I’m giving a talk at the end of this month on the experiences of Black Muslim women in America. Insha’Allah, I plan on outlining the historical development of Islam in the Black American community and Black women’s roles in the American Muslim community. Much of my talk will draw heavily from two works: Carolyn Moxley Rouse’s Engaged Surrender and Jamillah Karim’s American Muslim Women. I believe are great follow-ups to Sherman Jackson’s work, Islam and the Blackamerican. They are intriguing ethographic works offering insight into both the experiences of Black Muslim women, the challenges they face in gendered spaces that privilege men over women and in a society that often views them with pitiful contempt. They complicate notions that Muslim women are buying into their own oppression, by showing how becoming Muslim was an empowering act that challenged the racism, sexism, and classism in American soceity. I really liked how both studies shed light on the ways in which Black Muslim women participate in Quranic exegesis and interpret Islamic beliefs and practices.At the same time neither study glosses over the challenges many Black women face within the Muslim community and society at large. What is more important is that these studies provide so much more insight into the actual workings of communities than a study from the top up. For anybody interested in the history and the current condition of Black American Muslims, you should really read these works. In fact, you should encourage more studies about Muslim women. I hope that there is somebody with the training and sensitivity of these authors to do an in depth study of the Black Muslim women within the Salafi movement. I do think that there should be work done on how masculinity is constructed in the American masajid.
One of the ironic things about working on women in Muslim communities, is that you can easily find yourself marginalized. Even creating a space for women in the masjid can be a double edged sword, as I discovered when I gave a recent talk. Many of the women wanted to have a women only event. As a result, my husband was excluded from coming. I attend many of his talks and sermons to support him. He felt it was unfortunate that he couldn’t support me. I knew of another couple where the husband had wanted to come hear my talk. It is likely that the wife decided to not attend because she would have been by herself. When I first learned that my talk on the Spirituality of Muslim women was women only, I became mortified. First, because the times I have attended masajid in Philadelphia I have often received an icy reception. There are no warm welcomes, or even a friendly curiosity over a new face in even a small community. Usually it is a polite ignore, which I find disconcerting, especially coming from California where I met most of my friends through random encounters at events. Second, the idea of women only talk reinforced the problem that I was just highlighting about the lack of women’s voices in Islamic scholarship. I noted that on campus topics focusing on women and family issues were poorly attended by Muslim men. But a women only event meant that no man would know about Muslim women’s spirituality. Why should they care? Most have mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and associates. Perhaps knowledge the can offer understanding or even inspire a bit more respect for our spiritual journey. I do believe that people are well intentioned, but I became flustered when somebody approached me as they were attempting to develop women only programming. Imam Anwar, on the other hand, is working to create an environment that both allows for women to carve out a space safe from the male gaze and a platform for women to be heard in their community. Just because I am a woman does not mean that I deal with women only topics and even if I do begin to write about Muslim women, I believe those issues should be of interest to the broader Muslim community.
Sometimes I am at a loss for words. There were times when I first began researching for my lecture that I was frustrated and even saddened by the condition of women’s scholarship I read those books relating to the struggles that each woman faced, personally moved when those scholars gave voice to the struggles I experienced. This is why I started blogging and why I was so relieved to find a community of Black Muslim bloggers to engage in these discussions with. Through this discourse I even found my soul mate.
I’m reading a lot of blogs by Muslim American women in general, and Black American Muslim women in particular to gain insight into life experiences that may reflect my own or differ in multiple ways. In an effort to get a better sense of the issues that Black Muslim Women face in America, I am making a general call for input. I am developing a non-scientific survey to get a sense of what are our primary concerns. Is it discrimination in the broader society as Muslims, within the Black Muslim community as women, within the broader Muslim community as Black women? Are we concerned about marriage, raising children, economic disparities, losing our children to drugs and gang violence, lack of resources, access to Islamic education? In the meantime, feel free to comment and let me know your greatest concerns. Believe me, my talk will also high light many of the rewards of being Muslim in America. If you don’t want to focus on the negative, please feel free to write what you want people to know about you.