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??