In the last post, I talked about how as white North American converts, we often found ourselves living out other people’s fantasies of an Islamic ideal. Usually, these were the fantasies of immigrant or immigrant-descended Muslims, but sometimes these were the fantasies of other (usually older) converts.
These fantasies could be aspects of the thought of modern Muslim political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami which had become popularized, such as the notion that “Islam solves” social problems such as racism by uniting all believers within one umma. Or, they could be quite apolitical and superficially profound ideas taught by various neo-traditionalists, such as the idealization of the medieval Sunni scholarly tradition.
Either way, these were things that either didn’t really exist anywhere today in reality, or did exist, but fell miserably short of their idealized billing.
How did we not realize that these were fantasies rather than reality—and that trying to live them out would lead to some serious problems? Partly because in those pre-internet days our knowledge of what was really going on in Muslim communities even here in North America (forget anywhere else) was very limited.
And partly because what I would call a “reality filter” had been quite quickly and coercively implanted in our minds, so that even when we did see, or read or hear about Muslims past or present acting in ways that seemed to challenge our fantasies, it wouldn’t lead us to ask some pretty obvious questions. That reality filter was constructed and reconstructed daily, through ubiquitous phrases such as:
“According to Islam…”
“As Muslims, we…”
“Islam teaches us that…”
“X is not Islamic…”
“The Islamic way to do X is…”
This sort of language did not leave any room between ideal and reality. The ideal was the reality. In theory, anyway. And if it wasn’t, then this sort of language dismissed it, banished it, hid it from our view.
Neo-traditionalists of various kinds had their own buzz-words and phrases that sounded significantly different:
“Heart of Islam”
“But in an integrally Muslim society…”
“In our tradition…”
“As our scholars have taught us…”
“As my shaykh taught me…”
In theory, neo-traditionalists left somewhat more room for human frailties, and often criticized Salafis and Islamists of various stripes for blasphemously undertaking to build utopias on earth under the guise of Islam. But they were wedded to their own fantasies about the past, or at least their favorite parts of it, which they also wanted to actualize in the present.
And the challenges of wishing away the often vast differences between ideals and realities (as well as the highly problematic nature of many of the ideals…) fell particularly heavily on women. On women’s bodies, particularly. And especially on the bodies of white female converts, in the communities that I was involved in or otherwise had dealings with.
In other posts, I have blogged about how some white female converts have managed to leverage their position on the pedestal in order to play leadership roles of various kinds. As long as they were careful to live out the communities fantasies rather than challenge them, they have sometimes been able to cut what looks like a pretty good deal for themselves (at least, from where I’m sitting… they seem to be happy enough, but then, I don’t know what goes on in their personal lives).
But that hasn’t been the experience of the majority of white female converts that I know. The experience of the majority (and my experience, come to that) has been more about being put into impossible binds.
[Visiting mosques can be] so disappointing. Reminds me of the Hassan II mosque in Morocco, where I was allowed to tour the main area as a Western tourist, but had to be relegated to the clandestine women’s area once they discovered I was Muslim.”
Back when I used to attend Eid prayers sponsored by groups such as ISNA, a similar dynamic sometimes unfolded: While Muslim women (including us converts) were kept well behind the lines of men, usually with crowd control barricades like the ones the police use (!?), local non-Muslim politicians, whether male or female, would be invited to address the congregation from the stage after the prayer. The female politicians would stand up there, with a flimsy see-through scarf thrown over part of their heads, and speak through the microphone, while the men listened (the women and children, not so much). I would sit there with my daughters and try not to feel totally pissed off—it was Eid day, after all, and we were supposed to be feeling happy.
Those white women—the Western tourists in the Moroccan mosque, the politicians who spoke at our Eid prayers—were privileged, in the sense that they were allowed to do what no Muslim woman could be allowed to do. They had choices that Muslim women didn’t have, because they could choose whether to enter the main part of the mosque, or to speak to a congregation at Eid, and we couldn’t. It wouldn’t have been allowed.
Yet, I was burningly aware as I watched the female politicians speaking on the stage that the reason they were allowed these privileges is because (1) the male leaders of the community had decided that it was in their political and economic interests to let them do these things, (2) as guests, they were held to different rules than women of the community, and (3) as white non-Muslim women, they were presumed to be ignorant of “proper” modesty and pious womanly behavior anyway.
As white non-Muslim women in those “sacred” spaces, they were made to exemplify the moral inferiority of the Other by default, but probably didn’t realize it. What the male community leaders wanted them to think was something more along the lines of “Muslim men are friendly, welcoming, and they respect women.” If those women had thought to ask why no Muslim woman was present in the main section of the mosque, or up on stage speaking to the congregation, they would likely have been told that Muslim women don’t want to do such things.
We, meanwhile, in that same “sacred” space, were being made to play the role of representing Islam’s moral superiority… as well as the idea that women in general are temptresses. Somehow, those men could look upon a not-really-veiled non-Muslim woman and hear her voice. But they couldn’t have allowed even a fully-veiled Muslim woman (or even her disembodied voice) up on that stage, or the sanctity of the occasion would have been violated.
In a sense, sitting with my daughters at the back of the prayer hall, I was “privileged” and respected in a way that the female politician up on the stage was not. And yet, this “privilege” was really no privilege at all. It was oppressive constraint, being made to represent men’s fantasies. There I was, stuck behind a barrier that I didn’t believe was necessary, hardly being able to see the imam or hear the sermon, and being put in the position of unwillingly passing this nonsense on to the next generation by my example.
As a convert, there were times when I did end up in situations like the western tourists in the Moroccan mosque, especially when I was traveling. As a guest who was obviously white and female, I was assumed to be ignorant of “proper” female behavior (my conservative hijab notwithstanding), and I would be “allowed” to sit with the men (who spoke English, and sat in a spacious area, while the women huddled in the kitchen and spoke their own language). This would always be really awkward. I would try to avoid such situations when possible, though this didn’t solve the problem.
I still remember with regret how when I was traveling in a region where women do not usually attend mosques, I was offered the chance to see inside the Friday mosque of the city. Although I really wanted to see it, I declined. The whole set-up unleashed a lot of conflicting emotions that I couldn’t really process. I felt very uneasy about using my “guest” status and white privilege in order to do something that the local women couldn’t do. I also knew that part of what would have allowed me to do that were demeaning stereotypes about “western women.” But I was trying to learn about the Muslim history, art and architecture of the area. I had been attending segregated women’s classes (which were held near a mosque, but not in it—and women never attended that mosque either). That taught me a lot about some aspects of Islam in that locality, but not much about the historical or architectural “bigger picture.”
So, I declined. And I could tell from the response of the men who had offered that I had made a choice that they approved of. I had passed some sort of litmus test of Muslimness in their eyes. Because I had affirmed their fantasy of Muslim women as freely choosing gender segregation.
It was one of those situations where you can’t win. There is no “right” answer—whatever you do, you lose. And you necessarily fail other people, especially other women.
My life as a convert has been a long series of such double binds. I think that this is mostly due to the racially charged situation in North America, especially in certain Muslim communities.
Which brings me to the issue of conversion and appropriation… but that will have to be another post.