Archive for category Convert histories

So much for sisterhood: conversion, appropriation… and is there a difference? (II)

Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is without the consent of the originating culture, and when the appropriating group has historically oppressed members of the originating culture.” It goes on to explain that appropriation is not the same as acculturation or assimilation, and that it is made possible by very unequal relations of power.

Basically, it occurs because people from the dominant culture assume that they have the right to take whatever it is that they please from wherever. They unconsciously see the entire world and everything and everybody in it as if it were their own personal all-you-can-eat buffet, so they are therefore entitled to help themselves as they wish. This is possible because the group they belong to has disproportionate access to resources, political and economic power, as well as social status, especially when compared to the group that they are appropriating from. And because of this differential in power and status, the appropriating group gets to enjoy and manipulate these “exotic” and “cool” cultural elements as it pleases without paying the price that the originating group would, and without regard for its cultural or religious meanings.

How do white converts relate to such relations of power?

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Losing creativity… and towards reclaiming it

K.M. has posted again (yay!), this time about seeing a documentary about the Burning Man festival, and how it made her think about how conversion to Islam had affected her creativity. The quotes are from her post; my comments are in the square brackets.

… it was so very foreign to me.  You see people creating bizarre,fanciful art and cars and costumes. They smile, dance, kiss, twirl, laugh. They do this with friend and stranger alike. And this is what struck me the most: I would never fit in to a culture like Burning Man.

As a person who was once a Muslim, the tendency or ability to do any of this in public was taken from me.  Smothered, if you will.  Smiling and laughing in public is as loosey goosey as I get – and that’s after years of being in the so-called mainstream culture. Running and dancing in public is probably something I will not ever do.  I have not done them since I was a girl.

[I can’t imagine attending anything like that either, much less fitting in. Not because I wouldn’t want to, but because I couldn’t. Dancing in public? Twirling around? Wearing costumes? Nope. I remember going to a folk festival about a year before I converted, dancing to the music and really enjoying myself. But once I converted, that sort of thing became impossible. It was seen as shockingly immodest, as something that a “true Muslim woman” would never ever do, so even admitting to myself that I wished I could do it was not acceptable.]

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So much for sisterhood: Multiple ostracisms

In continuing to think about why as white female converts we often didn’t experience much in the way of “sisterhood” with born Muslim women, I found a book that I chanced upon recently fairly helpful. Esra Ozyurek’s Becoming German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe (Princeton University Press, 2015) talks about converts in Germany and how they position themselves as both German and Muslim, in a country where “Islam” and “Muslim” are often automatically associated with adjectives such as: immigrant, Turkish or Arab, lower class, chauvinistic.

While I picked up the book expecting to read about how and why people convert (and how they negotiate their convert identities afterwards), I encountered some unanticipated food for thought—about the personal issues that some white converts bring with them, and also about the similarities between some types of white convert discourse and white European racist rhetoric. I will discuss the first issue (personal issues faced by some white converts) in this post, the the second (convert and racist rhetoric) in the next post.

A number of the converts discussed in the book had faced very negative reactions not only from wider German society, but also from their families. While a number of the female hijab-wearing converts’ anecdotes about the ways that they were treated in government offices, or by the teachers at their children’s schools sounded pretty familiar to me (many converts, including myself, have experienced similar things), the book presents many of these anecdotes together. so, reading them (for me, at least) was rather like thinking that you are about to drink lemonade, taking a mouthful, and finding that it is basically undiluted lemon juice with no added sugar. In other words, wow. It packs quite a punch.

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So much for sisterhood: But the fact is, they never asked for us

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?

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The way we were: all the stuff we didn’t read

Samantha over at Defeating the Dragons has a post for Banned Books Week, called “The books I didn’t read.” Some of the attitudes she discusses are all too familiar to me. She writes,

“I read the books that the adults in my life were comfortable with me reading– books that wouldn’t challenge any of their (or my own) ideas, books that didn’t ask any hard questions they might not have been able to answer. Safe books. Easy books. Antiquated and archaic and adorable and aristocratic books– only books that enforced the perceptions we already had.”

Oh yeah. That pretty much describes how we tried to raise our kids… and what our lives were like in the highly conservative, insular Muslim communities that I was involved in.  For a complicated bunch of reasons.

books

When I converted, the first Muslim communities that I encountered were usually led by immigrant men who had been heavily influenced either by the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami. Some of them were engineering or medical students. They had little time for the arts, and that included literature of any kind. After all, what good was it? How did it help teach people Islam or make them better Muslims? Literature was most often ignored, or when it wasn’t, it was treated with some suspicion.

As a new convert, most of what I wanted to read was about Islam. Books in English on Islam were in short supply back then where I was living, but we would comb the public library for them (and occasionally mission out to the ISNA-run Islamic book store, which was just a hole in the wall in those days… but that’s a subject for another time). Most of the books related to Islam at the library dealt with modern political issues. I read a certain amount of that, but didn’t often find that it answered the questions I had.

