The United Airlines school of Sufism

Image of Muslim women in various colour headscarves kneeling in prayerLast week there was outrage after a man was manhandled off a United Airlines plane in Chicago, having boarded and taken the seat he had paid for, when the airline decided that their crew needed his seat more than he, a doctor with patients to attend to in Louisville, did. There was much outrage on Muslim social media, despite the fact that the man was not a Muslim, I suspect because we all knew it could have been one of us, and if it had been, the outrage would have been shared much less widely. A number of other stories of people being removed from aeroplanes after boarding or refused boarding in the first place because the plane had been overbooked, a scam in which airlines deliberately sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, anticipating that some passengers will not show and they can pocket the difference. Usually, the passenger can be accommodated on a later flight, but this can often be much later.

Over the weekend, a Muslim lady called Shagufta Yaqub (the former editor of the British Muslim magazine, Q-News) posted an article on Medium in which she described how ladies who attended a talk by a well-known Muslim scholar in Birmingham were ejected from the hall when prayer time came before the talk could begin, and a number of Muslim men turned up late. The sisters ended up waiting in a hot, cramped hallway and staircase while more men arrived, and were ultimately expected to sit in a room downstairs where they could not hear the speaker (this was the organisers’ decision, not the shaikh’s). Shagufta and two of her friends decided to enter the main hall, at one point joined by a fourth woman, but the rest of the women attending resigned themselves to being second place yet again:

Tired, frustrated but surprisingly compliant, the women quietly expressed their disappointment among themselves and returned downstairs to a room where they would not be able to see the speaker deliver his talk or be part of the event experience. The only reassurance they received was that the Shaykh would briefly visit them after the talk and perform tahneek on their babies. There were whisperings of discontent but no real objection. Had that been evidence of spiritually elevated souls accepting a misfortune without complaint I would have been in awe of them. Instead there seemed to be an acceptance that this kind of treatment was part and parcel of being a woman at a religious gathering — a humiliation I am sure many of them would not stand for in any other aspect of their lives.

I saw parallels between this event and the United Airlines incident — the sisters were, granted, not ejected with force, although this actually did happen recently in a London mosque where the management had decided that there was no longer room for women. But the sisters had come on time to an event that had been advertised as being for men and women, and I don’t doubt that many had come from a long distance to hear the shaikh. It’s usually considered the height of bad manners for a host to remove a guest when they have taken their seat, unless it had clearly been reserved for someone else or, for example, they were a single person taking up a space designed for eight, when eight people needed it. It was not only that women who had arrived on time or early were ejected from the main hall to make way for men who had arrived late, and that the first thing that clearly came to the organisers’ minds when the influx occurred was “let’s just push the women aside”; it’s that promises were broken and Muslims didn’t keep their word. On top of this, we see the common lax attitude among Muslims to timekeeping raise its head, the issue which results in many an “Asian wedding” drag on much longer than it should, inconveniencing the guests, particularly those waiting at the reception.

We howl when airlines and other organisations outside the community that hold power over us treat us with contempt, yet — despite all the rhetoric about how Islam empowers women (Shagufta Yaquoub noted in her piece that Muslim men often take great care to accommodate non-Muslim women) — this is how we treat them when they make the effort to come out and seek knowledge, and pay for it, and besides the obvious disrespect, having them wait for an extended period in a staircase and a hallway is a fire risk to them and others (as was pointed out when this was discussed on Facebook). Let us not forget that it was children who were shunted aside as well as women; if this happens often, it will give them the impression that Islamic events will always be a source of discomfort and unpleasantness and, if they are girls, that they do not matter as much as the men. This should never be allowed to happen again.

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