Oh, Abu Eesa: An Apology Letter on Your Behalf

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Dear Abu Eesa,

My name is Nida Chowdhry. I only recently learned of you on March 8th, 2014, due to some jokes you made on and about International Women’s Day on Twitter and Facebook, as well as the subsequent explanations and apologies that you furnished on those same mediums.

It seems to me that you’re having a little PR problem. Lucky for you, one of my only transferable skills is writing, so I’ve taken the time to use my services to craft an apology letter (you seem to be having trouble writing one that is genuine). In place of the fapologies (fake apologies), here is one you can feel free to use:

Dear Everyone on the Internet that Has Seen My Posts Between March 8th and Whenever HR over at Al-Maghrib Institute finally asks me to stop: 

On March 8th, the 106th annual International Women’s Day (IWD), I, Abu Eesa, a teacher of Islamic Adab & Siyasah at Al-Maghrib Institute, made what I thought were some funny jokes about IWD on Twitter and Facebook, where I have about 20,000 and 40,000 followers respectively. I called IWD bakwas (rubbish), poked at ‘femininity‘, stereotyped men, made a cheeky comment about women getting ready on time, made another cheeky women-belong-in-the-kitchen joke, stereotyped women and inadvertently made a literal joke about women in Saudi Arabia, waved my male privilege around in women’s faces, and called it a night with this meme that blatantly dismissed all women in general.

I admit it was my first time trying out these jokes; I was hoping to test out my new material for a live performance in front of my students. It is safe to say I was not expecting so many rotten tomatoes! But things got really out of hand when I criticized my critics with a hyperbolic statement that I hoped would highlight the exaggerated weight that people were placing on what I  thought were harmless IWD jokes.

It is apparent that I have caused quite a stir on the Internet. Respected sister Rabia Choudry, a survivor of domestic abuse, was deeply offended by my aforementioned hyperbolic statement, and subsequently wrote a letter and launched a campaign to #FireAbuEesa (ouch). Her letter got over 53,000 shares on Facebook. There were several widely circulated public responses – a Huffington post article about the #MuslimMaleAllies Twitter campaign launched in response to my IWD jokes, Mohamed Ghilan was disappointed by the drama, Muslim Matters said my jokes went too far, AltMuslimah called out my ‘Brown Man’s Burden’, Islamic Monthly tried to clarify what feminism is, Suhaib Webb criticized the silence of leaders, Omid Safi said I was sexist and racist, Ahmed Kutty said I should speak good or remain silent, and a Canadian wrote me an open letter.

In response to criticisms, I got a little feisty and responded in a series of fapologies: the leave me alone apology, the women-are-oppressing-themselves not-an-apology, the I-stand-by-everything-I-said apology, the dismissive apology, and the my-fingers-are-so-tired-please-leave-me-alone apology.

Tongue-in-cheek recap aside, though it sadly took me an unexpectedly long few days to realize this, I now see that what I said was a big no-no. (Maybe if I had studied the fiqh of stand up comedy or tweeting, I wouldn’t be in this situation.) Here are some things I now realize that I didn’t before:

I understand now that if we are to go based on the definition that a ‘rape joke’ is any verbal or non-verbal construction in which rape is mentioned in the context of satire, irony, or humor of any kind, that I made a ‘rape joke’. Setting aside that the butt of my joke was not rape victims or victims of any type of violence against women, but actually those who frame Muslim men as nothing other than oppressors of women, it would still be classified as a ‘rape joke’. As a person in a position of power (teaching), of male privilege, with a significant social media presence, and a human being who is responsible for his words, it was not okay for me to make these jokes, let alone encourage the legitimacy of this brand of humor that can be deemed highly offensive, hurtful, harmful, and a troublesome promotion of an ugly global culture that accepts, makes excuses for, and encourages violence against women.

I understand that it was easy for me to use hyperbole regarding sexual violence to highlight my criticisms of a certain brand of white-centered feminism because I am not of the disproportionately affected female gender, many members for whom it is not as easy to take this subject in any form of humor because it affects them. And while some people were not offended by my hyperbolic statement, many were. I understand that I could have communicated my point of view in a much more precise and intelligent manner.

I also understand that my dismissive attitude based on a generalization of feminism was highly ignorant and brash. The subsequent manner in which I dismissed those who criticized me – particularly women – as feminists or ‘feminazis‘ was even more inappropriate and offensive. I understand now that it was unfair of me to group feminism with the other ‘isms’ that I find to be unIslamic: consumerism, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, racism. Furthermore, classifying things as ‘isms’ in a dismissive manner negates that these are actual problems that humankind is dealing with. Again, my objection is against a particular brand of feminism, and I should have communicated that clearly, and even then, in a non-condescending manner.

