Why did we do it? (II)

But why is it that some converts accept Islam, adopt some of the practices and rituals, make some Muslim friends, maybe get a bit self-righteous for a short while…

Oh, the judg-y questions we used to ask in Sisters' Study Circles: Is it permitted to attend a family dinner if there will be wine on the dinnertable? Is it halaal to attend a baby shower for my neighbor who's living with her boyfriend? And so on....

Oh, the judg-y questions we used to ask in Sisters’ Study Circles: Is it permitted to attend a family dinner if there will be wine on the dinnertable? Is it halaal to attend a baby shower for my neighbor who’s living with her boyfriend?
And so on….            [shirt credits]

…but soon come back down to earth and manage to live a relatively balanced and “normal” life involving good relations with their non-Muslim family and neighbors, a happy marriage, fairly well-adjusted kids and making positive contributions to the well-being of society?

While some other converts end up cut off from their non-Muslim families, former friends and neighbors, or suffering psychological harm, or getting into bad or abusive marriages, perhaps only managing to get out years later if at all, with traumatized kids?

I don’t know. It does seem to depend on a number of factors: When and where people convert, their social location (gender identity, race/ethnicity, social class, religious background, educational level, age, occupation, sexual orientation, etc), what sort of Muslim community they get involved with, where they are in their lives at the time, how their family and friends react… and a whole slew of other factors. Some converts seem to be more resilient than others. Some are more able to access the support they need, whether inside or outside their Muslim communities.

Religion was one of those topics (along with sex and death) that was rarely discussed in our home growing up. It was rather a taboo subject.  But then, my family wasn’t emotionally close—people rarely talked to one another about anything that really mattered to them, or about personal problems, or feelings.

Looking back, I think this was part of the problem. When I was starting to read about Islam and take on certain Muslim practices, it didn’t even occur to me to discuss any of that with my family. Once I put on hijab and got married, and let them find out after the fact, they were understandably upset, and of course that didn’t improve my communication with them any. It also didn’t help that when word got around to the extended family that I had converted AND (worse yet) married an immigrant Muslim, some relatives told my parents that they didn’t want to see me again. I haven’t seen those relatives for almost three decades now.

So in other words, I wasn’t getting any reality check from my family. I didn’t have any friends living nearby to talk to either. Social isolation compounded and reinforced with poverty and the particular dynamics of my then-husband’s circle of friends, plus the often highly problematic conservative Muslim discourses on the way that marriages “should” function and women “should” behave (more on the last in a minute) was a really bad combination of factors.

I suppose that being disowned by relatives should have been a wake-up call. As well as my mother’s evident disapproval, which she expressed by making sideways negative comments about Muslims and Islam whenever I met her. But because their concern for my welfare was presented to me wrapped in a thick layer of prejudice and racism, it only confirmed my impression that they (1) didn’t know what they were talking about, and (2) were motivated primarily by hostility to most types of religion, and especially to Islam and Muslims. It was clear that they barely knew anything about Islam, beyond what the dramatic media coverage about OPEC and the Iranian revolution (yup, I’m dating myself here).

They couldn’t fathom what on earth it was that I saw in Islam, and didn’t make much of an effort to try to understand either. The relatives who had disowned me had never even met my husband, or spoken to me since I had converted—they just unilaterally cut all ties.

Looking back, I am not entirely sure why they did that. Probably at least partly to save themselves grief—I gave off self-righteous, uptight vibes and was probably not at all nice to be around. Then there would have been the question of how to be around me, had they wanted to. What would we have talked about? I was fast becoming immersed in a sub-culture they had no idea about, and was increasingly out of touch with whatever was going on in the wider culture.

How would we have spent time together? Anything involving (or involving proximity to) a long list of prohibited things—non-halaal meat, pork, alcohol, free mixing of men and women, “immodesty”, a less-than-reverent approach to religion… was supposed to be out. On the odd occasion where I would end up, say, being invited by a relative who still did want to have dealings with me to go out for dinner, it would end up being just really awkward.

