Boundaries

Years ago, I bought a copy of “Hijab–An Act of Faith” (way back when we still had VHS tapes). Recently, I noticed that I still own the thing, though I can’t actually watch it, because—like most other people nowadays—I don’t have a VCR. :-)

But fortunately (?) enough, someone in youtubeland apparently was thinking of people in my situation, because they posted a copy of it.

Ok, so I watched it. Just for old times’ sake, I guess. I remember that I bought that video, even though it was kinda pricey, because I thought that on the whole, it was pretty good. Unlike most of the pamphlets and books and talks about hijab that I had ever run across, it didn’t feature some solemn-faced guy telling the womenz how they should be dressing and behaving. It was mostly women talking… and they were confident and articulate.

It’s interesting how the passage of time can alter one’s perceptions.

Back in the day, the main thing that struck me about that video was how new and fresh it all seemed. Instead of the books and pamphlets admonishing women to ensure that their clothing complied with x number of detailed rules, or warnings of divine punishment for those who didn’t comply, or suggestions that women who don’t wear hijab are somehow responsible for causing men to sin (or that they bring harassment on themselves)… instead, a number of clearly intelligent, informed and socially active Muslim women talked about a range of issues. Whether it was the history behind contemporary western stereotypes of veiled women, or the impact of advertising on girls’ self-concept, it seemed that these sisters had it all down. When I watched it, I felt validated. And, confident that my daughters would find it inspiring and validating.

But now, watching it again all these years later, I notice things that didn’t really register before.

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Converts, fantasies, race and gender

In the last post, I talked about how as white North American converts, we often found ourselves living out other people’s fantasies of an Islamic ideal. Usually, these were the fantasies of immigrant or immigrant-descended Muslims, but sometimes these were the fantasies of other (usually older) converts.

Notice the gendered racial politics going on in this hijab meme: Real live brown and black Muslim women aren't doing hijab right... but a white-faced MANNEQUIN demonstrates the pious standard that they should imitate. And, this is being circulated on the internet by Muslims, in order to instruct Muslim women how to dress. By all that is holy... you just can't make this stuff up.

Notice the gendered racial politics going on in this hijab meme: Real live brown and black Muslim women aren’t “doing hijab right”… but a white-faced MANNEQUIN demonstrates the pious standard that they should imitate. And, this is being circulated on the internet by Muslims, in order to instruct Muslim women how to dress. By all that is holy… you just can’t make this stuff up.

These fantasies could be aspects of the thought of modern Muslim political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami which had become popularized, such as the notion that “Islam solves” social problems such as racism by uniting all believers within one umma. Or, they could be quite apolitical and superficially profound ideas taught by various neo-traditionalists, such as the idealization of the medieval Sunni scholarly tradition.

Either way, these were things that either didn’t really exist anywhere today in reality, or did exist, but fell miserably short of their idealized billing.

How did we not realize that these were fantasies rather than reality—and that trying to live them out would lead to some serious problems? Partly because in those pre-internet days our knowledge of what was really going on in Muslim communities even here in North America (forget anywhere else) was very limited.

And partly because what I would call a “reality filter” had been quite quickly and coercively implanted in our minds, so that even when we did see, or read or hear about Muslims past or present acting in ways that seemed to challenge our fantasies, it wouldn’t lead us to ask some pretty obvious questions. That reality filter was constructed and reconstructed daily, through ubiquitous phrases such as:

“In Islam…”

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Of converts and fantasies

Now and again, I get these questions submitted as comments: Are you still Muslim? If you are still Muslim, then why?

I don’t usually answer. Partly, because these questions are often at least implicitly judgmental. Answering them risks touching off a string of cut-and-paste rants about how if I am Muslim, then I need to know that I’m doing X wrong and that it’s a sin to say/do Y.

But aside from that, it’s triggering. The conservative communities I was involved in were very concerned about defining exactly who is and isn’t a Muslim, what words, deeds, or even thoughts put a person outside of Islam, etc. That sort of environment fosters constant self-doubt and self-censorship. Until today, I have issues with automatic self-censorship, that happens so quickly and unobtrusively that I only know that I’ve done it again when I realize that I know something is missing or unsaid or not quite honest in what I’ve said or written… but yet I can’t put what it is into words.

But even when these kinds of questions aren’t motivated by judgmentalness, there’s something about them that deeply disturbs me. But I didn’t know exactly what. Until I received this comment:

Yes actually, the question [why are you still Muslim---ed.] came from a place of sincerity. I didn’t mean to offend. I only asked because I thought however you came to still stay Muslim would help me do the same despite those concerns.

Hoooo boy. A really triggering comment—though unintentionally so, I realize. But it is triggering because it sums up so many of my experiences with convert–immigrant born Muslim interactions in a nutshell: The idea that, as white, North American female converts, we have worth because we can potentially provide reassurance and affirmation (along with a generous side serving of halaal entertainment) to certain types of immigrant or immigrant-descended born Muslims.

