What do… jumpers, alternative communities, religious hip-hop, incense, Malcolm X, traveling to Asia to find a religious teacher, long denim skirts, reading Rumi’s poetry, religiously-motivated home-schooling, Sufi chanting, preachy children’s videos, religiously-themed nursery rhymes and squeaky-clean boy-bands singing religious lyrics for audiences of ecstatic pre-teen girls have in common?
They are all North American Muslim fads that I have lived through.
Man, do I feel old.
Reading a post over at Love Joy Feminism, which quotes Julie Ann asking how she as a homeschooling mother ended up getting sucked into buying an entire conservative lifestyle “package” that included wearing jumpers, I was reminded of when I and a convert friend of mine experimented with them.
Our problem in the clothing department (as we saw it, back in the ’80’s and early ’90’s) was twofold: to somehow discover a way of wearing hijab that would not look alien to North America, but would also be “modest” enough to fulfil what we were taught were the requirements for a Muslim woman’s dress in public, and to devise something similar for our young daughters to wear. For a time, we saw jumpers as the answer. I designed and sewed jumpers for myself, out of plain broadcloth. For the first one I made, I used recycled fabric—it had originally been sewn into and used for something else. My friend had slightly more fashionable ideas (and more money to spend); she bought heavy cotton patterned cloth, and paid a woman with better sewing skills to make it into a jumper for her.
At the time, we thought pretty highly of our efforts to dress “modestly”, yet also not stick out too much. We sewed jumpers for our little daughters to wear too, over t-shirts and pants, and with matching hijabs. We thought they looked cute, yet also suitably modest, especially when compared to the “unsuitable” clothing that other girls their age were often wearing. We thought that we had managed to strike a balance between timeless “traditional” values of female “modesty” and the need to relate to the time and place in which we were living, by wearing North American clothing….
But when I looked at the photo of Christian homeschoolers wearing jumpers that Julie Ann linked to, it was unnerving. It was like looking back through time at ourselves and our daughters… and suddenly realizing that actually, we must have looked pretty… strange. Frumpy. Self-righteous. Cultish.
What on earth were we thinking?!? Why did we do this to ourselves… and to our daughters?
This is one of those moments when I realize just how far removed from reality we were back them. We lived in a highly conservative Muslim bubble. It was an echo-chamber, really, so our ideas of how others outside our community might perceive us (when we thought about that at all…) were theoretical and bore little relation to anything real. We were being told that we had to do certain things, because the “great scholars of the past” (and our leaders in the present) said that we are religiously obligated to do so. How much that made us or our children stick out didn’t matter, we were were told, because God’s commands are God’s commands, and they are valid for all places and times. Period.
So, with that attitude firmly fixed in our heads, our messy and complicated lived realities had to be forced into the mold of God’s commands.
As adults, it was one thing to try to live the hyper-pious life that we were taught that we had to live. We could give up nearly all forms of recreation and entertainment as “worldly” or “sinful,” and we pretty much did so. We seldom watched tv (except for the news and the odd documentary), we didn’t read fiction or most poetry, we gave up listening to or playing music, we got rid of practically anything with pictures on it, we wouldn’t have set foot in a theatre, we rarely watched movies, we didn’t go to concerts… and so on. So, needless to say, our relationships with our birth families and friends from before we had converted became severely strained. We didn’t feel that they accepted us. We felt deeply alienated from the society that we had been born into.
As we had children, the situation became much more complicated. How would we raise our children, in this culturally denuded world that we now inhabited, this world that didn’t seem to be attached to any real place? Even we knew that we couldn’t simply tell them that just about everything beyond our small, enclosed world is forbidden. Nor did we really agree with the “solution” that some other conservative converts we knew had come up with—raise your kids to believe that they don’t belong here in North America, since the family will be making hijra soon to a Muslim country… which they should regard as their true home, even though they aren’t there yet.
We needed to somehow supply a purified, North American Muslim culture for our children, we thought. But how?
When we were raising our now-oldest children, we pretty much had to make it up as we went along. There weren’t many “Islamic alternatives” readily available for kids where we were living.
Occasionally, some aspects of “mainstream” popular culture would be to our liking, as with the popularity of Malcolm X’s autobiography (sparked by Spike Lee’s movie) in the late ’90’s. Then, we would gladly appropriate it, and stifle any reservations that we had about it, simply grateful that there was something—anything!—out there for our kids that we could approve of. But when “mainstream” culture didn’t oblige (and it usually didn’t), then fringe elements of certain North American sub-cultures could be pressed into service, and we didn’t usually acknowledge even to ourselves just how “fringe” they often were, much less ask ourselves why. Why didn’t most North American women want to wear jumpers? Or long, wide denim skirts (with no slits, or with the slits safety-pinned closed)??
We were so busy trying to square circles. It was exhausting. And so very very contrived.