I understand now that I made light of a celebration – International Women’s Day (IWD) – without realizing or recognizing that this day means different things to different people, or the historical roots of this celebration. My jokes were insensitive. If I wanted to voice my concerns or criticisms of IWD, I should have articulated my point of view in a clear manner, rather than make passive-agressive jokes that could be misinterpreted and received in an unconstructive manner.

I understand that my comments highlighted deeper concerns and issues that Muslim women are facing within Muslim communities due to the malpractice of Islam and the deviation from its fundamental teachings about the respect, dignity, and rights due to women. My students, peers, and personal relations know me – they know that I do not condone such attitudes, behaviors, or policies, nor do I practice them. However, the insensitivity of my comments brought out the legitimate concerns women in our communities have that, and, while unrelated to me, were voiced more powerfully and articulately due to the offense I caused (or possibly finally heard because it was related to a male scandal, further highlighting that women in our communities need to be listened to and heard, and their grievances need to be addressed). Unlike their male counterparts, Muslim women must fight the additional struggle of being silenced within their communities, because to speak out would mean getting blamed for airing dirty laundry and opening the Muslim community to even more attacks from an already hostile and Islamophobic media (who often zealously exploits the plight of Muslim women in order to attack Islam as a whole). I hope that we all take the time to listen to what these women are saying, regardless of whether or not we agree with everything. That they have so much to say, that so many women have so much to say, and that there are commonalities in their concerns, says something alone.

I understand that in making these comments on Facebook and Twitter, I made a classic social media mistake: I assumed that the audience that would read and see my comments knew me as a person, had a clear understanding and sense of my voice, and would be clear on the intentions and implications of my comments. I understand and now know better that my use of this platform to communicate my thoughts in this manner have led to misunderstanding, miscommunication, and misinterpretation of my comments as they are not in the context of a personal interaction and personal relationship. I will take this as a lesson to exercise more wisdom and, yes, adab, in my online communication and of course, my personal communication and interactions.

Because I am sincere in my beliefs and a humble servant of God, I would like to take this moment to recognize the severity of the problems around which this issue has arisen. Domestic violence affected 2 million people in the UK last year alone – 1.2 million of which were women. In the United States, it is estimated that anywhere between 80,000 and 1.3 million women are raped each year. These are just two pieces of data that don’t take into account the global scale of these issues. The Muslim community is not free from these problems – we need not look farther than the safe houses and non-profit organizations that were created to specifically serve Muslim victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Even one woman, one person, suffering from any type of violence is one too many. We need to take a hard look at how and why these issues are taking place in our own communities and across the world, and I will be taking a hard look at myself to ask what I can do to raise awareness of these problems rather than make light of them in any form. Knowing the depth of these problems and the sensitivity of these issues, it is not okay for me or anyone to make a mockery of them even if it is for the purpose of highlighting other problems.

These women could easily be someone I know and I may never be able to comfort and support them, let alone address these issues as an individual, teacher, and community member, because they may be too afraid to speak with someone like me who has spoken so insensitively about these matters. If I had a daughter and she experienced this, would she ever be able to come to me for help? Or would my humor make her feel uncertain that she would get the reassurance and support that she needs? Would she be absolutely certain that I would not blame or shame her, that there is no place and no justification for belittling or oppression of any form against women in society? This level of empathy should be there for all women and people. I’m ashamed that it took me so long to imagine and realize all of this.

I realize now that I must carry with me an awareness of the issue of violence and sexual violence against women at all times, and that at any given moment, I could be speaking to a victim – or even a perpetrator. I understand that my male privilege affords me to not have to worry about or be as sensitive to issues of sexual violence the way that women do. Women walk, live, and breathe with these understandings. Even in the safest parts of the world, they are constantly concerned for their well-being. They have experienced these forms of violence; their sisters have experienced these forms of violence. As I write and as you read, there are women who are actually in this very moment experiencing: oppression, violence, abuse, and rape, regardless of their ethnicity, race, nationality, or religion. As we read and write, countless women are dealing with and struggling to heal from these abuses – if not suffering from them again.

I do not condone rape, female genital mutilation, domestic abuse be it psychological, verbal, or physical, child marriage, or the oppression of women in any form. For anyone who interpreted my statements as a validation for any form of demeaning, disrespecting, or abusing women and girls, as I mentioned before in a previous statement, I do not condone any of this type of behavior. It was not my intention to imply or insinuate that sexist, misogynistic attitudes or actions are okay.

From now on, I will be engaging with my students, peers, and faculty at the institution at which I teach to rectify the offenses of my comments. I will be attending a sensitivity training, as well as a social media training, and opening myself up to even more dialogue with women to gain a better understanding of their experiences as women within male-dominated structures, institutions, and communities, in order to better myself and better serve others. Please know that my comments were not indicative of any attitudes or behaviors of my peers or my place of teaching, or of my teachings themselves. These were a grave error, miscalculation, and misguidedness of my personal self.

