Musings on Muslim identity (III)

“O you who believe! Stand up for justice, bearing witness for God even against yourselves…” (Q 4:135)

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So far, my musings on Muslim identity have been very much centered on MY particular experiences as a white North American convert. Which is unsurprising, but also potentially distorting in a way. Perhaps the problem is not so much with all the racial and gendered dimensions of conversion in North America, but… me?

I mean, sure, conversion to any religion is bound to have its challenges. And becoming Muslim in North America in the early ’80’s was very much a leap in the dark. I thought that I knew what I was doing at the time, of course, but looking back, I just shudder at how remarkably unaware I was of the implications of just about everything that I was doing. Yes, those were the pre-internet days, and I was young and very naive about the way the world works, but really….

And once I had begun to get a sense of how race and gender and class and a whole host of other factors were going to make my relationships with both Muslims as well as non-Muslims a lot more complex now that I had converted and become a practicing, conservative Muslim, then surely any half-way sensible person wouldn’t still expect any sort of warm welcome, much less a sense of belonging? Maybe I just had very unrealistic expectations—not only due to the dawah literature I read, but due to… white privilege. After all, in this racially polarized society, how was it reasonable to have expected anything other than what ended up happening?

While wondering about this question, I happened across a discussion on the “unmosqued” movie-in-the-making, as well as an article on MuslimMatters about factors that drive people away from the mosque. (Not going to link to any of this, out of a wish to avoid bringing any haram police over here.)

Watching the movie trailer, I was initially intrigued, and hopeful. It’s not as though efforts to bring about positive changes in the way that mosques in North America are often run haven’t been made, over and over and over again… but maybe it’ll bear fruit this time. Especially since it seems as though some people are genuinely concerned about the low levels of attendance of  male youth—surely, this is something that even the most hide-bound conservative “uncles” ought to see as a problem that needs to be urgently addressed. But by the time I had read the comments on the article at MuslimMatters, I realized that these discussions on making the mosque more inclusive and relevant would not likely result in any revolutionary changes. Especially not for women.

And then it clicked: Regardless of my own short-comings, and the opportunities that I undoubtedly missed to handle particular situations in a better way, what I had been trying to do was pretty much doomed from the start. Here I was trying to find acceptance and belonging in communities that weren’t even prepared to provide those they regarded as real Muslim women—those who had been born Muslim, to “good” immigrant Muslim families—with equal or even somewhat dignified facilities in mosques or other conservative Muslim venues. And, I had witnessed this inequality from the start, in mosques, at Muslim conferences, and at other Muslim events. If the women who belonged were treated as though they didn’t really belong, what on earth could any reasonable outsider expect??

For so many years, I and other converts had tried to leverage our knowledge of Islam in order to try to cut ourselves a better deal, so to speak. We tried so very very hard. We had been told (and we sincerely believed) that if we had the knowledge (meaning, the right proof-texts, or quotations from the right scholars), then we should be able to get our “Islamic rights.” Those “rights” promised to us in the dawah pamphlets.

Among those “rights” was the right of access to the mosque.

I decided to reread Saraji Umm Zaid’s article, “Make Way for the Women: Why Your Mosque Should be Woman-Friendly.” Just for old-time’s sake. I still remember reading it when it first came out, and how happy I was to see it. How very impressed I was with her writing style, and the fact that she had managed to command an audience. How much I hoped that this meant that things were going to significantly improve for women in mosques.

I reread it… and somehow, it read so differently to me this time around. The article seemed so… piteous.

“I recently took a trip with my family to the state of Colorado, and I was looking forward to visiting a different Muslim community. To my great dismay, when we went to an (unnamed) Colorado city to pray Jum’a in their masjid, we were told that there were no women in that masjid, and that I would be unable to pray there. With my children and (non-Muslim) mother in tow, I went off to a park while my husband prayed. As a Muslima, I felt humiliated and angry, and I was embarrassed for the umma that my non-Muslim mother should have to see Muslims barring me from the house of God for no reason other than my gender.”

Wow, I thought. Rhetorically speaking, putting an incident like that at the beginning of the article is the perfect punch in the gut for a conservative, immigrant, middle-class (or middle-class-aspiring) North American Muslim audience. It essentially says, “Look, we have to deal with this, because it’s making us look bad in front of the kafirs.” Which is of course a far more urgent problem than the dignity of the sister (who presumably had to pray in the park) or the feelings of her Muslim children (who had just witnessed their mother being treated in a degrading fashion)… and at a mosque, by Muslims. And I began to wonder just how many similar incidents my kids had witnessed, growing up, of me being treated in a similar fashion… and recalled too many to count.

While I’ve never been to Colorado, that kind of impossible position that the author was in is just so very familiar to me. When you as a convert feel caught between your bitter experience of your religious community’s misogyny and your awareness that non-Muslims (who you have been telling how liberating Islam is for women) are witnessing it. They must think that you are a fool. And you try to deal with the dissonance by insisting that “It’s not Islam, it’s just culture” (or wrong interpretations, or poverty, or western influence, or a CIA plot to make Muslims look bad…) without realizing that it doesn’t really matter.

Muslims can and will argue about whether or not it’s “Islamic” to have a mosque policy barring women from performing Friday Prayers until the cows come home. The point is that we as female converts have to live with this sort of stuff happening all the time—and we have to raise our kids in this atmosphere. One or two mosques here and there may decide to make changes, but it won’t make much difference overall. This sort of thing is simply pervasive. Because mosques are in essence men’s clubs, and they exist in order to provide MEN with ritual and social space and learning opportunities. The needs of women and children are only a very secondary focus at best. And those who want to keep it that way have a wealth of statements by scholars and examples of past practice to draw upon.

On one level, the answer to the problem of my feeling most unwelcome in nearly every mosque is simple: don’t go to them. And I rarely ever do.

Problem solved? Well no, not really. I wonder in what if any sense I can be a Muslim when my very being is just so problematic in almost every mosque. When almost every mosque tells the likes of me loud and clear that I do not belong.

But then, when even “real” Muslim women go on hajj and are groped as they circle the Kaaba, what is there left to say about women and sacred space? Or really, any space at all??

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  1. #1 by mary on March 16, 2013 - 12:22 pm

    It just shows me that there is no such thing as “sacred space,” or sacred anything. “Sacred” is a human invention, so of course the application of the word is going to be infused with whatever culture or religion gives to it.

    Any religion that sends a woman to pray in a park, or tells her she should pray at home so that nobody has to be forced to look at her, is a religion for fools. Full stop.

  2. #2 by nmr on March 16, 2013 - 12:27 pm

    Resist. Don’t give into the mentality (Neo-Traditionalist Salafis) that a woman’s space is in the home, guarded, protected, silent.
    Resist. Don’t give into the mentality that a woman uses her sexuality as a form of aggression towards men.
    Resist. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are lesser because of a blessing God has bestowed on you (gender, race, ethnic group).
    Resist. Resist. Resist.
    Do it your own way, within your own means, using your own creativity.
    Sometimes resistance can mean expressing your humanity so that no one can deny that there is a piece of God in you, no matter how much it would convenience them to forget that.
    Think of the Deep South circa 1930 and a black woman singing an amazing blues song. Everyone understands what she is singing about, everyone can connect with that. It is her form of resistance, the piece of herself that she shares with us all.

    And dream. One day there will be mosques where women, children, and non-Muslims will be welcomed, their efforts and input appreciated, their voices heard. You’ll be able to recognize it; it will be the only one that is full.

    • #3 by xcwn on March 16, 2013 - 1:58 pm

      nmr—I have the greatest respect for those who do resist. Such as Amina Wadud. She is incredibly brave. (And the rush of shaykhs, imams and would-be Muslim opinion-makers to criticize and condemn her showed what they are really about… and how Muslim communities are so very much a part of North American racist social dynamics, whether they realize it or not.) But as a white person, resisting is considerably more complicated. When it comes right down to it, North American mosques function as a refuge for immigrant or African-American Muslims from the wider (white) society, and I am inherently an interloper in such spaces.

      Sure, as a convert, I went through the whole “we just have to work harder to make it better” thing. But that assumes that there are a significant number of mosque-going Muslims who agree that mosques need to be more inclusive. Frankly, I don’t see much evidence of that. There are some egalitarian Unity Mosques in several North American cities now—in DC, Atlanta (I think), Toronto, somewhere in California (no, it’s not in Hayward 🙂 )… and not sure where else. They don’t discriminate on the basis of gender, gender presentation or sexual orientation, and they promote shared authority. I have the deepest respect for those who stuck their necks out and established such spaces despite the risks involved.

      But I haven’t noticed that mosque-going Muslims are flocking to the Unity Mosques. Presumably, because no matter how much they complain about the barriers and the uncles on the mosque board and the lack of youth programs and the rigidity from the minbar, there’s something that they are getting out of the hierarchical power dynamics and male-centeredness and heteronormativity and exclusionary ethnic/racial atmosphere. Or maybe just because for better or for worse, conservatives have basically succeeded in making most people believe that mosques have to be hierarchical, segregationist and judgmental, or they aren’t “really” mosques.

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