…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.

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.

, , , ,

  1. #1 by Artemis on May 9, 2012 - 12:09 pm

    So much of this resonates with me. I will be reading your blog with interest ( and a love born out of similar experience).

  2. #2 by xcwn on May 9, 2012 - 11:32 pm

    Artemis, thank you for your comment.
    I am wondering how many other women have had these kinds of experiences. It’s hard to know, since people don’t usually discuss these things publicly.

    • #3 by Artemis on May 10, 2012 - 12:07 am

      I’m furious that people don’t discuss these things publicly and furious that if we try everyone from every facet of “community” tries to distance themselves from it to save their sense of “Islam” or questioning some of the things they are spouting and how these things impact on the lives of people more vulnerable. and the nuance, your points about the nuance are so true, no one wants to see it.

      Perhaps it won’t be so hard for this generation of converts, although many of these factors still exist. I am not a convert from the eighties but I converted a decade ago, pre internet in a city with very uninspiring manifestations of the religion.

      I am still grappling with my faith. I still believe in the shahada but everything else….ugh!

      The trauma of it is something so few people are willing to acknowledge, we need some kind of group website, I hate to think there are other women going down this path without realising what is in store.

  3. #4 by Artemis on May 10, 2012 - 12:18 am

    I posted a link to your blog on my Facebook this morning and a friend commented and I made a comment after their comment, it pretty much describes what I was going to comment on here…
    but it’s the interplay of interpretations of Islam with these things that gives it the glue that binds it all together. She is not saying that this is every converts experience but really for the people who do have these experiences no one will listen to it and it is so, so damaging. And why won’t people listen to it without trying to take “Islam” out of it? If these experiences resonate with you, you know that it is everything to do with religion, not necessarily only Islam, these religious dynamics cut across all religions but they are particularly potent in Islam and also whiteness comes into play because we are trying to challenge our racisms and assumptions that might be based in privilege, it all fits together to make a potent and terrible mixture that just destroys people.
    If you (general you, not you specifically) are not married into an ethnically Muslim community and you have never sought out traditional learning with a real drive, then as a convert you will probably have a very different experience, but anyone who goes into learning will discover how it is tailored to keep women in dysfunctional situations. And this is where the power structures of things become really apparent. Many middle class born Muslims sit on the sidelines of these things and so are not affected, and some western converts or people through things like Universalist Sufism manage to avoid it all together, this is very much about sticking to and not questioning identity. The people who are really vulnerable are the people prepared to question how their identity is constructed and consider all manner of possibilities and interpretations and at it’s heart Islam encourages this, but the outcomes are often dreadful!

    Really these things are not limited to “fundamentalisms” and the people who get drawn into the quagmires of them are not necessarily so naive and foolish, there is an incredibly nuanced package that creates these situations but no one wants to see the nuance and everyone wants to distance themselves from it somehow, on all sides from literalists to “Sufi’s”. Our “Islam” and the way we encourage it’s practise couldn’t have anything to do with it. It’s everything to do with it. You don’t stay in crippling situations for years unless you think there is some Divinely mandated reason for doing so.

    Just recently I heard a community leader tell a group of women that if they experience verbal abuse, then great it’s spiritual training, with no context offered or any more discussion. Well it might be spiritual training, no one is disputing that but it’s an incredibly dangerous thing to say. these things add and add to create a situation in which people are very vulnerable and it has absolutely everything to do with religion.


    I think there are many of us, we need some kind of group website….and I don’t mean an anti Islam website because I am still a Muslim, but one which is prepared to tackle these kinds of things, since everyone else wants to shut us up.

    • #5 by xcwn on May 10, 2012 - 12:36 am

      Artemis, you have just written an entire post. Please start a blog. I’m quite serious. I would look forward to reading it.
      You make a lot of really insightful points. There’s so much here that really needs open discussion.

      • #6 by Artemis on May 10, 2012 - 12:43 am

        LOL I was writing one recently, but then deleted it in a fit of frustration and despair! I also didn’t do it anonymously which was foolish because sometimes I am brave and sometimes I am not….but I do plan on writing about it again.

      • #7 by xcwn on May 10, 2012 - 12:54 am

        Glad to hear that you are planning on writing again!

  4. #8 by xcwn on May 10, 2012 - 12:19 am

    Yes, I agree that it’s important to get the word out there, especially about the long-term effects of a lot of this stuff on converts, their kids, and others that end up getting dragged in the middle. The more people that blog about this sort of thing, the better.

  5. #9 by Artemis on May 10, 2012 - 12:25 am

    It’s very lonely though, if you do it publicly rather than anonymously, it gives everyone the heebie jeebies because it deals with some very harsh things 🙂

    • #10 by xcwn on May 10, 2012 - 12:41 am

      Whether people blog publicly or anonymously, I don’t think it matters. Those who have been involved in these types of community situations recognize the truth of it well enough.
      I’m still idealistic enough to have the some faint hope that if these issues are openly discussed, that some of this needless suffering can be alleviated… or even avoided.

  6. #11 by Artemis on May 10, 2012 - 12:48 am

    we recognise the truth of it but so many people either don’t or won’t. I know very few people in real life that I can discuss these things with and one of the things that distresses me is that we end up in an inter world, we are never able to go back to life before Islam or even view whiteness in the same way again, so we remain somewhat estranged from our pre-Islam surroundings because of what we understand about the religion and colonialism and racism etc. but we are disillusioned as all hell with all manner of Muslim community, so what next?

    ah, I tend to start ranting, I’m sure you understand why!

    • #12 by xcwn on May 10, 2012 - 12:57 am

      Yes, I am stuck in this netherworld of being alienated from everything and everybody too. I hope that it will someday pass, but who knows. Anyhow, it’s nice to know that I am not alone. 🙂

  7. #13 by Aminah on July 11, 2012 - 1:36 pm

    We have tried to talk about this before. Its not just that the community, includin progressive or liberal Muslims, distanced themselves. Remember the last spate of ex Muslimah blogs, which started to crack the silence about abuse in marriages, community, tariqas and institutions? And what followed was abuse, slander, death threats, harrassment. Muslim women unconnected w the blogs were suspected of being anti-abuse bloggers and subjected to phone calls and emails and community ostracization. Several of those women were hung out to dry. For a lot of us who blogged or guest posted or just read for the sense of a community – finally, not alone! – it was triggering and disheartening, particularly because this little handful of bloggers quit. Or moved on, taking their blogs with them. Just when we started to understand we weren’t alone – and started breaking the taboo of “revealing your husband’s secrets,” getting over the fear of that “sin,” it was all over.

    And in the time since, to my knowledge, some of those women and some of their detractors have suffered further abuse, etc. It broke my heart when a former detractor of these blogs spoke out later about being abused by her husband.

    I am really hoping that this blog is both supported AND encourages a return of those blogs or new blogs speaking up about this issue. And that this time we will have one another’s backs if the crap starts again.

    • #14 by xcwn on July 15, 2012 - 7:01 pm

      Sorry Aminah, that I’m slow in responding…
      Thank you for your comment. It raises a lot of important points. It deserved a post, frankly, which I had just put up. It is really important for women dealing with these issues to blog. It cuts down on the isolation, helps us all to know that we are not alone, and sometimes enables us to share resources. I owe so much to those sisters who used to blog, and I am very grateful to them.

      Some women do stop blogging because they are trying to move on. Or because they have way too much going on in their lives. In that sense, it’s a good thing. But it can be hard for those of us who aren’t in that place.

      Anyway, please blog if you can!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: