Saturday, May 5, 2007

Tahmena Bokhari's Findings & Experiences on...

History of Islam & Lives of Muslim Villagers
across Southeast Asia:
The Inter-Weaving of Histories & Identities

"To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child. For what is [wo]man's lifetime unless the memory of past events is woven with those of earlier times?"- Marcus Tullius Cicero

This is a brief description of my work and research in Muslim villages, communities and mosques across 11 East Asian & Southeast Asian countries (China, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and Japan) in 2007. I visited mosques and worked and lived among Muslim villagers (at times with no running water or electricity) to learn about the histories of these Muslim communities and to gain an understanding of the day-to-day lives (struggles, issues, lifestyles) of the Muslims living here. What does it mean to be a Muslim in Southeast Asia? What is their interpretation and meaning of Islam? What is the history behind these village communities? How did these Muslim villages come about and develop all across Southeast Asia?
As a social worker, some of the areas in which I was able to contribute to the villages was in education (such as teaching English, educational activities with children in their local schools, connecting local education resources) and health awareness (providing information on basic health and relevant diseases such as TB, malaria or dengue fever, arranging for donation of medicines and other necessities, connecting with local health care organizations). As I talked with women from the villages, I did what they did throughout the day, such as standing knee-high in the water of the rice fields bent over during 8hrs of sunlight, preparing meals in an outside kitchen on open fires, collecting water from pump wells and boiling it, and looking after children while doing all this. In talking with the men who were fisherman, I went out with them on their boats back and forth out into the bodies of water their villages were on (Gulf of Thailand, South China Sea or the Java Sea). I also at times went out to market with both men and women to sell fish, farm animals, rice, fruit or small handicrafts women may make in the villages. I somewhat became a part of the communal network in the villages (and networks among several villages), where everyone had a role or a skill to contribute to the overall village life. This helped me to learn about their day-to-day lives and struggles given their socio-economic status as rural Muslim villagers.
The elderly would guide and assist in child-rearing, educate children through oral telling of history, and spend time teaching children while parents were busy working. This generation had very respectable positions in the community and often played the roles of imams, spiritual healers, shamans (men), birthing assistants (women), village counselors, family advisors, keepers of information, and village representatives. Much of the history of the particular communities I was able to obtain by sitting with the elders. Being from the east myself and having the experience of living in remote parts of Pakistan, I could relate to the communal system and the hierarchy/structure of duties. Although there are many deep and long-lasting complications of poverty and isolation, such as illness due to lack of regular access to health-care, access to an acceptable standard of formal schooling, and constant day-to-day struggles over 'bread and butter' issues, I certainly had an appreciation for the values of family life, peace and honesty, living in symbiosis with the environment, and the communal safety net.
Certainly, I personally gained much more than what I was able to give. In learning about Islam across Southeast Asia, I learned about a multiplicity of Muslim identities ranging across a wide spectrum of communities and experiences, as well as gaining a stronger understanding of my own history. One of the most significant contributions to my own personal on-going learning was the multiple and complex ways in which many of our histories are inter-woven, specifically in this case as Muslims and as Asians.

Southeast Asia: Geography
Southeast Asia is a sub-region of Asia, consisting of the countries that are geographically south of China, east of India, and north of Australia. This includes 11 countries (starting from the west): Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam (which are defined as the mainland) and Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, East Timor, and Philippines (defined as maritime). Of the Muslim world or "Dar al-Islam" (a term used to communicate a territory or region that is known to be where a large majority is Muslim and/or is governed as an Islamic state), Southeast Asia is the region of the world that is home to the majority of the world’s Muslims and home to the largest Muslim nation (Indonesia). Singapore and the mainland countries (defined above) are predominantly Buddhist, with the second largest religion being Islam. Malaysia, western Indonesia and Brunei are predominantly Muslim. Vietnam and Philippines have Christian and Catholic populations.
Seen below is a map of Southeast Asia courtesy of Google images.

Southeast Asia is a large region of the world with great diversity in environments and landscapes from urban to remote rural, island and sea life, flat rice field lands to volcanoes and hills/mountains.

Southeast Asia: Colonization

Colonization also had a significant impact on the developments of Southeast Asian countries and communities. The first settlers in Southeast Asia came from southern China to the Philippines in 2500 (BC) and later spread to modern day Malaysia and Indonesia.
In the early 1900s, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Borneo Island (divided by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei) were colonized by Britain, Indochina (Cambodia and Vietnam) by France, and the Philippines by Spain. Due to this, there was significant attraction for commercial agriculture and mining, which brought in large numbers of migrants from India and China. This had (and still does have) significant impacts on the culture of Southeast Asia, including intermarriage.

Though exploring these impacts was not the focus of my work, I did find some similarities of descending from a history of colonization between myself (being that my familial lineage is from British colonized India) and the Southeast Asian Muslims I met through my research. One of these aspects was the presence of "shadism" and the internalized belief of European/Anglo-Saxon/Caucasian superiority. For example, when I spoke with women in particular, they indicated that the fairer-skinned a woman is, the higher her chances of being pursued for marriage. When I spoke with men, they indicated that fairer-skinned men are believed (hidden belief reflected in pattern of behavior) to be stronger and more intelligent and usually are able to get better jobs. Note that the concept of "shadism" (a form of oppression in which fairer shades of skin are preferred), like many social phenomenon, is a hidden belief/value and an experience reflected more so in behavior and social patterns rather than verbally acknowledged or directly stated in an interview. Certainly, there are other factors to shadism such as classism and historical distinctions of outside-land labourers who were darker-skinned due to being in direct sunlight for most of the day for most of their lives. (Note that the existence and extent of shadism is debated pre-, post-, and during, colonial periods). There is, however, tremendous research and scholarly writing on deeply entrenched 'left-overs' from colonization and on the multiple and over-layered methods in which colonization has impacted, and continues to shape, both individual psyches and communities in all aspects of life.

Origins of Islam
Islam came to the world in the 7th century from Arabia with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Today, there are estimated to be 1.5 - 1.8 billion Muslims in the world and Islam is the 2nd largest religion (2nd to Christianity at 2.1 billion) and making up 21% of the world’s population, (again 2nd to Christianity at 33%). Islam is also the fastest growing religion in the world, at an estimated 2.9% growth per year. Islam is based on the premise or tenet that there is one God, Allah, and Muhammad is his last messenger. The Quran is the Islamic holy book, (presented in written format by Caliph Abu Baker given a compilation of oral memorizations from recitation) based on recitations from Prophet Muhammad as the messenger of the word of God. The five pillars of Islam are declaration of faith in the basic tenet, prayer 5 times per day, fasting during the month of Ramadan, giving charity to the poor, and performing “Hajj” (pilgrimage) to Mecca once in a lifetime. These are based on the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), compiled in texts called Hadith, including those written by Imam Bukhari (Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari) who was from the Persian City of Bukhara and has some familial linkages with today's Bukhari/Bokhari families. Islam is also divided into two main sects, Sunni and Shia, as well as several sub-groups such as Ismaili and Ahmadiyya. There is also a class of Muslims called “Syeds” (who can be Sunni or Shia), a title which indicates being from the bloodline of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
It is important to be aware of the vast diversity within the Muslim world and among individuals who identify as Muslim. As mentioned earlier, Southeast Asia itself includes a vast diversity of identities and certainly looking within Muslim Southeast Asians, the same diversity exists. It is important to note that Muslims around the world and within even one single village identify as Muslim in various ways and ‘practice’ Islam across a wide spectrum of what may be considered ‘Islamic’. This is due to various cultural, historical, social, economic, political and personal circumstances. Women for example may cover their head in various ways (hijab, niqab or a scarf), or not cover at all, or cover sometimes, some may dress “moderately”, some may be traditional and others may be modern, some may be professionals and others may be full time mothers, and some men and women may abide by all, some, or none of the 5 pillars and some may in addition follow the "Hadith". As with anywhere in the world, this large range of 'being' Muslim was quite apparent across Southeast Asian communities.

