Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is without the consent of the originating culture, and when the appropriating group has historically oppressed members of the originating culture.” It goes on to explain that appropriation is not the same as acculturation or assimilation, and that it is made possible by very unequal relations of power.
Basically, it occurs because people from the dominant culture assume that they have the right to take whatever it is that they please from wherever. They unconsciously see the entire world and everything and everybody in it as if it were their own personal all-you-can-eat buffet, so they are therefore entitled to help themselves as they wish. This is possible because the group they belong to has disproportionate access to resources, political and economic power, as well as social status, especially when compared to the group that they are appropriating from. And because of this differential in power and status, the appropriating group gets to enjoy and manipulate these “exotic” and “cool” cultural elements as it pleases without paying the price that the originating group would, and without regard for its cultural or religious meanings.
How do white converts relate to such relations of power?
Back to Esra Ozyurek’s thought-provoking book on (mostly white) German converts to Islam in Turkey, and onwards to a subject which has been bothering me for a long time… appropriation, conversion, and where the dividing line is. Or, is there actually a dividing line?? And if there isn’t, then what on earth am I doing, continuing to identify as Muslim?
My thoughts on this issue continue to evolve. Back in the day when I first converted, I hadn’t even heard the word “appropriation” and had no idea that it was an issue. Nowadays, I see it as an important issue that poses complicated ethical problems that I have no idea how to navigate “ethically”. So, what I am about to say here is rather disjointed.
To begin with something concrete: the cover of Ozyurek’s book. This book has a picture of a white, apparently middle aged woman. She is wearing what looks like the upper half of a white prayer hijab outfit with black patterns around the edges, a brown galabiya with coral and gold embroidery. Her eyebrows have been plucked, she is wearing kohl and lipstick, and her hands are decorated with red nail polish, several rings with large decorative stones, and henna. In her right hand is a burning cigarette.
She stares directly at the camera, but her expression is not inviting. She looks rather pissed off. Why? Because the photographer is interrupting her smoke break? Because she knows she is obviously breaking several conservative Muslim “rules”, and is anticipating judgy reactions from onlookers? Because she doesn’t like being gawked at by curious outsiders?
Or, maybe this is intended to invert the more usual Orientalizing themes that often appear in pictures of veiled women—she doesn’t look like a stereotypical, submissive victim, she isn’t crying over her dead son or begging by the side of the road… but nor is she the stereotypical “terrorist” veiled woman, waving an AK47 or screaming “death to America.”
I am not sure what non-Muslim eyes see when they look at that picture. Do they wonder why anyone would bother covering their hair, presumably in the name of modesty… and then wear red lipstick and nail polish, which are often regarded as something a woman would wear in order to look attractive? Do they assume that no born Muslim women ever smoke, so the lit cigarette indicates that the woman in the picture is either “inauthentically Muslim” or ignorant of her chosen faith? Or, that she is a rebel? Or, maybe their eyes just stop dead at the juxtaposition of white skin and white head-covering… and their minds try to grasp how “a woman like us” who presumably has all freedoms and choices open to her would choose to “do that to herself”?
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A lot of the posts on this blog deal with the impact of certain hyper-conservative interpretations of Islam on my life, as well as on the lives of other female converts that I have known. I have repeatedly blogged about the difficulties of trying to recover from living in certain very restrictive and stifling situations, and trying to (re)build a life for oneself and one’s (often confused and sometimes troubled) kids.
But one angle of these situations that I haven’t really dealt with is the impact on (some) men. On my ex, for instance. On some of my friends’ exes. On conservative, often immigrant, Muslim men, who became “born again Muslims” after living for a time in “the West” as young male refugees or students. And for that matter, on some of our now-grown sons, who were raised in very conservative, insular and controlling Muslim communities.
One reason I don’t deal with this subject much is for much the same reason that I don’t write about the 1 percent. I mean what—the problems that are consuming you at the moment are that your butler quit, and junior has started spouting some kind of lefty nonsense about how rich people should pay more taxes? Do you even have a clue how many people in the world would love to have your “problems”?? It’s not just the male privilege that these conservative Muslim men have that tends to leave me thinking that I don’t have much to say about their situations, it’s that unlike many women exiting rotten or abusive marriages or trying to distance themselves from toxic community dynamics, these men usually have considerably more power.
Guest post: Reflections on slavery, hijab, male authority, and convert neo-traditionalist apologetic bafflegab
(by Rosalinda—largely in response to this post)
I am under the impression that the whole women’s dress thing is something no woman can ever, ever do “right” in the eyes of these men. First, they claim that all women should wear hijab.
And when women where hijab, those scholars/brothers talk about how a woman wearing hijab shouldn’t wear pants, colourful clothes, jeans, jewellery, tight clothes etc. So a woman can never win. Talk about gaslighting…………
Here is a good take on the whole “correct hijab” thing by Orbala.
