Archive for April, 2012

More on converts and hijab in the ’80’s

Looking back, I remember three things about hijab in the ’80’s: Organizations like the MSA, ISNA, ICNA, the MSA-PSG, and others like them were promoting hijab–distributing books and pamphlets that stated that it is an obligation on every girl when she reaches puberty, full stop, and no excuses. But few born Muslim girls or women actually wore it. And, that what hijab actually means for women`s lives was constantly being negotiated.

Few actually wore it, despite—or was it more like because of—those pamphlets and books, as well as the exhortations of the (nearly always male) speakers at MSA-sponsored talks on titles such as `The status of woman in true Islam`or Ìslam the misunderstood religion.` Even those who wore “traditional” dress from their countries of birth–most often, South Asian women–did not seem to be very concerned about whether their attire met those “Islamic” standards that the booklets insisted were non-negotiable. I had never seen such bright and eye-catching fabrics in my life as those women wore–nor had I ever seen middle-aged women wearing such tight clothing (kameez styles in the early ’80’s were really, really tight), or bearing their midriffs anywhere but the beach. Watching the women in the rows in front of me at Friday Prayer wrapping, unwrapping, rewrapping, and readjusting their bright, filmy dupattas during the sermon, I soon learned how to go about wrapping an oblong scarf around my head (not an easy skill to acquire on your own, in those days before youtube hijab tutorials…).

So what exactly was the issue? Why did I, as a teenager interested in Islam (and presumably in R.’s mind, a potential convert) need to know the nit-picky details about a practice that was rare in the part of North America where I was living at that time? (And for that matter, was also not common in most of the countries of origin of the immigrant Muslims, though we did not realize that until later.) Why was women’s dress being presented as such a central part of Islam? And why was there so much pressure on converts in particular to wear it?

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Managing the female convert body: putting on hijab in the early ’80’s

One of the first things that I was given by Muslims to read about Islam was an MSA pamphlet about how Muslim women are to dress.

It was the early ’80’s. I was a teenager, eagerly reading whatever I could find about world religions. I was particularly drawn to Islam.  R., a friend of an acquaintance took it upon himself to funnel reading materials my way; he saw it as doing da’wah, as I would later realize. R. lent me his English-Arabic copy of Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Quran, and also sent me a booklet about how Muslim women are to dress (courtesy of the MSA).

Looking back, I am rather weirded out by this. Where on earth was the concern that I know how Muslim women “should” dress coming from? This was the early ’80’s. In those days, in the region where I was living, hardly any girls or women wore hijab. Read the rest of this entry »

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Converts and extremism

I’m not sure that “extremism” is exactly the word I want here. This is part of what makes this subject so hard to think about clearly, much less to write about–what words to use?

Specifically, I’m thinking about converts who get drawn into–or who seek out, or associate with–Muslim groups or movements that have a radical “fundamentalist” political agenda. Meaning, groups/movements that not only believe Islam is “a complete way of life” that should guide everything believers do including their political decisions, but that they seek to impose this vision on others, by force if necessary. And of course, force will sooner or later be necessary, given that many Muslims (much less people of other or no religion living in the countries in question) will not agree with their interpretations.

I was reminded of such converts today by a news story about Khadija Abdul Qahaar (Beverly Giesbrecht). It brought back conflicting, often painful memories of so much of the sh*t that went down during the ’80’s. But it also made me really sad… what? is this kind of thing still going on??

And thinking about it, I realized that yes, it is still going on. This stuff didn’t stop with converts of Rabiah Hutchinson‘s generation. Somehow, I had sort of assumed that since only a minority of female converts had ever gotten heavily  involved in this kind of thing anyway, and that now the internet makes information of the type that tends to get glossed over or hidden from converts so much more easily available, women would stop getting sucked in. Clearly, I was wrong. Reading about Khadija soon reminded me of other newbie converts who seem to be going the political route and end up attracting (often quite negative) media attention.

The media tends to highlight things that are generally considered strange or shocking or dangerous. White female converts are often considered strange in “mainstream” North American (and Western European, and Australian) society. If they are (or seem to be) politically active in support of Islamist causes or viewpoints, they are usually regarded as even stranger, if not perhaps dangerous. A tiny number do in fact prove to pose a threat to public safety, as in the notorious case of  Colleen (Fatima) LaRose.

Converts to any religion (not just to Islam) tend to be stereotyped as excessively religious and given to taking things “too far.” I would agree that conversion is an unconventional, even at times a radical act, in the sense that we cut ourselves off at the roots, and try to put down roots in another religious framework. Under the best circumstances, that can be a difficult, even destabilizing thing to do, even for those who aren’t battling internal demons or trying (and failing) to recover from difficult past experiences. Read the rest of this entry »

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…In which valley you die

In the news today: Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs lied when they claimed publicly that they were trying to find out why and how Beverly Giesbrecht died. Giesbrecht, a Canadian woman who had converted to Islam, changed her name to Khadija Abdul Qahaar, and traveled to Pakistan, where she worked as a journalist and a fixer, was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008, and held for ransom. The Department of Foreign Affairs apparently come to the conclusion that she died in captivity in 2010, but delayed publicly announcing this–and also told the RCMP to stop investigating, while they were still claiming in public that efforts were being made to determine what happened. Apparently, they still don’t know how she died, or where she is buried (which makes me wonder how they know she is dead).

