Converts, wtf — Women leaders?

Continuing with the question of what exactly is up with white North American converts… in my experience, anyway….

Last post, I talked about how we convert women used to think that if only we had community leaders/imams/shaykhs from our own backgrounds—meaning, men who spoke English as their first language, had converted to Islam in North America, and who came from ethnic and geographical backgrounds like ours—then they would be able to provide the sort of preaching, religious advice, etc that was relevant to our lives. They would understand where we were coming from, what sorts of families we had grown up in, the problems that could result when women like us married born Muslim immigrant men. Their priority would be establishing Islam here, not on raising money for whatever the immigrant Muslim cause du jour on the other side of the world was. They would understand the problems involved in raising kids here. Oh, and that they wouldn’t have this “Western women = whores” kind of thing in the backs of their minds, shaping how they dealt with us and the sort of religious advice that they tended to give.

Well, things didn’t work out as we had hoped with many male convert leaders.

We were not as disappointed when it came to African American male convert leaders, frankly. We were often taken aback with how some of them justified and promoted sexist or even misogynist ideas as “Islamic” and when women (even African American women) protested, they mouthed lines such as “Well, this is Islam, and it is here for us to submit to.” We were rather appalled when some of them turned on us, labeling us as “feminists” and such because they didn’t like our very tame and timidly-phrased attempts to argue that because some female Companions fought on the battle-field and narrated hadiths that women could aspire to playing active roles in the community.

But still. We dimly understood that their main audience wasn’t us—it was their own communities, which lived in contexts that we had little idea about and dealt with issues that simply weren’t ours. And we also were witnesses to the straight-up racism that they sometimes faced from immigrant Muslims. Looking back, I suspect that some of them felt they couldn’t afford to seem as though they were in any way “soft on women” as compared to the conservative Arab Salafi men who tried to monopolize community discourses on Islam in the community I was living in back in the ’80’s.

As I discussed in the last post, we had rather more hope—and higher expectations—of white male convert leaders. But our hopes were largely disappointed, for a number of reasons. Some of these reasons are systemic. But some of them likely come down to the individual.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Having people call you “shaykh,” having people (even immigrant Muslims, and sometimes even Arabs) put their trust in you, their souls in your hands, asking for your religious advice and looking to you for leadership… these are things that can so easily corrupt even the most well-meaning man.

Not to mention that some white male converts found Islam attractive in part because it seemed to promise them a simpler, more black-and-white world, in which men have power as heads of the household and as leaders in the mosque and community, while women know that their divinely-given place is in the kitchen and bedroom and (if they’re lucky) in the back rows of the prayer hall. So, the last thing these white men wanted was white convert women quoting hadiths about warrior women, or verses from the Qur’an that speak of believing women alongside believing men and asking why women were always being told to get married, bear children, and look after the home, as though that should be the beginning and ending of their lives.

Once we realized—and it didn’t take too long, unfortunately—that white male converts could be as sexist (or even misogynist) as immigrant Muslim male leaders, we thought that the answer would be for women (whether convert, or immigrant, regardless of ethnic or racial origin) to study Islam, become scholars, and share their findings with the rest of us—and hopefully, be recognized as leaders. Then at last, egalitarian interpretations of the Qur’an and hadiths and Islamic law would be discovered, a hidden egalitarian history (which we were sure somehow must be there…) would be uncovered and made known, and the discourse on “women and Islam” would shift. We would no longer be twisting ourselves into pretzels trying to explain how Q 4:34 doesn’t actually allow a man to hit his wife or forbid her to leave the house, or trying to find “Islamic” arguments against those who said that a woman speaking to a mixed audience or reciting the Qur’an in the hearing of men is immodest.

While in the early ’80’s, female leaders (much less women who were recognized as having any religious learning) were very rare where I was living at that time, by the early ’90’s I had encountered a few. I and my convert friends were fascinated by them. They seemed so knowledgeable, so pious… and somehow, they seemed to be able to actively serve the community while also maintaining a good reputation. They were respected, even by quite conservative brothers. Some of these sisters were Tablighis. Others were Shia. (None of them were “mainstream” Sunnis, at that time.)

They were awesome sisters, really. They didn’t seem to have bought into the whole then-mainstream “a woman’s place is the home” idea. They didn’t for a moment believe that because they were women that they should not be concerned about community affairs. They didn’t believe that having only a very basic knowledge of Islam is sufficient for women either—they actively pursued knowledge themselves, and taught other women (and children). All in all, they were passionate about what they were doing, very articulate, and very active in community work.

I still do admire them. But despite my admiration for them, even at that time I found a lot of the ideas that they had (and promoted) really problematic, and not applicable to my life or the lives of my convert friends.  And, when it came right down to it, not all that different from the oppressive ideas being promoted by those male leaders who had so disappointed us.

These sisters modeled very restrictive ideas about modest dress and behavior.

The Tablighis wore burqas. Not the shuttle-cock kind, but the plain jilbab with a matching elbow-length semi-circular head-covering with a built-in niqab kind. It had an additional built-in mesh flap that was intended to cover the eyes. Their one concession to the realities of North America was that they kept the eye-flap up so that their eyes were exposed. Even in the privacy of their own homes, they wore long-sleeved and high-necked shalwar kameez and covered their hair with dupattas. They believed in and rigorously practiced the segregation of the sexes. According to them, a woman cannot work alongside men, so the only job a woman can take (that is, if working is financially unavoidable for her) is working with women and children.

