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To Catch a Dragonfly 26 March 2006

Posted by EDITOR in BARAKA, Culture, GUESTS, Relationships.


Our guest contributor this week is Baraka, a San Francisco-based writer and human rights activist. This is an old favorite from her blog, Truth and Beauty.

My mother used to romp in her village near Lahore catching dragonflies, splashing water onto siblings from the tubewell, and runrunrunning along the irrigation paths to the place where she could see the Himalayas covered in snow on the horizon, hundreds of miles to the north. I think of her, long-limbed & skinny, before she filled out into womanhood and peered from behind curtains at the fields she had known, the boys she had played with.

This is not another story of a woman stifling behind burka, purdah, veil. Life is not simplistic, but nuanced. She lived in a rural area, studied, went out in one of the few cars around accompanied by her gentle, indulgent father, and felt protected & cherished – never forbidden, extinguished, silenced.

I am only coming to know her intimately now, in my thirtysomething years, since a “heart is a deep ocean of secrets.” All those selves that have formed her, so many of them are mysteries to me. A friend of mine had a son, & told me – “When he was born, I felt a love I’d never known. And I realized that’s how my parents love me. We don’t love our parents the way they do us, we feel their love & expect it as our due, but we don’t understand it until much later, when we have a child of our own.”

I don’t have children, but a transformation began in our relationship two years ago. I suddenly realized my mother was, and always had been, a person beyond me, not just living through me but having thoughts and desires of her own. Funny, how disorienting that realization was after years of pushing her to be more independent, less children-oriented, more “free”.

Growing up here for part of my life in Freeland to immigrant Purelander parents, I didn’t always value self-sacrifice, devotion, or the hand that holds you back from burning yourself through experience. I didn’t celebrate modesty as a mark of self-confidence, or innocence as something precious that once lost is never regained. I didn’t understand the language of my mother. I was too busy filing those characteristics under Weak, Dependent, Old-Fashioned, Obviously Not Feminist, and especially, All The Things I Will Never Be.

But in that process, I forgot all the things about her that I did want to be. I was so concerned with stamping out what I saw as weaknesses that I forgot to ask questions. Is passivity the same as receptivity? Or patience the same as resignation? Is compromise always a dishonor? Or weakness akin to perseverance? Is protection not different from restraint?

It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize the power of words. The real power. I’ve always loved writing & reading and would come home from the library with armloads full of books for the week. But it is only now that the story of God teaching Adam the names of creation resounds within me. We forge our own reality by defining people, terms, places for ourselves. What you believe (name), is what shall manifest in your life.

One story, perhaps yours if you were to see her from a distance, is that of a girl clad in a chador at puberty, married to a man she had never before spoken to, moved to a land far far away from all she loved, where she experienced great challenges that show in the lines of her face, the bent of her neck to this day.

Another story, is that of a laughing, smart girl whose father’s friend respected the family so much that he could not but beg her hand in marriage for his doctor son, who then whisked her off to Chicago where she had me & quite nearly froze her toes off in the park one day and almost sparked a race turf war another.

Other tales include a woman who may have never finished college but is one of the smartest, wisest people I know. She sees into hearts and spirits & is gentle with them. She enjoys, respects & is so fulfilled by her role as mother (she is “mother” even to her sons-in-law), daughter, sister, wife, & active community member that she brings an intentionality & love that sanctifies every act she daily performs. Her suffering has not withered her but has, instead, burnished her. She has fortitude, patience, & a commitment to her relationships in good & bad times, that astounds me & that I humbly realize is far beyond me. She is stronger and more graceful and complicated than I ever imagined or dared to hope. I can only aspire to learn at her feet, under which Paradise lies, in the years to come.

Courage, Love, thy name is Mother…I think my favorite story still is you, in the fields, catching dragonflies, the horizon glowing with distant mountains, and all your past, present, & future bound up within you, like a vast and hidden constellation.



1. R - 26 March 2006

may Allah bless and preserve your mother. masha’Allah beautifully written – thanks for sharing :).

“Is passivity the same as receptivity?
Or patience the same as resignation? Is compromise always a dishonor?
Or weakness akin to perseverance? Is protection not different from

it depends.. though oftentimes in the name of “liberation” and “women’s rights” people become blind in their zealousness (and perhaps arrogance) and are unable to tell the difference.

