O Maryam, we never knew ye…

You never do know what you might find on the internet. And web-strolling around the other day, I encountered a book-review in the New York Times of a biography of–of all people–Maryam Jameelah.

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, by Deborah Baker (Greywolf Press, 2011).

While the cover is rather off-putting if not offensive (enough of the veil/unveil objectification of Muslim women already), the contents seem to  be well worth the read. Hopefully, I will get a chance to lay my hands on this book soon.

When I first started reading about Islam in the early ’80’s, Maryam Jameelah’s books and pamphlets were among the first things I read. There wasn’t much available to read about Islam in the area where I was living at the time. I had access to a small university library, which had a very limited selection of books on Islam–less than half a shelf, as I recall. I have no idea why they had stuff by Maryam Jameelah; I suppose that someone from the local Muslim Students’ Association might have donated it.

As someone who was interested in religion in general and strongly drawn to Islam in particular, I found Maryam Jameelah’s books and pamphlets both off-putting and fascinating. On one hand, she never missed a chance to denounce all aspects of “the West”–popular culture, politics, religions, social customs, liberation movement such as feminism–in the most strident and one-sided terms.  There was no sense of fairness or compassion in what she had to say. Her writing used far too many exclamation marks. The overall effect was as though she was shouting at her readers on every page. Even reading a short pamphlet of hers was draining. And she was so insistent that there was one correct way (a highly conservative, limiting way) to see the world as a Muslim, and to live in the world as a Muslim woman. If this was what Islam was all about, it evidently wasn’t for me.

And yet…  she seemed so very, very sure that what she believed was right. And that all right-thinking people must agree with her.

I read more about Islam that was significantly less “extreme” in its tone, and converted. It was a gradual process, and Maryam Jameelah’s ideas played no part in the final decision.

But looking back, I can see that Maryam Jameelah’s persona did haunt my life as a convert. This was the early ’80’s, when there weren’t that many North American converts who were publicly visible, especially not in the area that I was living. Conversion to Islam–when it occurred at all–seemed to be a black male thing that happened in American inner cities. So, what did it mean for a small-town white female who had recently migrated to the big city to convert to Islam? How were people like me supposed to live our new faith?

While nobody seemed to know the answer to that in a positive way, there were a lot of ideas about what people like me weren’t supposed to do or be. And the model of Maryam Jameelah floated unacknowledged in the background of these discussions and debates. Her pamphlets were freely available at the halaal meat store and at the book stalls at events sponsored by local Muslim groups. There was so little literature at that time about Islam in English that her writings filled a gap, along with a small selection of other books and pamphlets mostly from India or Pakistan written by very conservative male Muslim authors expressing similar viewpoints.

Maryam Jameelah was regarded as the female convert gold standard, basically, though few would have put it exactly in these words. She not only wore the full veil, but–far more importantly–she was apparently an obedient wife and mother whose life seemed to be entirely focused on her husband and children, domestic duties, and worship. She had no career ambitions. Her mind was not troubled by questions about the justice or continued relevance of any of the Sharia laws. She had no issues with the interpretations of Islam or the political ideas of the likes of Maulana Maudoodi, whom she seemed to unreservedly admire (and who apparently respected her highly too).  She appeared to be entirely fulfilled by wife- and motherhood–emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.

Few North American Muslim women wore hijab in the early ’80’s where I was living, much less anything like the type of veil that Maryam Jameelah has on in this picture. It was not so much the clothing that was the issue in those days, but the message behind it–this was a woman who had thoroughly transformed herself, from being a “lost” typical “Western woman” unguided by God, into an “ideal Muslimah.”

This photo appears in the front of every book or pamphlet that she wrote that I have ever seen, and it is evident from the caption underneath it that it was intended to convey just this sort of message: “Thus do I, an American-born convert, speak through this picture to my Muslim-born brothers and sisters misled by an education hostile to all that Islam stands for, and blinded with its false standards and ideals.”

