Posts Tagged Muslim convert marriages
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?
One of the things that struck me most in all the backing and forthing over Abu Eesa’s misogynistic comments was how willing most people were to make excuses for him, minimize the significance of what he had done, try to understand where he was coming from… even many of his critics. While some called on AlMaghrib to fire him, a number of those who were very critical of his comments still didn’t seem to think that he should lose his post or suffer any long term consequences.
I found this all the more striking because in my experience, this is absolutely not what happens to a girl or woman whose behavior is seen as embarrassing or offensive to the community.
And it’s not just because he is a scholar with a wide following, either. Yes, that likely helped—but being given the benefit of the doubt (and being quickly forgiven even when caught red-handed) is one of the many perks of patriarchal power and status. Generally speaking, the higher status a person has in a community in terms of their race, ethnicity, social class, gender, educational level, health, sexual orientation, etc, the more likely they are to be given the benefit of the doubt.
Oddly enough, I’ve known that for a long time. Back when I wore hijab, when I would walk into a store, my presence would immediately be noted, and within a few seconds somebody would usually come bustling up to “help” me find whatever it was that I wanted. Nowadays, my shopping experiences are much more relaxed and leisurely. Nobody acts like they find my presence unsettling, or that they want me to leave. I knew what was going on then, and I know now. But somehow, I didn’t connect the dots until recently. Because in the Muslim communities I was involved in, religion was used to cover, legitimize and excuse everything.
Something woke me up. Wasn’t sure what it was, at first.
Then, I realize that the phone is ringing.
I reached for it, and picked it up, dimly wondering who on earth it could be at that hour. A wrong number, maybe? Not that many people have my phone number, and anyone who knows me knows better than to try calling me at 2 am. I’m barely able to string a sentence together at that hour. Especially not when I have work the next day.
It was one of my daughters. Her voice was shaking with sobs. I asked her what was wrong, and she began to talk about… her memories of when I was still stuck in polygamy.
Her father shouting at her to do the cooking and cleaning while I was off at school (trying to get some skills training so that I could get a job because now that he had taken another wife, I needed to find a way to support myself and the kids). The feeling of being made to be the woman of the house, although she was not even in high school yet. The other woman—now called her “other mother”—coming to visit from abroad for the first time, with her kids, and my ex telling my kids that these are their siblings now. And then, after my ex divorced her, she and her kids vanished… and my daughter wondered what became of them. How could they be her siblings one month and no relation at all the next?
In the last post, I discussed the downward spirals the female converts can get into, and the ideas found in some conservative Muslim discourses about women’s roles that can promote this.
Are there any solutions? I can already hear the puritanical “do it by the book” types pontificating about this: As we’ve been saying, all sisters, including convert sisters must have a wali in order to get married! Or: Sisters should know that it is their Islamic right to be financially supported by their husbands, and if they allow themselves to be cheated out of their Islamic right, then they only have themselves to blame!
Translation: she had problems because she was Doing It Wrong. She either didn’t know The True Islam (TM), or lacked enough taqwa to put it into practice.
That sort of claim is not really an answer, so much as a conversation-stopper. Nobody is supposed to be bold enough to ask how getting some man who might not really know much about her (like some overworked mosque imam), or even a man whose supposed concern for her welfare might not be disinterested (such as a reputedly pious brother married to her best friend, who is secretly on the lookout for a younger, more attractive second wife) to act as her wali would necessarily protect her from getting into a bad marriage.
Nobody is supposed to notice that many of the reasons that getting into bad marriages can be so destructive to female converts is due to the way the system itself is often set up, what with so much emphasis on women in particular getting and staying married, and such limited options for exiting bad or even abusive marriages. Instead of proposing that there needs to be less pressure on women to marry, and more access to family counseling and female-initiated divorce, the solution is supposed to be more patriarchal control of women by not allowing them to get married without a man’s permission.
Recently, Muslim converts—particularly, white, middle-class female converts from North America—are in the news again, thanks to the attack in Boston. And not in a good way.
I’ve been too heartsick to blog about it.
The (white, female, North American) convert responses to this latest situation that I have so far been able to find online deal with two main issues: the stereotypical media portrayals that imply that there is a connection between putting on hijab and becoming radicalized, and media portrayals that imply that female converts who marry immigrant Muslims don’t have agency. In other words, these converts don’t want to be put in the same category as Katherine Russell. They don’t want people making assumptions about why they converted, or why they wear hijab (for those who do), or what their relationships with their husbands are like.