.. and why is “dependence” often equated with weakness? aren’t we all dependent on each other? or is the issue mainly financial independence.. being able to make it in the world “on your own.”

not that I’m against that, but it seems (to me) that many “independent” women have lost something in the process.. perhaps some aspect of their womanhood..? not that I’m trying to get my head chopped off here. but it’s a confusing matter for me.. here I am so “dependent” yet struggling to be “independent” (due to necessity/circumstance) .. I wasnt raised to be career-oriented at all and find the whole thing intimidating. even something like filing taxes or filling out an application is intimidating. so I intend to raise my daughters differently in that sense (than how i was raised), to have the means of independence, while being able to happily embrace the “dependent” housewife role. to me, the issue isnt dependence, but what it has the potential to lead to, if taken advantage of..

2. Koonj - 26 March 2006

Mothers break our hearts in strange beautiful ways.

3. Baraka - 27 March 2006

Salaam ‘alaykum R & Koonj,

R – I think you summed it up perfectly in: “it depends.” :)

While I believe that respect, love, trust, and communication should suffuse every relationship, where it goes from there can be quite unique.

The sort of Ms. mag feminism I was exposed to tended to be rather condescending toward homemakers, mothers, and Muslims. My mother was all three. It took me a long time to see her nuances beyond “traditional = bad.”

I agree, independence is not be an end in itself. Dependence has come to be equated with weakness because a woman’s role at home is not appreciated or valued in the same way as a man’s role outside of the home is.

As long as power, authority, and voice are solely linked to economic abilities this will continue to be the case. If men and women start treating people who choose to stay at home and raise children as doing an extraordinary service to the world, this may change.

In addition to that there needs to be a realization that we are all interdependent, men and women alike. I do think that boys and girls should be taught equal skills when it comes to basic homekeeping, finances, laundry, and cooking so that they are well-rounded and appreciate the time and energy it takes to do those things. When and if they marry, how they divvy up the responsibilities after that is up to them.

Koonj: Thank you, dear!

Thank you for your comments!


4. ABD - 27 March 2006

as-salaam alaykum,

i still remember seeing the following quote on a teacher’s door: “feminism will not succeed until what a woman does in the house is given as much importance as what she does outside it” (can’t remember the exact wording, but that’s the gist).

would it be going too far to say that weakness is actually a good thing? if we reject a worldview where the human being is the source of meaning and power, can we not describe ourselves as weak, dependent and needy? of course, you might want to say that we should be dependent on Allah alone, and independent of other human beings. but we know that’s not the case. instead of describing dependence as a problem to be solved, can we turn the tables around and consider independence and self-reliance to be the problem?

i say this in agreement with ‘R’ and Baraka, but also to radicalize what they are saying… (i hardly know what the right response to my questions would be, but i’m thinking out loud here.)

great post, Baraka. may God bless your mother and secure her happiness in this life and the next.

5. Baraka - 27 March 2006

Walakum asalaam ABD,

“The meek (weak?) shall inherit the earth” after all.

What you’re saying is intriguing. I tend to dislike extremes, so my first feeling is perhaps it is extreme independence OR dependence that is the problem. Moderation and balance in most things is the way to go.

But you’re right in the sense that weakness, dependence and neediness are looked at as almost wholly negative (except spiritually before God) while independence and self-reliance are upheld as must-have virtues in this day & age (which also impacts our spiritual relationship with God).

After all, we are living in a country mired in an unjust war that has needlessly killed tens of thousands but whose President refuses to admit wrong-doing because that weakness would equal his own – political – death.

Perhaps people would be willing to admit to weaknesses if others were willing to be more merciful in response?

Thanks for radicalizing the conversation and ameen to your duas.


6. skarim - 27 March 2006

Assalam alaykum Baraka –

Again, mash’Allah amazingly well-written piece.

WIth ref: to your point about independence and self-reliance as must-have virtues: do you not feel that love of independence and individuality is perhaps heavily valued more so in Western circles (and is specifically a critique of the US)?

I remember reading some time ago about how in many (non-Western) cultures, the concept of interdependence (financially, emotionally and otherwise) is valued above and beyond everything else: and this recognition of the need of reliance on others, if anything, causes families and relationships to remain stronger, because they know they know that others are always relying on them . . .


7. Baraka - 27 March 2006

Walaikum asalam Skarim!

Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. :)

Absolutely, independence and self-reliance are Western obsessions, and certainly an American one. But the wholesale export of US culture onto and into other cultural contexts means that these are obsessions or desirables that are now affecting Pakistan and many other developing countries.

For interdependence to work it has to be valued by partner, families, and societies beyond lip service.

Many Pakistani women, for example, have experienced inter/dependence as a way of controlling them or from preventing them from making decisions related to money, education, work, marriage/divorce, etc.

