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Pondering Culture: A Personification


Who are you?

You have always been there; long before I was born, or even my parents, for that matter. They say your roots go back to time immemorial. For centuries have you dictated the social norms that shroud the lives of my people. The date of your invention is not written in the history books; rather, the way you operate is in the form of an understanding between the minds of men and women “ the other half of humanity that for centuries has been greatly disadvantaged in your court of public opinion.

My people are tribal. Your presence in their society has ensured that no amounts of Mercedes Benz, Georgio Armani, or Blackberry can rescue them from your incapacitating grip. Even before my birth, you set the precedent for the limited view they would have in important matters of life. A baby girl is not to be desired. Women grow up and amount to nothing anyways. With a boy, a father will have someone to carry his name and inherit his land. Girls are prone to promiscuity to begin with. No, my people didn’t bury the girls alive, but the life that follows after birth is no better in comparison. You whispered to the people and they began to practice preventive procedures such as FGM and breast ironing. The girls are lead to believe that its all a part of the religion- the people even call the least harsh form of FGM ‘sunnah’. She is placated with candy and soda pop after the ceremony – items that are reserved for special events. It’s all good.  All except for the young girl who is assigned her day. The pain of flesh being cut is seared into memory for life. But what will be an even more painful memory for her in the future is how her family could allow that to happen. Peer pressure, she will be told. Not a convincing argument for the countless women who underwent the procedure back in the motherland, only to face incontinence and sexual health problems later in life.

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But back to your conniving ways. Childhood rituals are not the only practices you preside over. Your effects on our tribal society help dictate one’s social position. If born to clan X, you can become no better than a brick builder, or a tailor, or cheap labor in the fields or in the city. Ask my late grandmother about it. She toiled most of her life, working in the city, climbing a dizzying number of stairs each day carrying loads of white linen to be washed for the expats who were living in our country. There would be no need for expats if you hadn’t helped to squash some sectors of our society from earning a decent livelihood. But there she was her frail body washing endless tubs of clothing with her baby soft hands. And that’s just grandma. What about the time when your reckless whispering led to the assassination of my uncle? He was a knowledgeable flight engineer that lost his life doing what he loved most “flying in the sky”. The envy that you precipitated in the hearts of some of my countrymen convinced them to shoot down his plane that fatal day. The civil war had not even officially begun, but the civil war that you incited in the hearts of men had been brewing for time immemorial.

The war happens. War is just an outward manifestation of the blind rage that is locked up in man’s heart. My countrymen were certainly not an exception to this rule. War truly is hell. Almost two decades have passed, and it still rages on. You have a hidden hand in this nasty, perpetual fight. As time has gone by, religion has been thrown into the mix of things, but your ugly face is still in the background. Still a prime suspect for the countless deaths, killings, rapes, and injuries “both physical and psychological” that have tarnished the homeland since. After the initial years of brutal combat, I am told that it was the women of our country who cleaned up the streets. Brave women, who in the face of death helped restore a sense of normalcy to the neighborhoods. What would you have to say to that? Were you not the one who inspired the people to be ashamed of having daughters?

Lives have been lost in the war, but you continue to live in the hearts of men and women who were saved from this great calamity.  As the endless war continued, nations around the world embraced your people with open arms. Food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and education were put on a platter for them. But it seems like they made the ultimate deal with the devil many of their children would come to perish in these new lands. Their children would not die a physical death, but rather they would suffer a death of the soul. And you continue to be the invisible hand that is pulling the strings.  These new lands are plentiful indeed, but they are also inhabited by influences that the parents never imagined to exist. But add to the mix the wretched practices you continue to facilitate. The hierarchy you perpetuated still exists. It\’s not in the form of labor division, as it was back home. Now this hierarchy runs rampant in the shopping malls that dot our ethnic enclaves in the new lands, and in our masajid of all places. Parent X refuses to wed her son to the daughter of Parent Y. All because of the unspoken understanding you planted in the minds of my countrymen, some millennium ago. The story is as classic as Romeo and Juliet. Except that the Romeo and Juliet in our case don’t commit suicide, but something worse happens to these children – a deep misunderstanding of what Islam really is, and resentment towards you.  The potential young couple ask: do I obey my mother or disobey her? Mom keeps telling me to pick “ either become cut off from the family or receive her eternal pleasure by marrying a sister close in kin. We are all Muslims, and we come from the same country, speak the same language; “What is the big deal with us getting married?” the girl asks.

You are the quiet agreement between the minds of the mother and the son. In most cases, he honors her wishes and ends up shattering the heart of an innocent fellow countrywoman. What control did she have over what tribe she was born to? None. But the petty subconscious understandings that you have bred in the hearts of men make her have to even consider that question. What a shame.

