“Passing” and convert identity: some thoughts

Looking back at the conversion process that I and a number of my white North American convert friends went through back in the early ’80’s, I remember a lot of concern with the outward trappings of “Muslimness”:

Names and name changes.

Appropriate attire and adornment (especially for women).

Learning to say and use phrases such as “bismillah”, “al-hamdulillah”, “jazak Allahu khayran”, “maa sh’Allah”, and of course, “inshallah”.

Re-learning how to do a variety of mundane actions “Islamically”: sneezing and responding to someone sneezing, getting dressed, putting on shoes, entering and leaving a bathroom, serving food or drink, cutting one’s nails….

Re-training one’s automatic responses to certain social cues, such as overcoming the tendency to automatically respond to a hand outstretched in greeting by shaking it, without first considering the person’s gender.

Most of the pressure to adopt such trappings came from born Muslims. The wife of one of my (now-ex)husband’s friends was so concerned about my non-Muslim name that one night when we were eating dinner at their place, she told me that I should change my name. When I tried to put her off with a polite excuse, she took it upon herself to select an appropriate name for me—which in her mind was the nearest Arabic match to my name, sound-wise. I objected that I didn’t like the name she was suggesting, and didn’t see why some random Arabic name is particularly “Islamic” anyway. But as we walked from the living room into the dining room to eat, she introduced me to her husband (and my now-ex husband) with the name she had picked out for me. I had to object again that I wouldn’t accept being called by that name.

Essentially, in the minds of such conservatives, to be Muslim was to be Arab (or in the case of some other conservatives I encountered, it was to be Pakistani, or Turkish, or Iranian, or Malay, or…). But it was not to be “western.”

 

In social contexts where conservatives of that mindset predominated, the simplest way to feel reasonably welcome and to avoid being interrogated about your conversion, or have your every move condescendingly “corrected” by born Muslim women was to be as invisible as possible. To “pass” as a born Muslimah. This was a lot easier for some converts than others. Short, slender, quiet, brown-eyed sisters who conformed to stereotypical “feminine” dress and behavioral patterns could sometimes pull it off. Especially if they wore conservative Arab-style hijab and had changed their names.

At least, if you couldn’t pass as a born Muslimah, you might manage to convince those present that you knew enough about Islam and in particular, the sort of behavior that was expected of a pious woman that they didn’t need to be all up in your business.

Being ok with simply being what you were was not an option, in those circles. Because as the hadith has it, “He who imitates a people is one of them.” Being ok with being “western” was therefore often equated with not being sincere about being a Muslim, because one should “hate returning to kufr as one should hate being thrown into the fire”—so conversion somehow meant transforming even innocuous social habits.

But it wasn’t all about the salvation of the convert, of course. A lot had to do with the egos of the born Muslims involved. Imitation is the sincerest flattery, after all.

There were other pressures on converts to “pass” which came from the wider society.

When I and my friends became a Muslim, we suddenly found ourselves members of a tiny minority of a minority. Not only Muslim (definitely a small minority in North America), but white Muslims. And we wore hijab. This was in the early ’80’s, when very few immigrant Muslim women wore hijab in the region where we were living at the time, even, and as white women wearing it, we looked doubly strange. We not only got stared at wherever we went, but people commented, or asked questions. The wider (largely) white society often expected us to be able to “explain” Muslims and Islam to them—as well as to be able to rationally justify our choices to convert (and especially, to wear hijab). At the same time, we were often treated by whites as definite oddities, as probably-not-truly-authentic specimens of Muslim. Stereotypes about converts to any religion aren’t all that flattering, never mind converts to Islam.

Trying to pass as born Muslimahs was one way that we tried to avoid the endless questions and comments and unwelcome scrutiny. Trying at least to be less obviously converts. Legal name changes were definitely helpful there, and conservative, plain and uncreative hijab also, as well as being accompanied by a gaggle of children with good Muslim names. While such attempts at passing wouldn’t usually stand up to any sustained examination by curious non-Muslims, it did take some of the pressure off in public settings, like streets and parks and store line-ups.

Looking back, I can see that there were a lot of messages that we were receiving about being converts that were really negative, and so we often felt that our lives would be easier if we could make it less obvious. There was a core of shame about who we were that never really left, no matter how much we perfected our “inshallahs”.

