Barriers to freedom


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Category: Trinidad Society 28 Oct 07

St Joseph’s mosque stood tall and graceful that rainy morning. People poured in for the Eid prayers after a month of fasting. The men sat in front, the women in the back. A wooden barrier separated the two groups.

After the prayers a slight woman in red stood up and addressed the gathering. Her voice was clear as a whistle. It carried.

With anguish emanating from every ounce, she said the TML had a history of equality between men and women, she said putting up a barrier was never discussed at the AGM, that it was an undemocratic move, alien to the mosque. A woman told her to sit down and shut up, which enraged her.

The Imam, Dr Nasar Mustapha, silenced the men, motioning that she should be allowed to speak. Another man tried to physically shut her up by placing his hand over her mouth. Her sons shoved her assailant aside. She did not relent until the barriers were removed.

“Take out the barriers, take them out” she said as she wept. Her sons and Nobel Khan, the head of the IRO carried them out.

I was not surprised that the men reacted the way they did—with a sullen silence. What shocked me was that the women sat there, limp, quiet and unsupportive.

Women are their own worst enemies. Didn’t they understand that the barriers were a symbol—the beginning of the erosion fundamental freedoms? That next year, the barriers could be higher, the following, women may not be allowed to attend the mosque, then, forced to wear a hijab, and ultimately expelled if they wanted to study or work.

It could be, if unchallenged, the beginning of fundamentalism.

People treated the tiny fiery woman, Rose Mohammed, the recipient of a Hummingbird gold medal for her community service, like she was not herself—accused her of being emotional, hysterical, when in fact she was entirely herself.

Eternal vigilance

They said she was right but the forum wrong.

Don’t people understand that a cadre of powerful men in any organisation count on women not to make a fuss? They depend on women feeling too embarrassed to respond to any sort of tyranny.

They think being quiet brings rewards. But it doesn’t. It just makes people walk all over them.

Imam Mustapha went on camera saying the barrier was just up just this once for Eid so that there wouldn’t be any jostling between men and women. But the league’s president, Mr Ali has said “the barriers would be back.” They are.

One woman from the TML called to say there is talk of expelling Nobel Khan, Rose Mohammed and the women who supported her from the league. She said: “Before the Jinnah Memorial Mosque in St Joseph was built 60 years back with the Government’s help, our grandparents founded the League. We have never had barriers. We always had freedom of movement and speech. The women have always worked alongside the men. We pray respectfully together. We are not into purdah.

“Scholars from Islamic countries come here and preach and influence local religious heads. A barrier means nothing to those who are putting it up. To us it means mashing up our ideology. The barriers make us feel like prisoners. They may as well put up a chaddar (sheet) to block us entirely.

We are Muslims in a democratic, tolerant country,” she said.

I am reminded of Pastor Niemoller’s famous words: “First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Another reminder that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance and not shutting up.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur