Posts Tagged modernity

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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Entitlement… and identity blues, and persecution complexes

In the last post, I talked about how “The Thaw” reminds me so much of similar North American Muslim discourses that I encountered when I converted. In particular, “The Thaw” reminds me of a particular Muslim rap song by Native Deen that I encountered well after I converted, but when my kids were young and thirsting for all the worldly things that we were trying to censor or prevent their access to.

For us, worried about keeping our kids Muslim (meaning, very conservative and inward-looking Muslim), the cassette tapes of “Muslim rap” and nasheed boy-bands and folk-y stuff that were slowly becoming available in the place we were living in the late ’90’s and early 2000’s seemed like a godsend. At least, Muslim songs with English words for a change that went beyond kindergartener-sounding stuff like “A is for Allah.” Music that sounded cool enough that it could engage our increasingly restless preteens and teenagers. We were perennially short of money, true, but we bought those tapes whenever we could get them, and played them for the kids (and to be honest, also for our own musically-starved selves…) at home and in the car.

Some of the lyrics of these songs disturbed me to varying degrees, but I tried to shove my reservations to the back of my mind. Here we were, after having endured years of music drought, making do with a few Arabic and Urdu nasheeds that we either didn’t completely understand or understood too well (and didn’t like their message…). We now had something half-way decent in English, that the kids would actually listen to. Far be it from me to start raising picky questions about lyrics. I’d better just be grateful, and hope that they’d keep on writing and performing, and that the writing would get better.

We didn’t have that many tapes, so as we played them, the same songs would come up over and over. I soon unwillingly learned the words to Native Deen’s “M.U.S.L.I.M,” and tried to suppress a twinge of… I wasn’t quite sure what… whenever it came on:

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Rereading “Status of Woman in Islam” (VIII)

(Continuing the section on the treatment of girls…)

“The right of females to seek knowledge is not different from that of males. Prophet Muhammad (P) said, ‘Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim.’ (al-Bayhaki) Muslim as used here including both males and females [sic].”


Early ’80’s ghost: So, according to Islam—whoops, sorry… this “Islam says” habit sure is hard to break!—the hadiths, girls and women have the same right and duty to seek knowledge as boys and men do. This seems to mean that girls and women are seen as equally intelligent, and are valued for their minds. And, that it’s a religious obligation to educate girls just as it is to educate boys.

Commentator: The author is reproducing a common apologetic/Islamist claim here. This particular hadith has become something of a slogan. But its wording is so general that it can mean a variety of things, depending on who is interpreting it, and when.

With hadith, it is important to consider several things, including how they have been interpreted over time, as well as how they fit into the larger body of hadith. So, even if you read this hadith in light of the other two in the section on girls, you will begin to see some of the problems with understanding it as an unambiguous endorsement of girls’ and womens’ rights to education on par with that offered to males. Is it really likely that anyone who assumes that girls are “intrinsically” less desirable than boys and “naturally” financially burdensome to men will want to invest the same resources in girls’ education? Especially if educational resources are limited (which is the case for almost every society to some extent)? When the assumption is that the most important thing for girls to do is to remain absolutely chaste until (early) marriage, at which point they will not even be able to leave the house without their husbands’ consent?

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Rereading “Status of Woman in Islam” (VII)

(continuing where we left off…)

2. The Social Aspect

a) As a child and an adolescent

“Despite the social acceptance of female infanticide among some Arabian tribes, the Qur’an forbade this custom, and considered it a crime like any other murder: ‘And when the female (infant) buried alive is questioned, for what crime she was killed’ (Q 81:8-9)

Criticizing the attitudes of such parents who reject their female children, the Qur’an states:  ‘When news is brought to one of them, of (the birth of) a female (child), his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief! With same does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on (sufferance) and contempt, or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide on!’ (Q 16:58-59)”


Early ’80’s ghost: Before Islam, some Arabs used to kill baby girls? How absolutely horrible. Isn’t it wonderful that Islam put a stop to that. This seems to be a religion that is pretty pro-woman.

Commentator: The author here is reading these quranic verses forbidding condemning female infanticide in a particularly modern way, that takes them out of context. Actually, the Qur’an forbids  “qatl awlaad” (killing boys/children) in five verses—Q 6: 137, 140, 151; 17:31 and 60:12. If you take a look at those five verses, you will see what is being criticized about infanticide is that it is a pagan practice that is associated with worshipping deities other than Allah, and with failing to trust in His ability to provide.

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Rereading “Status of Woman in Islam” (VI)

And so, we have come to the end of the section on “the spiritual aspect” of “the status of woman in Islam.”

It is this section that is really the linch-pin of the argument that the booklet is trying to make.

Looking back at how I read this section of the booklet in the early ’80’s, and the impact that it and other similar pamphlets, books and talks had on my life (and also on the lives of other converts I knew), I am taken aback at all the word-games that were going on—and how we didn’t recognize this.

We did actually believe that “woman is completely equated with man in the sight of God in terms of her rights and responsibilities” because we read that this is what the Qur’an says—at least, according to this booklet. And once convinced of this “fact”, we read the rest of the booklet (and others like it), as well as the Qur’an and other Muslim literature, through that “equality” filter.

It was fairly easy to fall into doing this, because similar claims were commonly made in books and pamphlets written by conservative Muslims, and in talks on “women in Islam” given at events sponsored by the MSA and other Muslim groups… and also in conversations with average Muslims.

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Timeless values?

Sierra’s recent post, “We thought modesty made us timeless” brought back a lot of memories. Because that was pretty much how we thought about wearing hijab—and about a lot of other things.

Thinking through the romanticized views of “the past” that we had, I wondered why? What exactly was the attraction? How did we acquire such a rose-colored view of “the past,” and then decide to hold it up as some sort of ideal?

The apologetic pamphlets and books on “Islam and woman” that we had access to in the early ’80’s and 90’s tended to have two main approaches to the question of how the conservative Muslim teachings that they were pushing as “Islam”, full stop, related to the place we actually lived (North America).

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