I and my convert frinds read other stuff as well, but we self-censored a fair amount. We usually read books that were practical in some way,  or religious, or old. But we seldom read contemporary fiction, and when we did, we often found it unsettling for various reasons. Looking back, I can see that some of my negative reactions to fiction were trauma-related—stuff like The Color Purple was frankly triggering. But some of it was due to my discomfort with the ideas that the books expressed, as well as their “sinful” characters and open-ended plots that didn’t end with the punishment of those who did wrong and reward for those who were righteous.

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In this dead-end

Today, I discovered a poem (and a poet) for the first time.

Only some thirty years too late.

And wouldn’t you know it, he’s dead now. He died over a decade ago.

Better late than never, I suppose.

I don’t read poetry much. Don’t have time, for one thing. Am not really very attuned to it, for another. But I tripped across Ahmad Shamlou’s poem, “In this dead-end” by accident. And it hit me so hard. Because unfortunately, I know too much about what he is talking about:

In this dead-end

They smell your breath

You had better not have said, ‘I love you.’

They smell your heart.

These are strange times, darling…

And they flog love at the checkpoint

We must hide love in the closet.

In this crooked dead end and twisting chill

they feed the fire with the kindling of song and poetry

Do not risk a thought

These are strange times, darling

He who knocks on the door at midnight

has come to kill the light

We must hide light in the closet.

There are the butchers stationed at the crossroads

with bloody clubs and cleavers

These are strange times, darling

They cut smiles from lips and songs from mouths

We must hide joy in the closet.

Canaries barbequed on a fire of lilies and jasmine

These are strange times, darling

Satan is drunk with victory, sitting at our funeral feast

We must hide God in the closet.

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Of (some) converts and online radicalization

So, another white American female convert has been arrested for allegedly providing aid to terrorists. Shannon Maureen Conley, or as she called herself, Halima Conley, from Colorado. Only 19 years old.

It’s hard to gauge exactly what was going on with her on the basis of media reports. If what they have to say is accurate, she comes across as someone who is very naive, socially isolated, socially awkward, takes things at face value… and doesn’t think before she speaks. Perhaps more of a danger to herself than anyone else—but still, she was apparently warned repeatedly that what she was planning to do is illegal, and she did not desist. What did she expect would happen? Was this some sort of a cry for help? An unconscious effort at self-destruction that unlike cutting or drunk driving or suicide attempts would be “moral” in her mind because she could explain it to herself as “religious persecution”?

As usual, the media is trying to explain how an apparently average American suburban young woman ended up not only converting to Islam but supporting a very extreme fringe group whose calling cards are death and more death.  Some turned to social media in search of clues to her radicalization process, and pointed to pictures that she had posted of herself wearing a baseball cap, a hijab, and then a niqab, as if that “progression” explains everything.

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Oh, how they lied

I’m in the middle of reading what is so far a pretty awesome book: Ayesha Chaudhry’s Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition.

It's awesome because it's honest... at least, what I've read of it so far. Which is sad, really---why is being honest about "the tradition" so rare? What does this say about the self-styled bearers of "the tradition" who I dealt with that they couldn't be bothered to be  honest, or actively didn't seek to be? What is a tradition worth when people can't tell the truth about it?

It’s awesome because it’s honest… at least, what I’ve read of it so far. Which is sad, really—why is being honest about “the tradition” so rare? What does this say about the self-styled bearers of “the tradition” who I dealt with that they couldn’t be bothered to be honest, or actively didn’t seek to be? What is a tradition worth when people can’t tell the truth about it?

This is quite an experience. Parts of it are very triggering, frankly. Reading through all the medieval interpretations of Q 4:34 as well as the views of the jurists who followed the four Sunni madhhabs, was really something. Much of it I had encountered before, mostly through reading… but that was in dribs and drabs. The overall effect of all that delivered at one fell swoop was really, well… horrifying. Just bone-freezingly horrifying.

For several reasons: Because the misogyny of “the tradition” was simply undeniable. Because it kept mentioning things that had happened to friends of mine, or to me, or which had been reported on the news… and we had been assured that it is “unIslamic” and that “no true Muslim would do such a thing” or “this is a misinterpretation.” And it wasn’t true. Which brings me to the third, and in a way, the worst reason: Because they lied. Those imams, shaykhs, community leaders, study circle teachers, people we looked up to and trusted… lied.

I can’t count how many times down through the years that we were told in so many ways that marriage “according to the true teachings of Islam” is ultimately all about love and compassion. That while men and women have different roles in marriage, this is according to the design of the all-wise Creator, and therefore these differences are intended for the benefit of both of them, as well as for the benefit of the children, and society as a whole.

Well, not only does it turn out that this idea derived from 1950’s-’60’s functionalism (a very secular sociological theory devised by non-Muslims, btw—the horror!) rather than the Qur’an, the sunna or “the tradition,” but medieval Qur’an commentators and jurists to a man saw marriage primarily in terms of what men (aka not women, or even children) were entitled to. And among the things that most of these scholars held that a man is entitled to is an obedient wife. We’d heard that often enough… but with the edges of the definitions of “obedience” typically softened.

