Archive for category We owe you an apology
Recently, Muslim converts—particularly, white, middle-class female converts from North America—are in the news again, thanks to the attack in Boston. And not in a good way.
I’ve been too heartsick to blog about it.
The (white, female, North American) convert responses to this latest situation that I have so far been able to find online deal with two main issues: the stereotypical media portrayals that imply that there is a connection between putting on hijab and becoming radicalized, and media portrayals that imply that female converts who marry immigrant Muslims don’t have agency. In other words, these converts don’t want to be put in the same category as Katherine Russell. They don’t want people making assumptions about why they converted, or why they wear hijab (for those who do), or what their relationships with their husbands are like.
Well, that’s understandable. In the more than two decades in which I lived as a conservative, hijab-wearing Muslim, I had to put up with a lot of assumptions about why I converted, why I wore hijab… and I had to deal with patronizing dismissals of my agency. And not only from non-Muslims, I might add. The stereotypes about female converts—that we don’t really know anything about Islam, and/or that we were motivated to convert by emotion or a desire to please a Muslim man—were not uncommon among the immigrant Muslims that I dealt with. So, enough with the stereotypes already.
But. To my mind, rejecting such stereotypes shouldn’t be the end of the discussion. It should be the beginning. And now that we’ve done that, can the discussion move on to more important things than headscarves and alleged initial reasons for converting. Things like what resources there are that might be available to converts who find themselves getting in way over their heads.
What do… jumpers, alternative communities, religious hip-hop, incense, Malcolm X, traveling to Asia to find a religious teacher, long denim skirts, reading Rumi’s poetry, religiously-motivated home-schooling, Sufi chanting, preachy children’s videos, religiously-themed nursery rhymes and squeaky-clean boy-bands singing religious lyrics for audiences of ecstatic pre-teen girls have in common?
They are all North American Muslim fads that I have lived through.
Man, do I feel old.
Reading a post over at Love Joy Feminism, which quotes Julie Ann asking how she as a homeschooling mother ended up getting sucked into buying an entire conservative lifestyle “package” that included wearing jumpers, I was reminded of when I and a convert friend of mine experimented with them.
Our problem in the clothing department (as we saw it, back in the ’80′s and early ’90′s) was twofold: to somehow discover a way of wearing hijab that would not look alien to North America, but would also be “modest” enough to fulfil what we were taught were the requirements for a Muslim woman’s dress in public, and to devise something similar for our young daughters to wear. For a time, we saw jumpers as the answer. I designed and sewed jumpers for myself, out of plain broadcloth. For the first one I made, I used recycled fabric—it had originally been sewn into and used for something else. My friend had slightly more fashionable ideas (and more money to spend); she bought heavy cotton patterned cloth, and paid a woman with better sewing skills to make it into a jumper for her.
At the time, we thought pretty highly of our efforts to dress “modestly”, yet also not stick out too much. We sewed jumpers for our little daughters to wear too, over t-shirts and pants, and with matching hijabs. We thought they looked cute, yet also suitably modest, especially when compared to the “unsuitable” clothing that other girls their age were often wearing. We thought that we had managed to strike a balance between timeless “traditional” values of female “modesty” and the need to relate to the time and place in which we were living, by wearing North American clothing….
But when I looked at the photo of Christian homeschoolers wearing jumpers that Julie Ann linked to, it was unnerving. It was like looking back through time at ourselves and our daughters… and suddenly realizing that actually, we must have looked pretty… strange. Frumpy. Self-righteous. Cultish.
Recently, I tripped across a clip on youtube of a very young FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) woman, who was being asked by a reporter how many children she wanted to have when she got married. She replied enthusiastically, “As many as possible!”
It was like looking in the mirror—though back in time, to when I was still a very conservative Muslim. Yes, that was our attitude, all right. We were pro-natalist to a fault.
The clip went on to explain that their church believes that God creates all these spirit children, and that the women regard it as an honor to enable these spirits to have bodies, and to provide good homes for them. So, they have as many children as possible.