To be sure, there were also Muslims (often of a less conservative bent) who pressured us NOT to pass. Because in their view, their own situation as immigrants would be better if whites could see other whites converting to Islam. “But we need Muslims running around with names like Joe and Jennifer!” a liberal Arab Muslim assured me. What he meant was, he felt he needed it.  This was more about him than us. He found conservative Salafi-influenced attitudes to Islam and Muslim identity off-putting, and rejected them, so he didn’t like to see converts becoming faux generic conservative Arabs, changing their names to Abd as-Samad or Huda and wearing thobes or jilbabs and “jazak Allah khayran”-ing when a simple “thank you” would have done. Converts who kept on being Joe or Jennifer in jeans and t-shirts and speaking “normal” English would have made him feel that this was one in the eye of the Salafis.

Men like him couldn’t understand why we felt the need to “pass.” But then, they never really wanted to understand us anyway. Fetishize us, yes. Understand us or accept us as equal human beings, no.

But aside from all the social pressures that strongly encouraged us to pass, there was also the felt need for a community. Convert community. Because fellow converts also judged and pressured us, and measured the degree of our Muslim acculturation.  In some cases, converts were expected to teach and advise newer converts—which sometimes in effect meant that they were expected to pressure them into adopting certain practices (such as hijab in particular). But through adopting such practices, we felt that we belonged somewhere. We shared an experience with other conservative converts, who were also putting on hijab and peppering their daily conversation with Arabic words and learning to cook biryani and so forth. And who often had names like Amatullah Sutherland or Khadija Beauchamp, and who gave their children names like Muhammad and Mujahid and Asiya and Hafsa.

There’s so much bound up in such issues, that I find it hard to sort out my thoughts.

Some of these things are about manipulation, for some people. Some things cause ruptures in family relationships, which can be difficult or impossible to repair. Some of these things are empowering to some people, however. It’s complicated. Especially when its several things at once.

It can also cause long-term issues with identity. More on that next time.

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  1. #1 by The White Pumpkin on September 20, 2012 - 1:33 am

    I feel for you, and other converts having read this. My experience was different. I cannot say in the end it was much better, just different all together. One of the saving graces was my name. My parents did pick a beautiful, thoughtful name. I only had a handful of people ask about my name or make a discouraging remark about it. I refused to change it based off of the fact that my parents had chosen a nice name and I felt it disrespectful to them to change it. To date, most people call my by my birth name, some call me the arabic translation of my name. I am fine with either.
    The subject of belonging and community is perpetually a hard issue for me to accept. I had it once, lost it, haven’t found it again. It hurts a bit.

  2. #2 by MK on September 20, 2012 - 1:07 pm

    My late grandfather was often very sorry when converts changed their names and adopted wholesale Arab/South Asian names & customs. Not because he had ulterior motives and agendas (He never lived in the West). However, he felt faith and spirituality were meant to enhance who you already were and did not require a negation of one’s identity or the wholesale adoption of another culture’s food, clothes or language.

    I agree with you that its a complex issue and can play out in so many ways while there are negatives; on the other hand for some it may create a sense of belonging or even provide an opportunity for a fresh start.

  3. #3 by Sunni Side Up on September 20, 2012 - 4:14 pm

    If you (the general ‘you’) are a Muslim because you believe the Qur’an is the word of God, then the Muslim version of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is irrelevant, unnecessary, and better avoided. If you’re a Muslim because you want or need constant validation and approval from a community of busy-bodies, then… well, there aren’t many positive things I can say about that. It’s easy to point the finger of blame at people who take it upon themselves to approve or disapprove of your clothing or name or whatever else, but the real problem is that you’ve made the decision to give them that sort of power over your self-esteem and your life.

    I know plenty of converts just like that, and I always steer clear of them – they typically have more mental and psychological issues than I want to deal with. I don’t have the patience to hand-hold them through their inferiority complexes, and I can’t help looking down on them for their ignorance of Islam. (I don’t expect everyone to research everything the way I do, but I do expect anyone getting deep enough into Islam to worry about things like hijab to have at least read a translation of the Qur’an at some point. If someone chooses not to do that, or does it but still believes her husband or imam when he tells her something that outright contradicts it, then I have a hard time seeing her as a victim.)