Background of this Project: Weaving of Personal Stories and Histories of Muslims
As a Canadian Muslim woman with a Pakistani background, I have had an interest in learning about my own history. I started with researching my Sunni Syed Muslim family, with particular our name, Bokhari. I traced our roots back to the City of Bukhara (formerly spelled "Bokhara"), now in the country of Uzbekistan. This interest in my own Muslim history cascaded off into learning about the historical spread of Islam around the world.
Bukhara was a major hub of the Silk Road, a route which connected west and east Asia, leading to much of the interwoven histories and cultural tapestries we can find today across Asia and parts of Europe.
In 1408, my ancestors left the Persian City of Bukhara, for the province of Punjab in India. Punjab was not yet an official state of India and became one in 1947 after the Partition. It was known as "Punjab" in the Persian world because in Farsi (Persian) this term means 5 waters, referring to the land of the 5 rivers Beas, Jhelum, Chenad, Ravi and Sutlej.
Many centuries later, during the Partition of 1947, my family migrated from Jalandhar City in Punjab (India) to the newly formed Punjab Province in Pakistan. Today, along with Islamic, our family culture includes a mixture of Uzbek, Persian, Arab, Afghan, Hindu, Sikh, Punjabi, Urdu, Indian and British (due to colonization of India) traditions, ceremonies, beliefs, foods, clothings and languages. This list also includes western cultures due to the impact of globalization, our recent migration to North America and the U.K., and long-lasting impacts of colonization. I found similar weavings of a multiplicity of identities (and histories) in the people I lived and worked with across the Southeast Asian countries. The Indochinese culture (Cambodians most identify as this race) is a tapestry of artifacts of China, India and everything in between as well as beliefs that span Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, and animist.

"The Personal is the Political"

This project was both personal and professional for me, as this work (on the lives of Muslims and the history of Islam in Southeast Asia) was also a piece of my own history that I shared with this region. I was (and am) personally invested in the process of discovery, the (re)learning and (re)telling of history, and was looking for reflections of myself in the people I met along my journey. With Southeast Asia being where the majority of the world’s Muslims are located, I was also determined to highlight an Islamic identity (which I knew existed) that countered the ‘terrorist’ images increasingly being shown of Muslim people given the post 9-11 context. It was interesting to me, but perhaps not surprising, that almost none of the photographs and stories of Muslims I saw in the mainstream western media were of Muslims visibly of Southeast Asian or Chinese ethnic backgrounds. The account of this journey here on this website is a personal project of the telling and (re)telling of realities of Islamic life across Southeast Asia, with multiple voices including those of the people whom I interviewed, those who I befriended along the way, writers and scholars who have shaped my understanding of the region, and my own interpretations of what I have seen.

Social Location & Issues of Being an Insider-Outsider
Today, as I entered Southeast Asia, I could feel that I was not a complete foreigner. Being from the east and a person of colour, I could see that villagers responded to me in a slightly different manner than other foreigners who presented as caucasian. I also found familiarity in the customs, traditions, beliefs and lifestyles. However, I was also conscious that I was an “outsider” in many ways as well.

The concept of "insider-outsider" is frequently used in community development and social work arenas to describe how closely one self-identifies (or disassociates) and/or is perceived to be 'one of us' (or 'one of them') by the group one is working with). 'Social location' is how one identifies across the range of human experience including race, ethnicity, sex, faith, education, class, sexual orientation, geographical history, family background, political standpoint and more. Both concepts are critical to include in one's research and practice with people. This, in large part, is due to problematic earlier methods of research that adhere to limited western or euro-centric definitions of creating knowledge. For example, the concept of “going native”, a negative term mostly used in anthropological ethnographic research to describe when the researcher becomes too much a part of the community or too assimilated (becoming an 'insider'), while living there for the purpose of research. "Going native" can occur while carrying out this kind of "participant-observation" methods of research for long periods of time. It can also be a reason used to dismiss one's research when the researcher is perceived as 'too blended-in' with the subject-matter, thereby making the research findings too subjective (lacking 'objectivity' as necessary in the western model of research) to have significant contribution to the building of knowledge.
However, I believe, as do many researchers specifically in the fields of equity/justice, women studies, sociology and social work, that the concept of 'objectivity' in this kind of research is somewhat of a western-made fallacy. I believe that we are all aspects of ‘native’ (or of being an insider) at some point and context or another. I feel that one does not lose objectivity or gain subjectivity, but that we speak and interpret information from our social location (which is continually changing), whether we all, as I did above, declare it or not, or are aware of it or not. I feel it necessary for researchers, no matter where on the insider-outsider spectrum, to identify their social location and constantly examine how this may impact their relationship with their environment of data collection and in their interpretation of data. For community development officers and social workers (working locally or internationally) in practice, it is important for them to reexamine their own social locations (and with respect to their client groups) to ensure that they are conducting the highest quality of assessments and making the best possible sound conclusions and recommendations.
I quote Anais Nin (1903 -1977), a French writer, who so eloquently stated, “We don't see things as they are; we see things as we are.” I add here that we relate to the world as we relate to (and see) ourselves in the world. Thus, to understand others, we must understand ourselves, and I see this as a symbiotic process, in which understanding the 'relational dialogue' is key. This is partly why I have weaved in my own family history with the history of the villagers I was meeting and with the history of Southeast Asia I had read from various sources --- as I acknowledge that I am a part of the research process and interpret the information from my social location.

This was one of the (many) missing elements of earlier anthropologist-researchers and colonial reporters, who did not identify their own social locations. Certainly colonial writers, when labeling native groups as ‘savages’ and ‘barbaric’, were speaking from their own perspectives. This was not formally acknowledged in their work, thereby mis-presenting their findings as 'objective' and leaving the assumption that anyone else would also have the same interpretations. Their conclusions, by chance, would serve their interests since these conclusions validated the need to ‘bring civilization’ or colonize the peoples and the lands. I believe that we need more research (and more visibility of research) of certain histories, communities and races by researchers who can personally identify with their subject-matter. This would balance the political/public/authoritative voice on the debate on what the history really was and whose stories get told and how. I believe the perspective of such researchers is critical to the construction of history and in shaping our 'present' and in how we currently understand ourselves. Thus, my perspectives on the Southeast Asian cultures I have seen, are not objective, nor do I feel any account of similar research is, and not only do I declare it, I delve into it for the pursuit of knowledge, because one of the ways I define knowledge is ‘perspective’.
As a Muslim Pakistani woman walking around (in western dress) in the villages, interacting with villagers, the markets, and small eating places, as well as in urban centres, I felt a sense of belonging. I did not feel I extremely stood-out or extremely blended-in. Although, I feel a sense of belonging in Canada as well as in Pakistan, both of a distinct nature, I felt yet a new sense of belonging in various parts of Southeast Asia. I attribute this to me being Asian, someone who identifies as being 'from the East', someone who abides by eastern philosophies of 'knowing', 'visioning' and of 'the self', someone who can (to a degree) identify with the poverty (and its implications) in a "developing" nation, my status as Muslim (originally from the east) in a Muslim dominated country, as well as to being a person visibly non-caucasian. The villagers also indicated the impacts of these similarities. Many of them noted that the reason they shared as much with me as they did was because they felt I was one of their own. Some clearly indicated that had I been American or caucasian they would not be able to share so much so openly, or may never have developed such a bond. They indicated that they would be comfortable and cooperative with any foreigner, but they felt that with someone who is also "from the east" and is Muslim there is less to explain and more to share. I am aware that there may be information missing to me that may be apparent to someone who was more of an outsider in these respects, as clearly our experiences would have been different.

