It’s not as though convert voices, or convert stories are never heard in conservative North American Muslim communities. “Why I embraced Islam” talks have been a fixture of MSA-sponsored events since the ’80’s at least. A growing number of converts are becoming prominent community leaders and scholars. A very small number of these converts are even female.
But here’s the thing: The stories told by converts that get heard are usually what the immigrant Muslim establishment sees as “feel-good” stories. Stories about women (especially white, middle-class women) who convert, put on hijab, and say that for the first time in their lives they feel truly liberated were popular in many of the conservative Muslim circles I frequented. But what about the stories of female converts who didn’t find marriage to a Muslim the “sheltering peace” that they had been led to expect? What about those who sought knowledge, and then were horrified by what they found? What about those who were manipulated and spiritually abused by shaykhs they trusted? What about those who are still dealing with the after-effects of their involvement in Muslim cults, dysfunctional Muslim communities, abusive marriages… or all of the above?
We seldom heard their stories. And, when their stories did come to light, they were quickly swept under the rug, or dismissed in various ways: It is an exaggeration. It can’t be true. She never really believed in the first place. God was testing her, and she should have shown more patience.
When sisters were struggling, they tended to avoid contact with other conservative Muslims. Once they had left, or been forced out, they typically disappeared. We lost contact with them.
Recently, Aminah left the following comment about the abuse that some converts have had to deal with:
“We have tried to talk about this before. Its not just that the community, including 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, harassment. 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.”
As a formerly conservative Muslim who was involved in a very insular, controlling community for years (that turned out to be a cult), this is unfortunately all too familiar. We really did believe that freedom of expression was a godless, modern notion that moreover was a plot by secular-minded enemies of God in order to undermine religions everywhere in the world. It was a toxic mixture of medieval Muslim legal notions (e.g. what things a person might say that would have the effect of putting them outside of Islam) and modern conspiracy-theorizing. So, people who dared to venture ideas or questions that the leaders branded as unIslamic were both sinners on the verge of heresy or apostasy, and traitors. A more potent way of inhibiting people saying what is on their minds (that wouldn’t involve actual physical violence) is hard to imagine. As well as of encouraging others to ignore, shun, or black-ball any dissenters.
And that was before the internet! I can well imagine myself (unfortunately) in my hyper-conservative Muslim days, if there had been any internet, posting nasty comments on abused women’s blogs, scrutinizing conservative Muslim forums ready to pounce on any hint of liberalism, trolling progressive Muslim sites…. On a conscious level, I would have thought that it is my Islamic duty to do so. At the same time, it would have been my way of squelching whatever doubts or questions that I had, without having to ever admit to myself that I had such doubts or questions. A win-win situation, really… except for the long-term fall-out.
Because we did create a prison of the mind for ourselves. We were shut off from—and shut ourselves off from—other perspectives, other ideas, others’ stories that make us uncomfortable. So, whatever happened to us had to be interpreted through the hyper-conservative Muslim lens that had been given to us, because we really had no other way of looking at the world or even at our experiences. So what could we make of abuse except that “it is a test from God” or “God and his Prophet allow it, therefore it must be ok”?
Realizing that I was being abused, much less thinking about leaving my very dysfunctional, and then frankly abusive marriage was impossible for the longest time. Not just because I had no financial resources, no family to help me, no job skills, no idea of how I’d manage… but because there were no role-models.
What is abuse anyway, when the Qur’an says x and Shaykh so-and-so says y and your community thinks that anything short of being beaten within an inch of your life isn’t abuse?? And even if it is abuse, shouldn’t I just stay and be patient, so that I might merit reward in the hereafter? How do you go about leaving a highly conservative Muslim bubble and building yourself and your kids another life, from the ground up?? Nobody was talking about these things, publicly thinking these things through, much less demonstrating that it was possible for things to be different.
We were caught between the idealized image of “the convert,” who takes on the hijab and a sh*tload of patriarchal restrictions, and the media stereotype of “the escapee”—the oppressed Muslim woman (or non-Muslim white woman married to a conservative Muslim man) who goes through trials and tribulations and finally makes her way to the land of Freedom, where Everything Is Just Wonderful (and her story is used to bash Muslims everywhere). But what do you do when you don’t want to be either extreme? When you are just trying to find a way to live a life worth living, and to give your children decent lives?
In the end, I faced what I call a “Malcolm X moment.”
Near the end of his life, his house was set on fire, presumably by members of the Nation of Islam. He was facing death threats from them. He knew they had it in for him. And he had been one of the ones who had played a central role in building up the NOI. One of the ways he (and others) built up the NOI was to enforce strict discipline on members, so that those who didn’t follow the rules were shunned, or dealt with by the Fruit of Islam. A good way to create the illusion of internal unity, and to make it very difficult for anyone to raise concerns about things that were going on. But then this machinery turned on Malcolm himself, once Elijah Muhammad had decided that he no longer trusted him. Since leaving my conservative community, I have wondered more than once what was going through Malcolm’s head in those last hours. Did he regret promoting such an insular culture of conformity in the Nation? Maybe he thought that it was a small price to pay to avoid FBI infiltration (not that that worked… but anyway).
I don’t know what he thought, but I find it interesting that while North American Muslim orgs routinely celebrate Malcolm X, they present his life in very moralistic terms: He was lost and confused; he found self-discipline in the Nation; he found True Islam (TM) and recognizing it for the truth it was, embraced it… and shortly afterwards, died a martyr. A neatly packaged story that is designed to testify to the truth of conservative “mainstream” Sunni Islam. A story that doesn’t raise troubling questions about how North American conservative Muslim groups past and present have tried to construct community, and the often terrible toll that these effects have taken on some people… especially on women and children.
So yes, I faced a Malcolm X moment. Realizing that the culture of silence around “difficult issues” that I had bought into had trapped me and my kids. Had kept me unaware of how bad things were getting, until they got so bad that even I couldn’t ignore it any more. Had made me believe that I was absolutely alone, that I was the only woman in the world with these problems, so it must be my own fault, and I had better just accept it as divine correction and have patience. And that this wasn’t true. None of it was true. There were lots of abused women out there, who had endured religious abuse in conservative religious communities. It was possible to get out, and start anew.
It is important for women dealing with abusive marriages, abusive communities, abusive tariqas and shaykhs, or any other kind of abuse… to know that they are not alone. To hear from others who are in, or have been in, similar situations. To hear how different women have dealt with these issues, and how it has (or hasn’t) worked out for them. Whatever conclusions they finally reached. Whatever they finally decided to do. It’s the process that matters.
The internet helps to cut down on the isolation that women like us face. But at the same time, blogs are unfortunately transient. People do decide to take their blogs down, go private, stop blogging, etc. I have posted the links to those blogs that I know of under “Like a phoenix, rising”. Unfortunately, some are rarely updated, and others seem to have been abandoned. Some people probably wonder why I bother to keep the links up at all. I keep them up because it is important to know that some women have been through this, and have gotten out. In some cases, I gather that they hardly blog any more because they have lots of great stuff going on in their (real) lives. Which is a message of hope of sorts.
If anyone knows of any other blogs of Muslim women dealing with abuse (or the aftermath of abuse), or questioning the stuff going down in their conservative communities, or recovering from having been Muslim, please post the links in the comments.