When women, or anyone for that matter, uphold traditional roles but then are not valued for what they bring to the table, they will eventually devalue that part of the culture or what they perceive as religion being responsible for their misery, and look for a way out. Independence and self-reliance then seem to be attractive solutions.

I am a strong believer in women not being helpless, but strong. I don’t think strength prevents us from cherishing interdependence. Instead, it raises us up to a positon of respect in the eyes of men and other women.

A woman should know how to take care of herself from things like: packing so that she is able to handle her own suitcase, to managing personal finances (having her own account or credit line for example), to having an education to push forward with as she desires, whether as a stay at home mom, a professional or any combination in between.

We put a lot of emphasis on “womanly” pursuits and that’s fine. But we need to protect our daughters in other ways too. I’ve just seen too many widowed or divorced middle-class women slide into destitution because they simply do not have the life skills to survive without a male partner.

As Koonj said, “mothers break our hearts in strange beautiful ways.” While I deeply love and respect my mother who taught me to see her beyond the labels that Western feminism applies, I also know that many of my own life decisions have sprung directly from not wanting to be taken advantage of in some of the ways that she was through her unvalued dependence.

Hopefully, men and women can come to a place of powerful respect and interdependence, but I think it will take concerted effort on both their parts.


8. R - 28 March 2006

I really enjoyed this thread here.. such an interesting discussion.

Funny how our upbringing can affect us. For me, I grew up seeing my mother in what I’d call a role of digified dependence; never taken advantage of or put down for her dependence. She is very much tied to her home and it is her world. As for “life skills,” well – she doesnt know simple things like how to write checks (though her name is on them next to my dad’s) or use credit/debit cards, etc. My father takes care of everything, including the shopping.

Anyhow based on what I saw in my family and based on what I was taught (regarding Islam), I grew up with this very naive and limited understanding, that as a Muslim woman there was no need to worry about how to make it in the world, that I would always be taken care of/supported. I’d seek an education, not necessarily in a “practical” field, but purely for my own enjoyment with no career in mind. I assumed my life would essentially play out as my mother’s did..

But instead I found out that a woman’s “dignified dependence” – though her God-given right – isnt necessarily the norm.. that a woman can be taken advantage of and her dignity taken from her because of her dependence, as Baraka brings up.

and I hear my friends talking.. how if they didnt have their own money and/or jobs their husbands would have treated them differently. For example, one friend (though already with 2 bachelor’s degrees) after being accepted to a professional program, her husband began treating her much better.. suddenly – though she didnt change as a person – her husband started treating her with much more respect. and I wonder, is it because her income potential will more than quadruple in a few years? because before, as a mother taking care of her family and home, she didnt get that same respect..(nor did she enjoy the same self-esteem)

And the worrisome thing is, many appear to have the same attitude, whether religious or not, it seems to make no difference. Somehow money seems to entitle a person to respect and good treatment.

As for ABD’s comment.. interesting points you bring up. It seems to me that independence isnt a problem in and of itself, rather what it has the potential to lead to.. such as arrogance, delusion, oppression. I agree with Baraka that it’s wise for everyone, regardless of gender, to learn basic life skills. Besides, we dont live in an Islamic State where we can expect Islamic ideals/rights to be upheld.

As a side note.. the ironic thing is that my mother was raised to be an “independent” career-woman by my grandmother and she’s better educated than I hope to be with both an MD and MA. However after passing her boards, she found herself pregnant with her 3rd child and decided to wait before working. But gradually more children came along and because of those circumstances, she never quite made it out the door and instead settled into a very “dependent” role.. though still having the means (at least career-wise) of being “independent.” Yet she did the opposite with me (of what her mother did), seeing that she “wasted” so much time and hard work in degrees.. so she raised me to regard my career as being the “traditional” housewife/mother, and I never aquired any skills to have the means of independence, and yet circumstance has now placed me in GREAT need of those skills!

I sure could use my Mom’s degrees..

Anyhow because of what experience has taught me, I now have Baraka’s outlook and intend to raise my children accordingly insha’Allah. Insha’Allah by the time my daughters turn 20, they will have work experience, their own credit lines, and black belts. :P

Alhamdulillah ‘ala kulli haal. May Allah guide us to the middle way, the path of moderation..

9. R - 28 March 2006

“that a woman can be taken advantage of and her dignity taken from her because of her dependence, as Baraka brings up.”

