Yes, I read Fatima Mernissi’s book. I think she has some interesting ideas, although her writing is problematic. I especially found her memoir super problematic with its orientalist imagery of Morocco. She also had some ridiculous notions of race, i.e. planting of the banana tree to make the sub-saharan African woman feel at home. But that is besides the point, we can forgive her for having the perspective of an elite Fessi woman. So, as I was saying, I read her book years ago. She brought up some interesting points about the relationship between men and women in Islam. I admire her courage for bringing it up. The interaction with the opposite gender is a true testament to their moral character and spiritual state. The relationship between men and women in both the African American community and the Muslim community has so much more to be desired. But being that I’m talking about the veil and male elite, I will focus on the relationship between Muslim men and men. And in particular I am focusing on my own subjectivity as an African American Muslim woman. One of the teachings in Islam that really attracted me to the religion was conveyed in Prophet Muhammad’s last sermon: “The best of those are those who are good to their women.” Coming from a broken home, I was so drawn in by the image of idyllic Muslim home life that was painted in dawa books like “Islam in Focus.” When I initially became Muslim, my mother’s friends told her that my husband would beat me, that he would have multiple wives, and take my children away. Before I got married when they found out that he was Muslim, they kept warning her that I would be treated badly. To this day, Muslim men have a pretty bad reputation.Now, not all of the bad stuff happened and a Muslim man has never laid a hand on me, nor do have I any children to take away. I do think Muslim men get a bad wrap. But then again, I am tired of sweeping some horrifying stories under the rug. I think our community leaders are not very responsible when it comes to dealing with the conduct of some of the men. I know of cases where the community has come in support of the brothers who abused their wives. I know that the Muslim women’s shelter gets death threats. Domestic abuse comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and religions. Muslim men are not the only perpetrators, but the fact that this institution is a threat to Muslim community identity is telling of some of the problems we have. So, some traditionalists say that you can beat your wife lightly, or with a miswack toothbrush. I have some miswack, and it is kinda big. Besides that, it is just plain humiliating to be reprimanded as a child. Abuse comes in many forms: some emotional and some physical. Which ones leave the most scars? It depends on one’s resilience, how deep the wound, how brutal the blow. Abuse is about power and control. Abusers use a number of tools to manipulate their victims. Often the blame is laid upon the subordinate member of this assymetric power relationship. A number of academics have written that in every relationship there is a power dynamic. Often this power dynamic is assymetrical, meaning that one person has more power than the other. In relations between a man and a woman, it is often the case where the woman is subordinated to the man. While in the Quran says that men have power over women, it advocates being giving more allowances to the woman and not abusing that upperhand. This indicates that Islamic scripture recognizes female gender vulnerabilities and encourages Muslim men to be sensitive to that in disputes with their spouses. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out this way. Some American Muslim men claim they are down for the liberation of women from patriarchy. But they insert their own culturally specific misogyny. While Muslim women in America have more options than many of their counterparts in the Muslim world, they still have a number of gender vulnerabilities and struggles. I have seen women subject to a number of abusive situations: verbal, emotional, and physical. I have seen men prey on young women in an effort to find someone they could control and manipulate. Others prey on the insecurities of older women who have settled for less out of despair. I suppose this makes them feel more powerful, huh? It sort of shows me that they are much less of a man and that machismo front is a facade for a dislocated spirit, diseased heart, a broken soul, and a weak mind. You are what you do, not what you imagine yourself to be, not the image that you construct for yourself: If you lie, you are a liar. If you cheat, you are a cheater. If you steal, you are a thief. You are what you do. Who are you really? What are you doing? Are you trying to change what you’re doing? Rumi said something along the lines of “Be as you appear and appear as you are.” This was part of my reason for unveiling, this is me. I still love my tradition, I can historicize the process by which the laws and regulations were transmitted. But, I respect the scholars, I know right from wrong. I know when I’m doing wrong and when I’m doing right. But I appear now as I am, in protest for the lack of commitment from my entire community. You get your act together and be as you represent yourself. Me, I’ll do what I do. I’ll keep speaking my mind articulating for the voiceless. You want to see me bagged up, wrapped in that more traditional role. But, I’ll do that outward more superficial veiling when you lift the real veils off your eyes. In the meantime, your motives and weaknesses are transparent. Wake up brothas, do yourself a service and stop selling your sistas out. And for those who have stayed true and are striving on all fronts, you have my utmost respect. For the misguided, I keep praying and hoping that the word gets out to you. Insha’Allah, one day both my African American and Muslim brothas will have a reputation for being the best of husbands, fathers, brothers, son, and friends. (Also, I’m really pissed off about the execution of a 16 year girl for adultery in Iran. WTF??)
