In the last post, I discussed some of the reasons why I and some female converts I know used to wonder where the sisterhood was. The sisterhood that we thought was part and parcel of belonging to the umma, but that somehow we were being shut out of.
Now, looking back, I can’t help but wonder why on earth I didn’t notice who it was who was usually giving the talks and writing the articles about Muslim unity and how we are all one umma and the duties of brotherhood and so forth. It wasn’t usually women. And when it was women, it was usually… converts.
And come to think of it, who was it who was usually giving those sermons about how it’s haraam for Muslims to live in the land of the kufaar, unless they are here for dawa? Or who usually organized those dawa events or wrote those dawa pamphlets? Or who gave advice to Muslim male students on student visas, who were having pangs of conscience about being involved with western girlfriends and thinking that maybe they’d like to marry them but what would their families back home say about them marrying a non-Muslim woman and what about the kids… ? Typically, men again… and the odd female convert.
But what did those immigrant Muslim men, who urged other Muslim men to do dawa, produced the dawa materials, helped organize the dawa events, encouraged men in relationships with non-Muslim women to convert them… have to say to their own daughters, sisters, and wives about how they should relate to the wider non-Muslim society?
Remembering back to the dawa pamphlets and talks, as well as what I observed, I would guess that the main messages to those women would often have been: Muslim women are pure and moral and dignified, unlike western women. If you act like a western woman—dressing immodestly, dating, fornicating—then you have brought disgrace to your family and your community, and no decent Muslim man will want to marry you. Because of course you as a girl must marry a Muslim.
And remembering back to those ISNA magazine matrimonial ads (as well as the marriage negotiations I observed), the notions of what makes an immigrant or second generation girl or woman marriageable were very demanding. She needed to be physically attractive (often meaning “fair” and slim in those ads) yet hijab-wearing, educated yet also a domestic marvel… and also young. In her early twenties, typically. Because after that, her chances of finding a desirable husband would quickly decline.
What happened to those born Muslim girls and women who internalized those messages about “proper Islamic behavior” and what it takes to get married, perhaps resentfully… only to later watch female converts waltz into their communities and expect some sort of welcome? To watch those female converts, who if they were white often had little trouble finding immigrant Muslim husbands, regardless of how “immorally” they had presumably behaved before they had converted, or their very average looks, or even their inability to make good roti? Did they feel that they had been had? That the rules had been switched on them, without their permission? That there was a double standard, and that it unjustly penalized them, while being legitimated in the name of Islam?
Was it really surprising that some of these women didn’t welcome converts with open arms?
And aside from the whole marriage thing, as well as the issue of who does or doesn’t belong to the community (with a built-in double standard aimed at women), there were so many issues of choice, or rather the lack of it.
How many immigrant or second generation Muslim women we knew in those days even wanted to be here in North America? Some we knew apparently did, but others presented themselves as pretty ambivalent about it, or eager to return to their countries of origin. Some were refugees, and had not left their home countries of their own free will.
Of those who had freely chosen to be here, what did they want out of their local mosque or Muslim community? Some were Islamists or committed to a transnational group such as the Tablighi Jamaat, and saw themselves as part of a worldwide umma. But they were a minority. Many women seemed to be primarily trying to deal with their own isolation or homesickness, so it is not surprising that they would be more interested in finding women from their ethnic backgrounds who spoke their language to socialize with than in interacting with converts. Some women had become involved in doing work such as cooking for events put on by a Muslim group their husbands had joined, but how much choice had they really had about that? (In some cases I observed, probably not much—wives were expected as a matter of course to support their husbands’ religious and social activities by doing things such as cooking, whatever they personally thought about said group or activity.)
From what I can see, most of the immigrant and second generation Muslim women we met had not been given much if any say in issues related to idealistic visions of umma, Muslim identity, or community. Certain men—community leaders, da’is, activists, scholars—debated and decided these questions, and their womenfolk were expected to either let them get on with it or play supportive roles by cooking for events or welcoming their husband’s guests.
I was not aware of very many times when immigrant women were given a choice about, say, if an immigrant man should marry a white North American woman who was interested in Islam, or what roles female converts should play in a largely immigrant organization. But in most of those (few) instances, the immigrant or second generation Muslim women insisted on their uniqueness and superiority over converts or prospective converts.
At the time, it seemed petty and vindictive. Now, I look back and see a mess.
Basically, we as white converts walked into communities of color whose internal dynamics we had little awareness or understanding of. While we sometimes made some attempt to understand those dynamics, more often our attitudes were judgmental and moralistic… and our own personal needs were front and center in our minds. More on that next time.