Peace is Loud is thrilled to welcome Samina Ali to our speaker’s bureau. Samina is an American Muslim novelist, public speaker, and curator. For over a decade, she has worked to promote gender justice and raise the profiles of unsung female heroes worldwide. In the interview below, Samina discusses the intersections of activism and creative expression, her motivations and inspirations, and what a truly peaceful world would look like to her.
What inspires you to write?
When I wrote Madras on Rainy Days, I wanted to show how culture and religion can be manipulated to disempower others, especially women. This was a topic that was very personal to me because I'd been through a difficult arranged marriage (and eventual divorce) at a very young age. After that experience, I began to see how passing off patriarchal values as religious values gives them false authority and legitimacy. I'm not saying Islam is the only religion that's manipulated in this way but I focused on Islam because that's my background. There are so many areas of a woman's life where she's given religious rights, such as the right to choose her husband, to have pleasurable sex, and to divorce her husband. In Islam, marriage is a contract between two human beings to comfort and provide solace to one another. If that's not being achieved, either party has the right to divorce. There are of course many other rights women have but I specifically bring up these rights because they relate directly to my book.
The main character, Layla, is loosely based on me. Like me, Layla isn't allowed to exercise her God-given rights: she isn't given a chance to select her husband or to reject her parents' choice. She's forced to marry him and, later, when she has true cause to leave him, she's again denied her right to divorce him. This isn't a new story. We see again and again how women are forced to veil or forced to take off the veil; and how women are denied education and the basic right to drive a car. Many people assume it's because of religion. But these limitations forced onto thousands of women have no basis in religion. They arise from what I call the 3 Ps: Power, Politics and Patriarchy.
The novel was a way for me to show how people claiming to be Muslim aren't practicing the basic tenant of justice and equality that's so integral to Islam. Like many who claim to be religious, they're hypocrites: Both men and women in the book. Men make rules to keep women disempowered but, much of the time, it's women who impose those very patriarchal and misogynist rules onto other women, mothers onto daughters, mother-in-laws onto daughter-in-laws, etc. For example, Layla's mother-in-law, Zeba, prays five times a day and covers but she's also the very one who imprisons Layla in the house, preventing Layla from divorcing her son. When it comes right down to it, Zeba is more concerned about family shame and honor than she is about doing the correct thing ... but she goes right on praying, not seeing her own hypocrisy.
Speaking of "shame" and "honor," the very language we use victimizes women. Shame, honor, whore, slut. What words of disgrace do we direct at men? How do these cultures force men to maintain family honor? That's what inspired me to write the novel: the injustice I saw around me and the injustice I endured simply because I was a woman.
You’re a novelist and gender activist. How do you see creative expression intersecting with, or complementing, advocacy and activism work?
The entertainment world has a unique way of reflecting what's happening in the larger world around us. Think of hit series like "24" or "Homeland" or something very different like "Sex and the City," which centers on women's concerns. They all hit a nerve, something that's happening in the world around us, inside us. Entertainment reflects our lives back to us in some way or another.
In the case of my novel, right after I finished writing the rough draft, 9/11 happened. Here I was, writing the book to introduce the audience to Muslims. Now, everyone's eyes were on Muslims, and not in a positive way. So I made the difficult decision to rewrite the book. As I did, I wasn't able to write freely as an artist, as honestly as I would have liked. I wrote parts of the book in complete reaction to what was happening. I knew I couldn't write the full truth of the horror I experienced in my arranged marriage because I would then be feeding stereotypes about Muslims and especially Muslim men at a time when it was more important to keep those stereotypes at bay. So I made the main male character, Sameer, as sympathetic as I could, made him more likable than Layla.
But I didn't back down from my main point, which was to show how religion is so often used against women. Aside from Layla, her cousin Henna also shows how women's lives are directly impacted by what's happening around them. The end of the novel takes place during the election season and, as happens in India, a few of the politicians use religious differences to rile up voters. In the Hindu-Muslim riots that follow, Henna is murdered. In the end, she's murdered not because she's Muslim but because religion has become politicized.
Again and again, it's women who are victims. During times of war and unrest, women are victims of rape and murder, used as tools. But even during peace, women can remain victims because unjust readings of scripture and unjust cultural practices force them into becoming second hand citizens, losing their power and voice.
Look at what's happening right now in Syria with the poor Yazidi girls and women. That's what's at the heart of my novel, issues that are so important that even today, ten years since its release, these issues are still relevant.