At the same, I am also very much an ‘outsider’ in many respects to Southeast Asian cultures, which in itself is a vast region with so many distinct cultures and identities within it. Some of the major differences were my status as a Canadian visitor, difference in languages, my profession as a social worker, as well as my own socio-economic status.
I had various privileges due to my Canadian nationality, my lighter skin-shade compared to those I was working with (often times I was mistaken for caucasian-western), my education and (perceived) status as a (North American) social worker, researcher or "expert". Certainly, I was somewhere on the large spectrum of being an “insider-outsider” and in some cases throughout my work in Southeast Asia I was closer to an insider than outsider and in other cases more outsider than in. This was dependent on the environment in which I was in, whether it was a poor rural village, a large company, a government office, an elite middle-class party or simply walking down the street. This of course impacted the way that I was received, the way I related to those around me, my experiences and the way that I interpreted and made sense of my experiences.

because I shared both a Muslim and Indian history with Southeast Asians, certain parts of who I am were suddenly validated in new public and sometimes strange ways. This includes the experience of being amongst a large community that looked like me (or of similar shades, race and ethnicity), spoke similar languages (i.e. Hindi in Malaysia & Singapore), hearing old Indian music blasted on the festive streets that I only listened to among closest of friends, hearing the 'azan' sometimes as I walked by a masjid, openly seeing people/professionals wearing varieties of non-western clothing, speaking languages and talking about topics so openly in public (professional and official state spaces) that I was used to doing so only in small private circles. This was a beautiful experience and one leading to significant personal insight.

Stories & Histories of Islam in Southeast Asia

Today, Southeast Asia is home to the largest Muslim population and the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia. Indonesia is the 4th largest nation in the world with population of 240 million. Singapore and the mainland countries (Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) are predominantly Buddhist, with second largest religion being Islam. Malaysia, western Indonesia and Brunei are predominantly Muslim. The Muslims in Southeast Asia are also sometimes referred to as Cham communities or Cham Muslims.

Islam came to the birthplace of my ancestors, the City of Bukhara, in 650 (AD) via an Arab invasion. In 1220 the city was severely destroyed by Genghis Khan and Mongol empire invasion. Much after Persian rule, it came under the Soviet empire, and is now in the country of Uzbekistan. Note that there are also Bokhari/Bukhari Jews and Jewish families with lineages originating back to the City of Bukhara.

The City of Bukhara
was a major hub of the Silk Road. It was first traveled in 138 BC, when Zhang Qian, a Chinese explorer under the Han dynasty, went from China to West Asia. The Silk Road has linked the Chinese culture with the Indian, Roman and Persian cultures, spreading Chinese inventions as silk, gunpowder, and printing into western Asia/Europe and bringing Buddhism, Christian and Islamic cultures and arts into China.

Traveled since then by the likes of Alexander the Great (Sikandar) and Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire (which later founded the Moghul empire in South Asia), this route was a means of not only economic trade, but also cultural, religious and political exchange which has shaped our global realities to this day. For example, one of the reasons that European settlers were attracted to the Southeast Asian region was for spices and herbs only available in the far east. Given the importance of spice trading, one of the reasons that have been attributed to Southeast Asians converting to Islam was that of the desire to create a “brotherhood of spice traders”, a mutual identity and a sense of belonging to this particular community of livelihood.

Islam in Southeast Asia has been dated back to the 12th century with Mongol invasions as well as Afghan and Indian migrations and travels, but quickly spread in the 15th century. In 1260 (AD), after the elected reign of Kublai Khan (last of the Mongul leaders), the Mongols saw decades of internal wars, they became extremely weak as a united threat, and were unable to defend their leadership. Thus, Muslim leaders led rebellions and established Muslim states throughout the Silk Road region. In addition, many Mongol rulers converted to Islam (few Mongul tribes had previously converted), creating a widespread Muslim regions from parts of China to west Africa. In this region of Islamic states (Dar al-Islam), Arabic became the main language and Muslims were united as one community. This meant that Muslim traders could expect good treatment by other Muslims as they traveled the Silk Road.

Since the collapse of the Mongol empire, the Silk Road has seen tremendous war which has made travel along it very difficult. In addition, as kingdoms developed across the Silk Road, taxes for merchants increased which made it very expensive as a trade route. This encouraged traders (mostly now Muslim) to seek alternative routes, as the demands for goods that were carried via the Silk Route were still high.
The southern parts of Asia were open and hospitable to merchants because they were far enough from Mongol feuds and these countries were also Muslim (within Dar al-Islam). This lead to further investments in ships, rather than camels or horses, which were also faster and larger. Many Muslims I met along my journey claimed Mongol ancestry or that they were descendants of the trader communities.

In the late 1300’s, Zheng He, through his voyages across land and sea, has been identified as one of the reasons for the spread of Islam (indicated by Hamka in 1961, a well known Islamic scholar). Zheng He (1371-1433) was a Chinese Muslim eunuch explorer under the Ming dynasty. It has also been theorized (by Galvin Menzies, 2002) that He also discovered America well before Columbus. Zheng He had roots in the City of Bukhara as he was 6 generations removed from a governor in the City of Bukhara and was from a family lineage operating under the Mongols of the “Hui” ethnic group in Bukhara. Zheng He and his crew would seek out mosques and promote building of mosques, connect with local Muslim groups, teach local people about Islam, teach them to read the Quran, and specifically created Chinese Muslim communities. Specifically in Southeast Asia, he had built Chinese Muslim communities in Eastern Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines and is also known as the founder of Indochinese communities. I visited a museum on his life in Melaka, Malaysia (the Cheng Ho Cultural Museum). Some Muslim members I spoke with in Malaysia believed that they were descendants of Zheng He’s family members or descendants of Zheng He’s crews or members of his fleet that settled in these regions (note that Zheng He did not have children as he was a eunuch).

Muslim Communities: Mosques

The largest mosque in Southeast Asia is the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, which is the third largest in the world. The Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Mosque is the second largest mosque in Southeast Asia, know as Malaysia's Blue Mosque.

Muslim Communities: Village Life
I lived among the members of the communities whom I interviewed to learn about their day-to-day lives. Some of the villages I went to did not have electricity or running water and some areas were known to have land-mines. The villages also appeared environmentally clean. Most of the waste created by the communities was biodegradable, the homes were built with wood and on stilts (due to rice farms below and to prevent flooding), they did not have very many possessions and ‘things’ in their homes that were not meant for specific purposes, clothes were often made at home, many got around by walking, biking or motor biking. There was also a strong sense of the communal safety net and the idea of sharing what one has with the entire village.

Prey Tom Commune (Cambodia), is home to a Muslim village called Dom Nak Jangea, and
within it a small mosque titled Noor-e-Janna (seen here in pic). This mosque was originally built in 1973 and then rebuilt in 1994. The mosque had to be rebuilt because it was destroyed during civil war under the regime of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), a communist party who fought to destroy any form of religion, development or westernization. This particular Muslim village has 54 families, who earn livelihoods as rice farmers, by fishing and some as local Tuk-tuk drivers (similar to Indian rickshaws, a cabin-carriage pulled by motor-bike).

