So much for sisterhood

A while back, another convert left a comment for one of my posts (can’t remember which one, unfortunately). She agreed enthusiastically with an observation that I had made about how I had never really felt welcomed by most immigrant (or second generation immigrant) Muslim sisters in any community I was involved in or had dealings with. She commented that after converting, she had married an immigrant Muslim man, hoping that this would help her to feel more part of the community, and that the immigrant sisters would be more accepting of her. But the reverse happened. “So much for sisterhood,” she concluded.

At the time I received that comment, I wasn’t sure what exactly to say in response. That sister had evidently had a disillusioning experience to say the least. Like me, and like some other converts I know, she had apparently been exposed to the “we are all brothers and sisters belonging to one umma” rhetoric, and had taken it more or less at face value. She had expected that since all Muslim women are supposed to be sisters in faith, that therefore the other women at the mosque would welcome and accept her as a fellow Muslima, especially since she had demonstrated the sincerity of her conversion by marrying into the community. She wondered where the “sisterhood” was, and why it wasn’t being extended to her.

In some ways, I could definitely relate. On one hand, I did take that rhetoric seriously.

Not just because of the stuff I read and the sermons I heard, but because I repeatedly witnessed and experienced Islam acting as a bridge across otherwise considerable differences of race and ethnicity (and far less often, also class). It was thanks to their common desire to practice Islam in certain ways that people who spoke different languages and followed different cultural practices in their home countries and had different positions in the wider society’s racial and class hierarchy could nonetheless stand shoulder to shoulder in prayer and sit in the same room breaking fast together on a mixture of foods from different parts of the world. It was thanks to Islam that I  stood in those prayer lines and broke fast in those mosque basements. And that when I traveled abroad, I didn’t feel entirely at sea, because Islam created instant commonality. Every Muslim faces the same qibla, prays in the same language, fasts in the same month of Ramadan… even me. This feeling of connectedness is a powerful thing, in my experience.

And yet. I and my convert friends also often wondered where the “sisterhood” was, when it came right down to it. We exchanged stories and soon found that certain things seemed to be pretty common.

Like incidents when a convert would go to the mosque for Friday prayers, find the women’s section, see a group of sisters sitting there and look forward to being able to meet other Muslim women… only to watch them all greet one another after the prayer and act as though she was invisible.

Or like incidents where a convert would find herself in a social situation with immigrant sisters—at an iftar, say. The brothers would all be in the living room, and the sisters would be in the kitchen, or the bedroom… and even though many of them could speak perfectly good English, they would ignore the convert all evening and speak to one another in their own language.  Or, if they paid attention to the convert at all, they would ask her pointed questions about her life before converting, making it obvious that they were sure that she must have behaved immorally and that they wanted to hear all the salacious details. Or, they would offer her detailed and unsolicited advice about everything that she was doing “wrong”—she wasn’t wearing hijab fulltime, her hijab wasn’t conservative enough, she was wearing nail polish, she had been married for several years now and she wasn’t pregnant yet…. Or ask her if she knows how to recite Surat al-Fatiha.

Or like incidents when an immigrant sister would not return a convert’s salaam.

Basically, passive aggressive stuff.

At first, the new convert explains such incidents away as someone having an “off” day, or being shy, or perhaps being self-conscious when speaking English. But the years pass. And she can’t help but notice that she’s still always the proverbial new girl, who probably needs to be taught how to make instinja and to recite Surat al-Fatiha properly, and who probably also needs to be lectured about the correctness of her hijab even though she’s been a conservative hijabi for years now… And that even famous, big-name converts who converted decades ago and have lived long and productive lives as Muslims are still nearly always defined by immigrant Muslims as converts. As if their conversions were the only thing about them that ever mattered. As if they are forever chained to that moment when they took shahada, and because of that moment they will never ever really, truly be regarded as Muslims pure and simple. They will always and everywhere be hyphenated Muslims, Muslim converts. And she starts to realize that she won’t escape that fate either.

So yeah, I relate. That passive aggressive stuff, the treatment of converts by some as lesser… hurts. As does the flip side of this, the fetishizing of converts as super-Muslims who have to live up to standards that no born Muslim does, and the rejection that follows when they unsurprisingly fail.

But at the same time, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I now realize that our hopes for acceptance were unrealistic. Not on an individual scale—some converts, including myself, did develop close friendships with immigrant Muslims, and felt accepted by those individuals. But on a larger scale. For a number of reasons that escaped me at the time.

The feeling that Islam is the great unifier that can bridge any and all difference (if only we just have enough faith…) was an illusion. It ignored the very real differences that no amount of rhetoric about Muslim unity or shared rituals could possibly erase. That we could buy into such an illusion was due to our comparative privilege—which we were often oblivious to, but the immigrant sisters weren’t.