Yesterday was surprisingly gloomy for a June. I woke up in this introspective, my mind whirling full of thoughts that wouldnt go away. There were so many issues unresolved and unexplored. These were things that have come up in random conversations, as me and my girls ramble in long conversations that meander on random tangents:
My faith,my race, my skin tone, my relationships, my family, my privilege, my oppression, all that I achieved, every failed endeavor, lost opportunities, my conditioning process in academia, my personal connections, my isolation, my memories, all that I have forgotten, holding on, letting go, everything that I have disclosed, all that I cant say…
My mood shifted into a deep melancholy as I prepared myself for my errands, my heart beat extra hard against my constricted chest. A memory, I let out two sobs, pulled myself together and I went about my day.
Sometimes I feel as if my chest is pulling away from my heart. I become slightly light headed and feel as if my mind disconnect from my body. It is hard to keep balanced. This is when I want to sit something out. Or my longing for a particular state is becoming unbearable. Other times, I feel as if my chest is constricting my heart. And each beat is painful and exhausting. I try to ride this out, breathmeditatework through my thoughts. Sometimes I just sleep it off, drift off into a world of dreams with the hope that my subconscious will work it out. With every difficulty comes ease.
A lot of it comes from stress. But often it is rage against the injustice of a global caste-structure, a pervasive world view that has seeped insidiously into so many mindsets.
Sometimes I feel a primordial ache. I know I inherited some of these feelings while I was in my mothers womb. When I met my father 18 years after my parents divorce, he told me that he knew when I was conceived. He said, Were going to make a baby. I was a love child. My parents fell in love at first sight. They were married for several years and divorced after a series of tragedies and violent conflicts. My father always loved my mother, but was unable to truly love my mother, till the day he died. My mother told me she was very sad when she carried me. She also spent a lot of time reading and thinking. Her sadness and fear was a product of a so many forces, a society that circumscribed her, a community that rendered her without a voice, her love for a broken and wounded man who self-medicated and inflicted his rage on her, her constant striving despite all the obstacles to take care of her son and daughter while making way for her third child. With my brother, she hustled and was always on the move to make a living as a teenage expectant mother; my sister who passed, she was deeply spiritual; with my youngest sister she was emotional. We all carried my mothers imprint.
I think this sadness passed on generation after generation in our mothers womb, our grandmother, her mother, on back These women in my family tell me stories of the rapes and murder at the hands of officials; kidnapped child; death and violations by neighbors, strangers, and friends; the exploitation of professionals and civil servants; the beatings and abandonment by the men they love; the betrayal of their sisters and neighbors; the loss of children to the prison industrial complex or drugs; then all the secrets that have been left unspoken….
All day, I kept hearing this phrase. At first I tried to shut it out. How can sunnah be sexy? How can ritual, daily practice, etiquette and cultural traditions be sexy? In this day and age Muslims are considered uncool. I found myself praying in my office worried that my officemates may come in and see me draped in my black prayer outfit. It was not that I’m ashamed of it. But I’m sure it would freak them out. I remember in my first Arabic class, we had a field trip to the mosque. This sister in the class said she thought my classmates didn’t believe I was really Muslim, until they saw my transformation as I went into the mosque. When it comes to ritualized worship, I like to represent for Allah. I know I have a ton of stuff to work on, so I am not going to pretend to be self-righteous or anything. I just really dig that transformation. But clearly my non-Muslim classmates didn’t know what to do with that.
I used to wear hijab and fully cover my hair and body for five years. During that time I developed my intellect and character. When I used to cover, the sisters would dress up for women-only gatherings. It was like a miss America pageant. In fact, a lot of my friends used to joke and say I looked like a contestant. Underneath the abayas (outerwear), we’d have formal and semi-formal dresses. My hair would be whipped, make-up on point, jewelry blinging, yeah enough to catch the evil eye. Wearing hijab, however, did not mean that I was truly a modest person. Years ago, my boss told me that I was a full of contradictions: modesty and flamboyance wrapped up in one. It was something I struggled with everyday. I still do.
A lot of women I know are ashamed of their bodies. They are self conscious of some socially constructed flaw. Although I dont consider my body perfect, I enjoy mine. This is what Allah gave me. I find it aesthetically pleasing. I try not to be narcissistic but I have a healthy dose of self-love. I enjoy clothing that works with my curves, that highlights my strengths, that is appealing for either its shape, texture, and/or colors. But even as I love clothes, I like to be out of them. If I lived by myself, Id probably would walk around naked or maybe just in a thong and bra (Not very sunnah-like, I know).