I spent some time with Imam Matdad, 75 years of age, who was elected the Imam for this village 10 years ago. He told me that his entire family was killed by the Khmer Rouge. He also talked to me about his Islamic teachings and ways of life being centered around peace and serenity. He is Sunni and indicated that almost all Muslims in
Cambodia are Sunni. He indicated that their village is struggling as although they farm rice, they are forced to have to buy rice for half of the year. They are too small in numbers to fully support the land. He also announced my entry into the village, giving me permission to talk to everyone there, and provided me a great deal of background information on life and people in the village. This helped build a strong connection between myself and the villagers.

Imam Matdad and other Imams I met requested from me translated versions of the Quran. They wanted translations in their local language Khmer or in English. They said that with all the civil issues, they were concerned that they may be losing their identity and their community. They lost a lot of their processions and many elders were killed who were the keepers and story tellers of their histories. They indicated that as they are the leaders now, they are trying to pass on whatever they can to the younger generations, but due to economic hardship and that many of the younger members have to leave the villages to find work, it is difficult to maintain that sense of community as well as pass on their histories orally. In addition, they wanted to be connected to other Muslims across Southeast Asia and globally so they can keep up with world politics and religious issues.

One of the ways in which I connected with the members of the village was the same way in which my ancestors traveling via the
Silk Road may have, by showing my “sisterhood” as a Muslim. I asked the women about the Quran and if they had a copy. They brought me a copy and I began to read it. This usually first shocked the women and they laughed, gasped and called all others to come and watch. Although they did understand that I was Muslim, they were surprised that someone that did not look like them could read Arabic (language of Quran) and that I could greet them as other Muslims do, by saying “Aslam-o-Alaikum”, instead of their local language (i.e. ‘Souousidey’ in local language of Khmer in Cambodia). As seen in these pictures, women are surprised and then slowly begin to read with me. This helped establish trust and verified a common interest and value/belief system.

This particular woman, aged 20, is a newly wed in the village and was visiting her mother's home while I was there. The women were extremely helpful and informative. I felt very comfortable and sensed that they were also very comfortable with me. Soon, the male translator was side-lined and I was able to communicate with them directly through their broken English, my broken French (as they were a French colony), the little Khmer I learned along the way and a lot of sign language. It was apparent they wanted to speak with me as a woman among women only, without interference of men. The women discussed with me issues of sexuality, child-birth, childrearing and health. Before the local hospital was built, the doctor would come to the village and they would deliver babies at home. The women also wanted to hear about my experiences as Muslim woman traveler, about Canada and about Pakistan. They asked a lot of questions to compare themselves to Pakistanis and they concluded that the two Muslim cultures seem very much the same.

Seen here is Masjid Asa Karim, built in 1962 in
Kampot, Cambodia. This was a beautifully constructed mosque. This Muslim village includes 370 families and as most Muslims in Cambodia (and many other parts of Southeast Asia), they earned livelihoods by rice farming and fishing. Women are also fisherman.
Seen in the picture here are the fishing boats of the villagers. Fishing is one of the main livelihoods for many Muslims in smaller poorer villages, along with rice farming.

Seen in the picture below is the Imam of Masjid Asa Karim, 83. He welcomed me into the village and spent much with me telling me of the history that he has seen during his lifetime as well as that which was passed on to him by previous generations orally and through story-telling.

Being an ethnic minority, Muslims struggled tremendously during Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia and communist rule in Vietnam. My appointed guide within this village, Mr. Abdul Rashid Mohammad, indicated to me, as others had confirmed, that there are 1 million Muslims in Cambodia (population of 14 million), and about 370 Muslim villages, each with its own Mosque. Many Muslims in Cambodia, often called Cham Muslims or Cham community, are descendants of Muslims who came from Vietnam in the mid and late 1900’s.

Some of my best times were when I did activities with the children. They were also very open to working with me and indicated their strong desire to be educated.

Seen here is a donated pump well in a poor Muslim village in Cambodia.

In Indonesia, the Muslim members that I spoke with indicated that majority of the country is Sunni and there are a small number (approx 100, 000) Shias.
I was also told by Muslims I spoke with in the mosques that there are about 240 branches of Ahmadiyya Muslims in Indonesia. In one small village I went to near Jakarta, I talked with Imam Ahmed, who was considered quite knowledgeable about Islamic history in Indonesia.

He indicated to that Islam first came to Indonesia in the 11th century and that it spread from 1200 to 1400, mostly due to trade.
This was confirmed by many others whom I spoke with, as well as with authors of Southeast Asian and Islamic history whom I read. Many Indonesian Muslims are members of or closely follow “Muhammadiyah”, an Islamic organization in Indonesia dedicated to education and community building.

In Indonesia, (as with Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and parts of Vietnam) I found mostly extremely poor villages and some small elite circles of Muslims with everything in between this range (although, I spend much of my time in rural villages rather than urban and middle-class areas).

Urban Life & Middle-class Muslims
Mosque in urban Singapore seen in below picture.
Though my focus was on village and rural communities, I did engage with Urban life and middle-class men and women. I will briefly describe these experiences here. Again, I speak here from my social location and my experience as a North American middle-class woman. My location on the 'insider-outsider' spectrum changed as I mostly-likely shared similar socio-economic backgrounds with the men and women in urban areas. In the day to day lives of the middle-classes in urban centres of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, I have to say that I found a sense of diversity rare in other parts of the world (even Toronto with its claim of being the most diverse in the world). Women of various ethnicities and religions were walking down the urban streets of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and even in some parts of the main cities of Indonesia wearing all kinds of clothing from full niqab to mini-skirts, from western to saris, and speaking multiple languages. There was also a visible sense of diversity in faith with mosques, temples, and churches all along the same street as well as a vast choice of ethno-culturally specific restaurants. No one seemed to be staring or concerned, it was the norm, unlike in western countries or other parts of the world where I have visited. Muslim women presented in a range of Muslim identities and appearances.
This was confirmed when I spoke with various women directly. Women were surprised to hear that in America, working women may only get 6 weeks for maternity leave. Women I spoke with who worked in international companies, or were professionals, indicated they found it odd that events that occur in everyones lives (giving birth, getting married, death in family, care taking of sick and elderly) are not events that women can easily work around in America (from what they hear from western counterparts). Certainly, Southeast Asian Muslim women also faced gender discrimination and experienced constant challenges of balancing home and work life, but felt that it would be harder (based on what they knew, heard and read) in western countries. They also felt that (caucasian) western women were too inwardly concerned, such as a high focus on looks, appearance, way of dress and associated judgments/ insecurities, as well as this false notion of 'women's liberation' being solely on (economic) independence. The women here were providing an example of the concept of 'independence' in the east, which I myself have found over and over again in all my time in the east. The issue of 'independence' is viewed very differently in eastern philosophies of self, in which we are all co-dependent whether we acknowledge it or not, because we all function within a societal space of some sort. Even though these women were middle-class professional women whom I was speaking with, they seemed to have a strong sense of family and community values similar to the women in the villages. They also indicated that this was the norm in their locations, even given diversity of religions, ethnicities and cultures, and this is why they feel it would be even harder in North America, because not everyone else around you would have the same regard for the priority of family in one's life.
Unlike, what I was used to in Canada, the Muslims here took Islam as a given, they lived in a Muslim country where Muslims ruled and were the majority. Islam was the norm, and hence, so were they. It was a part of their identity they need not have to explain, such as what namaz, azaan or janaaza is. Infact, I heard these statements (in English or local languages) very often in mainstream urban areas across Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia (i.e “I am going to pray namaz” or “I will be back after three days after the janaaza” or “Asalam-o-alaikum sister”). In addition, clothing did not seem to be a major concern for women or in general communities. For example, women (specifically in Singapore and Indonesian urban and rural areas) mentioned that it was the norm to wear the hijab, so no one questioned them. Similarly, women in more urban areas who dressed in trendy and modern fashions indicated that they also felt that their dress was the norm, although head-covering was common, and did not feel any pressure to dress one way or another. They indicated that 'fashion' was a big part of women's lives here, even if women wore the hijab. I got a sense of that when I entered the shopping centres and malls. Women that I spoke with, mostly professionals, educated and married with families, said that they were aware of debates on 'hijab' in various parts of the world and that they found it a bit odd that such a "small or personal issue was getting so much public attention, and mostly debated by men". The focus of their concerns was not about "hijab or no hijab, but other larger issues of family, education and economic stability".

