Archive for category You owe us an apology

This cesspool is really, really deep

Why does the racism discussed in the previous post matter? aka it’s been talked about before. A lot. And the discussion tends to unfold in predictable ways.

How the discussion unfolds seems to depend on who has raised the issue in the first place.

When white female converts discuss these things, it sometimes gets a polite hearing, depending on where and by whom. Both Huda Khattab (in her books, The Muslim Woman’s Handbook, as well as Bent Rib) and J. Lynn Jones (in her Believing as Ourselves) have dealt with some of this stuff. These books have been easily available through fairly conservative Muslim sites and bookstores for some years now. Lots of Muslims have read them, and have apparently found them insightful. But have books like those, or blogs by white female converts led to any major, concrete change? Certainly not in any community that I know of.

But at least these women got a reasonably polite hearing—a minimal courtesy that in my experience doesn’t seem to be often extended to black female North American converts who want to discuss racism in Muslim communities.

What does it mean that those most severely affected by racism are given the least amount of space to be heard? When they are ignored, or dismissed, or silenced with reproaches that they are “just being too sensitive” or “dividing the umma”?

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Of whiteness and conversion

I have been thinking off and on about posting about my attempts to work through the ways that my whiteness, gender identity and convert status intersected, and what the results were like.

This image is from the Shukr website, on their front page. It is part of an advertisement for their Ramadan-Eid sale. ( Sadly, the reason it caught my eye is because all the other female models on the site are white. And I asked myself why. Why all the others are white, and why Shukr would think that this would help them to better sell their clothes in North America, where almost one-third of the Muslim population is black, and many more Muslims have dark skin.

But I have been putting it off. Yes, race was certainly a major issue in the conservative Muslim communities that I have been involved in. But I am not sure that I am the person to talk about it—in fact, I’m pretty sure that I’m not.  And it’s very, very complicated, especially when race intersects with gender identity, class, immigration status, sexual orientation… and so forth.

Part of me really does not want to talk about it. For one thing, whites—even white women—are a tiny minority of converts in North America. The problems folks like me have faced are often ugly, but they are only a very small share of the total amount of racism in the communities that I was involved in. There’s a much larger elephant in the room—the racism often faced by black North American converts within Muslim communities—that isn’t receiving anything like the attention it deserves. Other North American converts-of-color also often have to deal with racism from other Muslims, and that receives even less notice.

But this blog is about my recovery process primarily, not about telling Muslim communities what they need to pay attention to. I don’t imagine for a minute that anything I say here will change a thing, either in the communities that I used to be involved in, or in any other Muslim community.  The racism that I was so often immersed in—sometimes as a target, more often as a passive beneficiary, and sometimes as a perpetrator—existed in those communities for a number of complicated reasons, and its continuing existence is enabled by a larger web of oppressive factors that reach far beyond their borders.

There are so many aspects of racism that impacted us as white converts:

  • we were fetishized and exoticized, and in the process often dehumanized
  • when we were welcomed, it was often at the expense of converts-of-color (who weren’t given nearly such a warm welcome), or of born Muslims of color who weren’t toeing the conservative line

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The men who speak with God’s voice

Whenever I think about God nowadays, usually, two things happen. First, I draw a blank. Then, I notice the voices.

The voices that I internalized, as a result of years spent in several conservative Muslim communities.

What does it mean when your god loves everything that you love, and can’t stand all the stuff that you can’t stand? Doesn’t that mean that you have created a god in your own image?
(Photo: Remi Mathis

The voices have a lot to say. About everything. About how the world “should” be.

The voices are not disembodied. They issue forth from human beings.

“That’s odd,” I think. “After all, as Muslims we don’t believe that God has a form or a body. God is beyond human characteristics like gender and race and class. So, why is it that I can’t think about God without these embodied voices intruding?”

The voices are male. They speak very confidently. They are very sure that they know exactly who God is, and what God thinks about everything. They know what God wants them to do, and even more, what God wants other people to do. Especially women. Especially me.

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How we were sold on patriarchal religion: reason #89

Because it gave us knowledge of everything. And knowledge is power.

The conservative brands of Islam that I came to know intimately all had one thing in common: they gave you knowledge of everything. Everything in this world that mattered, anyway, as well as a glimpse of the next.

We thought we knew it all. Or at least, that the leaders we followed knew it all. So, through them, we had access to all the secrets of the universe. Every aspect of life could be fitted into this handy template that they supplied us with… so we thought we knew where everything (and everyone) belonged. (

Whatever question you might have, there was a plausible-sounding, coherent answer for. Often, a fairly straightforward answer. All you had to do was to ask an imam, a shaykh, or a person known for their Islamic knowledge.

Any question at all. Ritual questions. Legal questions. Ethical questions. Practical questions. Theological questions. Eschatological questions. Questions about how Islamic beliefs stack up against other religions. Historical questions. Psychological questions. And so on.