Who are you? You are the vice that culture can be when used inappropriately.  Don’t get me wrong. Culture is a beautiful thing, but beware of how it can be exploited.

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other)). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). (49:13)

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Safia Farole is a second year PhD student in the department of Political Science at UCLA. She studies in the areas of Comparative Politics and Race, Ethnicity and Politics, focusing specifically on the politics of identity, public opinion, and immigration and integration in Western democracies.



  1. Uncarved

    July 13, 2011 at 1:03 AM

    MashaAllah! You spoke my heart out in the best of ways.. But somehow, I feel we scream and shreak but silently – no one listens. No one changes.

    • Aziza

      July 16, 2011 at 8:03 PM

      Unfortunately, you’re right. :(

  2. fatima

    July 13, 2011 at 4:38 AM

    It’s always always amazing to me how culture and ignorance in the name of culture has a stronger hold on people than logic and religion.

  3. Iesa Galloway

    July 13, 2011 at 3:31 PM

    NICE, Masha’Allah. I see a lot of hope in the 1st and 2nd generations of Muslims in the US, Canada and Europe as they are marrying across cultures and separating Muslim country’s cultural norms from Islamic Orthodoxy.

    Change will and can happen but it will be generational… and it will depend on us striving to learn or Deen.


    • Safia Farole

      July 14, 2011 at 4:09 PM

      Well said. Any move toward positive change will have to involve a better understanding of Islam among the Muslim masses.

  4. uclabro

    July 13, 2011 at 6:28 PM

    sA. Nice piece. I love surprises in writing. Constructive criticism: The subject is still kind of vague at the end. Maybe use less words or define it differently. Instead of “You are the vice that culture can be when used innapropriately,” something simpler. Still better than my writing though. Looking forward to your next piece iA!
    All of it is sad, esp. the end :( . One thing to keep in mind though is that this is something the sahaba faced too. The story of Abu Dharr RA and Bilal RA comes to mind.

    • Safia Farole

      July 14, 2011 at 4:13 PM

      Thank you for that feedback. It is true that the sahab also faced similar issues regarding race and social stratification. I wrote about the hadith involving Bilal and Abu Dharr in one of my older posts. You can find that under my name.

  5. Halima

    July 13, 2011 at 10:49 PM

    Woooooah! That was an awesome piece…really powerful. Culture truly is a good and bad thing.. and for us Somali peeps it’s both yet more the latter than the former. We have such a rich figgin’ culture but it’s light is hidden because of stupid things like tribalism.. Hopeful things will change..praying for a new Somalia. <3

    • Safia Farole

      July 14, 2011 at 4:16 PM

      Somalis do have a very rich culture, and we’ve just mutilated it. I mean, Somalia has the longest coast line in all of Africa – that is a business just waiting to be tapped into. But because the country has been so lawless, today other nations are polluting the beautiful waters, and reaping the fish.

      And I want readers to keep in mind that I explicitly didn’t include the name of any one country. This article can be about any country that fits the description – and there are many.

      • nyla

        July 16, 2011 at 12:43 PM

        I agree to the last part of your comment. Any predominantly Muslim country could easily fit this description in one way or the other. We all have different cultures and a tendency to put culture first. What’s lacking is a thorough understanding of this Deen, a strong iman and the ability to think big and look for ways to benefit this ummah. May Allah swt grant us the strength, knowledge and ability to live our lives in the best possible way so that we may leave behind an exemplary legacy for the generations that look up to us. Ameen.

  6. Muttaqi

    July 13, 2011 at 11:39 PM

    It was kind of confusing at first, but became much clearer towards the end.

    A few words of advice.

    When writing for the internet, use lots of white space. That means, break up some of these long paragraphs into many shorter ones. Don’t worry about if it’s linguistically “correct.” Seeing these huge blocks of black type will scare most readers away.

    As for the subject itself, it sounds as if you’re speaking of Somalia. I’m not Somali, but I have friends who are. They’ve told me how these divisions exist among their people, which I find very strange.

    Just about everyone in Somalia is the same faith and speak the same language. Yet there’s so much violence and hatred over tribal lineage.

    One friend told me that there is one tribe/clan that is despised more than the others simply because of some legend that the tribe’s forefather ate donkey meat. Any Somali who reads this please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

    Lord knows my own tribe (African-Americans) have enough problems of their own. May Allah guide us all to the truth.

  7. Sabeen Mansoori

    July 14, 2011 at 5:48 PM

    It is true that culture is truly a powerful force in our lives. We are able to objectively analyze the ‘back-home’ cultures only because we have been torn out from that native soil and planted in a foreign one. We are able to spot those aspects of American Muslim culture that reek of ‘cultural baggage’ but I don’t think we can properly analyze all the other influences that are creeping in.
    Jazakallah Khair for a thought provoking piece of writing.

