Archive for August, 2012

Female convert bodies as “public property”

An ongoing experience in my life as a North American convert has been that (some) born Muslims feel free to make assumptions about what my life must have been like before I converted. And some have felt the need to voice such assumptions, or ask really nosy questions, that a woman from their own immigrant Muslim community would never be asked.

Ok, I think I need one of these to wear to the next Muslim event I go to… maybe with a matching hijab. If there is a way to get the letters to flash different colors, that might work even better to stop the insulting assumptions or nosy questions in their tracks…. Let it never be said that converts don’t have style! 🙂

In other words, my body became an object of scrutiny in a way that it had never been before. Public property, in a sense. Somehow, my sexual history had become every Muslim’s rightful business. Even a Muslim I hardly knew (or even, had just met!) could at any time feel free to ask about it, and jump to conclusions.

When I was a wide-eyed teenager, and then a twenty-something, and I encountered these sorts of attitudes, my first instinct was to blame myself. Presumably, I wasn’t modest enough, or something was somehow “wrong” with me that other Muslims could see, and that had led them to make such assumptions. After all, I had grown up in a culture (’70’s small-town white North America) that labeled and judged girls and women according to their presumed sexual experience (or lack thereof), and being labeled negatively was simply presumed to be the fault of the girl or woman in question.

After I encountered other female “Western” converts who had had this experience as well, I put it down to ethnocentric prejudice and stereotyping: that basically, some immigrant Muslims have fixed ideas of what all “Western women” (by which they usually mean white women, primarily) are supposedly like.  Presumably, derived from watching too much bad American tv.

In the past, I tried ignoring it as much as possible. After all, as Lynn Jones points out in her book, Believing as Ourselves (which has a chapter about this very issue, entitled “The American Harlot”) people will make assumptions, and there’s nothing we can do about it. So the best thing is not to take it personally.

But this sort of thing has long bothered me for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s really, really insulting. Given the attitudes that many of the people asking these sorts of questions or making these sort of assumptions have about a woman having sex before marriage, what they are saying in effect is: “So… are you morally depraved? Have you committed an unforgivable sin that will stain you forever?”

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Whiteness, privilege… and critical thinking

One of the ways that I and my white female convert friends often reacted to becoming aware of how our white privilege was showing was to avoid thinking critically about the various practices, beliefs and community dynamics of the conservative Muslim communities that we were involved in. This led to a number of serious problems.

Privilege is not a zero-sum game: that either you are privileged, full stop, or you’re not. Pretty much everyone has some privilege, and those who deny that they have any may well be trying to avoid being called out on… their privilege.
(artwork courtesy of:

It all started innocently/ignorantly enough, I suppose. As whites educated in the ’70’s in largely white small towns, with an educational system that presented white North American Christian (or post-Christian) middle-class culture, history, literature and ways of seeing the world as normative, and consuming media that did likewise, we came into Islam with very Eurocentric (and largely middle class) biases. But our biases were largely unconscious, and therefore, unexamined. We had been educated to simply assume that our ways of doing things and seeing things are only sensible, really… and so by default, any other ways that fall short of what we had been conditioned to believe are rational, fair and correct are inferior, if not flat-out wrong. And, that the world would be a far better place if our “superior” ways became dominant everywhere.

But at the same time, we were very idealistic teens and young adults, who were very critical of the hypocrisy and war-mongering and neo-imperialism and racism and sexism of our parents’ generation. So, we assumed that we ourselves were free from racism, because we were so critical of it in others.

Of course, we were in for a rude shock on that score.

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Towards plumbing the cesspool: experiments with counter-racism

The Cult was a neo-traditionalist group. One of the many (as I found out, much later) that emerged in North America over two decades or so ago. As is generally true with groups of this kind in North America, they identified very strongly with the pre-nineteenth century Muslim scholarly traditions of interpretation. Everything needed an isnad attached to it in order to have any validity, and you had to follow the opinions of the scholars, rather than interpret things for yourself.