First of all, there’d be what I was wearing. Even a simple headscarf attracted a lot of stares back in those days, because so few Muslims where I was living at that time wore them. Being seen in public with me was embarrassing (as my mother and brother made clear). And then, there’d be negotiating the whole what-to-eat thing. I’d be in this restaurant, trying to ignore the alcohol and to pretend that I wasn’t feeling really guilty and uneasy about being in such a “sinful” place (and not really managing to do it… I’m a terrible actor), and scanning the menu for something—anything!—that didn’t contain any forbidden ingredients AND that I would actually want to eat.

And there’d be the awkwardness of trying to talk. What could we talk about? I wasn’t about to tell them many details about my life or my marriage, because they “wouldn’t understand” (which was of course a red flag right there—but then, hindsight is 20/20). And I was afraid of what they might tell me about their lives. We had been taught that simply accepting people as they are if they are living sinful lives (such as, say, fornicating or living with someone before marriage) was wrong.

There was no way that I was going to preach to my relatives about what I thought they “should” be doing. At the same time, I felt guilty about not being able to do that, as well as ashamed of having such a “sinful” and mostly irreligious family. I knew very well what my then-husband, as well as other conservative Muslims that I knew thought of people like my family. I settled for a sort of noncommittal response to any talk about boyfriends/girlfriends, partying, people’s live-in partners, or even platonic friendships with the other sex. I wasn’t openly condemnatory, but I sure didn’t give off supportive or accepting vibes either. No wonder they weren’t keen on spending time with me.

Looking back, this whole dynamic just seems really ironic. I had been taught to hold attitudes to the “sinful” lifestyle of the kafirs that ranged from harsh judgment to a veiled but nonetheless annoying condescension. More hardline conservatives urged harsh judgment, while the more liberal types went for condescension—but either way, simply being accepting and sincerely respectful of how others choose to live their lives was not an option in that world.

The reasoning was twofold: (1) by condoning sin, you too are a sinner, and (2) by condoning sin, you harm others (by not warning them and reminding them of how unacceptable their behavior is in the eyes of God) as well as society (because sinful behavior is always harmful in some way, whether or not we can prove it, and it undermines the social fabric especially when it is openly engaged in).

Meanwhile… so many of the ideas we were taught to have about human sexuality (among other things), and that we were told were so unquestionably moral and self-evidently pleasing to God were just… so destructive and demented. More on that next time.

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  1. #1 by Rosalinda on February 3, 2014 - 5:23 pm

    Interesting article, but aren’t you exonerating your families anti-Islam.xenophobic sentiments? Disowning someone is a terrible thing to do (yes, the same goes for Muslims who practice that kind of blackmail/ostracism), especially for the reason they did it.

    I DO agree that every coin has two sides: When I told my mother I converted, she wasn’t happy at all about it. But when she saw that I fully respected and accepted her and kept having a good relationship with my family, eventually she came around. And of course, the fact that my family accepted me the way I was, also made me accepting.

    But in many cases BOTH sides make mistakes. I know of women who were kicked out the house after converting and I always was very angry when I heard that as a new convert.

    Even though I still believe that that is inexcusable, I now realize that that were (almost) always the girls who started to dress in black all of a sudden, refused to eat at one table with their parents if there was alcohol or pork, started avoiding non-Muslims alltogether, called almost everything haram, etc.

    • #2 by xcwn on February 4, 2014 - 1:11 am

      I’m not exonerating my relatives, but trying to understand what happened. And it’s complicated….
      But yes, it’s a two-way street. They were prejudiced; I was really annoying… but they were the full grown adults in the picture.
      This is going to take another post.

  2. #3 by Rosalinda on February 4, 2014 - 7:53 am

    By the way, I LOVE the t-shirt, since it so clearly states the problem…….from both sides. 🙂

    • #4 by xcwn on February 5, 2014 - 1:14 am

      Yes, it sure does. lol.

  3. #5 by kisarita on February 11, 2014 - 2:47 pm

    i think the marriage did you in. you would have been less tied to the system had you not been married to it.

  4. #6 by abitofarant on February 19, 2014 - 12:02 pm

    Can very much relate to this, frighteningly so. I keep coming back to your blog to see if you have written another post. Am a bit of a fan

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