There is a lot that can (and definitely should) be examined here: the way that she uses her veiled body–and by extension, veiling in general–as a political weapon and a marker of “true Islam” (over against other “insufficiently pure” understandings of Islam), the self-righteousness of such a stance, the way that converts get used as political weapons in the hands of groups like Maudoodi’s Jamaat-i Islami, the role that white (convert) privilege and born (brown) Muslim self-hate plays in these dynamics…. It is a messy and often tragic situation for converts and born Muslims alike who get involved in this sort of thing.

But what is uppermost for me at the moment (having not yet read the book) is the impact that Maryam Jameelah’s self-mythologizing self-portrayal had on converts like me. It formed part of a larger message aimed at white female converts–that what we were was innately flawed, so we had to become somebody else. Through becoming somebody else, we could become pleasing to God, and respected as true Muslims even by conservative born Muslims. The flip side of this was that if we failed to fully transform ourselves into someone else’s vision of an “ideal Muslimah”, we had failed to be Muslim, and our lives would not be of any value either to God nor to other right-thinking believers.

And what made this all the more confusing was that conservative Muslims insisted that living as a “true Muslim” didn’t mean transforming yourself into something you weren’t at all–it meant rediscovering your true, pure, uncorrupted nature that God had created you with (your fitra). According to them, women have been given a certain nature by God that “naturally” makes them suited to obedient wife- and motherhood and domesticity. Women are supposed to “innately” be inclined to be nurturing, caring, compassionate and emotional–and of course, modest and shy. They are supposed to “naturally” talk, walk, move and take up space in a “feminine”, graceful and unobtrusive way. And women who don’t and can’t fit into this mold, or who don’t “innately” recognize the “truth” of conservative views that claim that women shouldn’t be leaders, or are too emotional to serve as judges or be entrusted with the power of unilateral divorce… must have a deviant and corrupted nature.

And not only that–some North American converts, like Maryam Jameelah, had apparently managed to transform themselves. They had rediscovered their “true natures,” it seemed–so it could obviously be done, if one was just willing to sacrifice enough. They had also demonstrated the truth of their transformation by moving to a Muslim country and entering polygamy. If we couldn’t bring ourselves to do likewise, the problem must be that we just weren’t trying hard enough. Or maybe, that we were just too corrupt to be salvageable?

Muslim guilt, Muslim convert guilt–what it does to the convert, and to her children, her birth family, and others around her is a whole other post.

To find out after all this that things might not have been that simple… that Maryam Jameelah had mental health issues, both in New York, and even after she moved to Lahore. That she was a complex person, not a cardboard cutout exemplary Muslimah.  That her transformation was not as effortless as we assumed, and that her embrace of “certainty” exacted a terrible price. To realize that what we looked up to, resented, and felt guilty about was in the end was an illusion. We saw what we were shown, and assumed that it was the whole picture. What we were led to believe was a lifestyle that should lead to wholeness, inner peace, “true” fulfillment was never what it seemed.

This raises all sorts of questions for me about how certain people become cast as examples for others–and the damage that often results.

But at the same time, good grief–the joke’s on us. How ridiculous is all this, that we took the rantings of one apparently unbalanced woman seriously, and built so much on it?

If we could know more about the lives of today’s celebrated North American “ideal Muslimahs” that make us still feel a half-acknowledged twinge of Muslim guilt whenever we are reminded of their existence, what would we find??

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  1. #1 by Ify Okoye on May 10, 2012 - 8:21 pm

    It’s so painful to read and remember just how desperately we tried to be other than who we are to fit into some ridiculous, forced, and unreal ideal Muslimah model. How we didn’t realize it then, how we were used, and how much guilt we suffered and continue to suffer because of it. Liberating, once recognized for what it is. Thank you again for expressing something, which I’ve tried to keep inside, and couldn’t quite find the words to explain.

    • #2 by xcwn on May 10, 2012 - 11:40 pm

      Thank you for commenting, Ify. Yes, we were used, and we didn’t know it. We were made to suffer for the sake of other people’s ideas of the way the world “should” work. I hope at least that those of us who have kids can stop doing this sort of thing to them and bring the cycle to a halt.

