Recently, Muslim converts—particularly, white, middle-class female converts from North America—are in the news again, thanks to the attack in Boston. And not in a good way.
I’ve been too heartsick to blog about it.
The (white, female, North American) convert responses to this latest situation that I have so far been able to find online deal with two main issues: the stereotypical media portrayals that imply that there is a connection between putting on hijab and becoming radicalized, and media portrayals that imply that female converts who marry immigrant Muslims don’t have agency. In other words, these converts don’t want to be put in the same category as Katherine Russell. They don’t want people making assumptions about why they converted, or why they wear hijab (for those who do), or what their relationships with their husbands are like.
Well, that’s understandable. In the more than two decades in which I lived as a conservative, hijab-wearing Muslim, I had to put up with a lot of assumptions about why I converted, why I wore hijab… and I had to deal with patronizing dismissals of my agency. And not only from non-Muslims, I might add. The stereotypes about female converts—that we don’t really know anything about Islam, and/or that we were motivated to convert by emotion or a desire to please a Muslim man—were not uncommon among the immigrant Muslims that I dealt with. So, enough with the stereotypes already.
But. To my mind, rejecting such stereotypes shouldn’t be the end of the discussion. It should be the beginning. And now that we’ve done that, can the discussion move on to more important things than headscarves and alleged initial reasons for converting. Things like what resources there are that might be available to converts who find themselves getting in way over their heads.
According to the press coverage so far, it seems that Russell:
- was a girl from a stable middle-class family, who had artistic talents in drawing and dance
- she went to university, and was majoring in communications
- she met the Muslim man she would later marry at a nightclub; he doesn’t seem to have had a clear direction in life or to even have been consistently employed
- she converted to Islam and married
- the apparently perfunctory marriage ceremony took place in the office of an imam, who did not know either Russell or the man she was marrying, and it doesn’t seem that any of her family was present
- she dropped out of university, and bore a child at about age 21
- at age 24, she was living in a small, run-down apartment with her child, husband and in-laws
- working 70-80 hour weeks as a personal support worker, she appears to have been the only (?) adult in that home with a full-time job
- the neighbors reportedly rarely saw her, and some didn’t even realize that she was American
It is this worrying succession of events that I can’t help but see as suggesting a “downward spiral”, rather than simply conversion or putting on hijab.
Sure, university isn’t for everyone. Maybe she decided that it wasn’t for her. Or just that she didn’t want to major in communications. Maybe she wanted to take a break from school for a while. No harm in that.
Maybe she couldn’t wait to marry and start a family. Maybe that was what she had secretly always really wanted to do, but had gone to college simply because it was expected.
Maybe she enjoyed living with her in-laws. Maybe in her view, the advantages (close family relationships, opportunity for her daughter to learn her in-laws’ language, financial savings, built-in babysitting…) outweighed the drawbacks. Or maybe it wasn’t so great from her perspective, but it was a temporary sacrifice that she was willing to make.
Maybe she really liked being a personal support worker. Maybe she didn’t mind the long hours with relatively low pay, because she found the work fulfilling. Or maybe she saw it as a short-term way of meeting their financial needs. Until she could go back to school, or until her husband found a job.
Who knows. There are all sorts of reasons, none of them sinister or suggestive of “brainwashing” that could have led her to make these decisions.
At the same time, it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that there are also socially conservative discourses in some North American Muslim communities (as well as all over the internet on conservative Muslim sites…) that strongly encourage women to make some or even all of these decisions:
- avoiding the study of secular “worldly” subjects
- marrying young
- marrying the first Muslim man who proposes to you, as long as he seems to have strong iman
- marrying a man you hardly know
- marrying a man you’re involved with in order to “avoid committing zina” even if you’re having doubts about the relationship, because somehow marriage will magically make everything all right
- not worrying too much about your husband-to-be’s ability to provide for you, because even though according to Islamic law this is his duty, women need to be very careful about not giving in to their “innate” female tendency to seek worldly indulgence—and God provides for those who rely on Him
- marrying without your non-Muslim family’s consent (because a non-Muslim man can’t be a wali for a Muslim woman, and anyway they are kafirs, so what do they know about who would be a good husband for their daughter?)
- bearing children as soon as possible after marriage
- not allowing financial worries to stand in the way of having children, because God will provide
- not working outside the home except in cases of extreme financial need
- if working becomes necessary, then opting for a job that as far as possible is in accordance with your nurturing “feminine nature,” has you mainly interacting with women and/or children, and allows for flexibility so that you can adjust your hours around the needs of your family, rather than, say, pursuing a non-traditional career that would necessitate long hours away from home and working side by side with men in a competitive environment
- bringing up your children in as “Islamic” an environment as possible (aka a conservative Muslim bubble)
- socializing mainly with other conservative Muslim women who share your beliefs and aspirations, and avoiding taking non-Muslims as close friends or listening to their advice
- playing a supportive, satellite role to your husband, and not questioning his decisions, because “your husband is your paradise or your hell” and “the first question a woman will be asked on the Day of Judgment is whether she obeyed her husband”
- not worrying about your non-Muslim family’s disapproval or reservations about your new, pious Muslim life, because as non-Muslims, they can’t give you good advice
But Russell’s initial motivation(s) for the decisions she made is (or are) less important than where this trajectory is leading. And it’s leading to increasing social isolation and economic vulnerability.
To life in a sub-culture of a sub-culture, in which the rules are very different from anything she grew up with (or that her family or friends can understand). A life that becomes increasingly difficult to extricate oneself from, due to isolation and growing alienation and financial instability and enmeshment in the group… and the presence of a child. While choice may well have begun this process, as time goes on, the choices made tend to lead to more and more constraints on one’s ability to choose to act differently.
For those converts who apparently don’t recognize any of their own experiences (or the experiences of anyone they know) in this succession of events, all I can say is: well, how wonderful for you. But if you saw this happening to a convert you knew, what would you do? What resources are available in your community to help converts in such situations?
Does the imam at your local mosque simply marry all comers, “because Muslim teachings say it is good to be married,” without getting to know the would-be couple at all, or requiring, say, marriage counseling? What sort of advice would a woman receive who begins to express doubts about how her marriage is going? If she is becoming increasingly socially isolated? If she is married to a man who is spouting conspiracy theories and anti-American rhetoric? If she herself is reading extremist materials or watching radical stuff on the internet??
Speaking as someone who well remembers seeing some converts getting sucked into supporting some rather extreme stuff during the ’80’s and ’90’s, it is both tragic and alarming to see that this is still happening. (to be continued)