In speaking with Muslims in Malaysia, Singapore & Thailand (countries in better economic shape than Cambodia, Brunei and Laos), many confirmed the history of the spread of Islam across Southeast Asia that I read about and as I have described earlier. I found similarities in some Muslims I spoke with in Indonesia. Though my focus was on rural and village life, I had an opportunity to speak to urban elder retired members of the Muslim communities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, who were university educated and held senior positions in government or business before retirement. They discussed their histories with me and indicated potential familial bloodlines shared with those of Zheng He (note that He was a eunuch and did not have any children) or were descendants of Ghengis Khan. Some indicated that they believe that their ancestors were spice traders. Many were also aware of the City of Bukhara as a major hub in the Silk Road. Many had high regard for the City where many Sunni Syed Bokhari/Bukhari families came from, significantly where Imam Bukhari came from who wrote parts of the Hadith. Many of these men were open with me once they knew my name, as from my name, they placed my roots to the City of Bukhara and recognized me as a Syed, although the concept of "Syed" is not as common in Southeast Asia as it is in South Asia. As discussed earlier, this again lead me to renegotiate myself as an insider-outsider as well as (re)understand the impact of my (perceived) social location.

"Those who authentically commit themselves to people must re-examine themselves constantly." - Paulo Freire

Thank You
Although my research on the Islamic history of Southeast Asia, and particularly of Muslim migration patterns, is on-going, I have learned a great deal about Southeast Asian Muslim culture and peoples and about my own history in various ways.

To all of you whom I met along my journey, I want to thank you. I am grateful to all of the Muslims of Southeast Asia who shared your time and stories with me, as well as welcomed me into your homes as a friend. I feel extremely
privileged to have known you and to have had the opportunity to learn from you.


"Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by [wo]men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results." - Machiavelli
I dedicate this project to the man who brought me up from an infant, the late Syed Talib (Shah) Hussain Bokhari (~1912-2007), who was my first mentor in life and who helped construct my sense of history and identity. It was through many conversations with him over the years, and more so in his last difficult months, that I was able to document our history through his story-telling. I am blessed to have had this opportunity... and yet... the feeling remains, that there was, is, so much more, more to ask, more to hear, more to learn....just as how Abu always said it would be.
As I now turn to my broader family 'historians' to fill the gaps, in his honour, and for all the elders in the world who are the keepers and tellers of histories, I continue to be a student of 'our past'.

...The End...


Omer Gilani said...

Omer Gilani here, just wanted to say hello to you & gook luck for your trip. you havent posted any snaps of your surroundings yet. i am looking forward to it.

Anonymous said...

This is amazing work. Very informative and a genuine and honest perspective. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Sara said...

This is amazing work. I like how you so honestly place your own social feels like a more genuine account of the telling of history this way. I also appreciate your thoughts on the eastern and western ways of knowing. Those of us who only know north america may not be aware that there are other ways of knowing, other ways of telling history, other ways of thinking.
I also really like the pictures you took. This is all information and knowledge, or perspective as you call it that we do not see as often as we should. Thank you for making this public for all to see.

Anonymous said...

This was very informative. It makes clear how histories are so interwoven and therefore our identities and communities as well. Sometimes I feel that in North America we have unnaturally cut ourselves off from our history, whether that be european or other, european of course still dominant here. It is also informative to understand migration patterns in history as we all seem to think this is a new phenomenon with globalization and because its so much easier to travel now. I also appreciate your indepth research as so many north american kids go off overseas to 'backpack' or so called find themselves, but what do they really gain or what do they contribute from the poor countries they are using for a selfish activity? Anyone else please feel free to add to this topic.
Lisa from Toronto

Amy said...

Yes, I agree with all earlier comments. I think only certain kids get to go away to find themselves, those with rich parents, usually european descendants and usually are quite young. Often kids who are from these countries do not get to go back and understand their own history. I am really proud that someone like you is able to do this and share with the rest of us not able. I agree that we need more people like you doing this kind of work.
Amy Ho from Vancouver

Rizwan Husain said...

Thank you for sharing this. It is so insightful especially for those of us who share your history as Pakistanis. I have grown up in the west all my life and just cannot relate to living without running water or electricity. I dont know how you being from the west were able to adjust to living just the bare bones, no fridge, no hairdryer, no make-up, no iron, no hot water to bathe in or wash your clothes...and not to mention living in all kinds of strange and unknown places.

Thank you to Allah that you are healthy and well as so much could have gone wrong. Happy to hear that you had a productive journey, that you accomplished what you set out to and did not get sick, injured or robbed or assaulted. You are a very brave and progressive woman. I don’t think that I, being a male, could do what you did.

Thank you for your hard work and sharing this. It is advancement for Muslims and Pakistanis to have you doing this kind of work and acting as an ambassador for us.

Rizwan Husain

Saima said...

I have been reading and rereading this site for the last couple of weeks. There is so much information so its hard to write a short comment. I can imagine it was hard to reduce your entire work just to this small space in the website.
I guess for me as a Muslim I feel validated in my identity by this. It is nice to see other images of Muslims, not just those from middle east to represent the second largest religion in the world. Because you are Muslim, woman, and Pakistani, you were speaking as an insider along these characteristics and so we got a perspective we hardly get on such cultures. Usually when a journalist, researcher or filmmaker is north american white, that changes how they see the world. You did not explain Islam in western terms, you explain it in your own terms, and for a broader audience. For pakistani audience this website is so eye-opening and validating.
I will have more to say on this soon but wanted to give my initial thoughts.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing journey to go on and what a great learning opportunity. It is so important to know about your own history and as you said how it overlaps in so many ways with others. This is especially important for those of us living in north america and are so detached from this history in so many ways, not to mention not taught in schools to read our own history. I think many ethnic groups can benefit from your work and should be mandatory in high school to do a project on one's own history. I think many students will be surprised at what they find and for some it will help build a sense of self-identity and community.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

That was very informative and wonderful to read. Thanks for all the great work that you are doing.


Orion2007 said...

Assalam-u-alaikum Tahmena

Great work sister. Mashaallah. Keep it up. Thanks for this blog. Jazakallah Khair.

take care

Lisa said...

Thank you for expanding on the "research" I had conducted myself while in Southeast Asia. Your work is very amirable and I envy the fact that you have been able to turn something that so many of us love (and would love) to do into a career. I'm also very impressed you've been able to research your family history back that far. Most of us can only do about 4 generations. Good luck with future research!! :)

Lisa Kolodziejski

Orion2007 said...

Tahmina, are you going to write a book about this. If yes, please post information about it here so I may buy it inshaAllah.