We heard different definitions of “obedience”—everything ranging from a woman performing her ritual duties properly, to obeying her husband in everything unless he commands her to do something sinful. But we never heard the opinion that a wife who, say, had been in the habit of meeting her husband with a smile but ceased to do so is “disobedient” and therefore should be admonished, separated from in bed, and if he deems it necessary, beaten. (!?)

This is the sort of interpretation that had me wondering wtf?? Since when does hitting someone for not being cheerful or welcoming enough make them more rather than less cheerful or welcoming? The author wryly points out that she can think of any number of reasons why a woman might not be in a smile-y mood (illness, tiredness… I’d add pregnancy or cramps or in-law problems) that have nothing to do with her attitude to her husband. But the scholars with this particular take on disobedience were not at all concerned with trying to understand why a wife might behave in a way that her husband finds less than satisfying, as the author points out—their focus was on what the husband is entitled to. He was entitled to a wife who pleases him. She however was not entitled to a husband who pleases her. If she got that, then that was a bonus, but she had no legal or moral right to it, in their view.

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How I know I’m still Muslim: because I’m still as critical as all hell :-(

Some days ago, someone sent me a link to a video of British Muslims being, well, happy. Lip-syncing, dancing, smiling, and acting goofy, mostly. Women, as well as men and children. Not all the women were wearing hijab. One hijabi was biking, and a number were dancing. I watched it, and had two automatic and rather contradictory reactions—“awww, that’s kind of cute” and “the following things in this video are haraam, makruh or at least Islamically questionable and therefore the makers probably should have avoided them, because X quranic verse and Y Z A hadiths and the sayings of such-and-such scholars.”

And the thing was, these were my automatic responses, that I didn’t even have to think about or try to formulate. Not just the “awww…” response, but the second one, the hyper-critical, These Are All The Things That Are Wrong Here And These Are The Proof-texts Why response.

Thinking about the second response, I am taken aback… and not in a good way.

Where does this hyper-critical response come from, complete with its associated proof-texts?

Sure, this stuff was all pounded into my head years ago, when I converted. But I’ve been away from conservative Muslim communities for a while now, and seldom interact with conservative Muslims (aside from a few family members). I don’t usually listen to conservative khutbas or attend mosques or read books written by conservatives or (god forbid) go to those fatwa sites. So, it’s not as though those attitudes and proof-texts could be expected to be uppermost in my mind, because they aren’t exactly receiving reinforcement.

And, these are mostly ideas that I don’t rationally believe in either (more on that in a minute).

So, where does this come from??

Well, wherever it comes from, it soon became evident that I was not the only person who has the same inbuilt Islamic Carping Criticism-o-meter (ICC), because it did not take long for a “halal” version of the video to be posted. Meaning, a version in which most of the women have been edited out, and those remaining are hijabis. Only the upper one-third of their bodies are shown, and they are mostly standing still. Not only are the dancing women now gone, but even the hijabi riding her bike.

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It’s all about control

Several weeks ago, one of my daughters had a school field trip that involved visiting a Hindu temple, a Christian church, and a mosque. A class project on world religions.

Actually, stop judging and body-shaming. My body is not an obscenity. If you don't like what I'm wearing, how about you try lowering your gaze??

Actually, stop judging and body-shaming. The female body is not an obscenity. If you don’t like what someone is wearing, how about lowering your gaze??

Along with the permission forms sent home for parents to sign came a letter from the teacher explaining the type of behavior and dress that would be required of the students. Much of it was very reasonable, reminding the students that these are places of worship, so they needed to behave respectfully. But the girls were also told that they needed to wear long, loose pants (preferably sweatpants) and headscarves when they were at the mosque.

I paused, reading this letter. The field trip was going to take place in the afternoon, in the middle of the week. They would not be attending Friday Prayers, or any congregational prayer. They were not going to pray, either—they were there to see the building, and to hear the imam explain a bit about Islam and the community and the kinds of rituals and activities that would normally take place in a mosque.

In other words, what on earth would be the reason for requiring a bunch of mostly non-Muslim teenage girls to wear headscarves?? Or even to worry about what they might or might not be wearing on their legs??

My daughter wasn’t bothered by this, however. Because she took it for granted that somehow, a girl entering a mosque with uncovered hair or limbs profanes the mosque. And she was proud that at least she knew better than to even think of doing that, unlike some of the non-Muslim girls in her class, who didn’t seem to understand that you have to really watch what you wear to the mosque.

I pointed out to her that when I had first visited that same mosque in the early ’80’s, I saw women wearing short-sleeved, tight, scoop-necked shalwar kameez entering that mosque with transparent dupattas loosely draped over part of their heads and not concealing much of their hair, in order to attend Friday Prayers. They entered through the main door, along with everyone else. Then, they went up to the women’s balcony, put on the large white cotton prayer khimars that were kept there for all those women who did not come to the mosque dressed “suitably” for prayer, prayed, and left at the end of the service.

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