Disclaimer – Although I am fully aware of the fact that a blog is a space for personal opinions, I still wish to plant a disclaimer specifically for this post, given the fact that this is a pretty dicey one. THIS POST TRULY REPRESENTS MY VIEW ON RELIGION AND RITUALS. And, anybody who chooses to get offended shall do so at their own risk. Thanks!
How do I begin? From where do I begin to describe the emotions that this book has stirred in me? I picked up Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali based on very strong recommendations from two of the bloggers that I go to when I need to pick up good books. Tharani and Bindu (have linked their names to their reviews!) So, do I have anything more to say apart from what they’ve said already? I don’t know. Can I even review this book? Again, I have no clue. But I really want to say something about this book. My emotions. My thoughts. Or whatever you wish to call them.
This book is an autobiography of Ayaan, the author of Infidel, from the time she spent her childhood in Somalia, how she moved to Saudi Arabia from there only to see the Islamic practices that are worse than in Somalia. From Saudi, she moved to Nairobi where she spends most of her teens in. It is here that her views about Islam get refined, strengthened and she begins to question its tenets. Although (she believes) her parents (particularly, her father) are comparatively forward-thinking, it comes as a rude shock when he plans to marry her off to an unknown person from Canada. Infuriated and disgusted by the marriage, that’s when she does the unthinkable.. she disappears to Netherlands during her stopover at Frankfurt. It is after she moves to Netherlands that she discovers what freedom is all about. When she begins to collect her thoughts about Islam and starts airing them in public, she not only faces criticism but it also gets life threatening. Finally, she moves to the USA and is now living there.
So, what’s so inspiring about the book? Her story, per se. What she was born, how she was transformed and what she is now is such an inspiration to any contemporary woman. The book gave me some chilling truth about how shabbily women are treated in the name of religion.
Circumcision in Islam being my case in point. At one point, Ayaan works as a translator in the Netherlands. She accompanies a Somali woman for a gynecology exam. When the doctor asks the girl to take off her clothes to do the vaginal exam, she refuses saying he will not be able to see anything. When the doctor insists and the girl finally relents, he is flabbergasted. Her genitals are mutilated beyond repair and all this done in the name of ‘maintaining purity’ before she gets married. I freaked out reading it. I cannot get myself to think about how much pain the girl must’ve endured to get to this point. And, this isn’t fiction. It is happening to our women; now; in this day and age. All in the name of religion and God!
Beyond these gory details about Isalm, it is the way she addresses a lot of questions, mostly religious, that made me sit up and love this book. I cannot restrict this book to being just about Islam. For me, it addresses the question of religion. Any religion. I, as a born-Hindu, got a few answers from this book. My biggest grouse about religion (any!) is that they are based on rules which are set hundreds/thousands of centuries ago. Which, although might have been relevant then, have zero or mostly negative relevance and significance in the day and age that we are living in. While people evolve over time, religion doesn’t. Religion is obsolete! (People who’ve read my older blog would remember that boring lengthy post about the completely irrelevant Hindu-Brahmin rituals. What made the post happening were the comments.. such interesting stuff was said then.. How I miss those days!)
Ayaan, in her book, says Somalis were never taught to put ‘self’ before others. They always had to adhere to what others might think of them before thinking about whether it matters to them. This is almost akin to the Indian society rules. ‘What will others say if I don’t wear the Sindoor?’ ‘What will others think about my daughter if she doesn’t fast for Karva Chauth?’ ‘What will others say if my sister married a person from another caste?’ This ‘what will others..’ rules most of our conversations and gossips. But heck.. why shouldn’t I live for myself?!
I am not an atheist. Well, almost. I am agnostic. But, I was born, brought up and got married into pretty orthodox families. Yet, I’ve been the rebel. Not to the extent of being an infidel, but an endearing rebel, nevertheless. I remember writing about how I overcame the ‘sitting in a corner on those days of the month’ by silent protest. Now, I cook, clean, eat, have fun and make merry when I have my periods. I’ve even visited golus this year during my periods. If it is God who has given me this thing called menstruation, I don’t think He will feel bad that I worship him on those days. He shouldn’t and I know for sure that He doesn’t.