A. Hussan said...

This is amazing research and it is personal for so many of us. I like how you place yourself in the context and agree that who the researcher is or who is telling the story makes a big difference on what the story actually becomes. Thank you for making the connections to your own history and the histories of so many of us. This makes it relevant to us and is timely given all the issues Muslims are now facing.
A. Hussan from New York

S. Amir from NY said...

I have read about Islamic history as it is one of my interests as a hobby, but this is unlike anything I have read. You are doing this as a professional which is so admirable, especially being a Pakistani Muslim woman. I love the way you have put this together "inter-weaving" your own, putting in your voice so clearly and really connecting with the people. You made so many connections in this short piece and I cannot imagine what your longer document would look like. Your socialist and humanitarian self certainly does come out in your writing. In particular many of the writers of this history have been men, sometimes not even Muslim, so to have a Muslim woman embark on this is wonderful.
Your telling of the history, focusing on the people themselves and on poor rural Muslim village life is very unique. Again, you have proven to be an engaging and wise writer. This should be widely circulated among researchers and for general interest.
By the way - you should also make public the history of Bukhara or Bokharis presentation you did.

S. Amir from New York

Jerry said...

Great website and love the pictures of the villages. I had no idea how connected Asian and Islamic histories are...its amazing. Makes me want to read more now on this. Although in the pictures it looks beautiful I cannot imagine living a whole life without running water and electricity as some of these villagers. I am sure it was not easy for you and you were probably at more risk of illness not knowing the local environment as best as the locals might.
Thank you for making this public and all the best with your ongoing work all over the world.

Melanie said...

Yes, I agree with earlier person who said that its great to have women doing this kind of research. Now that I think about it most history I have read has been written by men. I find that Tahmena gives a very personalized approach, nonjudgmental and is able to get into areas men cannot so easily, like talking to women about childbirth. I also really like how she genuinely puts out her social location and shows 'why' she is interested in these villages. That takes courage and honesty, which is why I think the villagers responded to her so openly.

In addition to being a woman, I think being a Pakistani Muslim woman, Tahmena was able to bring a certain 'insider' perspective that we are just not used to seeing or reading here in the west. We are too used to Muslim women being the 'subject matter' rather than the researcher.

Way to go Tahmena!!! Please keep us informed of your work.

Melanie from Calgary

J. Hannah said...

I really like how you give the women a voice rather than just analyze them, as many western media do. It is also very interesting to hear the women's perspectives on North American women, which I myself being a North American woman somewhat agree with. We only see one side of it, whereas you have shown us a bit on their philosophy and their own understandings of being a woman. I want to learn more about eastern philosophies.
Who is to say who is liberated and who is oppressed?

I also think that being an 'insider' as you call it so very important here. You are able to represent fully both Muslims and westerners which I think is amazing and hence make this website for mainly a western audience.

It always amazes me how usually on tv whenever tribal or remote areas of the world are shown, the spokesperson is always white/western/British, why is that? I am touching on a subject raised in the comments in your other website, that why is it always the white kids (with rich parents) that go off to africa or some poor country to save the poor? Do we not have enough people of colour living in north america that should have the opportunity to help their own countries or learn about their roots. Why cant we develop programs for that? It would be great to have a program for youth (who are non-white) to study abroad for free or learn about their histories that they lost.

Anyway, thank you again for your courage, honesty and openness in sharing yourself and your journey with us.

J. Hannah

Kamran said...

This is a great site. Thank you for sharing it with everyone so we can see your wonderful work and learn about this topic. I admire you for taking this on in your career. I can imagine it must have been tough living in some of these places and sometimes scary and dangerous.
Thank you also for connecting the histories as I think sometimes as Pakistani Muslims we forget about how we are linked to other eastern cultures and Muslims around the world.
Kamran from Germany

Anonymous said...

This seems like such a radical approach to research and understanding the world. It makes me question a lot of my assumptions about other people right here in Toronto or in other parts of the world. Where do I get some of my ideas? From media which is set-up to cater to western assumptions about the world. It seems like a vicious cycle. I think we are also quite isolated here in Canada from other parts of the world, even in terms of the news channels and television shows we get. Thank you for bringing this back to us in the way that you have.

Marylin from Boston said...

Yes, I agree we need more women doing this and women dialogueing with women about women! I am an American woman and agree with the impression Tahmena mentions Southeast Asian women have of us, with media and magazines as their reference of course, and our work culture. There is so much we can learn from each other as women as we all, women all over the globe, live in patriarchal societies in some way shape or form. I think we need to cut the middle 'man' out of reporters, politicians and etc, and have ways of connecting. So thank you Tahmena for sharing this in the way that you have.
Marylin from Boston

Marylin from Boston said...

On the site overall, I love the way you so honestly placed yourself in the context you were working in. The site is also very informative and I now want to learn more about Muslims in this part of the world as all we hear about is Muslims in the middle east.
Marylin from Boston

Shaaz said...

I feel the wonderful work you've done is something that can be carried forwards in many ways. There are instances in the same region where rightly or not, Muslims are facing problems owing to extremism. Mindanao is a region on Philippines where there is unrest and Muslims have been blamed for several terrorism related incidents. Similarly in Thailand there are concerns about growing of extremism. Perhaps a comparative study could expose issues which Muslims are facing living in these regions to find out whether there are lessons to learned from the various Muslim communities living in South East Asia.
Well done Tahmeena. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

I love this site and all of your work. You always have such groundbreaking stuff to share. I also agree with your struggle to show a different side to Islam and Muslims than what is being shown in the media since 9/11. I like how you so very casually and subtly make a very big point that identities are not static and change and are impacted by so many things. I think this is one of the skills women writers have, or perhaps those influenced by women's histories. You don't make it threatening, just tell it like a story that has to be told with no judgment.
Thank you

Tanya from Markham, ON said...

I have finally read through the entire site and there is so much information here to take in. It is amazing work and I love how you tell the story. Its very easy to read but also very much thought provoking and I found myself stopping to discuss bits and pieces of it with my husband to understand it.

I found it very interesting the way you describe how women see themselves in that part of the world. Its wonderful that you were able to connect with men and women in such remote parts of the world and that they were open to you. It also amazes me how someone living in the most remote and isolated of places with perhaps no formal education knows more about their history and perhaps world history that we do here in our first world country. Thank you for bringing your journey back to us in this format and in some ways helping to "un-do" what colonial eurocentric writers did.

Tanya from Markham, ON

J.J. said...

This is such a jam-packed site. It is hard to read it all at once as there is so much to reflect on. You end on a very deep note and there are various pieces you have put here and there...for the reader to put together. The quotes were really inspiring as well. The pictures also helped bring life to the story. Love the pic of the woman laughing in shock as you read.
Keep us posted on more of your work.

Ibichi said...

Wow, it's a excelent work, my friend... I understand now many things, included your unhappiness because the defeat of your Grandfather two months ago... I hope I could help you to know about Islam in Spain (Al Andalus) when you'll visit my country. Xss, David

Anonymous said...

Hi Tahmena,
it's been a long time since we have talked. i am really impressed by your work and wish you all the best in your future pursuits. as you have so eloquently pointed out the media hypersensationalized representation of mulsims is indeed thwarted, racist and discriminatory. your work fills an important void in helping to dismantle such images and representations, many of which are socially and culturally damaging. you are to be commended for such an engaging and powerful narrative. i have enjoyed reading your work and look forward to the publication of this work. It is too good for others to share in the richness of the herstories. rai.