Even when I did try to cover it, my sexuality was always apparent. Somebody told me I would have to conceal it all by making myself look overweight or wearing a burqa. But as much as the burqa is a symbol of oppression, my prayer outfits have a similar form (but bare-faced) offers a break from my sexuality. It is in that moment of transcendence, that I experience something extra-cool. It is an acknowledgement that embodiment is real and that in order to appreciate it, I must take a step back. That physical self is not really me, but the real me is my spirit. What people see is not really me, that is only my material self. Going through the process of self-negation in ritual worship, I find myself closer to myself. That process I find is intriguing and remarkably beautiful. Yeah, I find sunnah sexy.
Just as quickly as the thought came into my mind, it shifted into my tension filled love of Muslim men. I remember going to see Cornell West and Zaid Shakir, and my gaze was all over the place (Yeah, I have a problem lowering my gaze). It was a sea of beautiful faces. I’m close to a some brothas and I tell them they are beautiful. Their daily transformations, that process of self-negation and self-realization is inspiring. I pray for their success and hope to follow their progress and development. It is amazing to see someone grow and blossom. There’s so many beautiful brothas, and something is so captivating to me about them. It was something about the composure, the style of dress, the grooming, their smell. Maybe this is why I dont go to jumah (Friday prayer) much. Years after my divorce, I avoided being close with any Muslim men. But as time went along, I began to see them as the Other. I wanted to know what made them think, what made them tick. I wanted to know why brothas were so difficult. Why was it so difficult, when we shared the same love and worldview. I didnt want to see them as adversaries, as an Other. My friendships have helped me see them as an integral part of my identity. There is no Us and Them/ but only We. We meet our counterparts. After eight years, I miss having a counterpart, I miss being led in prayer, the late night discussions of this issue and that, the debates over fiqh (Islamic law), and working for the same cause. I look through the pain and I see how much I grew. Yeah, I love the way the brothas follow the sunnah it is sexy I’ll leave it at that, mashaAllah.
One of my favorite sayings is when you point your finger at someone, you have three pointed back at you. People are always criticizing others peoples beliefs, practices and lifestyles. We like to find fault in everyone, for their mistakes, short comings, for being different, for having a different life style, for not sharing our beliefs. It is one thing to speak out against someone who is hurting someone cant protect themselves, a child, the poor, a vulnerable woman, the disabled, and elderly. But it is another thing to attack another persons personal choices that has little to do with anyone else.
Religion, faith, spirituality, and devotion, is such a personal thing. But we love to criticize people’s beliefs and ways of life. For isntance, many in the West see Islam as this monolithic entity of 1 billion people. Many see Muslims as this homogeneous misogynist, anti-modern, authoritarian, blood thirsty, vengeful, violent mass of fanatics. They see our faith as lacking spiritual vitality, ethical values, humanism, compassion, mercy, charity, or even connection with God. They dont see the beauty in the faith, culture, thought, individual and community expression. Above all, they dont see the diversity of views and the way each individual determines for his/herself how he/she is going to engage with the system of beliefs and practices that we call al-Islam. But then again, that is the fault of many of Muslims who hold that there is only one way–their way. They argue that the others are misguided. This is a dialogue that we Muslims need to address within our own communities, locally and internationally. Muslims are often intolerant towards each other. And our criticisms and attacks of each other are often more vicious and harsh than anything launched against Christians, Jews, Hindus, Animists, etc..
I may not agree with a lot of things that people do or say. I may feel like their beliefs are irrational or do not ally with Truth as I understand it. In the process of looking in the mirror and reflecting on my own faith, I am busy trying to look at myself and better my condition rather than analyze and nit pick the fine points of theology and subtleties of practice with someone else.
I find that intolerance to be really a symptom of insecurity. It makes people feel better to find the fault in others. It makes us feel better to rip into someone else in order to justify the soundness of our views, the correctness of our behavior, the righteousness of our way of life. In understanding that there are many perspectives to Truth, we have to recognize that one view cannot encompass all facets of Truth. Some people operate in a two dimensional world, others are blessed with the insight of a three dimensions. Does it make sense explaining to a two dimensional personal that their flat earth is really part of a globe? Yet at the same time, two dimensional thinking is often a self-imposed limitation. And we have to engage with two and one dimensional people on a daily level. The question is how do we enter dialogue with them? And to what capacity?
Finger pointing seems to be an integral of some peoples faith and practice. These people are often the most outspoken members of our community. Without name calling, I think it is important that we begin to address how destructive this is to ones own personal development and the building of bridges and connections between people and communities. We have to work day by day to battle the limitations of our imagination. For it is through the creative practice that we are able to imagine ourselves in some one else’s shoes. It is through imagination that we are able to have empathy. It is through broaderning our minds that we are able to break through those boundaries and move beyond two dimensional thinking and imagine a unified world.