Posts Tagged white privilege

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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Converts, fantasies, race and gender

In the last post, I talked about how as white North American converts, we often found ourselves living out other people’s fantasies of an Islamic ideal. Usually, these were the fantasies of immigrant or immigrant-descended Muslims, but sometimes these were the fantasies of other (usually older) converts.

Notice the gendered racial politics going on in this hijab meme: Real live brown and black Muslim women aren't doing hijab right... but a white-faced MANNEQUIN demonstrates the pious standard that they should imitate. And, this is being circulated on the internet by Muslims, in order to instruct Muslim women how to dress. By all that is holy... you just can't make this stuff up.

Notice the gendered racial politics going on in this hijab meme: Real live brown and black Muslim women aren’t “doing hijab right”… but a white-faced MANNEQUIN demonstrates the pious standard that they should imitate. And, this is being circulated on the internet by Muslims, in order to instruct Muslim women how to dress. By all that is holy… you just can’t make this stuff up.

These fantasies could be aspects of the thought of modern Muslim political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami which had become popularized, such as the notion that “Islam solves” social problems such as racism by uniting all believers within one umma. Or, they could be quite apolitical and superficially profound ideas taught by various neo-traditionalists, such as the idealization of the medieval Sunni scholarly tradition.

Either way, these were things that either didn’t really exist anywhere today in reality, or did exist, but fell miserably short of their idealized billing.

How did we not realize that these were fantasies rather than reality—and that trying to live them out would lead to some serious problems? Partly because in those pre-internet days our knowledge of what was really going on in Muslim communities even here in North America (forget anywhere else) was very limited.

And partly because what I would call a “reality filter” had been quite quickly and coercively implanted in our minds, so that even when we did see, or read or hear about Muslims past or present acting in ways that seemed to challenge our fantasies, it wouldn’t lead us to ask some pretty obvious questions. That reality filter was constructed and reconstructed daily, through ubiquitous phrases such as:

“In Islam…”

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Idols, and breaking them

The story of Abraham is central to Muslim belief. Abraham the unbending monotheist. Abraham who broke the idols. Abraham who left his family and everything he had ever known for the sake of God. Abraham who was even willing to sacrifice his own son when he thought that God wanted it.

The Qur’an speaks about Abraham and other prophets in very positive terms, and holds them up as examples of faith. But the Qur’an does not say that they (much less their wives or other family members) as sinless, perfect, or beyond all criticism.

Centuries ago, Muslim scholars debated the question of whether prophets can doubt God’s promises, whether they can make small mistakes and errors of judgment or even major ones, whether they can commit minor or even major sins, whether their pronouncements are only error-free when it comes to the divine revelations that they proclaim or if everything on every subject that they said is unquestionably true.

But listening to most Muslims today (especially those who are neo-traditionalists, but certainly not only them), you’d never know it.

Islam as I was taught it, whether by Salafi-influenced Muslims or neo-traditionalists, had absolutely no room for questioning prophets, much less criticizing anything they did. You were supposed to hold them in reverence, take them as examples, and never, ever express any doubts about the wisdom or justice of any of their actions whatsoever. No critical questions could be asked. You didn’t question them any more than you questioned God.

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Converts, wtf?—More on women leaders

Years passed. Years of being in a neo-traditionalist group (that turned into a cult). After years of that, I had undergone quite an attitude adjustment. I had long ceased to question the idea that marriage and community order had to be patriarchal. I wasn’t expecting female leaders or scholars to uncover some sort of egalitarian “hidden history” or to interpret the Qur’an or the hadith or fiqh in an egalitarian way, either. I mean, the texts say what they say, and there’s nothing that anybody can do about it.

But still, when I realized that “mainstream” Sunni conservative immigrant-dominated groups such as the MSA and ISNA were rethinking their past opposition to the idea that women can be leaders, I was intrigued, and hopeful. Maybe, some sort of change in thinking about gender roles was in the offing?

But I didn’t really move in those circles. They were middle-class and immigrant-dominated. Their events were too expensive for me to even think about attending, usually, when they weren’t too far away to begin with. So, it didn’t seem likely that I would actually encounter any of these fabled new female leaders.

But then, 9/11 happened.

Shortly after 9/11, I attended a conference put on by a large and well-funded “mainstream” conservative Sunni Muslim organization. I was in search of solace.