Z. Syed said...

I am so impressed with this. This is amazing work. I have, like others, read it over at different time to really think about it. I cannot wait to read more. You should present this to large audiences and in conferences.
However, sometimes I feel you are very much ahead of your time and years, in the Pakistani world and the North American world, and that people are just not ready for some of your ideas and all that you do. You may push them beyond their comforts zones.
You are truly inspirational. I feel blessed that I know you personally and want to thank you for everything you have done.
Zulfiqar Syed

Z. Syed said...

Although I like the term herstories, I feel it may undermine your work as not being 'real' history. And your work and perspective is very much real and holds great weight. This is just because people don't understand the term and its perhaps too radical of a concept.
I also think this history is new to a lot of Pakistanis and Muslims not just Americans, even though you said this website is more for American audiences being it in English and on Blogger. Through your own learning that you have described here, I think you are educating many many people of all kinds of backgrounds, which again is very commendable.

Thank you.
Zulfiqar Syed

Aabas from Germany said...

Dear Tahmena,
Again you have proved yourself as a genuine and passionate social worker and someone who always pushes us to think differently. You push the limits on how we see others, how we see ourselves and thus, how we see the world. This story is incredible and I am so proud that a Muslim Pakistani woman is making such strides and building such connections throughout the Muslim world. I look forward to reading a future book and encourage you to keep writing and writing as we need more of you, more of this and more of these kinds of perspectives.
Thank you.
Aabas from Germany

Rachel from Toronto said...

I love the concept of 'interweaving' histories and narratives, as well as inter-weaving memory with 'reality and past with you have done here in such a creative way with words. These concepts make you rethink much of what you may think you know. Thank you for taking the time with me the other day to discuss this work in more detail. I hope to read more soon and please let us know if you are ever doing any more workshops or presentations.
Rachel from Toronto

Amer said...

Dear Ms Bokhari and fellow readers,

I have now read the entire site as well as the sites on Pakistan earthquake and Mexico. When are you going to open up the other ones?
I thoroughly enjoyed all of your sites and especially this one since it's your latest. I like the way you presented the story as it is very creative and very easy for anyone to read.
I am also quite intrigued by your analysis and telling of your own past. I never thought that Imam Bukhari was perhaps named from the City of Bukhara and I guess it makes sense because many of our names are from our ancestral locations or based on the class of work they did.
Another concept that really hit me was about socially locating yourself to understand where your own perspective may be coming from. It's great that you embedded it within your work. With recent discussions on the situation in Pakistan, where all Pakistanis seem to be divided and of all sorts of opinions, I think such an approach would really help. I agree that self-awareness is really key to effective dialogue. I hope to hear more on this soon and learn even more about your research.
On behalf of those of us that simply sit around and talk about things, thank you for doing everything that you do.
Amer Raja from Vancouver

jameel said...

I have to concur with all the comments posted so far. Its really outstanding to read your personal account and experiences. I think the biggest reason is the way you were able to integrate yourself alongst the people. Something a typical news reporter would not be able to do. Learning from and teaching the people at the same time. This insight is so unique and so valuable.

Thank you for opportunity to read your work and I look forward to learning more, Insha'Allah!


Neelo from London, England said...

This story is very well written and well told, as is the one about the 2005 Pakistan earthquake. I know you say you are neither a journalist nor historian, but you really out do them both the way you present your material. I agree with all earlier comments. I especially agree that you were able to access information that a journalist or perhaps traditional researcher may not have. But it is really the way you tell the story that fascinates me. And I know this is just your natural approach, you make it look so easy, but it's a skill many take decades to master, and hence why, again, the person telling the story is as critical as the story itself. In fact, I would say, the person telling the story makes the story! This is especially true in your case. I am sold, now where do I buy the book?
Neelo from London, England

Anonymous said...

Really great writing. It was hard to put it down but so much to think about. Like the pictures a lot. You look so different. Please keep your fan club posted on any new work or any presentations.
Asif N.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading about the spread of Islam in such remote areas. The diversity of the cultures surrounding these communities and cities was surprising at the least. I really liked your statements on how people perceive their surroundings as the norm. In very diverse areas, they learn to 'ACCEPT' everyone from those being very conservative to very liberals.

Your statement on the idea of women's liberation being more than economic was thought provoking. A thought that, perhaps the success of a relationship and a family unit depends on greater focus on meeting these needs, then which gender is expected to do what.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and will do so again. Thank you for your dedication and great effort in bring this togather.

Mississauga, ON

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading your site. I actually printed and then read it, like a story book.
You put so much effort into it; it deserved to be read word by word in detail with out missing anything. It is very informative. Thank you. You are my champion. Great job. I wish you more and more success professionally. I will always be your supporter.
I pray you always smile the way you are smiling in these pictures......

Anonymous said...

Tahmena, this is a beautiful weaving together of voices and perspectives. Thanks for your reflections on social location, eastern and western ways of knowing, and including many voices and perspectives when talking about "history". I really appreciated the viewpoints commmunity members shared with you. I look forward to reading and learning more.


Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful website of your interdisciplinary work which overlaps anthropology, history, international development, journalism, and more. Thank you for sharing this story with us so genuinely and personally. This is not always easy to do in such a public way. You have given readers a lot to think about in terms of developing parts of the world that we may visit as tourists or in some volunteer capacity. Certainly, you demonstrate that there is a whole body of research and work in this field that one must be somewhat exposed to before venturing out there 'blindly'. As North Americans, we often think we can just walk in to any place, like its our global right, but others do not do that to us. You never see someone from the east photographing white people like we do them. I really like this concept of insider/outsider and examining your social location. I never really thought about in those terms but certainly can relate to the feelings you expressed. Even when I watch documentaries, they don't discuss these aspects of the field work people do overseas.

Mizan said...

You are lovely like ur blog,I am from freind

Anonymous said...

I am a Muslim woman who lives in Mississauga. I really enjoyed reading your this site. I feel that Muslims are too divided and do not work as much as we can together to overcome our differences. I think we have to do more to educate ourselves on these issues and your work is helping us do that. I also think its great that this story is being told by a Muslim woman as too often discussions on Islam are lead by men.
You are a great role model.
Thank you.

Michael van der Galien said...


I first of all wanted to thank you for sending me the link to your blog. It's a wonderful account, you tell the story in a tremendous manner. Very impressive.

Secondly; there's so much material that it's impossible to read it all in one time. I'll come back many times to read, and probably re-read it.

Thirdly; this is a wonderful idea for a blog. I like how you dedicate it to one thing.

Fourthly; my hat goes off to you, for doing this by yourself, a Muslim Pakistani woman. You've done great.

Jawed Memon said...

Very informative.

Yusuf/Martin said...

Very interesting especially as I am currently living in S.E.Asia in a small kampung and writing about that experience

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful research. I have now read both of your sites on this link in detail. I also read another article about you. This story has to be widely published and I do hope you will soon publish your book. We need refreshed images of Muslims and women. We need to move beyond the ignorance we are bombarded with in the news.

Vancouver, B.C.

Anonymous said...

Really good work. You are a great ambassador for Canada. I am looking forward to reading the book on this topic. I am sure there is way too much from you to fit on this website. You tease us here, especially those that really are interested in the politics and sociology of Muslims in Southeast Asia along with the history. Give us more soon. Your analysis and work deserves greater publication and the greatest of awards.
All the best.

Tom Carew, Dublin, Ireland said...

I am not one of those who believe in any literal re-incarnation, but Rumi in spirit lives on in free and fully-alive and radiant spirits such as you.

Tom Carew
Dublin, Ireland

Anonymous said...