While we didn’t believe in spirit children, we did certainly believe that it is God who wills whether or not a child comes into existence—to the point that some sisters would speak of birth control as “a waste of time”, because whatever God wants to happen will happen. Birth control was also widely denigrated in the conservative literature that we read as a lack of trust in God’s ability to provide for every living creature. And we were constantly told that a woman’s highest and most important calling was to marry and bear children. There was no real place in any conservative community that I was involved in for single women who had never and would never marry—or even for married women who were childless.
Because we knew it all. After having read a few pamphlets, and heard a few inspiring (and carefully vague) talks on “the status of woman in Islam” (as such talks were often entitled back in the early ’80′s).
Let me back up a bit here. Several weeks ago, I received a comment that weirded me out because it could have been written by me years ago.
It was a rather unnerving experience, but also an instructive one.
“I am a convert, who recently moved from Western Europe to Egypt. I hear all the time that women are oppressed here and controled by men. I however don’t see this in my daily life here. Women work, they are doctors, lawyers, scientists, pharmacists etc.
I also dont know any hadeeth that are demeaning to women, actually i know many that show that men should treat women well.
As always, one must differentiate between tradition and religion. The traditions are stuck to cultures, the religion is what the religious books (bible, quran) say. traditions can change as the people change, religion, like God is constant.
I am sure that every man who abuses a woman, inside himself he knows that what he is doing is wrong, he is just too selfish to stop. All persons (with a few exceptions) are born with the knowledge or intuition of what is right and wrong.
What are the parts of quran or the trusted hadeeth that are demeaning to women according to you all???”
My kids are angry. They have lots of things to be angry about—growing up in (religiously-induced) poverty, growing up with a lot of religious restrictions that even some other Muslim kids they knew didn’t have, their father’s actions (especially, his cheating, justified as polygamy), my actions (especially, my conservative Muslim idealism that flew in the face of reality), our inability to live the idealized (and for us, quite unrealistic) vision of the “ideal Islamic marriage/family,” our divorce, the bone-headed judgmentalness of those conservative Muslims who couldn’t keep their opinions about our divorce and how the kids were likely going to be affected by my working and dehijabbing and leaving my marriage to themselves….
Sometimes, they turn their anger inward, and become very moody. Sometimes, the younger kids express their anger by squabbling among themselves. Sometimes, by being rude to me. And sometimes, they rebel.
There’s teenage rebellion, and there’s teenage rebellion. Some of it is par for the course in the wider society—piercings, tattoos, skimpy or “gangster-ish” clothing—though not acceptable in the conservative community that they were raised in, where such signs of teenage rebellion are sources of stigma for parents (who clearly didn’t manage to “raise their kids properly”). But some types of rebellion can lead to trouble with the law.
Once upon a time, I actually saw doing that as justifiable.
Why? Because my thought-process went along these lines:
(1) The faith I have is unquestionably true.
(2) Therefore, this faith is all that can grant me salvation in this world and the next.
(3) Therefore, losing this faith I have is the worst possible thing that can ever happen.
(4) Therefore, whatever I have to do in order to protect and preserve my faith is absolutely necessary. Even if it means deciding that I’ll avoid reading or watching certain things that might shake my faith. Even if it means refusing to think critically about certain things.
Yes, even if I was faced with a real live human being, whose experiences seemed to call the validity of my faith into question, I would explain away their words, their life-story. Of course what they were saying could not really be true. They must be exaggerating. Or, some “enemy of Islam” was paying them to say such things.
Or even if what they were saying was true, it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with my faith per se. Such things happen due to human misinterpretation, human selfishness, human greed… or perhaps it was really at least partially the fault of that human being themselves. They hadn’t had enough faith, they hadn’t been patient enough, they hadn’t taken the time and trouble to learn their religion for themselves, they had been too weak-willed to stand up for themselves against those who had used it as a weapon against them.