Encounters with Farzana Hassan by Dr. Khalid Sohail
Sunday, November 06, 2005


Farzana Hassan


Dr. Khalid Sohail


I remember the afternoon when I received an email from my dear friend Shahid Akhter introducing me to Farzana Hassan and her translations of Allama Mohammad Iqbal’s poems into English. I was so impressed that I wrote her a letter right away praising her creative work. I also thanked Shahid Akhter for building a bridge between two writers.  Shahid Akhter was the friend who had introduced me earlier to another friend Zia-ud-din, the translator of Ghalib’s poetry into English.

After receiving my email Farzana invited me to her house for dinner. During our meeting I was pleasantly surprised to learn that she was not only a writer but also an accomplished musician. For a while we exchanged ideas about writing a book together on Music Therapy, as we all know that music can be healing for physical as well as emotional illnesses. I would have seriously considered that suggestion as I run the Creative Psychotherapy Clinic in Whitby. But in my clinic I use the medium of writing, especially journal and letter writing, to heal emotional wounds. Since I did not know enough of the discipline of music and Farzana did not know enough of the discipline of psychotherapy we dropped the idea.

          While I was talking to Farzana, her daughter came into the room and on Farzana’s request played a wonderful piece on the piano. She sounded quite accomplished at the early age of 13. I was sure that she had not only inherited creative genes from her mother but had also been brought up in a nurturing environment where her talents had blossomed.

          During our dialogue I realized that although Farzana grew up in an atmosphere in Pakistan where many of her relatives were atheists and socialists, she had developed a keen interest in religious ideology and philosophy and was an active participant in inter-faith seminars. At the end of our first meeting I suggested that I interview her in detail especially to record her experiences as a female musician and her encounters with Quranic interpretation and Islamic perspective on art and music.

          Although that interview never took place, I had many opportunities to meet her in different formal and informal meetings. She is one of the most graceful Asian women I have come across. She has a sharp mind and a gentle soul. I admire her creative approach to life generally and religious matters particularly. Since people who discuss theology are not used to a creative approach they get bewildered. They judge her on their own criteria, whether scientific or religious. It is not uncommon for theological debates to touch extremes. Unfortunately she has been challenged by both extremes.

          Being an artist Farzana Hassan is able to endure ambivalence. As a psychotherapist I admire people who have the quality to live in the gray area philosophically and psychologically for a long time while most people want to adopt one extreme or the other because it gives more security even if it provides less wisdom. She has the artistic and philosophical attitude of a genuine seeker, who keeps on considering both sides of the argument, rather, many sides of the argument. Such a position might seem quite confusing to many dogmatic people. But for genuine seekers the search is more important than the final goal and the journey is more significant than the destination. She is one of the scholars I have met who impresses others by her humility. She realizes she is still nature’s unfinished creative product.

          While witnessing her style of communication with people of different points of view I am always impressed by her gentle, kind and graceful approach. And that gentleness for me is an expression of her strength rather than weakness. People who lose control in an argument are usually compensating for their emotional, rational and moral weakness.

          For me it has been refreshing that although Farzana Hassan, being a Believer and a Muslim and I, being an Atheist and a Humanist, have opposite philosophies and ideologies, yet we enjoy having a dialogue, as both of us are respectful to each other’s points of view.

          The more I follow her creative career, the more I am impressed how she handles herself as an artist in a traditional atmosphere and patriarchal environment. It is unfortunate that many times she is judged not because of her talent and character but because she is a woman and has non-traditional views about Islam. In an atmosphere where extremism is on the rise she has hard time being fully heard. In spite of our differences of opinion I strongly feel that she has wonderful command of the English language and has unconventional ideas about Religions and Morality that need to be taken seriously.

          A couple of months ago when Munir Pervaiz asked me to say a few words about Farzana Hassan, I was reluctant to say “yes”. The reluctance was not because I did not want to express my thoughts about her; the reluctance was that I did not want her social image to be negatively affected by her friendship with me. Because of my reputation of challenging Islam with my book From Islam to Secular Humanism…A Philosophical Journey in which I stressed the need of freedom from religion alongside freedom of religion and my book Har Daur Main Masloob in which I have not only discussed the psychology of homosexuality but also expressed my views openly and honestly in favour of the human rights of gay and lesbian people, I was nervous that my presentation might negatively affect her reputation. But when Farzana Hassan sent me a personal invitation to attend the function, then I thought that she is a strong and brave woman and would be able to handle the consequences. We are both in favour of women’s rights and one of the rights for contemporary women is to choose friends of their own liking and not be controlled by the conservative and religious communities.

          I feel strongly that Farzana Hassan has reached that level of personal growth where she can make sacrifices while sharing her creative truth and can demand a leadership role whether in religious, spiritual or creative circles. Farzana Hassan is a symbol of female leadership in a Muslim community. She is asking all of us, ‘If women can be teachers in schools, nurses in hospitals, professors in the universities and prime ministers in some countries, why can they not be heads of religious orders? If we can have female ministers in United and Unitarian Churches, why can’t they be priests in the Catholic Church, rabbis in Jewish Synagogues and muftis and maulanas in Muslim mosques? Would we see a day when a Christian woman be a Pope in the Catholic Church in the Vatican and a Muslim woman lead prayers in the Kaaba in Mecca? Those are women like Farzana Hassan who challenge us to review our out-dated traditions and ask us why women are penalized and persecuted in the 21st century These are questions for all communities in general and Muslim countries in particular. As a supporter of human rights I feel the time has come for Muslim communities to defend why women are still second-class citizens and are not given equal rights politically and religiously in those societies.

          While Farzana Hassan and I agree on most human rights issues, we have our differences and I keep on asking her challenging questions as a Humanist.

 Why are women ostracized in Muslim communities because of their sexual orientation?

Can lesbian Muslim women lead prayers?

          Would gay and lesbian couples be ever respected socially and accepted legally in Muslim countries the way they are respected and accepted in Canada and Scandinavian countries?

          Whether they are women’s rights or gay and lesbian rights Farzana Hassan and I can have an honest and respectful dialogue about those issues.

 In the end all I can say is that I am proud to be her friend and I hope one day she receives the credit and acknowledgment she deserves. Today’s function is a step in the right direction. In my opinion women like Farzana Hassan are wonderful role models for the next generation of Eastern and Muslim women.

Farzana Hassan is a wonderful artist and human being and if she can endure the notoriety of being my friend and co-author, we might be able to write a book together, a book that would highlight the journeys of two Eastern writers living in the West sharing their struggles with traditional God, Religion and Morality.

Khalid Sohail

Nov 2005                     


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