And yes, even Hamza Yusuf claims that a woman who doesn’t wear hijab “dishonors herself”.
OMG I can’t believe this! He uses the fact that enslaved women weren’t allowed to wear hijab by 3Umar al-Khattab and that they were bare-breasted as an argument for the “tolerance” of “traditional islam”.
This is of course NOT true: Hijab could, in that day and age, only be worn by free Muslim women to distinguish them from enslaved Muslim women, whose bodies were basically fair game – a slave owner had the right to have sex with an unlimited number of his female slaves, who, like Kecia Ali puts so eloquently, “weren’t in a position two hold or withdraw consent.”
But this argument of his is really mind-blowing…..
(Cont.) Reading Esra Ozyurek’s book, Being German, Becoming Muslim was like a step back in time for a number of reasons… and one of them was her discussion of converts who had taken it upon themselves to represent “real Islam” in German society. For example, she writes about a mother, Iman, who feels that because so many (immigrant) Muslims are uneducated and marginalized that she has a “responsibility” to wear hijab and speak up about “Muslim needs” in situations such as neighborhood and school meetings:
If I do not, I can be certain that no Muslim voice will be heard, even though there are many immigrant Muslims in my neighborhood. I have to represent the Muslim position on issues such as not serving pork at the school cafeteria, about issues regarding co-ed swimming classes, etc. Sometimes nonobservant Muslims come to these meetings, and their position then represents the “Muslim” voice, which makes life much more difficult for us, practicing Muslims. (p. 40) [emphasis mine]
Yikes. Where to even begin?
On one hand, I remember the expectations that we as converts do this sort of thing—be publicly visible Muslims who not only adhered to a long list of rules and restrictions about clothing, food, social interactions and recreational activities, but made sure that our kids followed them too, no matter how much inconvenience this might cause ourselves or others, or how much of a social barrier this might create.
I have been trying to reflect on reasons why as converts who had been given to understand that “we are all one umma” and that race and ethnicity don’t matter “in Islam” because the only thing that is relevant is your taqwa, we often faced a significantly different reality. Our ethnic origins and race definitely did matter, and they typically mattered in ways that made us feel like outsiders.
And how did we respond to the complex racial politics that we found ourselves immersed in—both in terms of how our own families and the wider society treated us, and the internal politics of the Muslim communities we become involved in? Esra Ozyurek’s book, Being German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe gave me a lot of food for thought about the latter issue.
Ozyurek writes about repeatedly hearing German converts (often white and middle class) saying how fortunate it is that they discovered Islam before meeting Muslims, because if they’d met the Muslims first they probably wouldn’t have converted. (Although in reality, most of the converts had in fact gotten interested in Islam in the first place through a romantic relationship or other encounter with a Muslim.) Or converts repeating and endorsing negative stereotypes about immigrant Muslims (especially Turks) being dirty, disorganized, uneducated, and prone to dishonesty. Or converts faulting immigrant Muslims for “failing to understand Islam properly” or for being so uninformed that they mistake “culture” for “Islam.”
In continuing to think about why as white female converts we often didn’t experience much in the way of “sisterhood” with born Muslim women, I found a book that I chanced upon recently fairly helpful. Esra Ozyurek’s Becoming German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe (Princeton University Press, 2015) talks about converts in Germany and how they position themselves as both German and Muslim, in a country where “Islam” and “Muslim” are often automatically associated with adjectives such as: immigrant, Turkish or Arab, lower class, chauvinistic.
While I picked up the book expecting to read about how and why people convert (and how they negotiate their convert identities afterwards), I encountered some unanticipated food for thought—about the personal issues that some white converts bring with them, and also about the similarities between some types of white convert discourse and white European racist rhetoric. I will discuss the first issue (personal issues faced by some white converts) in this post, the the second (convert and racist rhetoric) in the next post.
A number of the converts discussed in the book had faced very negative reactions not only from wider German society, but also from their families. While a number of the female hijab-wearing converts’ anecdotes about the ways that they were treated in government offices, or by the teachers at their children’s schools sounded pretty familiar to me (many converts, including myself, have experienced similar things), the book presents many of these anecdotes together. so, reading them (for me, at least) was rather like thinking that you are about to drink lemonade, taking a mouthful, and finding that it is basically undiluted lemon juice with no added sugar. In other words, wow. It packs quite a punch.
I’ve been way too triggered by recent events to formulate a post about them.
Intrusive memories, tapes in my mind that won’t stop playing. And the stomach-clenching fear.
Which makes me wonder how many “moderates” (whoever they are)* are in the same boat. Now, and whenever any other awful thing happens.
* The issue of what exactly a “moderate” Muslim is and who gets to determine that is undefined… which makes the word pretty much useless.