Converts, fantasies, race and gender

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.

Notice the gendered racial politics going on in this hijab meme: Real live brown and black Muslim women aren't doing hijab right... but a white-faced MANNEQUIN demonstrates the pious standard that they should imitate. And, this is being circulated on the internet by Muslims, in order to instruct Muslim women how to dress. By all that is holy... you just can't make this stuff up.

Notice the gendered racial politics going on in this hijab meme: Real live brown and black Muslim women aren’t “doing hijab right”… but a white-faced MANNEQUIN demonstrates the pious standard that they should imitate. And, this is being circulated on the internet by Muslims, in order to instruct Muslim women how to dress. By all that is holy… you just can’t make this stuff up.

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:

“In Islam…”


“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:

“Sacred tradition”

“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.

There was a post recently on Hind Makki’s tumblr, Side Entrance, that summed up the kind of situation I’m talking about quite nicely. A born Muslim woman commented:

[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.





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  1. #1 by nmr on April 13, 2014 - 3:26 am

    I’ve seen the same privilege extended to female journalists. Emma Duncan called it the “honorary man” syndrome.

    • #2 by xcwn on April 13, 2014 - 1:22 pm

      lol yes. Good name for it.

    • #3 by rosalindawijks on April 13, 2014 - 2:46 pm


  2. #4 by threekidsandi on April 13, 2014 - 3:30 am

    Looking forward to your next post. As always.

    • #5 by xcwn on April 13, 2014 - 1:23 pm

      Thank you. I look forward to your posts as well, and hope that things are getting better.

  3. #6 by rosalindawijks on April 13, 2014 - 4:46 pm

    • #7 by xcwn on April 13, 2014 - 5:19 pm

      Awesome article! Thanks a lot for telling us about it.

  4. #8 by rosalindawijks on April 13, 2014 - 5:06 pm

    I remember a then-friend who had studied Turkish stating at a Moroccan discussion forum that many Muslims only want to speak about the beautiful theory, which isn’t all that beautiful to begin with……and how right he was.

    The interpretation of Islam by many of the jurists from 900-1400 is, though important and interesting, often NOT pretty – at least, not to modern human rights, international law and gender justice standards.

    But, to paraphrase hazrat Alis words, they were born in and raised for another time then we are. Literal adherence to many of their points of view is pointless and can be harmfull in many respects.

    Most modern day liberal Christians in the urban areas of Western Europe don’t seem to have a problem with interpreting the Bible from this point of view, but conservative, salafi and born again Muslims? Forget it. (Maybe the equation isn’t fair, since right-wing bible belt Christians, let alone orthodox Jews and Hindues live, think and feel almost exactly the same as the aforemented conservo-Muslims, bit since we are Muslims, I’ll focus on the conservatives withinin our religion)

  5. #9 by rosalindawijks on April 13, 2014 - 5:12 pm

    And yes, white privilege doesn’t stop at converting. White male converts are often applauded and cheered, whereas black women are discriminated against, since in the privilege ladder of many Arabs and Indo-Pakistani immigrant Muslims, we are at the lowest point. (An attitude which stems from both Western Colonialism AND the racism that already existed in those parts of the world well before colonialism, due to slavery of black Africans in the Arab world and the Indo-Pakistani obsession with light skin)

    (I have been treated rudely and discriminated against in two mosques who were all to welcoming to a Dutch white male convert, so I’ve experienced this in practice)

  6. #10 by rosalindawijks on April 13, 2014 - 5:32 pm

    You’re very welcome!

  7. #11 by abitofarant on April 14, 2014 - 1:19 pm

    Once again you’ve somehow been able to so eloquently articulate the many doubts and thoughts I’ve had over the years (but am probably unable to do due to my continued self thought policing).