Some of the Shias wore plain black heavy chadors or abayas (the now old-fashioned kind that goes over the head). Some covered part or all of their faces. Some however wore coats or jilbabs along with scarves. But regardless of what they wore, they too strongly believed in segregation. Though, they were less rigid about it in some ways—unlike the Tablighis, they did permit women to speak in front of mixed groups at least occasionally, and they took part in demonstrations.

These sisters evidently didn’t think that having been born female meant that marriage, child-bearing and housekeeping should be the be-all and end-all of a woman’s life. They modeled independent thought and action. Yet at the same time, they taught that girls and women have to obey their fathers (and if married, their husbands), and have to have their fathers’ (or husbands’) permission to be  active outside the home. And if your husband wouldn’t agree? “It’s your intention that counts,” a Tablighi sister assured me. “You will be rewarded by Allah for intending to do dawah.” (But at the same time, you have to obey him by staying home if that’s what you husband wants.) “We have to obey our husbands, but I can usually get him to agree with how I see things,” a Shia sister told me laughingly. But she had no answers for sisters who are not so gifted at persuasion—or whose husbands are more rigid.

Both groups of sisters also believed that women are intellectually deficient in some way—so that ultimately, women can never know as much as men, or hold religious authority over the entire community.

The Tablighis told us that at the madrasa in India where they had studied, the course of study followed by the male students (who they were completely segregated from throughout the entire course of study…) was several years longer, because of the deficiency of women’s brains. Since women can’t learn or understand as much as men, therefore, the female students had a shorter course, they said. And as far as they were concerned, this is perfectly fine. As for the Shias, they believed that women are more emotional than men, so therefore women have to obey their husbands, and men are the ones who ultimately hold authority in the community. As they didn’t seem to me to spend much time deferring to either their husbands or to men in general, I was rather puzzled by that, and asked if they really believe that women are more emotional. In response, they told me how much child-bearing and menstruation and breast-feeding had made them more forgetful and more emotional, and that their own experiences had taught them just how true it is that women can’t be in charge. (!)

*   *   *   *   *

It would be too easy to just dismiss these female leaders as confused, or as really inconsistent or even hypocritical. That they wanted to have the comfort and respectability of appearing to be conservative women, so they dressed very conservatively, and publicly upheld restrictions on women’s mobility, access to learning, and ability to make their own decisions—while at the same time, they exploited loopholes in the system in order to do whatever it is that they wanted. And that they did this, and in some cases allowed themselves to be used as examples of “what a Muslim woman can achieve,” while knowing that few women in their communities could have the privilege of living as they did.

But this sort of thing isn’t unique to Muslim communities. It can be seen also in very conservative evangelical Christian communities in North America, with women who found ministries, speak publicly, write books, etc promoting a very restrictive, stay-at-home lifestyle for women (complete with obedience to husbands and bearing large numbers of children). For such women, careers are verboten—except for their own careers as preachers and writers, of course. Though, they say that they aren’t really preaching, just exhorting and encouraging. 🙂

This sort of double-speak was (and sometimes still is) fostered by highly conservative, text-focused and patriarchal religious communities that romanticize some imagined past in which families were supposedly more stable, men were men, and women were properly feminine. On one hand, they needed some women to do some types of community work, and some women had the energy and drive to do it—and they needed to channel that energy somehow. But at the same time, they worried that giving women any role outside of being stay-at-home wives and mothers would be the proverbial thin edge of the wedge. First, it’s women studying and teaching other women and giving the odd public speech, then the next thing you know, women will be taking over. Daring to interpret scriptures on their own, telling men what to do, tempting men into sin… and the whole community will fall apart due to the fitna caused by women.

In such an environment, women who led had to walk a tight-rope… and be aware that the whole thing could collapse at any time. They had to always ensure that whatever they said and did, they would not be seen as a threat to the (patriarchal) system. They had to make sure to “balance” whatever messages they were conveying. For every instance of them speaking up, standing out, and going beyond what is expected of them as mere women, they had to be sure to balance that with overtly conservative attire and behavior, with publicly assuring everyone that they believe that women have to obey their husbands, with conceding that their womanly minds are clouded with emotions and are thus not as reliably rational as men’s minds.

In a word, they had to remain exceptions. They had to live out an example that is by definition limited, and wouldn’t be likely to bring about much if any substantive change. Partly because if they began to publicly question the patriarchal nature of the system, they would have been shunned and isolated. But also partly because their (limited) authority and status as leaders depended on that very patriarchal system. If they had stopped upholding it, the whole caboodle would have collapsed inwardly.

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  1. #1 by MG on June 25, 2013 - 5:15 am

    I am struck by the similarity between some of the phenomena you describe and that which I have seen in conservative Christian fundamentalist circles- strangely the very place where, the very thought that they have tenets in common with Islam would cause conniptions.

    • #2 by xcwn on June 25, 2013 - 5:50 pm

      MG—Yes, it’s really ironic.

  2. #3 by FPaz on July 17, 2013 - 7:06 pm

    The following is quite relevant to the themes you cover about converts:

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