Of course, there often wasn’t one single answer. Especially not if you were asking ritual or legal questions, because the Sunnis have four main legal schools (as well as others that did not survive until today). But regardless of the technical details of the answer, there was a template, which (with a little practice) you yourself could use, and bring order out of the chaos of your experience.

The world made sense, because we learned how to slot every question, every experience, every situation or thing that we encountered or read or heard about into its “correct” place in the scheme of things. And because we could do that, we gained a feeling of control over our lives. And, sad to say, over the lives of others.

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“Seeking knowledge”: a cure for patriarchal abuses?

In my experience, yet another important way that the blame for some men’s failures to fulfill their “responsibility” to provide for and protect women is often shifted onto women is through the imperative that all adult, sane Muslims “seek knowledge.”

That is, when a Muslim woman ends up being poorly treated or abused by a Muslim man who is supposed to be providing for and protecting her—whether this be her husband, her father, or any other close male relative—or by a Muslim man in a position of power or authority, such as an imam, shaykh, or community leader, then the main person at fault is supposedly… her.

If you don’t “seek knowledge from cradle to grave,” Sister, then of course you won’t know what Islam Really Teaches…. Yes, this is a madrasah for boys, true. But there are so many opportunities for sisters to learn all about their Islamic duties and rights. For instance, you should ask your husband to teach you….

Because, if she had only done her Islamic duty and sought knowledge, then she would have known that the way this man was behaving is haraam, or that his interpretation of Islam is wrong. She would then have been able to protect herself from ill-treatment or abuse by her knowledge. But, because she was somehow remiss in seeking knowledge, and therefore did not know what True Islam (TM) teaches, she ended up in this tragic situation.

From time to time, I get comments to this effect: How sad that I and my convert friends were treated so badly. But then, this is because we didn’t know what True Islam is.

I recognize this rhetorical move quite well, because I used to do it. As far as I was concerned, any kind of abuse done by Muslims—even if they were justifying their actions with the Qur’an, the hadith, Islamic law, the ruling of a recognized scholar, ijma’—couldn’t possibly be anything to do with True Islam. There must have been some sort of misinterpretation somewhere. Or, the abusers were just cynically using Islam as a justification, but they didn’t really, honestly believe that their behavior is Islamic. And so on. This rhetorical move is a faith-saving device, essentially. Motivated by the concern with husn al-dhun (“thinking well”—of God, of his Prophet, of the scholars, of other believers…), as well as a wish to avoid having to deal with some really difficult issues.

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Idealistic visions of “dignity,” unmasked

When a kid posted a video on Facebook of several other middle-schoolers from his upstate New York school insulting, swearing at and threatening Karen Klein, their 68-year old bus monitor, it went viral. The resulting outpouring of indignation and sympathy (as well as thousands of dollars in donations so that Klein can take a vacation and recover from the experience) seems to have caught media pundits by surprise.

Why did so many people react so viscerally? Perhaps because they felt shame that an old person would be treated so badly in our society? Maybe because they themselves had been bullied in various situations, and felt empathy?

Perhaps some people reacted as I did: I read the story in horror. Couldn’t even bring myself to watch the video. And as something cold and heavy sunk to the pit of my stomach, I said to myself, “This could have been me. Yes, this could so easily have been me. This is what the “honor” and “dignity” that the conservative Muslim leaders I listened to in the ’80’s and ’90’s said that Islam provides for women as stay-at-home mothers protected from needing to work outside the home can end up looking like in reality, for women like me. Yes, this is what it can really quite easily look like.”

Karen Klein had the kind of job that women—especially older women with limited educations or job skills—tend to disproportionately work at. The kind of job that’s sometimes touted as just the thing for women dealing with family responsibilities or health issues but want or need to contribute to the family budget.

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Muslim marriage: picking up the pieces

Question: Which two things look one way at first, but totally different close up?

Answer: Marriage, and mirage.

An old, old joke. Didn’t think it was funny, way back when I encountered it in my teens in an old book. But I didn’t really understand it, either. That it wasn’t just a rather clumsy play on words, but a rather bitter comment on a lot of people’s lived experiences. That joke had come from way before there were no-fault divorce laws in North America, when churches barely if ever recognized that there could be good reasons for getting divorced (aside from adultery, possibly), and social expectations made it pretty hard for women in particular to leave even abusive marriages. Yet, women were strongly encouraged, pressured even, to get married, and to do so as soon as possible, lest they end up “on the shelf” as “old maids.” There were few “respectable” and respected possibilities open to a woman who didn’t want to marry, aside from becoming a nun (usually a choice only open to Catholic women, with a few exceptions).

This grim scenario seems awfully familiar to me now. Except, we didn’t even have the possibility of a life of celibacy. While in the distant past, a few Sufi women are said to have refused to get married so that they could devote their entire time and energy to God, the conservative, insular Muslim communities I was involved in would never have countenanced a woman today doing that. But otherwise, we really did go back in time in many ways.

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