Hard to say where this mess begins and ends… what a tangled web we weave. (

So, at first glance, anyone might easily think that race could not be a problem in this group. Since the scholars of the past came from many different regions of the world, from Mauritania to South-East Asia to Albania to Zanzibar and a great many places inbetween, and as the well-known hadith has it, “everyone is as equal as the teeth of a comb”, then surely all that would matter would be the depth and sincerity of one’s faith. Skin color, parentage, ethnicity… would not be important. I and my best friend really, honestly believed that this is how it would be.

We were wrong. Of course.

But we didn’t realize what exactly was going wrong for the longest time, race-wise. Even now, looking back, it is a lot to disentangle. Rather like a huge tangle of fishing-line, with no obvious beginning or end, and several rusty hooks to boot.

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This cesspool is really, really deep

Why does the racism discussed in the previous post matter? aka it’s been talked about before. A lot. And the discussion tends to unfold in predictable ways.

How the discussion unfolds seems to depend on who has raised the issue in the first place.

When white female converts discuss these things, it sometimes gets a polite hearing, depending on where and by whom. Both Huda Khattab (in her books, The Muslim Woman’s Handbook, as well as Bent Rib) and J. Lynn Jones (in her Believing as Ourselves) have dealt with some of this stuff. These books have been easily available through fairly conservative Muslim sites and bookstores for some years now. Lots of Muslims have read them, and have apparently found them insightful. But have books like those, or blogs by white female converts led to any major, concrete change? Certainly not in any community that I know of.

But at least these women got a reasonably polite hearing—a minimal courtesy that in my experience doesn’t seem to be often extended to black female North American converts who want to discuss racism in Muslim communities.

What does it mean that those most severely affected by racism are given the least amount of space to be heard? When they are ignored, or dismissed, or silenced with reproaches that they are “just being too sensitive” or “dividing the umma”?

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Of whiteness and conversion

I have been thinking off and on about posting about my attempts to work through the ways that my whiteness, gender identity and convert status intersected, and what the results were like.

This image is from the Shukr website, on their front page. It is part of an advertisement for their Ramadan-Eid sale. ( Sadly, the reason it caught my eye is because all the other female models on the site are white. And I asked myself why. Why all the others are white, and why Shukr would think that this would help them to better sell their clothes in North America, where almost one-third of the Muslim population is black, and many more Muslims have dark skin.

But I have been putting it off. Yes, race was certainly a major issue in the conservative Muslim communities that I have been involved in. But I am not sure that I am the person to talk about it—in fact, I’m pretty sure that I’m not.  And it’s very, very complicated, especially when race intersects with gender identity, class, immigration status, sexual orientation… and so forth.

Part of me really does not want to talk about it. For one thing, whites—even white women—are a tiny minority of converts in North America. The problems folks like me have faced are often ugly, but they are only a very small share of the total amount of racism in the communities that I was involved in. There’s a much larger elephant in the room—the racism often faced by black North American converts within Muslim communities—that isn’t receiving anything like the attention it deserves. Other North American converts-of-color also often have to deal with racism from other Muslims, and that receives even less notice.

But this blog is about my recovery process primarily, not about telling Muslim communities what they need to pay attention to. I don’t imagine for a minute that anything I say here will change a thing, either in the communities that I used to be involved in, or in any other Muslim community.  The racism that I was so often immersed in—sometimes as a target, more often as a passive beneficiary, and sometimes as a perpetrator—existed in those communities for a number of complicated reasons, and its continuing existence is enabled by a larger web of oppressive factors that reach far beyond their borders.

There are so many aspects of racism that impacted us as white converts:

  • we were fetishized and exoticized, and in the process often dehumanized
  • when we were welcomed, it was often at the expense of converts-of-color (who weren’t given nearly such a warm welcome), or of born Muslims of color who weren’t toeing the conservative line

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Why not jump off that bridge?

One of my daughters came home recently, and said: “I’m really tired… because today, we went jumping off a bridge.”

Why not jump into religious patriarchy? Lots of other western women have done it, and say that they’ve never felt more liberated in their lives. C’mon, Sister, jump… after all, what could possibly go wrong??
(Bewdley Bridge, UK.

I blinked, and stared at her for a moment. Whaaaaat? Was she joking, trying to scare me, implicitly warning me that she was considering suicide….?

