So much for sisterhood: being the self-appointed face of “pure Islam”

(Cont.) Reading Esra Ozyurek’s book, Being German, Becoming Muslim was like a step back in time for a number of reasons… and one of them was her discussion of converts who had taken it upon themselves to represent “real Islam” in German society. For example, she writes about a mother, Iman, who feels that because so many (immigrant) Muslims are uneducated and marginalized that she has a “responsibility” to wear hijab and speak up about “Muslim needs” in situations such as neighborhood and school meetings:

If I do not, I can be certain that no Muslim voice will be heard, even though there are many immigrant Muslims in my neighborhood. I have to represent the Muslim position on issues such as not serving pork at the school cafeteria, about issues regarding co-ed swimming classes, etc. Sometimes nonobservant Muslims come to these meetings, and their position then represents the “Muslim” voice, which makes life much more difficult for us, practicing Muslims. (p. 40) [emphasis mine]

Yikes. Where to even begin?

On one hand, I remember the expectations that we as converts do this sort of thing—be publicly visible Muslims who not only adhered to a long list of rules and restrictions about clothing, food, social interactions and recreational activities, but made sure that our kids followed them too, no matter how much inconvenience this might cause ourselves or others, or how much of a social barrier this might create.

This pressure to “stand up for Islam” came from other, equally or more zealous converts, to be sure, but also from immigrant Islamist or otherwise “born again” Muslims. The latter told us that if we were really sincere Muslims, then this is what we would do. That we should feel glad and honored to do it. Whether these issues came up in our dealings with non-Muslim relatives, or (for those parents who sent their kids to public schools) at their kids’ school, or anywhere else. We shouldn’t compromise, we shouldn’t be embarrassed, and we should be delighted at the opportunity to uphold the “proper” Islamic standards and hopefully in the process inspire other, weaker (usually immigrant) Muslims to likewise take a stand.

At the time, I felt a lot of pressure to act this way, and so did my convert friends. One friend in particular (whose kids, unlike mine at that time, were in public school) took a very assertive approach. Her kids’ teachers were kept informed of all the things her kids weren’t allowed to eat or wear or do… and she insisted on carefully monitoring what types of sports they were doing in phys ed, so that if the clothing requirements were too intrinsically “immodest” she could withdraw them from that activity. I was in awe of her confidence, but at the same time I wondered if she wasn’t being rather unreasonable… especially once she refused to allow her six year old daughter to take part in ballet classes (which was being provided and paid for by the school as part of the girls’ phys ed), on the grounds that it would be immodest. I wondered even more when she told me proudly that her nine year old son had told an immigrant Muslim classmate—who was taking part in the swimming classes while wearing a conventional bathing suit and a headscarf—that she was not wearing proper hijab.

I and some of my convert friends discussed the pressures on us to “stand up” (and out) and how best to do so from several different angles: as a test of our faith, in terms of how it would affect our dealings with our non-Muslim families and neighbors, how it might affect our kids’ identities, how we might be able to learn to do it better or to be more comfortable with it. But what we rarely noticed was the racial and ethnic politics of the whole thing.

Looking at the quotation from Iman, however, that is what jumps out at me. How did we not pay attention to this back then?

Iman sees herself as “responsible” for representing “the Muslim viewpoint” (as if there’s only one), because immigrant Muslims allegedly lack the education to do, say, speak up against pork in the school cafeteria or demand that boys and girls have separate swimming lessons. So, it falls to her to take the lead. But she goes on it indirectly admit that the actual issue is NOT that immigrant Muslims fail to express their views in parents’ meetings—the problem from her perspective is that the views that they express do not agree with her understanding of “the Muslim viewpoint.” But since she has categorized these Muslims as “nonpracticing” (whatever that means exactly), then their views are illegitimate anyway. To her, it is almost as if they had not spoken. In fact, she would prefer that they had not, because by expressing a different view, they were making her life as a “practicing Muslim” more difficult.

Because of course, it should be all about her, and what she wants for her own kids. And there could be no good reason why the immigrant Muslims might see these issues differently—it had to be because they were “uneducated” or “nonpracticing.”

Unfortunately, this way of thinking is far too familiar. I used to be like this. So were many of my convert friends.

No wonder “sisterhood” with immigrant Muslim women was so often in such short supply. Because who would want to be friendly with someone who is judg-y and arrogant, and who is forever playing the “better Muslim than you” game?

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  1. #1 by nmr on March 15, 2015 - 3:23 pm

    I know you put the ‘trigger’ warning on the other post, but I find this one much more triggering, vis a vis, Who is the “authentic” Muslim game. Which “ummah” must accept you to get the authenticity branding? How do you know they are the ‘authentic’ group? Sigh. Sure we say it is only important that God accepts you, but in reality, in the real life as lived at this time at this place, the particularity of authenticity is a friggin nightmare to navigate.

  2. #2 by rosalindawijks on March 16, 2015 - 10:20 am

    “No wonder “sisterhood” with immigrant Muslim women was so often in such short supply. Because who would want to be friendly with someone who is judg-y and arrogant, and who is forever playing the “better Muslim than you” game?”

    True and it comes from both sides. Born Muslim women who think they’re better then converts, and vice versa, which can also become part of a “divide and rule”-strategy from both Muslim men & the wider society.

    While women are fighting eachother for the approvement of Muslim men & the wider society, they don’t realize that BOTH notions (that a born Muslim woman is somehow better, or a convert is better) are not true and can become tools to sexist and racist opression.

    So much also for female solidarity.

  3. #3 by rosalindawijks on March 22, 2015 - 8:36 am

    “I have to represent the Muslim position on issues such as not serving pork at the school cafeteria, about issues regarding co-ed swimming classes, etc.”

    THE Muslim position? As though all Muslims think the same about these issues, which just isn’t true?

    And why can’t pork be served at the school cafeteria? As long as there are alternatives for Muslims, like vegetarian or halal options, I don’t see the problem with serving pork.

    And even if there aren’t any alternatives, Muslim children/teenagers could bring lunch from home with them.

    “Sometimes nonobservant Muslims come to these meetings, and their position then represents the “Muslim” voice, which makes life much more difficult for us, practicing Muslims.”

    This is just SO condescending towards any Muslim that doesn’t fit in HER boxes/black-and-white approach to what/whom is Muslim or Islamic. She has the right to her point of view & interpretation, and so are born Muslims or “nonobservant” Muslims.

    And then the “us, practicing Muslims” which only means “WE are better then/moral superior to YOU”. Yuck.

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