  8. Rationalist Muslim

    July 14, 2011 at 7:27 PM

    Even though I personally disagree with the cultural practices that you have mentioned, as a nihilist I cannot help but think that such is the nature of mankind since time immemorial. No one knows when and where exactly the first human being evolved from primitive primates and how he/she felt. No one knows what emotions that human felt and if he/she knew any language or left behind any writings, paper was not discovered 250,000 years ago, the time period where scientific consensus is that the first man appeared from among the animals.

    Since that time, nature has always pounded Man with its tortuous realities. Infectious diseases, cancers, emotional pain of seeing God no where, of finding no meaning in life, disabilities, blindness, dysmorphia, all ugly realities of life, have been with man since then. On top of it, the practices that you call cultural, have been man’s companion. They seem barbaric. Yes, they look frightening. Yes, they are painful. But so is life.

    We are dying right now. Our cells are aging, dying. Women are born with limited number of eggs, with age, their quality is decreasing and the babies produced from such eggs will have higher risks of congenital genetic diseases. Who dictates such miseries? God? Or Mother Nature? Either way, we have inherited them. The religious among us, including myself, try to live with these realities by saying that these are tests from Allah swt. He is testing us. But those who have no faith, are left with no hope. Arent they as humans to have some hope, some peace of mind, in the midst of these haunting realities?

    All in all, the issues you mentioned are indeed heart breaking. But what is there to be done? Who is there to decide what is right, what is wrong? In naturalistic world, might is right. Powerful and the most fit will survive in order to reproduce and spread the progeny. The cultures which have the ability to do exactly that will survive.

    My prayers are for those tortured through such cultures but I cannot do anything else except to accept these as realities of life. Because there is no other option. Every thing is tortuous, even living.

  9. Rationalist Muslim

    July 14, 2011 at 7:39 PM

    Regarding your critique of phobia to inter-racial marriages , that is also an ancient practice. Kings and rulers in days gone by used to practice incest in order to keep the race pure. Both brother and sister, with consent, engaged in such acts. Harems used to have women, as well as cute little boys. It was accepted in culture by many people. Of course, Islam has told us that incest is wrong, so at least in this case we have a Divine criteria. But if we take Islam out of the picture, the same question that you are asking regarding today’s culture which prohibits a black Muslim to marry a white Muslimah, a sister madly in love with her brother would probably also ask same question. But I am sure you would trample on her emotions because you will find incest disgusting, wrong and immoral. But what about emotions of two siblings in love with each other?

    Mind you, as a Muslim, I find incest immoral. But I am just throwing out a scenario because you quoted a Quranic verse in support of your argument that we should be able to marry between races. What about brothers and sisters who want to get married?

  10. Wait

    July 15, 2011 at 8:19 AM

    Hopefully in the west when the older generation dies off they take their cultural retardation with them.

  11. nyla

    July 16, 2011 at 10:10 AM


    That was an awesome piece of work, mashaAllah! I really enjoyed reading it and loved how you’ve highlighted the the problems that arise in society when culture is followed blindly and without rationale.

    Our deen is simple and logical, that’s the beauty of it mashaAllah. It’s amazing to find that most Muslim societies rather follow their local customs and consider it to be part of Islam, and in the process, make their lives difficult. No matter how wrong or despicable a certain thing maybe, people find it easier to practice it when everyone around them does the same. That’s probably why even the worst cultural practices have a significant number of followers, who practice them without question.

    Culture, when used wisely and not allowing it to contradict religion, can be a beautiful thing. But if we continue to make the social ills of culture the norm in our lives, we will bring up a generation of confused Muslims who would resent being born in to this religion and be more inclined to lead a more secular way of life. And we would be accountable for that.

  12. Abu Yusuf

    July 17, 2011 at 4:29 PM

    The tendency to demonize culture amongst our youth these days is quite short-sighted. I completely understand what you’re getting at and appreciate that many ‘cultural-artifacts’ of people’s native countries has become a major obstacle and issue in contemporary societies in the West for those trying to lead an ‘Islamic’ lifestyle. But to ignore and attempt to downplay the essential and important role culture plays in our development as unique individuals and contributing to the diversity of our communities and societies as a whole is a dangerous current many have begun to believe in and preach.

    While I applaud your bravery in tackling such a sensitive and difficult issue as this, please consider the role INDIVIDUAL decision making and behaviors (albeit culturally supported) are the real cause of these problems at the core. Culture is simply the scapegoat and fall-back of refuge to justify irresponsible and harmful conduct on behalf of those who refuse to accept responsibility for their own affairs.

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