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Converts, wtf — Women leaders?

Continuing with the question of what exactly is up with white North American converts… in my experience, anyway….

Last post, I talked about how we convert women used to think that if only we had community leaders/imams/shaykhs from our own backgrounds—meaning, men who spoke English as their first language, had converted to Islam in North America, and who came from ethnic and geographical backgrounds like ours—then they would be able to provide the sort of preaching, religious advice, etc that was relevant to our lives. They would understand where we were coming from, what sorts of families we had grown up in, the problems that could result when women like us married born Muslim immigrant men. Their priority would be establishing Islam here, not on raising money for whatever the immigrant Muslim cause du jour on the other side of the world was. They would understand the problems involved in raising kids here. Oh, and that they wouldn’t have this “Western women = whores” kind of thing in the backs of their minds, shaping how they dealt with us and the sort of religious advice that they tended to give.

Well, things didn’t work out as we had hoped with many male convert leaders.

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Converts, wtf — leaders, opinion-makers, spokesmen

Where do (Sunni) white convert leaders and opinion-makers come from?

Once upon a time (way back in the early ’80’s), there were few converts where I lived at the time. I would actually get excited when I encountered one. Wow, someone like me!

In those days, there were a few converts who were in the process of becoming household names among conservative, mostly immigrant North American Muslims—but this was usually because they gave inspirational speeches at conferences or MSA events. They spoke on topics such as why they converted to Islam,  or on why Islam is “misunderstood.” They were trophy Muslims, because they were white and (usually) male and reasonably articulate. But few if any immigrant Muslims looked to them for leadership or religious guidance.

There were a few white male converts who spoke at less “mainstream” Muslim events, because they were political activists (or more often, politically opinionated and holding eccentric political views). They weren’t really “leaders” either in any sense. Their political views were welcomed to the extent that they agreed with those of the immigrant Muslims organizing these events.

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White non-Muslim women and hijab… and me

The other night when I was over at No Longer Quivering, I saw a post by a white American woman from an evangelical/fundamentalist Christian background who is carrying out what she calls a “burqa experiment.” (Insert groan here.)

Non-Muslims playing dress-up with hijab are playing with a particular expression of gender, whether they realize it or not. It seems odd that they are so fascinated by such an "exotic" form of ultra-femininity and apparently disinterested in the struggles of trans people in their own communities who face discrimination and violence, but anyway...

Non-Muslims playing dress-up with hijab are playing with a particular expression of gender, whether they realize it or not. It seems odd that they are so fascinated by such an “exotic” form of ultra-femininity and apparently disinterested in the struggles of trans people in their own communities who face discrimination and violence, but anyway… (graphic courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/transstudent)

Well, it’s not as though that hasn’t already been done to death by white women. It’s hard to see what she thinks she can add to the “findings” that are out there. Not to belabor the obvious, but when a white non-Muslim woman puts on hijab, she can only experience… what it’s like to be a white non-Muslim woman wearing hijab.

She can’t experience what it like wearing it as a white convert, even, much less what wearing it as a Muslim woman of color would be like. There are multiple North American Muslim experiences of wearing hijab. Even among my white convert friends, women who were very obviously white even when they wore hijab (due to their height, eye color, skin tone, mannerisms…) had different experiences from those whose whiteness was less evident to the casual eye.

Her post seems to suggest that her “experiment” is motivated in part by wondering how much discrimination hijab-wearing Muslim women face—in other words, what it is like to be “othered” in America. It should be unnecessary to say again what has been said before by many others, and a lot more eloquently: You can’t experience being an Other in this way, because any time you like you can remove that hijab and resume your “normal” unmarked existence with few or no problems.

As white converts, we both had and didn’t quite have that privilege, which makes our experiences of hijab much different from those of Muslim women of color. Those of us who did end up dehijabing were able to blend back into white society to varying but significant extents, which is an option that women of color simply don’t have. Yet, for many years, a lot of us honestly didn’t believe that we ever could or would remove our hijab, because that would be so grave a sin that it would be unthinkable. We wore it even in situations when we really should have seriously considered modifying it if not completely taking it off. I ended up being pretty much compelled to dehijab, and I had to make the decision much more quickly than I was comfortable doing, due to economic necessity. I found the process really difficult, and very guilt- and shame-inducing, for a number of reasons. The after-effects of that still haven’t left me.

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