I have read the entire site and all the comments. There is nothing I can think to add other than I am at a loss for words to describe how touched I am. I will certainly be purchasing the book and waiting to read and learn much more about your work and you. You are certainly one in a million, perhaps billion, although I know you say that you are a logical product of your previous generations.
New York, USA

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this information with the rest of the world through this site and your lectures and workshops. Now you must publish your book. Your work in Pakistan and Southeast Asia are magnificent tributes to both of your grandparents....may they both rest in peace.
Kashif Akhtar

Mallikarjuna said...

Really wonderfull and most informative blog

Anonymous said...

Very well done.

papar said...
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papar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
papar said...

Dear Tahmena:
I have been reading and rereading this site for the last couple of days. There is so much information so it’s hard to write a short comment. This is amazing work.

I think many students will be surprised at what they find and for some it will help build a sense of self-identity and community

I'm also very impressed you've been able to research your family history back that far. Thank you for making the connections to your own history and the histories of so many of us.

I have lived more than 25 years in Islamic country I was raise with Islamic history as it is one of my interests and a hobby; you are doing this as a professional which is so admirable. God Bless You

Also I love the way you dress up in different occasion and different places. Mashaallah, you are awesome. I pray you always smile the way you are smiling in these pictures, you so beautiful. Spiritual, Inside and outside

I am so proud to be your student and have opportunity every day learning from you, thanks

I agree we need more women doing this and women dialoguing with women about women!

I look forward to reading a future book and encourage you to keep writing and writing as we need more of you, more of this and also I ENCOURAGING YOU TO BE CANDIDATE FOR MPP. I AM SURE, YOU WILL GOING TO WIN AN ELECTION. I think the biggest reason is the way you were able to integrate yourself amongst the people. I wish you more and more success professionally. I will always be your supporter.

So thank you Tahmena for sharing this. I am so impressed with this

Keep it up. Jazakallah Khair


Anonymous said...

Truly amazing. I love your way of telling this story. I did not know much about this part of the world. As a Muslim I am really fascinated to learn about Muslims in other countries. I feel like some Muslim countries are too extreme and then I feel that Canadian Muslims are to modern. Not sure what is the best way.
Thank you for sharing your work and I am waiting to read and hear more.

sanchayan said...

You were my prof and i didnt know how deep you were these pictures are empowering to see


Anonymous said...

I loved reading this. It is so informative and opened my eyes. I am also proud that a Pakistani woman is doing this. Thank you for doing the work you do for all the women who cannot. You are an inspiration.

Raheela said...

I love the way you describe your experiences. Very well written. I am so impressed that a young Pakistani woman can do all of this. I never thought it, we are not encouraged to travel and study but here you are leading the way for others. Thank you for your courage and leadership.

Aisha Ahmed said...

To tell you the truth I was never really concerned about my Islamic heritage. I was sick of hearing about the way good Muslims girls should behave. Reading this makes me interested and proud to be a Muslim and to be a woman. You have inspired me and my friends. You are an amazing example of a modern day Pakistani woman. We love your work and your message!!!

Semra said...

Assalamu alaikum Tahmena!

What an enlightening, genuine, and inspiring piece of research you have done! I highly recommend you write a book on this topic. As a Pakistani-Canadian female Muslim myself (20yrs of age), I found this article to be truly interesting. I am very much engrossed in socio-politics and history, and I have been trying to find research of the Muslim history in South Asia - I thankfully stumbled upon your wonderful site!

You have inspired me to travel as well - how did you go about travelling from place to place with a translator? How did you get such a great opportunity as a social worker to travel to such amazing places?

I think its wonderful that you are recording such history and possibly helping to rewrite some of the myths (or lack thereof) that exist about south east asia. Not many know about its history and its rich mosaic of culture!

Again, I would highly recommend you also document these into a book - I can totally see universities picking up such literature for course ware on Islam and Muslim identity (we studied such topics in our religion course).

So keep up updated on your research :) And I hope to meet you one day too -- hopefully we can bump into each other.

Maria said...

This is wonderful work. I am so inspired. A Pakistani woman who has travelled the globe, who would have thought. Many Pakistani girls even in Canada cannot even study in another city, never mind going to live in all kinds of strange places. I admire Tahmena Bokhari as a woman and more importantly as a human being.

Suzy said...

I respect Tahmena Bokhari for keeping it real and down to earth. Many in her position would not spend time living with refugees in camps with no clean water, but she did it. I respect that she has dedicated her life to this and unlike many, did not just decide to up and travel like many westerners do today.

I want to remind readers that Tahmena Bokhari is a professional at what she does. She is a professor and registered social worker. So her work is not the type that one just wakes up one day and decides to do. It takes planning, training and years of education to do it right. Her work includes research, government projects and extensive writing. This should not be confused with all the short term ways to volunteer and work overseas. Which is ok, but different than doing this type of work and as a professional.

Many have romanticized versions of working in other countries. When westerners go there often they have little understanding of the implications of their actions and impressions there. Many do not understand postcolonialist patterns in our good intentions.

Please also do not travel for the sake of travelling. If you want to help the poor around the world, there are lots of ways to do that here in North America. And let's leave international work to professionals.

Mr Shah said...

I have to tell you that I admire Tahmena Bokhari a great deal and support her and anything she participates in. It is sad to say that in my many years, many travels and the wide network of friends that I have I do not know many Pakistani women or any nationality of women to be like Tahmena. Women like her are rare and we must support them, she is what leadership is made out of.

Tahmena is bold, educated, strong, independent, caring, a humanitarian, family oriented and all these qualities in one person who seems to carry it all so well and make it look easy. She is the most well balanced and well rounded person I know.

Tahmena has done a lot, more than many so called leaders that I know, more than these politicians and certainly more than many men I know. Tahmena advocates to be a strong and positive person, to contribute to your community and to know yourself. She has worked for the community since she was just a child, has served over 7000 clients, selflessly donating her time, money and energy to Pakistanis and others.

She lived with the victims of the earthquake in tents, she served in countries around the world, lived in tiny dirty sheds with the people she was serving and not in a hotel, she helped feed the kids of these poor widowed women, as dirty and sick as they were she held them in her arms where many would not even want to be near them. She wanted to be with the people, to understand them and help them in a way that they wanted. She did not have to do that, but she did! She does not have to do anything at all, but she does. Many in her shoes are using their education and money only to help themselves. She is using her privilege to promote the messages she believes in and for justice, which quite frankly many do not have the know-how or the guts to do.

Women have not been encouraged in our community to dream big and then work on their dreams, and that is what Tahmena is giving to a lot of women.

Rubina said...

I just read about Tahmena Bokhari and looked her up online and found this. I am fascinated by her and all that she does. I live in Vaughan Ontario and we need leaders like her. She is Pakistani but she promotes diversity of all people nationality and religion. I am a Pakistani woman and I am tired of us dividing ourselves by faith and background. I also want to feel as Canadian as any one else now that I am a citizen.
Thank you Tahmena, we need women like you to do this work.

L Thom said...

Amazing. I have been reading and reading all your writing and still not done yet. It is like a book and takes a while to really think about. I like the way you write.

Anonymous said...

An excellent article. I just want to
state two points:

1- The majority of (Bokhari) families
are not from an arab lineage especially syed. Imam Bokhari's lineage is also non arab.

2- The main cause of spreading Islam in Indonesia are the sincere efforts of Hadrahmi arabs.

Thank you for such an inspiring article.

Anonymous said...

I really like this blog. There is so much information. To the point of earlier comment, lineage means blood-line and this can go back
100s of generations, so although some of us Muslims live in Southeast Asia our bloodlines may go back to Arabia. In addition, Syeds are considered the blood line of the Prophet and he was born in Mecca, so would be Arab. So yes, Syeds can have Arab lineage, but not all of them necessarily.