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The 1950′s called, and they want their anti-gay bigotry back

A couple of weeks ago, Abu Eesa Niamatullah’s publicly expressions of misogyny was met with a spate of posts and tweets from Muslims from different walks of life who made their opposition to this clear. In a number of these posts as well as some comments on them, disgust, shock and a sense of betrayal were palpable. How could a scholar be doing this? It was clear that not only did many Muslims feel revolted by Abu Eesa’s comments, but that they do not think that this kind of thing is acceptable… and they were determined that this would not stand uncontested as a public representation of “what Muslims really think” about women.

Down through the years, I have encountered plenty of sexism and straight-up misogyny in North American Muslim circles (to say nothing of pamphlets and books written about Islam by Muslims, for Muslims). So, it was rather strange for me to watch this negative and very public backlash against Abu Eesa. But I also allowed myself to hope: Was this a proverbial straw-that-breaks-the-camel’s-back moment? Is there now a critical mass of Muslims in North America who are fed up enough by this sort of thing that they will publicly speak out about it?

Who knew. Only time would tell.

Well, we didn’t have to wait long.

Because now a hateful article written by a Muslim lawyer on the Huffington Post, “Why Gay Marriage May Not Be Contrary to Islam” is making the rounds. I was sent the link, and stupidly clicked on it, thinking that while the title seemed a bit oddly worded, it would probably be a step or two forward in the tolerance department. Maybe it would even be a useful resource for kids like mine.

After reading it, I wanted to curl up and die.

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More thoughts on stories of holy women: Half-truths and lies

In the last post, I gave some of my initial reactions to a recent article about early pious and Sufi women on the Feminism and Religion blog. A stroll down memory lane, basically. Yes, reading and retelling these stories was a way that we sought validation, and tried in some limited ways to resist the patriarchy-on-steroids that otherwise surrounded us in our very conservative Muslim communities.

But what was their impact on us? Sure, they inspired us to make greater efforts to try to engage in certain stereotypically “pious” acts such as praying at night and fasting extra days—and also, to beat ourselves up when we failed. But did they help make us better people? Were they really spiritually uplifting, or did they function more as an opiate that temporarily distracted us from the tedium, poverty and petty cruelties that hemmed in our lives then?

I was particularly struck by the author’s bald statement that conservative Muslim “talking heads” use these stories “to lie about the past.” She points out that:

“These… narratives of the past… do not empower women, but rather leave men in charge of women’s history and worship today….

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Thinking about stories of holy women

I see that the Feminism and Religion blog has an awesome article up about stories of holy women in Islam. This got me thinking about a number of things. I was one of those converts who was really drawn to those stories. Still am in some ways, I guess.  And I wasn’t the only one. A number of female converts I knew were into stories about holy women, whether these were women in the Qur’an, stories about female Companions, Sufi women, or Muslim women today. We devoured books like Daughters of Another Path (about American women converts). We loved hearing stories about Muslim women political activists such as Zainab al-Ghazali and Merve Kevakci.

What was that all about, exactly? Because, looking back, I recall that (as Laury points out in that article), that having “too much”  interest (aka more than a superficial passing interest) in such stories was discouraged in the Muslim communities that I was a part of. And, that even though this interest of ours was fairly controversial, we ardently pursued it… although now that I think of it, once you’d read several of these stories (especially about Sufi women or modern political activists) then there wasn’t usually too much that was surprising in any of the others. In other words, they were often pretty stereotypical. Why would they be controversial, when they were so utterly harmless? And what effect did reading them have on us?

And… along comes another Debbie Downer. :-(

I think that our interest in these stories was suspect because this was something that the male leaders in our communities weren’t really comfortable with, and feared that they couldn’t control.

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Making 70 excuses for your brother (but not so much your sister)

One of the things that struck me most in all the backing and forthing over Abu Eesa’s misogynistic comments was how willing most people were to make excuses for him, minimize the significance of what he had done, try to understand where he was coming from… even many of his critics. While some called on AlMaghrib to fire him, a number of those who were very critical of his comments still didn’t seem to think that he should lose his post or suffer any long term consequences.

I found this all the more striking because in my experience, this is absolutely not what happens to a girl or woman whose behavior is seen as embarrassing or offensive to the community.

And it’s not just because he is a scholar with a wide following, either. Yes, that likely helped—but being given the benefit of the doubt (and being quickly forgiven even when caught red-handed) is one of the many perks of patriarchal power and status. Generally speaking, the higher status a person has in a community in terms of their race, ethnicity, social class, gender, educational level, health, sexual orientation, etc, the more likely they are to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Oddly enough, I’ve known that for a long time. Back when I wore hijab, when I would walk into a store, my presence would immediately be noted, and within a few seconds somebody would usually come bustling up to “help” me find whatever it was that I wanted. Nowadays, my shopping experiences are much more relaxed and leisurely. Nobody acts like they find my presence unsettling, or that they want me to leave. I knew what was going on then, and I know now. But somehow, I didn’t connect the dots until recently. Because in the Muslim communities I was involved in, religion was used to cover, legitimize and excuse everything.

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