I meant to add: her rights! I agree Baraka, unfortunately, it does happen that in exchange for the right to be maintained (ie be dependent on men), a woman may give up other rights… and becomes something to be controlled.

Did anyone hear the hadith in which the Prophet (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) likened women to captives?? I came across this during my studies, though I cannot comment as to its authenticity. But I heard it in the context of men being careful with respect to how they treat women.. ie, to take extra precaution because it is “easy” to transgress/oppress them.

May Allah allow us to recognize the truth for what it is, and protect us from transgressing against each other and our own souls.

10. Baraka - 28 March 2006

Salaam alaykum R,

I haven’t heard that particular hadith, but the sentiment behind it (“to take extra precaution because it is ‘easy’ to transgress/oppress” women) is one that we find in other hadiths.

You know almost every single sura starts with “Bismillah, ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim” and yet most of us don’t stop to think how important the quality of mercy must be to be thus repeated, and how it should suffuse every aspect of our lives and, especially, our dealing with our partners.

Your comment,

I hear my friends talking.. how if they didnt have their own money and/or jobs their husbands would have treated them differently. For example, one friend (though already with 2 bachelor’s degrees) after being accepted to a professional program, her husband began treating her much better.. suddenly – though she didnt change as a person – her husband started treating her with much more respect.

is so true.

The unfortunate thing is that as we try to arm our daughters with professional degrees to protect them, many families with sons have now begun looking for professional bahus (daughters-in-law) so that they can put them to work outside and inside the home to make the family’s materialistic and progeny dreams come true.

It’s like some warped chess game. Every step families with daughters take to protect them is checked by new expectations of the families with sons.

I think some revising of our expectations and ideas of marriage, partnership, economic necessities, etc., are long overdue.

The question is, how do we uphold dignity, respect, rights, and responsibilities within marriages which too often have become socially-sanctioned machines of repression?


11. R - 29 March 2006

wa alaykum assalam Baraka :)

such a good question. I think a big part of the problem is that popular interpretations of Islamic law tend to be oppressive of women, which is the doing of the scholars. And the rest of us (the laypeople) tend to misuse ayat and ahadith (and fatawa) to justify injustice (and/or passivity towards it). other things, too, I imagine..

but as for what you describe – this unabashed GREED! – it’s mind-boggling. I’ll be damned if my daughters end up being valued for their paychecks and degrees (my sons too, if I have any). it’s terrible that by trying to protect our daughters, we instead find them victims of a different kind of injustice.

and frankly, I dont know of any interpretation of Islamic law that supports this- I wonder, do these people stop and think what Islam has to say? Imagine how different things would if we thought critically about our expectations, our actions and their implications.

the other thing is that, like you said, we need to re-evaluate our ideas regarding economic necessities. I think people have just become too greedy, in the USA at least, and they will do anything (such as go into debt, pay interest, send their babies to daycare so Mommy can work) just to indulge their greed. I’m not against people enjoying the blessing of wealth (if they have it), dont get me wrong. I’m just talking about this money-worshipping attitude that puts the rights/welfare of others on the back burner. Islam teaches us to be slaves of Allah, not the dollar bill.

to take a step in the right direction, I think we need scholars to challenge oppressive trends in the current interpretation/practice of Islamic law (and to give these scholars our full support), and we need to simply become more God-conscious and sincere Muslims, with a critical and reflective attitude. May Allah help us.

I’d love to hear what others think..

12. R - 29 March 2006

.. on a different note, your blog got me thinking of the sacrifices mothers make. No wonder the Prophet (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said Your mother.. Your mother.. Your mother.. and then your father. I thought of my grandmothers (I admire them so much, may Allah have mercy on them), and I thought again about my own mother. actually, I was wrong yesterday in my assumption that my mother possesses the means of independence by virtue of her degrees. she sacrificed that too. cause what good are they 25 years later? yet alhamdulillah she does not regret any sacrifice, not one bit. if anything, she often says how fortunate she feels that Allah guided her to forgo her medical career to be a stay-at-home mom.

anyhow.. every situation is different. but one thing is for sure, motherhood has the potential for so much khayr, yet because it doesnt come with a fat paycheck, or bring any awards for intellectual achievement, it doesnt get the respect and dedication it deserves.

which brings me to the quote ABD posted:
“feminism will not succeed until what a woman does in the house is given as much importance as what she does outside it”

So true. but can I argue that what she does in the house is more important? The world will go on if she’s not a member of such-and-such firm, if she doesnt run such-and-such business, if she’s not there to treat such-and-such patient. There will be others to take her place. But in her family’s eyes, no one can take her place at home.

