Archive for category Convert histories

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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Towards telling our stories

(continued from the October 5th post on the “White Widow”)

In her article on Samantha Lewthwaite, Khadija Magardie  begins by stating that it isn’t regarded as polite in the Muslim community to refer to converts as “converts”—instead, they are called “reverts,” because it is believed that everyone is born a Muslim, but many people regard themselves as belonging to other religions because their parents made them into something else. And, that Muslims see this notion that everyone is actually born Muslim as a positive thing, as proof that the community is open to everyone and anyone who wants to join it. And also, that a number of prominent people in the twentieth century converted to Islam, and in some cases, helped directly or indirectly to promote the myth of an open, embracing world-wide Muslim community that welcomes everyone, regardless of race, class or gender.

But. All too often, converts soon discover that this pretty picture bears, well…. little if any relationship to reality.

And what do converts do when they begin to realize that in fact, they will never really “fit in” to the Muslim communities that they are trying to join?

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Of converts, headlines, and albino (poisonous) spiders

I’d have to have been living under a rock not to have noticed that yet another female convert is in the headlines again. Yes, Samantha Lewthwaite, aka the “white widow,” as the tabloids have dubbed her.

Samantha Lewthwaite, courtesy of Interpol. I'm still trying to understand where this is all coming from....

Samantha Lewthwaite, courtesy of Interpol.
I’m still trying to understand where this is all coming from….

It’s all a bit surreal, in a way. Back when I and my friends converted, hardly anyone had even heard of white North American or Western European women converting to Islam. Even in Muslim communities, it was a novelty, and we’d often meet born Muslims who were astounded at the very idea that we had converted. As for the wider society—we had no visibility to speak of. On the very rare occasions that a female convert would receive any media attention at all, we’d call one another and tell them to turn on the tv or make sure to take a look at page whatever of the paper. (Yes, that was long before the internet.)

We’d get all excited, that here was one of us. For once, we could see someone like ourselves reflected in the media. We’d make sure our kids (especially our daughters) saw it too, because they needed to know that there were other women out there like their mothers.

So, to think that now, there are actually female converts who are so well known—or notorious would be a better word—to make headlines around the world, and to even have wikipedia pages put up about them… the mind boggles. This is just so weird.

And so very, very sad.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before, unfortunately. About converts getting drawn into Islamist politics and becoming radicalized. About the way that some converts end up making conservative “Islamic” decisions about their lives that send them on a downward spiral, which ultimately puts them in situations where they are vulnerable to getting involved in extremism. And the community dynamics that can foster such tragedies.

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Converts, wtf?—More on women leaders

Years passed. Years of being in a neo-traditionalist group (that turned into a cult). After years of that, I had undergone quite an attitude adjustment. I had long ceased to question the idea that marriage and community order had to be patriarchal. I wasn’t expecting female leaders or scholars to uncover some sort of egalitarian “hidden history” or to interpret the Qur’an or the hadith or fiqh in an egalitarian way, either. I mean, the texts say what they say, and there’s nothing that anybody can do about it.

But still, when I realized that “mainstream” Sunni conservative immigrant-dominated groups such as the MSA and ISNA were rethinking their past opposition to the idea that women can be leaders, I was intrigued, and hopeful. Maybe, some sort of change in thinking about gender roles was in the offing?

But I didn’t really move in those circles. They were middle-class and immigrant-dominated. Their events were too expensive for me to even think about attending, usually, when they weren’t too far away to begin with. So, it didn’t seem likely that I would actually encounter any of these fabled new female leaders.

But then, 9/11 happened.

Shortly after 9/11, I attended a conference put on by a large and well-funded “mainstream” conservative Sunni Muslim organization. I was in search of solace.

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Converts, wtf — Women leaders?

Continuing with the question of what exactly is up with white North American converts… in my experience, anyway….

Last post, I talked about how we convert women used to think that if only we had community leaders/imams/shaykhs from our own backgrounds—meaning, men who spoke English as their first language, had converted to Islam in North America, and who came from ethnic and geographical backgrounds like ours—then they would be able to provide the sort of preaching, religious advice, etc that was relevant to our lives. They would understand where we were coming from, what sorts of families we had grown up in, the problems that could result when women like us married born Muslim immigrant men. Their priority would be establishing Islam here, not on raising money for whatever the immigrant Muslim cause du jour on the other side of the world was. They would understand the problems involved in raising kids here. Oh, and that they wouldn’t have this “Western women = whores” kind of thing in the backs of their minds, shaping how they dealt with us and the sort of religious advice that they tended to give.

Well, things didn’t work out as we had hoped with many male convert leaders.

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