  8. #12 by rosalindawijks on April 22, 2014 - 3:26 pm

    This is a very good and powerfull talk adressing barring women from mosques, and more:

    • #13 by xcwn on April 28, 2014 - 2:15 am

      Sigh. That was powerfully triggering.
      Yeah, I know you didn’t mean it to be. And I can see why many people would see it as a positive step. It’s great that now, some African American women are being allowed to speak in immigrant-dominated Muslim venues. It’s a leap forward that she denounced wife abuse publicly, when this was not an issue that was usually even acknowledged before. And it’s good that women’s access to mosques is now being discussed openly as well.

      But. I can’t help but feel deeply uneasy about several things. Like the way she laughingly distances herself from the very idea of “leading juma prayer” and insists that what she’s saying isn’t “radical feminism” but “Islam.” She doesn’t mention Amina Wadud, but she is in effect saying, “I’m not like Amina, because I know my place as a Muslim woman.” To me, it would be one thing if Aisha al-Adawiyya said that while she doesn’t agree that women should lead Friday prayers, she condemns the bullying and racially-inflected backlash that Amina received and honors her bravery and dedication. But that isn’t what she does–she tries to legitimize her own views by indirectly undercutting another sister, who has spent decades now working to combat domestic violence and patriarchal exclusion of women in North American Muslim communities.

      I also don’t think that on one hand invoking the civil rights movement and saying that we won’t accept the back of the bus, while justifying placing women at the back (and saying that it isn’t discriminatory…) is really an honest claim.

      Even more disturbing—the fact that they evidently put her speech early in the program, aka not in a prime spot. Better than not including her at all, of course, but still. It’s revealing who it is who gets the prime spots, because it communicates whose ideas are thought to “really matter.”

  9. #14 by rosalindawijks on April 22, 2014 - 3:26 pm

    I truly believe that every Muslim woman should see and hear this talk!

  10. #15 by rosalindawijks on April 28, 2014 - 7:45 am

    I agree that this talk is not perfect, but I am very happy that she openly and publicly denounces domestic violence and the discrimination of women in mosques.

    And no, I don’t agree on everything, since I am a proponent of women leading prayer and women being able to pray how, when and where they want, including mixed rows and the front rows.

    So, of course, her indirect critique of Amina Wadud is also something I absolutely don’t agree with. But I honestly believe that condemnation of the racist backlash Amina received is a given for Aisha, since she, too, is an African-American leader within the community.

    To think about it, that reflex of her is interesting. I know many quite progressive Muslim men and women personally, from whom I’m almost certain that they’re not against mixed prayer. However, in their public writing and speaking, they will never defend that point of view, and I believe that this is about tactics and fear of backlash or being portrayed as “too radical”.

    However, I still consider the glass half-full, instead of half-empty and I think that this talk of Mrs. Adaweya is a giant step forward and not just symbol-politics.

    To be honest, I stand in awe of that speach and it goves me goosebumps all over. 🙂

  11. #16 by Fatin haddad on October 19, 2014 - 4:35 am

    The ones in the middle are fair skinned by anyone’s standard!!!! I agree, that there is a strong bias in the Muslim community for light skin. Have you seen how hoor al ayn are protrayed?

    • #17 by xcwn on October 19, 2014 - 5:04 pm

      Yes, they are fair skinned, but they look Arab or possibly South Asian. But the mannequin is white—so white that even if it was a real live white woman, one would wonder if she might have anemia. It’s telling that the “ideal” hijabi in this meme is not only white, but plastic. “She” isn’t real. Almost an inadvertent admission that no real woman can truly live up to their standards of “true modesty.”

      I am not sure if there is a direct link between this sort of thing and the hoor al ayn, though there could well be at a subconscious level. Again with the hoor, you have the unrealistically fair skin, as well as the unreality. The point of the hoor is that they are the perfect reward for pious men because no real woman can measure up to their physical perfection, or their uncomplicated fixation on happily servicing their men without a single independent thought or aspiration. Very troubling notions, on a number of levels….

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