Posts Tagged racism

Musings on Muslim identity (I)

As God says, “Fa-aina tadhhabun?” (Where are you going?)

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In the beginning, it seemed quite simple: belief that God is one (as opposed to belief in a trinity), belief in the prophets with Muhammad as the last, reading quranic passages in my personal prayers more frequently than Bible verses… I couldn’t even pretend to fit into any Christian church any more. My religious beliefs, my ritual language, were undeniably becoming more and more Muslim.

But that was before I had encountered a Muslim community. I had met individual Muslims—most of whom were students who weren’t very practicing, although a few nonetheless plied me with dawah literature. But they were not an organized conservative community, with clear ideas of who was “in” and who was “out,” or an interest in policing what people believed or did. So at that point, gradually becoming a Muslim was primarily about my own individual, private spiritual practice.

Once I married my ex, however, the specter of community slowly began to rear its head now and again.

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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. (http://www.shukr.ca/) 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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Why appropriating the burqa-clad woman is not cool

After exiting my abusive marriage, and in the process, leaving behind my insular, conservative Muslim community, I rejoined “mainstream” white North American society, sort of. I rejoined it in the sense that I got a job, moved to a place with relatively few Muslims, and avoided interacting with the few that there were as much as possible. I was worried about being judged by conservative Muslims. The past was still very fresh in my mind, and I had not even begun the recovery process, so I wanted to have as few reminders of it in my daily life as possible.

In order to have as good a chance as possible to get a decent job that would support myself and my kids, I dehijabed. As a result, I now blended in. I was just another middle-aged, white working single mother with kids. Walking down the street, shopping, sitting on park benches, waiting in line at government offices… were now practically trouble-free. No one stared, no one commented or shouted insults, no one asked nosy questions, and I wasn’t ever made to feel that I had to justify my right to be there. It was so different from what I had been used to, when I wore hijab.

So, a great way to illustrate my transformation would be one of those generic pictures of an anonymous Afghan woman lifting up her burqa to show her face, right?

No. Just no.

This stereotypical picture is not just really tired, but… since when did disavowal ever change the world for the better?? (Picture courtesy of: http://baptisttaliban.blogspot.ca)

Why not? After all, some female survivors of patriarchal religion do describe their experiences of coming to realize that they were being manipulated and abused as escaping “the mental burqa.” Some even refer to conservative cultish Christian churches or groups as “Taliban.” And they didn’t invent this way of talking either—various American media personalities have been referring to homegrown (white, often right-wing Christian) religious and political ideas or groups that they regard as too extreme as “jihadi” or “talibanesque.”

So what’s the matter with that (one might ask)? Aren’t the Taliban notorious for their violence, misogyny, and draconian approaches to almost any and every social or political question? Aren’t they just about the worst example of a cruelly literalistic religious/political movement in recent memory? And isn’t the Afghan “shuttlecock” blue burqa now a commonly recognized shorthand for the Taliban’s brutal subjugation of women in the name of religion and tradition? So why wouldn’t I use the word “burqa” as a synonym for “mental prison” or “oppression,” and “Taliban” for “misogynist” or “religious extremist”? Or throw in a few burqa/lifting the burqa pictures to brighten up my blog? Especially since I’m recovering from my experiences with very conservative Muslim communities??

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Converts, representation and responsibility (1)

Sharrae over at Muslimahmediawatch posted recently about the responsibility that Muslim writers have when they speak on behalf of other women from similar backgrounds. She raises several aspects of this difficult issue that so much ink has been spilled about over the last few decades: being aware of privilege, how to discuss practices that oppress Muslim women while not falling into the trap of reproducing Orientalist stereotypes of Muslim women as passive victims awaiting a saviour, how to open up conversations so that a wide range of Muslim woman can tell their own stories in their own words. Her article responds to two recent controversies: the by now notorious article written by Mona Eltahawy in Foreign Affairs, and the less well-known dust-up in British Columbia (Canada) over a Muslim female niqab-wearing student’s photo of a woman wearing a niqab and holding a bra.

These recent controversies as well as Sharrae’s article brought back a lot of memories. My thinking (and acting) on the issues of representation and responsibility have gone through several phases over the years.

Reactive. [early 1980’s]  I am a first-year university student, taking an upper-level class on Marxism. The class is interesting, and I am learning a lot, but I am really feeling out of my depth. Everyone is older—quite a lot older, in some cases—and they seem to know a lot more about everything than I do. A lot of them are city folks. Some have years of activist experience. My few attempts to take part in class discussion haven’t gone well, so I usually keep quiet.

Nearly everyone is white. The majority of students in the class are male, though there are some very outspoken female students. The professor, a white, middle-class, male, makes an effort to foster a more inclusive atmosphere and to avoid speaking on behalf of women by bringing in a (white) female guest speaker to give the (one) lecture devoted to examining Marxism and women.

After she gives the lecture, it’s question time. One of the white male students asks a question about the “Black Muslims” in the US and their future as a liberation movement. She gives several reasons why she doesn’t think that they have the potential to be a liberating force, and then adds, “…and they believe that women are inferior. It’s part of their religion.”

I blurt out, “That’s not true!” Read the rest of this entry »

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