I am appreciative for those who have separated my actions from myself, and have given me the benefit of the doubt of being an extremely fallible human being. Any good that I have said or done in my lifetime is due to the message and beauty of Islam, and any bad that has come is due to my poor judgment and straying from this message. I ask that you forgive me. I especially ask for the forgiveness for the people out there – and I know there are many – who have suffered from the abuses that I inadvertently made light of. I am truly filled with grief and regret that my insensitivity has harmed and hurt you. Please forgive me, and know that I have learned from my error, that I will continue to learn from it, that I appreciate the perspectives that help my broaden my own, and that I will use my own faults and errors as a means of addressing greater issues within our communities.

As a human who has made a mistake, please forgive me. As a professional and leader of a Muslim institution of learning, I will hold myself accountable for my comments and will reexamine my use of this brand of humor, especially because I know that there will come a day when I will be held accountable for everything I say and do. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is reported to have said, “I guarantee a house in Paradise for one who gives up arguing, even if he is in the right; and I guarantee a house in the middle of Paradise for one who abandons lying even when joking or for the sake of fun; and I guarantee a house in the highest part of Paradise for one who has good manners.” (Narrated by Abu Dawud) I hope that my mistake will continue to open up conversations, dialogues, awareness, and a betterment of our communities.


(Just sign here, Abu Eesa!)

I have not written this to make a mockery of this individual. As I thoroughly read through all of his posts related to this incident, and previous posts to gain an understanding of his voice, I realized that he has a certain brand of humor that – which I find anywhere between yawn, eye roll, and absolutely revolting – needs to be kept in context. As a human being, he really, really sucks at making apologies (and even more at making memes), but I can’t bring myself to derive from this that he is disingenuous or a bad person. As a teacher, his inability to understand what it is he needs to apologize for, and the silence or defensiveness of his peers, are rather chilling.

Whether or not he should be fired – beyond this individual – is an excellent point of conversation and policy-making in terms of a professional in a workplace, and even more so of a Muslim leader in a religious institution. Many people have been fired for making such comments in secular spaces. Many people have gotten away with it. Many people have learned from their mistakes. Some people have actually committed harmful actions in institutions – including Muslim religious institutions – such as the abuses that we are discussing, and gotten away with it, if not at least for a while. How and why is that even possible?

This person inadvertently highlighted some of the biggest problems that I have with Muslim institutions and communities – a disconnect from the realities of community members, and poisonous attitudes that are actually defended by people, while those who call out the attitudes and issues are the ones who are criticized. Sometimes, someone makes a mistake, and that mistake can actually highlight deeper issues and problems. I am actually thankful for this person making this mistake. This is bigger than him. I’ve been in this human being’s dumbass position. I’ve made really big and embarrassing and hurtful and harmful mistakes, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to recognize my mistakes, apologize to those who I have harmed, and learned to alter and shape my actions from the lessons that I’ve learned. This is a continual process of personal growth for me that will never be complete. What really matters is how we get up and walk away from this, and more importantly, what we walk towards.

I know and believe we can make the world a better place, and I am thankful that one persons very public mistake caused some real conversation. It is my hope that we can use this incident/indication as an opportunity to acknowledge, understand, realize, and address the experiences of women – Muslim and not, within and outside of – our communities. If this incident angered and upset you the way it angered and upset me, if it validated some grievances you haven’t been able to vocalize, if it demonstrated the disconnect of our institutions from truly addressing and working to rectify real social issues, then let’s not be quiet about it, and at the very least, let’s not belittle or dismiss our realities any longer.

Thank you to M. Hasna Maznavi for the edits. I am so grateful for your eye and support!  

EDIT (3/13/14 at 6:00pm EST): I wanted to share a message that I’ve received from a fellow sister in humanity. I will keep her identity anonymous:

“Reading that letter had me in tears. Because it made me realise how terribly alone I have been in my suffering yet unable to understand why that was. I never blamed any institute or any shayukh for not helping me because I never thought of them being responsible, I never went to them, I never asked for help. But that help should have been there without request. I still suffer. And I still won’t ask because even though your letter has lifted my spirits, I know what the real world is. I know how most muslims judge. I however wanted to thank you for making me, for a little while, feel as though there are people out there who would understand. Thank you.”

My heart is broken, not because I pity her, but because she deserves better, and we all deserve better. However, we won’t have a better community, a better society, a better world unless we do something. Please, have a conversation about these matters with your kids, friends, family members. Please donate to organizations like New Star Family Center and the North American Islamic Shelter for the Abused, or an equivalent organization in your local community. Please bear witness to these concerns, topics, and social problems, and do something about them, starting with taking a closer look at the environment we are creating with our own thoughts, words, and actions (silence is part of the problem). Strike a discusssion with your local community leaders and activists about the conditions within our communities. Let’s create conversations, actions, programs (while supporting these less ‘sexy’ causes and organizations that exist in our communities that are already doing important social work), and policies that strengthen our social fabric around issues that matter

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