power, we tend to judge other human beings based on our narrow understandings.  Such judgments are often driven by the feeling of ‘otherness’, which is depicted through what Edward Said terms as ‘negative representation of the other’.

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