Anyway. This story immediately reminded me of two things: a hadith, and the difficult, sometimes frankly horrifying predicaments that converts sometimes (often?) end up in.

As a white North American female convert, you often find yourself “between patriarchies”, so to speak. The (patriarchal) powers you grew up expecting would come to your aid in an emergency, like your birth family, or the government, may well not help you for a number of reasons. But Muslims are not likely to come through for you either–even the same Muslims who like to talk about how “we shouldn’t wash our dirty laundry in public,” or that Muslims shouldn’t be relying on non-Muslims for things such as social services or solving their family problems. Read the rest of this entry »

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“Islam” and my experiences

I am in the process of trying to disentangle “Islam” (the world religion with some 1400-odd years of history) and my particular experiences as a North American convert in the early ’80’s.

This is challenging to do for several reasons. First of all, because “Islam” was often used as the justification for everything and anything–by community leaders, and by individuals. It was the ultimate legitimating tool for almost any action.

Second, because I was involved in or associated with different Muslim circles at different times, and they understood or defined Islam differently. Yet, those differences were often rhetorically blurred for a number of reasons. All the differences were particularly confusing to converts in particular, and we often missed the nuances of debates about beliefs and practices–or failed to understand that there was a debate going on at all. We had little or no sense of the history behind different positions, and tended to take what people said at face value.

Third, because North American discourses on “Islam” were ever-evolving. “Islam” was and is a moving target–though few community leaders typically admit that.

Frankly, most internet discourses on “Islam” get inane pretty fast. Remarkably wide generalizations abound–made both by believers, as well as those who are not Muslim and have no connection to Islam whatsoever. People generalize all the time about “Muslim women”, “the status of women in Islam,” “converts to Islam”, and so forth, in ways that they probably wouldn’t do if they were talking about almost any other group.

It has taken me some time to realize that a fair amount of what I have experienced is actually not a reflection of most North American Muslim women’s lives. Although I (and often, my convert friends) were often told or otherwise given to understand that “X is Islamic” and that no “good Muslim woman” would even dare to question Y, looking back, I can see that in some cases we were frankly being manipulated. Things were seldom as simple as we were told that they were.

At present, I (and a number of other converts I know) are dealing with the following issues:

the aftermath of bad marriages, ranging from dysfunctional to frankly abusive
psychological trauma (the effects of which range from depression to PTSD)
disturbed and traumatized children
strained relationships with our birth families (with some relationships damaged beyond repair)
serious financial losses/problems
long-term damage to our earning power; obstacles to career advancement
worries about how we will survive once our health does not allow us to work
the aftereffects of social isolation and alienation from the wider society
a deep sense of betrayal and loss

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Adventures in recovery: early marriage

Today, I happened to glance at a review of “Girls,” a new TV series featuring several white, North American young women in their mid-twenties from fairly privileged backgrounds who are rather awkwardly making the transition from university student to full-time employment and independence. The reviewer commented that twenty-four is the age that people learn how to do things such as shoulder the mundane responsibilities involved in being an tenant and a dependable employee, as well as to learn about oneself and others through dating and relationships.

And I asked myself, “What was I doing at age twenty-four?”

That was so long ago. And anyway, I usually date things by the births of my kids, not by my own age. What was I doing when I was twenty-four?

Nothing that the young women on the show are doing, anyway. By the time I turned twenty-four, I had already been married for over four years, and I was a mother to boot. I had never lived independently–I went straight from my father’s house to my husband’s. While I had some paid work experience, I had never had a full-time “real” job. As for dating and relationships… nada. I had never done that. Instead, I had married a man that I barely knew. His idea, not mine–he had pushed hard for marriage within a month of meeting him, insisting that his religion (Islam) doesn’t allow dating.

We had an “Islamic marriage.” Looking back, I now realize that what it actually was was a so-called urfi marriage rather than a typical, run-of-the-mill Muslim marriage–but that’s a subject for another time. I will just note that this type of “marriage” is highly controversial among Muslims, and with good reason. But the point here is that as far as the conservative Muslims we would soon get to know were concerned, there were really only two controversial things about our marriage: the irregular nature of our (urfi) marriage, and the fact that I didn’t belong to the right race/ethnicity or religion at that time, having not yet converted to Islam. (We managed to rectify the first “problem” several years later, once we had scraped twenty dollars together in order to pay a marriage officer to marry us “Islamically,” complete with a written contract.) But none of these Muslims thought that I had been too young or immature to get married.

Early marriage, especially for girls, was strongly encouraged in the Muslim communities I was involved in during the ’80’s and ’90’s. There were several reasons for this. Read the rest of this entry »

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