Posts Tagged utopian thinking

So much for sisterhood: When white convert discourses sound an awful lot like white racist rhetoric

I have been trying to reflect on reasons why as converts who had been given to understand that “we are all one umma” and that race and ethnicity don’t matter “in Islam” because the only thing that is relevant is your taqwa, we often faced a significantly different reality. Our ethnic origins and race definitely did matter, and they typically mattered in ways that made us feel like outsiders.

Caution: Objects in the mirror may be uglier than they appear. Especially racism passing for advocating religious reform. "CRV side mirror" by SeppVei - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CRV_side_mirror.JPG#mediaviewer/File:CRV_side_mirror.JPG

Caution: Objects in the mirror may be uglier than they appear. Especially racism passing for advocating religious reform.
“CRV side mirror” by SeppVei – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CRV_side_mirror.JPG#mediaviewer/File:CRV_side_mirror.JPG

 

And how did we respond to the complex racial politics that we found ourselves immersed in—both in terms of how our own families and the wider society treated us, and the internal politics of the Muslim communities we become involved in? Esra Ozyurek’s book, Being German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe gave me a lot of food for thought about the latter issue.

Ozyurek writes about repeatedly hearing German converts (often white and middle class) saying how fortunate it is that they discovered Islam before meeting Muslims, because if they’d met the Muslims first they probably wouldn’t have converted. (Although in reality, most of the converts had in fact gotten interested in Islam in the first place through a romantic relationship or other encounter with a Muslim.) Or converts repeating and endorsing negative stereotypes about immigrant Muslims (especially Turks) being dirty, disorganized, uneducated, and prone to dishonesty. Or converts faulting immigrant Muslims for “failing to understand Islam properly” or for being so uninformed that they mistake “culture” for “Islam.”

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So much for sisterhood

A while back, another convert left a comment for one of my posts (can’t remember which one, unfortunately). She agreed enthusiastically with an observation that I had made about how I had never really felt welcomed by most immigrant (or second generation immigrant) Muslim sisters in any community I was involved in or had dealings with. She commented that after converting, she had married an immigrant Muslim man, hoping that this would help her to feel more part of the community, and that the immigrant sisters would be more accepting of her. But the reverse happened. “So much for sisterhood,” she concluded.

At the time I received that comment, I wasn’t sure what exactly to say in response. That sister had evidently had a disillusioning experience to say the least. Like me, and like some other converts I know, she had apparently been exposed to the “we are all brothers and sisters belonging to one umma” rhetoric, and had taken it more or less at face value. She had expected that since all Muslim women are supposed to be sisters in faith, that therefore the other women at the mosque would welcome and accept her as a fellow Muslima, especially since she had demonstrated the sincerity of her conversion by marrying into the community. She wondered where the “sisterhood” was, and why it wasn’t being extended to her.

In some ways, I could definitely relate. On one hand, I did take that rhetoric seriously.

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Oh no, KM’s post is gone: thoughts on “apostasy”, shunning and conditioned reflexes

About a month ago (?), someone posting at A Woman’s Country under the initials K.M. put up a post about some aspects of life after leaving Islam. Particularly about the longlasting impact that certain mundane practices can have even once you no longer believe the theological reasons why you are supposed to do them, as well as the problem of how to meet one’s needs for de-stressing when religious rituals are no longer an option.

While she identifies as someone who has left Islam altogether and I don’t, I liked that post, and thought that it raised some important issues that can face anyone who leaves an insular, high demand religious group and whose beliefs shift significantly.

It is spooky to say to the least when you find yourself continuing to act and react in preprogrammed “sunna” ways that way back when, you learned (it isn’t as if you were born doing them!), but now you can’t seem to unlearn. After all, we put so much pious effort in the aftermath of our conversions into learning all the rules, in training our bodies and our automatic responses: Don’t shake hands with men, walk, sit and move modestly, lower your gaze, don’t laugh loudly in public or where non-mahram men might hear you, because modesty should be second nature and is a barometer of your faith as a Muslim woman. Always wash away all traces of urine and feces, avoid dogs (and especially, contact with dog spit), carefully read all food labels and avoid all hints of pork and alcohol byproducts, because believers are pure and God only accepts what is pure and if you really believe you should find anything impure intrinsically disgusting.

Avoid music (except nasheeds or possibly classical), don’t dance or whistle, careful of what you sing (and who might be able to overhear your voice), prefer reciting the Quran and reading the stories of the Companions and making dhikr to reading fiction or poetry or watching movies or plays or going to fairs, because a believer takes life seriously and is forever wary of being seduced by dunyawi attractions. The sincere believers should opt to follow the sunna in preference to the ways of the world or one’s own comfort, so one should put on the right shoe before the left (and take them off in reverse order), sleep on one’s side facing qibla (too bad for us restless sleepers), step into a washroom left foot first (and saying the appropriate du’a)… and so on.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: some reflections

Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I am conscious that I am reading it with what I would call doubled vision. Meaning, as I read it I am constantly aware of how I would likely have received it if I had read it back in the day when I was a hyper-conservative Muslim, as well as how it comes across to me now. So, I am all too aware that aspects of it that I now regard as insightful wouldn’t have seemed that way to me then.

"I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit." (The Handmaid's Tale, p. 131)

“I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit.” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 131)

The primary target is evangelical Christian political activism aimed at limiting women’s rights to control their own bodies and lives, in the name of supposedly “biblical” values (with some biting critique also of certain strains of ’80’s feminism). The “biblical values” being promoted by groups such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority back when this book was written were usually spun as good old-fashioned wholesome warm-n-fuzzy all-American values that for some strange reason had only recently been questioned by a few misguided feminists and liberals. However, Atwood is having none of that eye-wash—the “biblical values” described in The Handmaid’s Tale are absolutely nightmarish—yet, they can arguably be justified from biblical passages that speak of women desperately desiring to bear children, men having sex with female slaves in order to sire offspring (whether said female slaves consented was irrelevant), arranged marriages of daughters, commands addressed to wives to obey their husbands, and so forth.