Then I realized that she meant jumping off a bridge into the river, and swimming back to the bank, and climbing up again. She’d gone with her friends up the river, near that bungie-jumping place.  She seemed tired, but happy.

She said that it had been really fun.

“So… did you think how fun it would be to be paralyzed for the rest of your life? What if there were rocks?” I asked. “Or if you had hit something else? Did you even know how shallow or how deep the river was? And what if you had gotten swept downriver by the current?”

“I stood and watched the other kids before I tried it,” she answered. “They kept jumping, swimming back to the riverbank, and jumping again. Nobody was getting hurt. So I could see that it wasn’t dangerous.”

Well (I thought) I suppose I should be relieved that she didn’t just jump off that bridge straightaway, without even wondering whether or not it was safe. But still….

“Just because some people do it, and it doesn’t seem to harm them when you see them doing it, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not dangerous,” I pointed out. “And yeah, I know that a lot of teens around here jump off cliffs and so on… but every year, someone gets hurt. Sometimes seriously hurt.”

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Boycotts, and marriage: how alike religious conservatives can be

(taking a bit of a break from blogging about female piety and female saints…)

Over at Libby Anne’s blog recently, I noticed that she has not one, but TWO posts up that really resonate with me.  On how the toll that seeing patriarchal marriage (along with scary rhetoric about how awful secular marriages supposedly are) can scare some women off marriage altogether, and about boycotts. Both quite familiar territory, unfortunately.

Seems to me that I could make something better myself. Healthier, and cheaper into the bargain. If only I’d thought to boycott patriarchal religion back in the day….

About boycotts: Yes, we were always boycotting something, too. And this was in addition to all the stuff that was forbidden anyway, because it had pig or non-zabiha animal byproducts or some kind of alcohol-related substance in it or something. Stuff that we were told at one time or another that we had to boycott:

  • Indian movies
  • Nike shoes
  • Coke
  • the film “Muhammad, Messenger of God”
  • books published by Penguin
  • and so on… my head is starting to hurt

Looking back, I can see that a lot of the boycotting we did was about drawing boundaries between us (the True Believers in a godless world, supposedly) and them (everyone else).

It isolated us, and helped to reinforce the message we were receiving in sermons and so forth that this secular, amoral society was the enemy of the believers and not to be trusted. Some of it was based on paranoia, like the whole Nike shoes debacle. We were told to boycott them because a pattern on one of their shoes supposedly spelled out the word “Allah” and was intended as an insult to Islam, not because of child-labor or sweat-shop issues or anything like that.

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What would a wholistic female piety look like?

As in, female piety that doesn’t inhibit or prevent women from being complete human beings. That recognizes and celebrates women’s abilities to think, reason, create, feel, desire and love to the fullest extent of their abilities. I’ve been asking myself this question, and I really don’t know.

There seems to be something kind of haraam going on here, though I’m not exactly sure what…. Why is it that when I remember my former life as a wife and mother in a very conservative community, that this is what comes to mind? Can a pious woman own her own body??

Of course, I know what the conservative Muslim communities that I have been involved in or have otherwise encountered in the past would say. When it came to female piety, there was a sort of double-talk that constantly went on. The sameness of men’s and women’s ritual obligations—to pray five times daily, to fast in Ramadan, to pay zakat, to go on Hajj at least once—was stressed. Also, both men and women were often reminded of the importance of seeking to follow the Prophet’s example in praying extra prayers, fasting outside of Ramadan, giving in charity, doing dhikr and reciting the Qur’an.

But as some say, the devil is in the details. In reality, the details of fiqh of salat, fasting, pilgrimage, charitable giving, reading the Qur’an,… constantly remind women and men that they are not equal. And, lived practice in the communities that I was involved in underlined these inequalities even more sharply. Essentially, the fiqh plus the lived practices that I experienced helped to produce a situation in which the body of a woman was never, ever her own. It is never really under her control; unlike a man, she cannot be assured of being able to choose to engage in rituals, or to enter sacred space. And, her body was always at the disposal of others—her husband, of course, and her children, as well as to a lesser extent, relatives and guests. 24/7.

Nothing brought the internal contradictions of these ideas about female piety to the fore quite like Ramadan did. For me, anyway.

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