Well, that’s understandable. In the more than two decades in which I lived as a conservative, hijab-wearing Muslim, I had to put up with a lot of assumptions about why I converted, why I wore hijab… and I had to deal with patronizing dismissals of my agency. And not only from non-Muslims, I might add. The stereotypes about female converts—that we don’t really know anything about Islam, and/or that we were motivated to convert by emotion or a desire to please a Muslim man—were not uncommon among the immigrant Muslims that I dealt with. So, enough with the stereotypes already.
But. To my mind, rejecting such stereotypes shouldn’t be the end of the discussion. It should be the beginning. And now that we’ve done that, can the discussion move on to more important things than headscarves and alleged initial reasons for converting. Things like what resources there are that might be available to converts who find themselves getting in way over their heads.
Recently, I tripped across a clip on youtube of a very young FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) woman, who was being asked by a reporter how many children she wanted to have when she got married. She replied enthusiastically, “As many as possible!”
It was like looking in the mirror—though back in time, to when I was still a very conservative Muslim. Yes, that was our attitude, all right. We were pro-natalist to a fault.
The clip went on to explain that their church believes that God creates all these spirit children, and that the women regard it as an honor to enable these spirits to have bodies, and to provide good homes for them. So, they have as many children as possible.
While we didn’t believe in spirit children, we did certainly believe that it is God who wills whether or not a child comes into existence—to the point that some sisters would speak of birth control as “a waste of time”, because whatever God wants to happen will happen. Birth control was also widely denigrated in the conservative literature that we read as a lack of trust in God’s ability to provide for every living creature. And we were constantly told that a woman’s highest and most important calling was to marry and bear children. There was no real place in any conservative community that I was involved in for single women who had never and would never marry—or even for married women who were childless.
My kids are angry. They have lots of things to be angry about—growing up in (religiously-induced) poverty, growing up with a lot of religious restrictions that even some other Muslim kids they knew didn’t have, their father’s actions (especially, his cheating, justified as polygamy), my actions (especially, my conservative Muslim idealism that flew in the face of reality), our inability to live the idealized (and for us, quite unrealistic) vision of the “ideal Islamic marriage/family,” our divorce, the bone-headed judgmentalness of those conservative Muslims who couldn’t keep their opinions about our divorce and how the kids were likely going to be affected by my working and dehijabbing and leaving my marriage to themselves….
Sometimes, they turn their anger inward, and become very moody. Sometimes, the younger kids express their anger by squabbling among themselves. Sometimes, by being rude to me. And sometimes, they rebel.
There’s teenage rebellion, and there’s teenage rebellion. Some of it is par for the course in the wider society—piercings, tattoos, skimpy or “gangster-ish” clothing—though not acceptable in the conservative community that they were raised in, where such signs of teenage rebellion are sources of stigma for parents (who clearly didn’t manage to “raise their kids properly”). But some types of rebellion can lead to trouble with the law.
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.
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
As in, female piety that doesn’t inhibit or prevent women from being complete human beings. That recognizes and celebrates women’s abilities to think, reason, create, feel, desire and love to the fullest extent of their abilities. I’ve been asking myself this question, and I really don’t know.
Of course, I know what the conservative Muslim communities that I have been involved in or have otherwise encountered in the past would say. When it came to female piety, there was a sort of double-talk that constantly went on. The sameness of men’s and women’s ritual obligations—to pray five times daily, to fast in Ramadan, to pay zakat, to go on Hajj at least once—was stressed. Also, both men and women were often reminded of the importance of seeking to follow the Prophet’s example in praying extra prayers, fasting outside of Ramadan, giving in charity, doing dhikr and reciting the Qur’an.
But as some say, the devil is in the details. In reality, the details of fiqh of salat, fasting, pilgrimage, charitable giving, reading the Qur’an,… constantly remind women and men that they are not equal. And, lived practice in the communities that I was involved in underlined these inequalities even more sharply. Essentially, the fiqh plus the lived practices that I experienced helped to produce a situation in which the body of a woman was never, ever her own. It is never really under her control; unlike a man, she cannot be assured of being able to choose to engage in rituals, or to enter sacred space. And, her body was always at the disposal of others—her husband, of course, and her children, as well as to a lesser extent, relatives and guests. 24/7.
Nothing brought the internal contradictions of these ideas about female piety to the fore quite like Ramadan did. For me, anyway.