So much for sisterhood: conversion, appropriation… and is there a difference? (II)

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?

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So much for sisterhood: Conversion, appropriation… and is there a difference? (I)

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?

The first time I saw this book cover, I assumed it was intended to communicate the weirdness of white female converts in the eyes of many born Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Now that I consider it more carefully, I wonder if it isn't intended as a commentary on the many conflicting pressures and expectations faced by white female converts...

The first time I saw this book cover, I assumed it was intended to communicate the weirdness of white female converts in the eyes of many born Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Now that I consider it more carefully, I wonder if it isn’t intended as a commentary on the many conflicting pressures and expectations faced by white female converts…

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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Losing creativity… and towards reclaiming it

K.M. has posted again (yay!), this time about seeing a documentary about the Burning Man festival, and how it made her think about how conversion to Islam had affected her creativity. The quotes are from her post; my comments are in the square brackets.

… it was so very foreign to me.  You see people creating bizarre,fanciful art and cars and costumes. They smile, dance, kiss, twirl, laugh. They do this with friend and stranger alike. And this is what struck me the most: I would never fit in to a culture like Burning Man.

As a person who was once a Muslim, the tendency or ability to do any of this in public was taken from me.  Smothered, if you will.  Smiling and laughing in public is as loosey goosey as I get – and that’s after years of being in the so-called mainstream culture. Running and dancing in public is probably something I will not ever do.  I have not done them since I was a girl.

[I can’t imagine attending anything like that either, much less fitting in. Not because I wouldn’t want to, but because I couldn’t. Dancing in public? Twirling around? Wearing costumes? Nope. I remember going to a folk festival about a year before I converted, dancing to the music and really enjoying myself. But once I converted, that sort of thing became impossible. It was seen as shockingly immodest, as something that a “true Muslim woman” would never ever do, so even admitting to myself that I wished I could do it was not acceptable.]

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Setting men up to lose

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.

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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…..

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Owning space

This post should probably come with trigger warnings. At least, the quote below was very triggering to me, when I first read it on Side Entrance.

“When our sisters are deprived from the right to come to the mosques, or given sub-standard accommodations and treated disrespectfully, it is only natural that some of them will take matters into their own hands and counter-react.

Some of that counter-reaction will be legitimate, and some illegitimate.

Rather than worry about what various counter-reactions have been and how legal they are, I believe we need to concentrate on the root cause of the problem. It is an undeniable reality that women’s prayer spaces (in those masjids that actually have them – for quite a few masjids still don’t even have such spaces) are less accessible, less clean, and less maintained than the men’s sections. Women have to deal with crying children, bad microphones, no visual access to the Imam/khatib, dank hallways to get in and out, and many other issues. Perhaps the worst issue of all: too many of our brothers comment on what they assume is inappropriate clothing when our sisters come to the masjid. This makes many sisters feel uncomfortable simply coming to the masjid.

In a day and age where our sisters are going everywhere, visible everywhere, active everywhere, the BEST place for them to be is in the masjid, praying to Allah, and being with fellow Muslims, and learning about their faith. Rather than believe that they should stay home, we need to contextualize our environment and ENCOURAGE our sisters to come to the most blessed places in their cities: their mosques. We need to make sister’s facilities as neat and clean and well-lit and accessible as the brothers. We either put them in the same hall as the men (as was the case in the time of the Prophet (SAW), behind the men), or provide state of the art AV access to the lectures/khutbah. We need separate rooms (also with AV) for sisters with young infants so that others can also pray and listen in peace. And most importantly, we need to tell our men that it is not THEIR business (unless a family man is dealing with his own wife/daughter) how other women dress. Let the people in charge of the masjid deal with dress codes.

Frankly, in this day and age, if a sister actually comes to the masjid (rather than going shopping or watching a movie or doing any other activity), we should WELCOME her, have the sisters get to know her, and make her feel special. Her priority is not the scarf on her head but her attachment to Allah. Once she feels that attachment, the rest will follow.

Our sisters in faith are our mothers, wives, and daughters. How can we treat them any less than we expect to be treated ourselves in this regard? And how can we deprive them of coming to the masjid when our Prophet (SAW) explicitly forbade it in his own time, and our time requires even more spirituality and education for them?!”

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So much for sisterhood: being the self-appointed face of “pure Islam”

(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.

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