Next: Fact is, they never asked for us.

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  1. #1 by threekidsandi on December 11, 2014 - 4:09 am

    The first time a sister looked me in the eyes and refused to answer my salaam, I decided she had been forbidden to speak to customers in another language. Which was ridiculous, given the employer and the metro area. I think I was desperate at that time to believe anything but the truth.

    • #2 by knowthetruth on December 11, 2014 - 6:04 am

      Spies also became Muslims to catch extremists…original Muslims are afraid of saying salams to fellow Muslims now a days…forgive them.

      • #3 by xcwn on December 11, 2014 - 10:02 pm

        I don’t know when the incident that threekidsandi is referring to happened, but the ones that I am talking about happened way before 9/11.

      • #4 by threekidsandi on December 12, 2014 - 1:11 am

        That’s no excuse. Everybody in the US Ummah had the FBI knocking at their door. It doesn’t scare the salaam out of you. There’s nothing to forgive. Maybe she was murtad, or trying to stick to English. I would get pretty annoyed if I was expected to converse in Arabi and didn’t feel like it.

  2. #5 by knowthetruth on December 11, 2014 - 6:00 am

    If you have faith in your creater,You will never expect something from fellow human being.your attitude shows you came into Islam not for Allah,but for someone to talk you or help u…silly u.

    • #6 by xcwn on December 11, 2014 - 10:10 pm

      It’s interesting how this kind of “advice” is happily given out by those higher up on the food chain to those who are regarded as lesser than they are, like converts, women, African Americans in immigrant-dominated mosques… But when that sort of treatment is dished out to them, whether in mosques or at work or school or anywhere else, well that’s injustice and it has to be addressed.

  3. #7 by nmr on December 11, 2014 - 12:57 pm

    The idea of a “redemptive community” is not limited to Islam. It is and underlying concern with many people in the modern world and is a reaction to our overwhelming feeling of alienation. ‘If only I could find the right community of (insert here artists, athletes, scientists, musicians, feminists, freethinkers, quilting-bee-ers, etc) who would help me achieve my highest potential!”

    • #8 by xcwn on December 11, 2014 - 10:05 pm

      Yeah, and that’s an important part of the problem.
      Which certain Muslim discourses fed into, unfortunately. All the emphasis on sticking to the jama’a, that satan attacks the one alone, etc.

      This is going to take another post… thanks!

  4. #9 by beeluci on December 12, 2014 - 5:52 am

    I think sisterhood is not based in religion but in agency. Freedom. In fact if the practice of religion takes away agency, sisterhood is diminished.
    What women have, when they have religion but no agency, is just enough room to compete for status. It’s win or lose. There’s little win-win.

    I admire your blog, btw. So smart.

    • #10 by xcwn on December 21, 2014 - 3:55 pm

      “What women have, when they have religion but no agency, is just enough room to compete for status. It’s win or lose. There’s little win-win.”

      Awesome comment. That’s so true. Thanks for commenting.

  5. #11 by A on December 14, 2014 - 9:27 pm

    I think it’s strange to expect people who don’t know you or don’t have much in common with you to befriend you. I’m from a very cliquey town and converts have complained about the same thing here. The thing is, people tend to befriend those with whom they have a sense of familiarity and this comes about due to commonalities. It is, obviously, bad manners to ignore people when they’re in your company or refuse to reply to a greeting. But when people greet and embrace only those people they know at a public space like a mosque it seems not entirely abnormal. Personally, I’d freak out if someone I didn’t know embraced me. In fact, I have freaked out recently when a woman I don’t know came up to me and hugged me. This woman is also a non-convert Muslim and the scenario occurred in an academic institution. I went as far as to tell the woman that I was uncomfortable with her entering my personal space like that since we don’t know each other. However, I can see how one could expect an all-embracing whole ummah who’d invite you into their social circles when everyone’s been labelled “brother” or “sister”. Expectations are that all women within the ummah are your sister and will treat and embrace you as such. But I don’t think it’s always the case that you’re being iced out because you’re a convert. I think it may just be that you’re a stranger.

    • #12 by xcwn on December 21, 2014 - 3:53 pm

      Yeah, in retrospect I’d say it was not very reasonable for us to expect a warm welcome. Sure, there were a number of reasons why we thought at the time that such a welcome might be forthcoming (the “brother”/”sister” thing being only one of them…), but this was a misreading of the situation on our part. I do think that the fact that we were converts played a significant role, however—more on that in the next post.

    • #14 by xcwn on December 21, 2014 - 3:49 pm

      This looks really good. Thanks!

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