  2. #3 by Elizabeth Asmaa Valencia on June 1, 2012 - 12:21 am

    You said, ” It formed part of a larger message aimed at white female converts–that what we were was innately flawed, so we had to become somebody else. Through becoming somebody else, we could become pleasing to God, and respected as true Muslims even by conservative born Muslims. The flip side of this was that if we failed to fully transform ourselves into someone else’s vision of an “ideal Muslimah”, we had failed to be Muslim, and our lives would not be of any value either to God nor to other right-thinking believers.”

    It’s one of the messages that pains me that many Muslims (and even non Muslims as they learn about this faith) are getting – the idea that somehow they have to shed their very being to come closer to God. It’s something I’ve also been rediscovering through my own spiritual journey. The way that Islam has been utilized has oppressed so many women (and men). The disregard for the fact that Islam came as a universal faith that did not come to wipe out our cultures (and being American certainly is one but many don’t see it that way), is imply pushing people away from not only Islam and religion, but also God.

    I think it is part of being human to elevate certain people and to expect better of certain individuals but it can lead to serious wounds, as you mentioned. We’re in reality at God’s grace. That’s why I think it is important from the beginning to remind converts that God does not want us to be blind followers of anyone. He wants us to reflect and contemplate. It’s one of the messages that is standing out more and more in my mind as I re-read the Qur’an with a different mindset.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I came across your blog via a friend who has already left a few comments. You write well and I hope that through this blog you find healing. I also pray that that this helps others who have been bottling up emotions/thoughts/questions that may be preventing them from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

    • #4 by xcwn on June 1, 2012 - 12:29 am

      Down through the years, I came to discover that this expectation that to be a Muslim, you have to shed your culture and become someone else (often, supposedly more Arab in some stereotypical ways) also falls on many born Muslims from various ethnic backgrounds (including some Arabs). It’s a complex issue.

      • #5 by rosalindawijks on March 20, 2015 - 5:09 pm

        Full agreement! Muslims world-wide started to look down on their own culture, music, heritage, traditional clothes and try to become some culture-less “Arab”-oriented generic “ideal Muslim” – except that that “ideal Muslim” doesn’t exist and never did.

        Arab culture is a rich, old and complex culture (actually “culture”) which includes, among so many other things, Oriental dance (which I have as a hobby & love very much!), smoking sheesha, venerating saints and the ahl ulbayt, classical music, folk music, trance/spirit cults, a first-wave feminist movement under Huda Shaarawy in Egypt, classical erotic poetry on the love of grown men for young adolescent boys, etc.

        All of these things are VERY Arab and very ingrained in Arab cultures, but not what your typical conservative Muslim would consider “Arab” ( and thus, worth emulating)

      • #6 by xcwn on March 22, 2015 - 6:44 pm

        lol, yes, the “Arab” culture we were exposed to and taught to look up to as “Islamic” was extremely selective, to say the least….

  3. #7 by Elizabeth Asmaa Valencia on June 1, 2012 - 2:36 am

    I have been talking to many converts and others just searching and one of the very first questions I get is “Do I have to become Arab?” My own cousin asked me this. The irony of it all is that when one looks at the Arab world today we see a lot of irreligiosity and backwardness (that sadly gets tied to Islam), and still many Arabs think they have more say over Islam simply because of the fact that they are Arab and know Arabic. But most of those that uplifted and revived Islam throughout the centuries were not Arab, interestingly enough.

    • #8 by xcwn on June 2, 2012 - 10:57 am

      Errr… this is such a complicated question, and it requires a post of its own. Arabs themselves are also subject to such pressures. There’s a certain racist subtext of a lot of these convert-y discourses too. Ventriloquising the rhetoric of would-be Arab reformers (religious or otherwise)—“irreligiousity and backwardness”—solves no problems for converts, and is in any case offensive. Personally, I have been surrounded by enough ethnic and racial (and class) prejudice to last me many lifetimes.

      • #9 by rosalindawijks on March 20, 2015 - 5:12 pm

        ” There’s a certain racist subtext of a lot of these convert-y discourses too.”