    The in-crowd’s response to ‘wannabes’ is the same in almost every social context – someone actively trying to join them is seen as inferior (because if they didn’t see themselves what way, why would they be so desperate for approval?), and therefore will never be considered for ‘full membership’ in the club. Someone self-assured enough not to care whether the in-crowd likes them or not is much more likely to be seen as an equal. I rolled my eyes at classmates who did all sorts of dumb things just to ‘belong’ in junior high, and I have even less respect for people who act that way as adults. It’s difficult to respect someone who doesn’t respect themselves, and while that obviously doesn’t justify things like social exclusion or abusive marriages, I suspect it contributes to many of them.

    • #4 by Muhabbat al Haqq on September 25, 2012 - 4:14 pm

      So you are proud of looking down on people (namely women, here) for not being as superior or clever as you? You blame women for abuse for being too well groomed into the patriarchy that is not only the foundation and true god of many Muslims, but the foundations of the non Muslim cultures they’re raised in. Noticed you giving a pass to “born Muslim” women who listen to their male authority figures. Why? Because thy can’t be expected to critically think or because you have a need to seek out convert women for blame (and yawn engage in the standard guy game of calling women weak, mentally ill etc.) Hopefully the author will address the “converts are CRAZY” meme which is usually started about a WOMAN after she does something the community doesn’t like (including exposing an abusive husband. I know she has seen it as often as I have and it disgusts me to see it being voiced here

  4. #5 by Chinyere on September 24, 2012 - 5:18 am

    Sunni Side Up, :(. I saw the name of your blog, and I expected your comment to be nicer.

  5. #6 by Safiya Outlines on October 5, 2012 - 1:54 am

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Sunni Side Up’s comment may seem harsh but it’s the number 1 message we should be passing on: keep your agency, live for your own happiness, not the approval of others. Once you get on that treadmill of trying to be something else for other people, it’s extremely difficult to get off and you don’t even know who you are any more.

  6. #7 by xcwn on October 11, 2012 - 12:09 pm

    SunniSideUp—Your comments seem to assume that everyone enters Islam privileged with healthy self-esteem, and a solid adult sense of who they are, as well as the social and financial independence necessary to be able to chart their own path. But unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Some people converted in their teens. Some people went through experiences as children or teens that demolished their self-esteem, and then converted. Some people converted as part of their search for identity and values. Some young women converted and married and bore children in short order, and so did not have financial independence. And yes, some people who have mental illnesses (gasp!) also convert to Islam.

    That is only to be expected. After all, people who already have a stake in the system and feel socially at home are less likely to convert to a controversial and often disfavored religion than those who feel that they don’t have much to lose. Those who have good self-esteem are far less likely to buy in to conservative or cultish interpretations of Islam or any other religion. It’s those who already feel that they have little worth, or who don’t have a good sense of who they are who will be most willing to be told in detail how they should live and be in the world.

    A responsible religious community would treat such people differently than what I have most often seen. It wouldn’t glorify or exploit vulnerability. Or dismiss people with mental illness as “crazies” who don’t merit help and are somehow to blame for their situations.

    But anyway, this would be another post…. All in all, your comment reminded me of where I used to be, and where I never, ever want to return to.

    And by the way, research isn’t a cure-all. I and my friends did plenty of that. Much depends on the information available in the first place (we converted in the early ’80’s, which was pre-internet, and at that time, the only language we read was English). But even when a lot of information is available, part of the problem is sorting through it critically—a skill that many people don’t have, especially if they convert young.

    Just follow the Qur’an and Sunna—well, whose interpretation of the Qur’an? Whose selection of the sunna?? Just about every Sunni, no matter how whacko, will claim that in some way or another his/her understanding of Islam is based on the Qur’an and the Sunna.

    Safiyya—Pretty much ditto. Hanging onto your agency is wonderful, if you have much of it in the first place. Not everybody does. And even those who do can find themselves pretty constrained if they join a cult, and/or get into an abusive marriage.