This makes the point that “biblical values” are ultimately less about whatever the Bible says (or doesn’t say), and more about  what parts of the Bible one wants to highlight, as well as about who has the power to define what “biblical values” are in a given context. “Biblical values” might sound as though they come with some sort of guarantee of fairness or compassion, at least as far as “good Christian women” are concerned… but they do not. Even those women like Serena Joy, who had devoted their lives to promoting such values, did not have the power to define what “biblical values” would mean. It was powerful men hell-bent on control and feeling entitled to it who had that power.

Back in the day, I wouldn’t have wanted to read any further, because this obviously raises questions about any religious movement claiming that its allegedly divinely given values should govern followers’ lives (much less religious movements with political ambitions). I would have seen this as unfair, as foreclosing the possibility of religious women seeking liberation within their religious tradition. I would have also taken offense at the Orientalism of comparing the handmaids’ boredom to a painting of harem women, and dismissed the entire book as therefore irrelevant to Muslim women.

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The way we were: all the stuff we didn’t read

Samantha over at Defeating the Dragons has a post for Banned Books Week, called “The books I didn’t read.” Some of the attitudes she discusses are all too familiar to me. She writes,

“I read the books that the adults in my life were comfortable with me reading– books that wouldn’t challenge any of their (or my own) ideas, books that didn’t ask any hard questions they might not have been able to answer. Safe books. Easy books. Antiquated and archaic and adorable and aristocratic books– only books that enforced the perceptions we already had.”

Oh yeah. That pretty much describes how we tried to raise our kids… and what our lives were like in the highly conservative, insular Muslim communities that I was involved in.  For a complicated bunch of reasons.

books

When I converted, the first Muslim communities that I encountered were usually led by immigrant men who had been heavily influenced either by the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami. Some of them were engineering or medical students. They had little time for the arts, and that included literature of any kind. After all, what good was it? How did it help teach people Islam or make them better Muslims? Literature was most often ignored, or when it wasn’t, it was treated with some suspicion.

As a new convert, most of what I wanted to read was about Islam. Books in English on Islam were in short supply back then where I was living, but we would comb the public library for them (and occasionally mission out to the ISNA-run Islamic book store, which was just a hole in the wall in those days… but that’s a subject for another time). Most of the books related to Islam at the library dealt with modern political issues. I read a certain amount of that, but didn’t often find that it answered the questions I had.

I and my convert frinds read other stuff as well, but we self-censored a fair amount. We usually read books that were practical in some way,  or religious, or old. But we seldom read contemporary fiction, and when we did, we often found it unsettling for various reasons. Looking back, I can see that some of my negative reactions to fiction were trauma-related—stuff like The Color Purple was frankly triggering. But some of it was due to my discomfort with the ideas that the books expressed, as well as their “sinful” characters and open-ended plots that didn’t end with the punishment of those who did wrong and reward for those who were righteous.

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In this dead-end

Today, I discovered a poem (and a poet) for the first time.

Only some thirty years too late.

And wouldn’t you know it, he’s dead now. He died over a decade ago.

Better late than never, I suppose.

I don’t read poetry much. Don’t have time, for one thing. Am not really very attuned to it, for another. But I tripped across Ahmad Shamlou’s poem, “In this dead-end” by accident. And it hit me so hard. Because unfortunately, I know too much about what he is talking about:

In this dead-end

They smell your breath

You had better not have said, ‘I love you.’

They smell your heart.

These are strange times, darling…

And they flog love at the checkpoint

We must hide love in the closet.

In this crooked dead end and twisting chill

they feed the fire with the kindling of song and poetry

Do not risk a thought

These are strange times, darling

He who knocks on the door at midnight

has come to kill the light

We must hide light in the closet.

There are the butchers stationed at the crossroads

with bloody clubs and cleavers

These are strange times, darling

They cut smiles from lips and songs from mouths

We must hide joy in the closet.

Canaries barbequed on a fire of lilies and jasmine

These are strange times, darling

Satan is drunk with victory, sitting at our funeral feast

We must hide God in the closet.

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What salvation looks like: I didn’t die before this

I have not had the time or the energy to blog recently. Partly due to the situation with ISIS.  What is there to say in the face of such everyday horror, and every time there is an explosion you worry that someone you know might be dead?

And partly due to things going on in my former extended family network, as well as at work. Tiresome nonsense, that boils down in both cases to the unwillingness of a conservative former cultie Muslim dude (who knows that I was once a conservative Muslim and what sort of group I was a member of) to treat me with basic respect, while also not having the courage to be honest about what he is doing.

Hyper-conservative family dude plays tiresome, manipulative headgames that end up dragging innocent and unwilling others into the fray, and then when called on it, denies that he is doing anything. Work dude is patronizing and covertly undermines me, while being clever enough to do so in ways that leave no hard evidence.

Because I’m apparently hell-bound, a sinner who doesn’t even have the humility to admit that the conservatives’ ways of looking at the world are morally superior or to play the “inshallah someday I’ll have strong enough iman to re-hijab and bow down to the scholar-gods again” game. No, I’m not playing that game. Life is too short to live a lie.

It gets depressing and emotionally exhausting to deal with. Especially since I understand all too well where they are coming from.

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