Archive for January, 2014

Why did we do it? (I)

Ayasmom commented recently:

I read your blog regularly and identify with it in many ways although my experience has not been quite so horrible as yours. After reading this post I am left considering what is it about us that we actively participate in this type of personal transformation? What is it about our mental and emotional selves that allows us to search so diligently for an answer to all of life’s most difficult questions, find it in Islam, be so strong to adopt this very other cultural and religious identity, and then take it too far, so far that we inflict more self harm than we possibly faced before conversion? It’s like we leave the religion of our pasts because of the dogma we find unsuitable, but then inadvertently swap it for another. Sure we can all commiserate about the horrible patriarchal system that is perpetuated by traditional Islam, but being converts, we were ever really traditional to begin with? I think the patriarchy of religion is universal, not novel to Islam. I’m thankful for spaces like this where we can hash out all these experiences, thoughts, feelings and ideas. Thank you for sharing.

Good questions. Why did we put ourselves through this? Why (1) convert to an “alien” religion, and (2) take our conversions so very seriously that what we had been taught (or read) is “Islam” started dictating every single tiny detail of our lives? And as if that wasn’t enough, then some of us get involved in Muslim cults or cult-like groups?

What is it the drives the desire to convert, first of all? What was with all the interest in religious matters??

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Sexism, transphobia, and Muslim women

Rethinking Islam has an awesome post entitled, “Can Muslim Women Be Sexist?” In it, the blogger dissects a sexist “joke” recently tweeted by a prominent Muslim woman:

“…Why am I dissecting this joke? It’s not that Yasmin Mogahed unwittingly tweeted a joke that’s saturated in sexism. The point is that this sort of sexism and gender stereotyping is very much in line with the type of Islam that Mogahed and many other women promote. This reading of Islam is marked by gender difference: men are (to be) manly and women are (to be) feminine. The stereotype that underlies the joke above – that women are fickle and susceptible to whims – is much at home in this scheme, and in fact would serve (and does serve) as a convenient excuse for male social authority and “guardianship” over women.

Mogahed may not go so far as to say all that, but the stereotype of women being emotional/sensual would fit nicely into her worldview. She not only encourages women to embrace popular ideas about gender difference; she also criticizes women who do not adhere to them. She justifies and naturalizes unequal rights for women by arguing that their lesser rights are really a sign that God sees them as “special”. In her view, women who aspire to equal rights are “degrading” themselves by literally trying to become men:

“Given our privilege as women, we only degrade ourselves by trying to be something we’re not–and in all honesty–don’t want to be: a man. As women, we will never reach true liberation until we stop trying to mimic men, and value the beauty in our own God-given distinctiveness.” [emphasis mine–xcwn]

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There’s a time to stop listening

The internetz are unfortunately all too full of men claiming that women need to wear hijab in order to protect their fragile male selves from being tempted to sin. As well as of women echoing such ideas.

This has got to be the best comment on this phenomenon that I’ve ever encountered:

Even though I’m sure there are other Muslim men who have this same opinion, I think this dude is super confused and doesn’t really have a lot of knowledge about hadith or about other Muslim women at all. He upholds the narrative that all accountability and responsibility of representation rests on the shoulders of (hijabi) Muslim women, absolving him of anything. It’s annoying and he should basically just shut the fuck up. Also, I really really hate when people compare wearing hijab to having a beard. It’s. Not. The. Same. At. All.

As you know, lots of Muslim women wear hijab for a variety of different reasons, some of them religiously based, or for security or comfort and other times for more political reasons. My reasons literally have nothing to do with how I am perceived by a man.

So basically whenever a man starts talking about hijab, I stop listening. Because they have no idea. They really don’t.

Now, if only I had taken that advice years ago. Just to stop listening whenever any man starts talking about how women should or shouldn’t dress or behave.

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“Modesty”–more unpacking

Sorting through all the mental baggage that those experiences have left with me, one thing that I notice is… shame. There is still a residue of shame about the body. My body, as well about other female bodies. The idea that a woman who is sensibly dressed for jogging or yard work or whatever-it-is in the middle of the summer is being “immodest.” The idea that being uncomfortable in order to cover a bit more skin is better than the “shame” of exposure. And that judg-y undercurrent that still to some extent filters my perceptions.

As well as the constant awareness of being (for lack of a better word) seen, whenever I am in places that Muslims might be. Seen, and judged.

Back in the day, we used to interpret feelings of shame about our bodies and others, as well as that feeling of being “seen” as a positive sign that at last we were managing to internalize “true modesty.” Our consciences had become Islamified, we thought… and that could only be a good thing. We must be increasing in iman and taqwa.