  7. #8 by Safiya Outlines on October 12, 2012 - 12:13 am

    xcwm – There are things we can ask of the Muslim community, ourselves included. Awareness of cultism, cultish movements (and I’ve discussed this a lot on my blog already), how to hold religious authorities to account, being aware that people will abuse their authority and we need to know how to take action. In addition to that, we need to talk about domestic violence (that is starting to happen, but needs to be extended) and mental illness in a productive manner.

    So that’s the Muslim community, but as converts there are other things we can do and other advice we can give (again see my blog). Yes, people may have many issues, but there are still ways they can protect themselves. You appear to be putting all the blame on the Muslim community, but there needs to be personal responsibility, encouraging them to look for warning signs and trust their gut instincts and we need to emphasise that. I do not think that is anyway stomping on people, parents teach their children all about responsibility, likewise we should teach those new to the religion then same.

    • #9 by xcwn on October 13, 2012 - 3:18 pm

      Safiya—Not sure where you’re getting the notion that I put all the blame on “the Muslim community” from. First of all, there is no one “Muslim community.” There are many Muslim communities, and I have been quite clear that I have been involved in different ones, and that they are not all the same. Second, a number of posts on this blog have been focused on examining the psychological reasons why I and other converts like me have been sucked into rotten marriages/cultish groups/etc. This is primarily a blog about recovery, not about hurling accusations of blame.

      Yes, of course converts should be consistently encouraged—not just told once or twice on some obscure blog, but consistently encouraged from all sides, including by community leaders and scholars—to think for themselves, to grant their consciences the last word in everything, to get to know anyone (and that person’s family and friends) before getting married to them and to leave marriages that are abusive, not to be afraid to ask questions, to seek out counseling from QUALIFIED people (not just some well-meaning auntie or some brother who spent the last 15 years of his life studying the finer points of usul al-fiqh in Morocco somewhere) when dealing with marital or family problems that aren’t getting resolved, to develop and maintain social and financial independence, to seek medical help with depression or other mental health issues, to run like mad from any leader or group that claims to have all the answers, or that isolates its followers or tries to control their personal lives…. If converts (and for that matter, born Muslims) are being regularly given such empowering messages in your community, that’s great.

      But the fact remains that many of us weren’t given such messages—quite the opposite. And we (and our children) are now dealing with the fall-out. Sorry to say, but spending years in a cult and in an abusive marriage do have some long-term effects. Those who don’t want to read about it need not. After all, there are plenty of sites and blogs that idealize conversion to choose from.

      While my focus here is on understanding how I got into these situations (and how I can avoid ever getting into anything like them again), the question of blame and responsibility is an interesting one. What would Muslim leaders and Muslim communities that took responsibility look like? If they actually did apologize for the ruin that they have helped create in some converts’ lives, what would that be like? I will try to imagine that in some upcoming posts.

  8. #10 by Ambaa on December 19, 2013 - 2:39 pm

    I feel so much temptation to pass for Indian. It’s a struggle for me to stay honest. It’s probably a “grass is greener” effect thinking that it would be easier if I were thought to be Indian. My skin is pale, but I dream sometimes about putting on tanning lotion!

    Yesterday I was at Rite Aid and I wear a mangala sutra, which is just a little necklace that peeks out the top of my shirt. The clerk was Indian and as she was ringing me up she squinted and said, “Are you Indian?”

    Oh, how I wanted to lie! How I wanted to say yes!

    But I didn’t. I told her I wasn’t Indian but I was Hindu. The open look in her face shut down. She mumbled a “have a nice day” and handed me my bag.

    • #11 by xcwn on December 20, 2013 - 2:37 am

      Ah yes, that’s a familiar experience. When I wore hijab, Turks and Bosnians would sometimes think that I was one of them….

  9. #12 by Deeba on January 2, 2014 - 12:40 am

    While I refuse to change my name or deny where I am from, I see no harm in trying to “pass” in certain situations. If I can obscure the fact that I’m an obvious convert I find it much easier to function in day to day activities such as going to the store, bank etc. When I go out without trying to obscure my “whiteness” or the fact that I’m a convert I get stared at and harassed by both Non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Even though I really don’t care much about fitting in with the general Muslim population or what people think I often try to hide who I truly am purely for the sake of self-preservation. For me, “passing” presents some form of freedom and allows for at least a reduction in the harassment and stares.

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