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.
Not all birth families are the same. Some are close-knit, others are the opposite; some are tolerant and continue to love and accept you post-conversion, while others are less so. Some make it clear that the convert is an embarrassment and should not expect any help in dealing with the fall-out of decisions that she has made such as to marry someone she hardly knows or to have children while living in poverty. (Conservative Muslims I knew in the ’80’s and ’90’s regarded decisions of this type as a demonstration of the convert’s piety and sincerity; needless to say, few birth families would be likely to see things this way, especially not if they were middle-class or had middle-class aspirations.)
So, things can go downhill fast. Converts can find themselves making “pious” choices such as staying in bad marriages, or dropping out of school, or resigning themselves of polygamy, or following their immigrant husbands back to their countries of origin in order to raise the children “in an Islamic environment.” Or they can get sucked into political activism here or abroad, where they may end up finding that they are (or have become) pawns of forces beyond their ken.
Not all choices of this type end up in abuse or tragedy, of course. But they sometimes do, for obvious reasons. And once converts realize the gravity of their situations, it’s often difficult or impossible for them to easily extricate themselves.
As conservative Muslims in the ’80’s and ’90’s, we were often reminded from the minbar of the perils of relying on the unbelievers, and exhorted to work towards building institutions in our Muslim communities that could address all of our social, educational and other needs. Such rhetoric often puts converts in a difficult position. Born Muslims could (and were often expected to) be able to turn to family and/or ethnic community in times of need; converts often could not do either.
Conversion often strained relationships with family, and made us outsiders in the wider society. Part of this was due, quite frankly, to prejudice against Islam. But it was also partly due to the nature of some of the practices that we took up. In any case, this dynamic made us vulnerable in ways that most born Muslim women are not. We were often told that we had to or ought to act in particular ways, with little or no recognition of the likelihood of how badly this might work out for us.
Some of us were manipulated into essentially entering into a sort of underground life, in which we were all but invisible to the outside world. “Islamic marriages” in which you are married in the mosque (or even, in somebody’s living room) but not in the eyes of the state. Polygamous marriages, which of course are illegal and therefore unregistered and to be concealed from people outside the community. Unregistered schools that didn’t meet state standards. And so on. In such a life, you have no legal rights, really, because so much of what is going on is legally dubious or frankly illegal. You stay away from social workers, the police, the courts. You don’t trust them. You can’t go to them. And others in your little semi-underground community know that you are not likely to turn to outsiders for help. Your husband knows that too.
You are at the mercy of your community, essentially–though it doesn’t feel that way at the time. You think that your community will protect you. Too late you might find out that they won’t. Too late you might find out that enough people see converts as throw-aways, though few would say so openly. You have no family, no ethnic community to back you up, so you are nothing and nobody. You are a problem and an embarrassment; better that you just silently disappear.
It is not easy to get over your fear of social workers, police, and courts. And for them also–you have made your own decisions, ultimately. If your decisions have taken you beyond the realm of the legal or the politically acceptable, then you are on your own. You are essentially a throw-away–not that they are likely to admit that in public. But hey, they have more pressing priorities and more deserving issues to focus their energies on.
When you in your teens, you tend to think that you are indestructible. That you can make all kinds of choices, and that if it’s the “right” choice morally or politically, that it will all somehow work out. And if you are white and were raised in a fairly privileged, stable home, you may assume–without ever really thinking it through–that “everyone” believes that human life (which you unconsciously equate with YOUR life in particular) has value and purpose in and of itself, and that you can count on “someone” (who exactly is unclear) to intervene and rescue you if, say, you are being abused by your husband, or you have been kidnapped abroad, or what-have-you.
This is an illusion. An illusion born out of privilege. It’s not reality.
Reading this news story, I was also reminded of a hadith that we used to hear fairly often in The Cult, to the effect that if you don’t focus your entire life on obeying God, then God will not care even in which valley you die. We took that very seriously. We tried to live our lives like that–with what “obeying God” means in practice defined for us by others, of course. That hadith is one of those that still haunts me. Muslim guilt…. ah, Muslim guilt! But now I wonder if it would not have been better for us to focus on living up to the best of our potential, rather than trying to force ourselves to fit into someone else’s idea of what a “good Muslim woman” should be, and making ourselves so vulnerable to abuse in the process.
So… this post ended up being about how this particular news story triggered some unpleasant memories and reflections for me. But there’s a whole other issue that needs another post: converts and Islamism/revivalism/fundamentalism. That’s for next time.