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“Modesty”: unpacking the baggage

My inbox is still kinda conservo-Muslim-ish. I still get emails from a number of Muslim orgs and businesses. Including Shukr.

Shukr's "fitwalking skirt."  Not sure what kind of exercise I could do in that---even walking quickly would probably be rather challenging.

Shukr’s “fitwalking skirt.” Not sure what kind of exercise I could do in that—even walking quickly would probably be rather challenging.

Clearly, Shukr is rather proud of their line of “modest” sportswear for women. I clicked on the link… and sighed.

Move with modesty.” Trademarked, no less. Wow.

Hoodies to the knees, sweatsuit material “fitwalking” and even “powerwalking” long skirts… oh, did that bring back memories.

Because I and a good friend of mine used to do a lot of fairly “active” things while wearing conservative hijab. I well remember hiking, skating and boating in long, heavy skirts or jilbabs—even swimming in lakes in jilbabs or long dresses and headscarves. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy or comfortable (and in some cases, it wasn’t very safe either). Though, at that time we were less worried about ease or comfort or safety than about our kids, as well as community gossip.

We wanted our kids—especially our daughters—to know that hijab does not need to limit women. We were concerned that if they picked up the idea that hijab comes with a long list of “can’t do this/go there/be involved in that” then they wouldn’t want to wear it. So, we felt that it was on us to set an active example. For sure, no one else in our conservative community was likely to. We exercised in those conservative clothes, and tried to ignore the disapproving glances and the sideways comments about how we evidently hadn’t really understood the “spirit of hijab.”

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I don’t know what to call this… untitled horror, I guess

I just watched the short film, “Banaz: A Love Story.” About a woman who was killed by her family in the UK. For reasons of “honor.”

Really really really bad idea. I’m still shaking. Nauseous. And it’s really late, but somehow I have to get up and go to work tomorrow. I don’t know if I can sleep.

The film itself has some issues (what film on this sort of thing doesn’t?). The oft-repeated street scenes of blurry identified hijabis, or shots of women wearing shalwar kameez through fences… were at best stereotypical and not at all original. It didn’t provide much in the way of social and political contextualization of this particular case either, which is also a definite drawback. Family dynamics like that are produced and sustained by a number of concrete social and political factors (as opposed to simply “culture” or being “old fashioned” or some immigrant mens’ feelings of being unmanned when they move to “the west”).

But. Problems aside, it was fairly balanced, I thought. Which from my perspective is not too helpful, in a way. All these years later, I am still trying to get my head around that family meeting that took place in my kitchen. About ten years ago now. I really, really should now be over it.

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It’s all about control

Several weeks ago, one of my daughters had a school field trip that involved visiting a Hindu temple, a Christian church, and a mosque. A class project on world religions.

Actually, stop judging and body-shaming. My body is not an obscenity. If you don't like what I'm wearing, how about you try lowering your gaze??

Actually, stop judging and body-shaming. The female body is not an obscenity. If you don’t like what someone is wearing, how about lowering your gaze??

Along with the permission forms sent home for parents to sign came a letter from the teacher explaining the type of behavior and dress that would be required of the students. Much of it was very reasonable, reminding the students that these are places of worship, so they needed to behave respectfully. But the girls were also told that they needed to wear long, loose pants (preferably sweatpants) and headscarves when they were at the mosque.

I paused, reading this letter. The field trip was going to take place in the afternoon, in the middle of the week. They would not be attending Friday Prayers, or any congregational prayer. They were not going to pray, either—they were there to see the building, and to hear the imam explain a bit about Islam and the community and the kinds of rituals and activities that would normally take place in a mosque.

In other words, what on earth would be the reason for requiring a bunch of mostly non-Muslim teenage girls to wear headscarves?? Or even to worry about what they might or might not be wearing on their legs??

My daughter wasn’t bothered by this, however. Because she took it for granted that somehow, a girl entering a mosque with uncovered hair or limbs profanes the mosque. And she was proud that at least she knew better than to even think of doing that, unlike some of the non-Muslim girls in her class, who didn’t seem to understand that you have to really watch what you wear to the mosque.

I pointed out to her that when I had first visited that same mosque in the early ’80’s, I saw women wearing short-sleeved, tight, scoop-necked shalwar kameez entering that mosque with transparent dupattas loosely draped over part of their heads and not concealing much of their hair, in order to attend Friday Prayers. They entered through the main door, along with everyone else. Then, they went up to the women’s balcony, put on the large white cotton prayer khimars that were kept there for all those women who did not come to the mosque dressed “suitably” for prayer, prayed, and left at the end of the service.

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