13. Baraka - 29 March 2006

Salaam ‘alaykum R,

As to your first comment:

Unabashed greed is very much a part of the culture in America but is increasingly rampant in Pakistan too. People are searching for working bahus without having seriously re-evaluated their expectations of that woman also continuing to shoulder all the responsibilities at home vis-a-vis children, housework, cooking, etc.
It creates incredible stress and burden on women.

Scholars should speak up, but I really think it comes down to individual choices. If you have Islam and scholars on your side it may make it easier, but when the time comes to make a decision between Islam and culture which do we choose? We may have all the fatawa of the world at hand and still go against them if we are not convinced in our hearts.

E.g., if I do not believe in dowry as practiced in South Asia, am I willing to refuse to accept it (as the parent of a son) or to give it (as the parent of a daughter)? Am I willing to bear the whispers and gossip of society?

Unfortunately, the answer is usually that we buckle to cultural pressures and expectations. It’s certainly not easy to stand against that pressure, so I think you’re right that a lot of self-critique and -reflection is in order.

As to your second comment:

“But can I argue that what she does in the house is more important? “

As much as I support this in my heart, I also feel some hesitancy – largely because I realize that it can be and is abused. Not that I think that’s your intent, just that it can be for others.

Raising a child, forming his/her character and helping them become fully human – what greater service is there than that, alhamdolillah?

While encouraging everyone to respect and support women who make that choice, it’s also important to continue according respect to the women who are unmarried, cannot have children, are divorced, widowed, work out of necessity or choice, etc.

My worry is that we tend to present extremes as the only viable options for women. She is the paradisiacal mother but if she wants to or has to step out of those boundaries then she’s not quite worthy of our respect anymore.

I think choices are important and women have to protect and widen those boundaries, if not for their own life then for the sake of other women’s life choices.

We have an ideal in our heads of what a stay-at-home mom is but the truth of the matter is that society is constantly shifting and we need to continually redefine Islamic paradigms along with that. The reality for most women today and throughout the ages is that they have worked inside and outside of the home. The class critique is often one that is left out of discussions.

This is fascinating, thanks so much for your insights! :)


14. R - 30 March 2006

No, thank you! You bring up very important points, and I totally understand what you are saying, and agree. I can relate to much of it because of my own experience as a single mother.

but I have to say, DEFINITELY with the help of Allah we can and must resist all these cultural expectations and pressures that are unjust and oppressive. I know it’s easier said than done but a person must have enough confidence and faith to follow through on what is right. How we can allow ourselves or our children to live a lie?? Islam is not meant to be something on paper, in theory, but not in practice; or something to be practiced according to convenience. If a people dont know any better, then that’s different.. but if they do know better, how could they choose to continue doing what they know isnt right? How will there be a positive change if those who know better behave like those who dont?

besides, as 2nd/3rd generation Westerners, we should be further removed from those negative aspects of our culture.

I know it’s not easy. personally, when I got married in my country of origin many years ago I didnt exactly do things as “expected” .. the way I did some things was unheard of in my family, but they got over it. I have found that if you explain why you dont follow certain practices or prefer to do things differently, people will listen and ultimately come to accept/respect your decisions. If they dont, then .. it’s my life and my relationship with Allah.

To be clear, I’m not talking about certain cultural practices that may be burdensome but not haram/questionable or unjust.

Thanks again Baraka for this discussion :) I really enjoyed it.

15. R - 30 March 2006

.. actually on second thought. there are some practices that may be burdensome but not necessarily haram that we should reconsider, or at least, we should not feel bound to follow just because “everyone else is doing it.”

an example I have in mind is the “shabka” in Egypt.. other Arabs have similar practice. basically when a girl is engaged, she is given jewerly.. whether as gold and/or a diamond ring (unfortunately, many have placed “prices” on these too). this is separate from the mahr/dowry given at the time of the marriage. traditionally, if the guy breaks off the engagement, he loses his “investment.”

not only is this an added (unnecessary) burden for men, but this can be very costly.. for example, a close relative of mine broke off 4 engagements before finally meeting the woman he married!

anyhow though I did not follow this particular practice, I personally dont see how it’s haram..? but I can understand why some people may go so far as to brand it “haram” and a “bid’a”.. it has become an expectation, and oftentimes if the guy cant/wont provide a shabka in a certain specified amount, then everything is called off. I think that attitude is problematic because Islam calls upon us to make marriage easy and has given us the conditions necessary for marriage, none of which include this practice.

and Allah knows best.

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