There is a practice in our community called ‘Samasarnam’. We’ll have to get the imprints of Sangu (shell) and Chakkaram (wheel) on our shoulders to indicate that we are from that community. Also, if we have them we’re apparently given a VIP pass to Heaven. The imprints are made using fire, a pretty painful exercise, almost like a permanent tattoo. My MIL was a little insistent that I get that done as soon as I got married. Thankfully, I got pregnant then and later when I came down with the kids, I used them as an excuse saying it would take days to heal and with kids, the project was a difficult one. But, from my heart, I believe it is the most ridiculous thing to do. Why? I didn’t have an answer until I read the Infidel. When talking about circumcision, Ayaan says if God made women without being circumcised , He meant us to be so. Anything that we do to our body in addition to the God given one is actually blasphemy. I mean, if my Vishnu/Narayana believed that our sect be separated with the tattoo, then He would’ve made us that way, right?
I know a lot of people, young modern people, with traditional values, as they call it. I know of someone who doesn’t ‘cook’ onions but eats them raw because if they cook it, the entire kitchen needs to be cleaned including the area where God’s idols are kept. The first question I would’ve asked was ‘why am I not supposed to be eating onions in the first place?’ Because if I eat onions, my emotions will not be stable. I could get angry and would indulge in ‘pleasure’ more often than I am warranted to do. So, how does it matter if I cook or eat the onions raw? But no, we are following ‘rules’, you see! This is exactly where the problems begin. The deeper meaning of religion and God is lost in the trivial adhering of rules and rituals.
I have a problem with a lot of rituals that we do in the name of religion. There’s something called ‘Kara adaiyan nombu’ that we are supposed to practice. Something, akin to Karva Chauth of the North. We have to wear a thin yellow thread around our necks and pray for the well being of our (future) husbands. I used to abhor this ritual as a child; yet, I couldn’t stand up and say I wouldn’t do it. Some unknown fear, you can call it. But now, I don’t do it. I do not want my children to see that a small string of thread will ensure the well being of the husbands. It is honestly bull***t! I am not sure my inlaws know about it but they know I am a rebel. So, they wouldn’t really mind if I told them so. Any wife or husband will always want their respective spouses to be happy and healthy; I do not have to ‘show’ to the world that I actually care for their well being.
A lot of my family members believe I am the incorrigible rebel who doesn’t know my religion well. I have learnt every ritual that my grandparents have taught me. I know the Bhagavad Gita more than a lot of well-meaning Hindus. I might not recite the slokas by heart but I know their meaning. Even now, my bookmarks contain a link to Thirupugazh and Periyalwar Thirumozhi. I listen to MS Amma’s Vishnu Sahasranamam when I wish to calm down. I don’t have to show to others what I do in the name of religion. A lot of those around me cannot get the fact that it is not ignorance of the customs but my reluctance that makes me not adhere to them. May be, I should start voicing my opinions; but I am the perennial coward. Also, sometimes, I really don’t care!
Talking about all this, we come to Ayaan’s most important point about hell and heaven. Paapam and Punyam, for us. From our young age, we portray God as a policeman to our kids. He is not the kind compassionate soul He is ideally supposed to be. ‘Adha thodadha.. Thotta ummachi kanna kuthiduva!’ (Don’t touch it.. Else, God will poke your eyes!’) I still can’t come to terms with the God that will poke a toddler’s eyes for not adhering to something. It is not for God (or someone else!) that we do something that is good. It is for us. We decide which is good and bad. Which means, you are your God. Anbe Sivam, anyone?
To me, inheriting a religion or caste as a birthright is wrong at so many levels. I might be a Hindu by birth, but I can turn into a Christian if I wish to. It doesn’t matter what you are born. It matters how you live and love. Religion is only an aid to that. If religion becomes a hindrance to the concept of love, then religion becomes dead and gone.
Anyway, my rants aside, if you want to introspect about yourself, read Infidel. I will not guarantee it will answer all your questions on religion and God, but it will definitely make you think. A lot!