Some time ago, I stumbled upon a fascinating discussion on Stephanie’s now-defunct blog, about Muslim identity among Muslim converts—who were mostly either fairly liberal, or had deconverted. It’s in the comments of one post, as well as in another entire post on this topic (plus the comments).
One comment from Signy outlines a view that I have often encountered on Muslim identity as it pertains to converts in particular:
“It is interesting to think about what labels we apply to us, and what meanings they hold and what a community or society at large says we are or aren’t, and what meaning that holds. There are people who call themselves “Muslim” who would not be considered thus by the mainstream sunni or shia or even some progressives. Are they still Muslims? Is a Muslim one who says he or she is? And my question always has been, if one rejects some of the core tenets of the faith, then why bother with the label unless it is for nostalgia or heritage? I think a lot of us – not all of us – go through a “still Muslim, but not like that…” phase. And then we get past it.”
Yes, what’s the point of identifying as a Muslim if most “mainstream” Muslims don’t think that you are one?
For converts, this opens up a lot of difficult questions, because in my experience at least, even believing and doing the right things to the best of one’s ability doesn’t necessarily mean that born Muslims will really accept you as one of them. Quite the contrary.
Even famous converts who embraced Islam over two or three decades ago and have spent most of their lives doing all sorts of worthwhile things that have greatly benefited conservative Muslim communities and even functioned as community spokesmen (and far less often, as spokeswomen) are typically most famous among born Muslims for the fact that… they converted. Because that’s what really matters about them—especially if they are white. They don’t really quite belong, and never will. God may well accept them as Muslims, and reward them abundantly in Paradise, but on earth, there is nothing that they can do that can possibly make up for having not had a born Muslim father, or at least the ability to plausibly claim some remote Muslim ancestry. True authenticity will never quite be theirs.
Not in the eyes of most born Muslims… nor (in my experience, anyway) in the eyes of non-Muslim people of color.
* * * * *
One of my daughters, A., was walking about five yards ahead of me along a side-street in a neighborhood where we had lived for some years, back when I was a conservative Muslim.
“Oh, Summer!” a woman’s voice called. A black woman with two kids ran up to my daughter, smiling broadly. “Summer! I haven’t seen you for how long now… how big you’ve grown!”
“Summer?” I thought. “What? Who’s Summer??”
A. picked up the smaller of the kids, and followed the woman to the door of her home, talking animatedly all the way.
After about ten minutes, A. came back to me. “I haven’t seen that woman for ever—oh, her kids are bigger now, but still so cute!”
“Who is she?” I asked. (She looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember her name, or where I’d seen her last.)
“She’s Marcus’ and Shaundra’s mom,” A. said. “She remembers me, back from when I was little. She used to call me Summer then too.”
“What??” I said, trying not to seem too unnerved by the whole thing. “Why did she start calling you Summer?”
“Well,” A. replied, “I was playing with one of her kids, and she asked me what my name is. Back when we lived here. And when I told her my name, she said, ‘That’s a black name. You can’t have a name like that.’ And she started calling me Summer.”
“A. is a Muslim name,” I answered. “It’s Arabic. Lots of Muslims from different parts of the world have the same name as you. It’s not just a black name.”
“Well,” one of my sons said, “I’ve met black girls named A. who aren’t Muslim. It’s a black name too.”
I sighed, but decided that nothing good would likely come from trying to put into words how I felt about the whole thing.
This woman had apparently decided that my daughter—and who knows, likely me, and my other kids—were walking around with black names that we had unfairly appropriated. And that she had the right to rectify this, by calling my daughter by what she thought was a suitably “white” (vaguely-new-age-y sounding) name that I never would have even considered giving a child of mine, whether I’d been Muslim or not.
A radical approach to combating cultural appropriation, certainly. But the underlying attitude was something I was fairly familiar with, from (some) whites as well as from (some) people of color who weren’t Muslim: That they knew what a Muslim is, and that as a white person, I can’t possibly really be one. And that even my children (with their Muslim immigrant father) don’t quite cut it either. So, our names and beliefs and food-ways and social habits and ritual practices and self-identities as conservative Muslims were all just… a really elaborate game of dress-up. Not real. Not worthy of respect. Just another kind of cultural appropriation by whites, though under the guise of supposed religious belief.
* * * * *
One of my Mom’s (white) friends once referred to me as “a white in Arab dress.” And my mother made sure to repeat that remark to me.
Yeah, that pretty much sums up how they saw it—although to be technical about it, what I was actually wearing when she saw me (trousers, a knee-length manteau, and a polyester headscarf, all in neutral shades) was much more typical of Iranian women in those days than of Arabs—except some Lebanese Shia whose clothing styles had been influenced by the Iranian revolution.
But whatever. Such details wouldn’t have mattered to either my mother or her friend. My very modern hijab style, which more conservative Arabs in the community didn’t think was modest enough, had somehow been rendered both “Arab” and an act of masquerade on my part in their eyes.
Thing was, I had put a lot of thought into that outfit. (And, I had sewed it myself.) I had experimented with different styles of hijab, trying at various times not to stick out too much and somehow manage to achieve a look that was suitably “western” but still modest enough to qualify as “Islamic.” (This was of course way before the hijabi fashionistas… standards for what is “Islamic” were more rigid back then in my community.) But nothing really helped. I was poor, a mediocre seamstress, and had little sense of style. Comfort won over style any day in my view. I turned to long, plain jilbabs, which were fast becoming a sort of globalized pious Muslima uniform. Didn’t help.
Looking back, I think that hijab just doesn’t suit some white women very well. Some can carry it off, but some can’t really. And I wasn’t one of those who can, despite all the sincere effort that I put into it.
Part of it has to do with things such as eye color and size and skin-tone. And part of it has to do with mannerisms, ways of occupying space, ways of moving. Hijab (both the clothing, as well as the “modest” behavior that is supposed to accompany it) signals ultra-feminine. Those of us who aren’t naturally ultra-feminine, and can’t learn to at least pretend to be, end up coming across as though we are in Muslima drag—and not even giving a very convincing performance.
Which really creates a problem for those of us who lived for years in conservative communities in which hijab was regarded as pretty much the litmus test of a woman’s faith. Especially in the case of female converts.
It would be a test that people like me never could really pass.
* * * * *