        Full agreement. And the endless double talk going on: The very same people who claim that to be a Muslim is NOT to be an Arab, would cringe at people, say, listening and dancing to Afro-Carribean music, wear their own cultural clothing, celebrating cultural feasts that are not Islamic, and so on.

    • #10 by Yusuf Smith on July 5, 2012 - 8:00 pm

      I’ve even come across Arabs who think they can tell me how to speak English when I’ve spoken it all my life and they haven’t. For example, one guy insisted that my nickname (used in my email address) “Indigo Jo” should have an “e” on the end, as “Jo” is the female spelling. Uh, no, it’s more commonly used as short for Josephine but it can be short for Joseph or Jolion as well.

  4. #11 by Iznan Husainy Hasbullah on November 1, 2012 - 4:50 pm

    Maryam Jameelah passed away today in Lahore at 78 after prolonged illness. To Allah we belong and to Him we shall return.

    • #12 by Faisal khan on November 6, 2012 - 12:01 am

      She died on 31st oct 2012 from heart fail not because of prolonged illness. I am her grandson have spend much of time with her. She had no illness, she was mentally & physically fit. May Allah rest her soul in peace. Ameen

      • #13 by Adam on January 14, 2013 - 9:32 pm

        Your her grand son?

        have so many questions!

        What did you think of “the Convert” as a book?

  5. #14 by Adam on January 14, 2013 - 9:34 pm

    I heard that book getting some heavy steam from alot of folks, both ”progressive” and ”conservative” muslims, both muslims and non-muslims in terms of it’s accuracy.

    THe book makes her out to be some extremist, but she did make some later writings basically expressing disgust toward 9/11 and the taliban etc.

    I suspect Maryam herself was a bit shocked to realize her islamic ideal utopia doesn’t happen simply on good intentions.

  6. #15 by rosalindawijks on April 6, 2014 - 10:05 am

    Yes, the pitfall of internalizing colorism, racism, prejudice and self-hatred………thank God I never really fell for that, even though I as an Afro-Carribean woman sometimes, subtily felt uncomfortable about my ethnicity and culture around many Arab Muslims, of whom the majority were downright racist about black people in general and prejudiced about Afro-Carribean culture in particular.

    They had all the prejudices of white Dutch people and WORSE.

    But anyhow, as soon as I figured out that being “accepted and welcomed” meant giving up the name my parents lovingly gave me, the ethnic heritage they and my grandparents and ancestors passed on to us, my background and upbringing and wasn’t supposed to pray for the souls of my deceased loved ones – I refused to do that, an returned to my own culture, WITH the interpretation of Islam that suits me best (Progressive Islam/Islamic feminism/liberation theology).

    Actually, I realize now that this isn’t the whole truth. There was a time, for instance, I believed I had to take an Arabic name, which I did, but as a second name, because I just COULD NOT give up my birth name. Now, hardly anyone knows me by my Arabic name, which I’m in the end content with, because my birth name is perfectly Islamic – it’s Spanish and means “beautiful rose”.

    There was also a time that I envied girls who were brought up as Muslims, because I believed that, then, my life as far as practicing Islam went, would have being easier. How wrong I was. My parents gave my many gifts, but the greatest gift they gave me was to learn to think for myself, independent of their beliefs and thoughts. They are/were totally supportive when I converted and even my mother, who had a hard time at first because she’s Christian, now supports me all the way. She was right by my side when I took my oficcial shahada, even though that is contrary to her beliefs. There are very, very few Muslim parents who would do that. And for that I love and respect them.

    • #16 by xcwn on April 6, 2014 - 9:46 pm

      Oh yes, the envying women who had been born into Islam. I remember that, all right. I and my convert friends honestly believed that we would have been far better Muslims if we had been born into it, that other Muslims would have accepted us, and that we would have been more pleasing to God. The degree of self-hatred that we developed is really horrifying to look back on.

  1. الخزانة والخروج | بعدما دخلت الآلة في الصحراء

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