In your work curating Muslima, you compiled powerful stories about Muslim women worldwide defying stereotypes. Especially given the current political climate around the Middle East and North Africa region and efforts to counter extremism, what do you wish the rest of the world better understood about Muslim women and their potential to lead communities and build peace?
As the curator for the International Museum of Women’s global exhibition, Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art & Voices, the one question I’m repeatedly asked is, “What common trait do Muslim women artists and leaders around the world share that strikes you?”
My answer: their courage.
The sad reality is that many of us have grown accustomed to –- and comfortable with –- seeing Muslim women portrayed as victims.
Yet each and every one of the women included in the exhibition is noteworthy -- a cutting-edge artist or writer, a revolutionary who is upending her community's and the world's limited notions of what a Muslim woman is capable of doing, a pioneer fighting for women's and girls' rights. It's these women who are the answer to extremism, who are leading the global jihad for peace! And they are oftentimes paying a hefty price for their actions, whether it's being imprisoned or living in constant danger of death threats or being targeted by their local governments. How many of us truly care about our cause enough to risk our lives? Many of these women are doing just that, which is what makes them truly courageous, true heroes.
Your upcoming memoir tells the story of your near-death experience delivering your first child, and your remarkable recovery. What gave you hope through this experience? What advice would you give to women who are faced with tremendous obstacles and are told that the odds are against them?
When I was pregnant with my son, I was 29 years old. I was living in San Francisco and my hospital was the University of California San Francisco. My husband (someone I’d chosen after I’d left my arranged marriage) was teaching at Stanford University so we had the best health insurance on the market. What I'm saying is, having the best insurance and being treated at one of the best hospitals in the nation should have kept me safe. But it didn't. The doctors didn't take my symptoms seriously and I fell through the cracks. I had preeclampsia, which, because it was left untreated, evolved into eclampsia. And then the very life-threatening disease HELLP Syndrome.
After my delivery, I landed in the neuro-ICU with multiple organ failure, a heart attack, two brain hemorrhages, blood that had stopped clotting, and the list goes on. I was in a coma. My doctors expected I would die. By a true miracle, I didn't.
About 6 weeks after being released from the hospital, my doctor told me that I'd never write again. My brain damage was so severe that they didn't know what functions I had lost for good and what might return. At that time, my brain was so swollen that the doctor told me it would take a year for it to return to normal size and only then would they know which functions I had left. I remember that meeting vividly. The moment he told me I'd never write again, I thought, "I'll prove him wrong." As I saw it (in my very debilitated brain), I had been warning the doctors throughout my pregnancy that something wasn't right. I'd told them of my strange symptoms. But they dismissed me. So now it was my turn to dismiss the doctors.
Ironically, I was working on the novel based on that arranged marriage when the doctor told me I wouldn't write again because of the brain trauma. I was suffering from severe aphasia, loss of short-term memory, periodic loss of vision in my right eye, loss of the higher mental processes to imagine, to plan, to create, those things that are intrinsically human, those very things that separate us from animals. As my neurologist Dr. Wade Smith once said about me to my hometown newspaper, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, I had lost those “very functions that we all take for granted.”
I didn't know it at the time but when I stubbornly forced myself to write, I was forcing my brain to rewire itself. The repetitive process of working on a story based on my personal experience forced my brain to remember my past, to imagine a trajectory for a future through planning and plotting a storyline, to correctly match the words I was typing/speaking with those I was thinking, to create a story populated by multiple characters, each with a different perspective. In this way, for months and then for years, each day I sat down at the computer, I was pushing my brain to relearn those very functions it could no longer perform. It took approximately three years for me to slowly regain my functions.
In some ways, it's easy to see the connections between my two books, despite their very different topics: they both center on improving women's lives.
Beyond that, however, whether we are men or women, we all face adversity. When we do, our initial response is fear. Fear that we won't be able to rise past the struggle or the heartbreak. We feel stuck and alone. I truly believe that the challenges we face help us to grow as human beings by showing us exactly how strong and resilient we truly are.
What is your ultimate goal as an activist and a public speaker?
I believe that change must begin from within. But we don't suddenly change. We change because we see a piece of art that moves us to imagine a world we hadn't believed possible before. Or because we read a line in a book or an article that inspires us to reflect on our own lives, our actions and thoughts and beliefs. Or we meet someone who doesn't fit any of our stereotypes. As a public speaker and an activist, I am that instigator. My intention is to help my audience to see something old in fresh and exhilarating ways so that the change within can take root and slowly blossom.
What would a truly peaceful world look like to you?
Peace is a difficult concept to articulate and yet it's something that we all hope for! I think a peaceful world begins when every human being is given the opportunities to live their lives to their fullest potential.