The Veil and the Male Elite

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??)

Wedding Bells

I went to a beautiful wedding this weekend. A classmate of mine married her boyfriend of six years. They are an amazing couple, perfect fit. It was a dream wedding, the kind you see in movies. Everything was well done, with the kind of class and attention to minute details that only the affluent could buy. My friend has told me about some of the snide comments other grad students made about her background. Sure, her father is a wealthy lawyer who’s worked some high profile cases. And sure her new husband comes from a wealthy shipping family. But they are not the Onassis family, dammit!. A lot of graduate students take on this air of poverty, as if they become the long suffering proletariat. Though this was not a proletariat wedding, I have an admiration for my friend’s realness. She also has a sharp mind and a great sense of humor. She’s also not full of the pretensions that mark a lot of academics. Though they envy the world of my friend’s parents and in-laws, almost all of them come from privileged backgrounds. Their parents are lawyers, doctors, professors, and business men. They all exist in a world that seems to operate parrallel my own. When you see the mating habit and partnering customs of your peers, nothing hits home more than the trials and tribulations of being a single (and trying hard not to be bitter) black woman.

As I was cleaning up my hard drive, I came across some scraps of articles I pasted into a word document:

“African-American men are much more likely than white or Hispanic men to engage in polygamous relationships, the scholars found. About 21 percent of the African-American men had at least two partners at the time of the survey, compared with 6 percent of men overall in Cook County.”
“Furthermore, the researchers found that polygamy is more common among better educated black men, who presumably have more income. As a result, the number of men available for stable marriages in the African-American community is reduced, leading to the large differences in marriage rates between African-Americans and whites, the researchers pointed out. About 57 percent of black men have been married, compared with about 72 percent of white men, according to census figures.

from article: “Urban areas organized in well developed partnering markets,” University of Chicago research shows
http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/04/040109.sex-market.shtml

“African Americans marry at a significantly lower rate than other racial groups in the United States. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that by the age of 30, 81 percent of white women and 77 percent of Hispanics and Asians will marry, but only 52 percent of black women will do so.”
from: “Marriage rate low in black community”
http://www.suntimes.com/special_sections/marriage/day2/cst-nws-black09.html

The numbers of “Blacks who marry whites is still small, just 6 pecent of b lack men and 2 percent of b lack women. “source unknown

This data are like bombs leaving lots of food for thought. There was a movie that came out in January that sent a message to black women which basically told us that our problem is that we aren’t open to dating outside our race. I know a number of black women who don’t, but then again I know a number of black women that have never had a man who isn’t black approach them romantically. Maybe they missed the signals. I also know from experience that black women dating outside their race is looked upon disapprovingly (even at times by black men who themselves are in interracial relationships).

Last year, there was a discussion about serial polygamy organized by the Black Graduate students. I bounced out of that meeting because for some polygamy was a theoretical issue, but I had dealt with that on a real level. I don’t know that stats for how many black Muslim do it, but it is a rather common phenomena, much like our high divorce rates. (These viewpoints are mainly on sunni Muslims, as I don’t know much about the marriage and divorce rates in the Nation of Islam) A number of my second generation immigrant Muslim friends commented on the instability of marriages in the African American Muslim community. They also have noted the tendency for out in the open polygamous relationships among African American Muslim men. Brothers are real quick to be like, “I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee!! Three strikes you’re OOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUTTTTTT!!” My friend’s husband divorced her three times, and then she had to get married to someone else and then they got back together. He married someone else on the side, then divorced her, but then somehow after their third child they got back together again and are living abroad. Last thing I heard was that they were happy.

Well black women, maybe you found a group who has worse stats than you. Black Muslim women, yeah. We’re like 2 percent the population. Muslims do heavy recruiting in the prisons, meaning that brothas who are unable to secure stable jobs are over represented. And if you’re married to one who is doing well for himself and is attractive, chances are that there will be sistas out there willing to fill in three of the empty slots (he is allowed four under Shariah after all). Also, Muslims do not recognize a marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man. But a Muslim man can marry a Christian or Jewish woman. Not fair? Who said life is fair, the issue is how you navigate the constraints, disparities, and inequalities. Sigh, I guess I shouldn’t complain about the statistics. I am one of the lucky 52 percent thirty year olds. I got married. Sure, I am divorced but the cup is half full, right?

(Disclaimer: This is not to say that all African American Muslim men are naturally inclined towards polygamy. There are some really great families out there and really great husbands. The only problem is that suitable mates for an educated sista are in low supply. )

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, But You Can Get it On DVD

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A number of people heard about it but they couldn’t get their paws on it. I finally saw the film version of one of my favorite books, Sam Greenlee’s “Spook Who Sat by the Door.” I think I read the book when I was around 18 or 19. My mentor, friend, boss, and lonely visionary who helped guide and shape my career recommended the book. For years this brotha tried to reach out to the youth and guide them. Yeah, in his own way he was a spook who sat by the door, but people weren’t trying to feel him though. I recommend the book, if you can find a copy, cop it. There’s three left on Amazon. Greenlee wrote his book in 1966, but black community is still rife with the same problems 40 years later. 30 years after the release of the movie, the issues are still real. Too bad a number of us have abandoned the movement towards true liberation and freedom. Greenlee calls out the Bling Blingers, the black bourgeoisie, and the failed black leadership. He calls for grass roots activism of the working class and reflects on the grass roots movement of the sixties that was led by educated elites who did not subscribe to elitism.

Months ago, I had a dream that my friends made a film. That dream was full of powerful symbols that indicating to me that such a project would be uplifting to world weary audiences. Greenlee wrote that two professors from the University of Toledo raised $800,000 to make the movie out of the black community. This sends a positive message about what can be done, he says with the technology now people can make purposeful films. Although Greenlee’s screenplay highlights the violence of black rage against an oppressive society, the message is not about violent action. But, clearly it is a call to action. I feel called. Rent the movie, better yet buy the movie, or track somebody down so you can borrow it.

Here’s a link to a review (warning for those who haven’t read the book: Spoiler!!)

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As much as I loved the movie, as a woman I had some problems with the way women were depicted in the film. This is why “Battle of Algiers” is so fresh. Women played a critical role in the resistance movement. In fact, women played an important part in every successful revolution and independence movement. Who do you think ran supplies, hid insurgents, and suffered threats of violence and rape at the hands of enemies? Some of our most visionary activists who have written blue prints on revolution tend to ignore women’s active role in social movements, resistance, and revolution. A number of black women academics have spoken on Fanon and his macho revolution. One of my main criticisms of Fanon’s writings is that he focuses only on men’s roles in revolution. His own personal choices reflect his own inconsistencies. The colonized are not only men of color, but women of color. It appears that black men like Fanon to liberate themselves, while leaving black women in passive roles. To me, Fanon isn’t so revolutionary. He doesn’t acknowledge black women’s constributions, instead he sought as he elaborates in “Black Faces, White Masks,” the white man’s prize, his women. (I know I may be slammed by the brothers, we can enter in to dicourse in the comments and you can correct me if I’m wrong.) So, as I read “Wretched of the Earth,” I couldn’t find a place for me in his vision of world revolution. He dropped some seeds for his students, but even the student must criticize their teachers. This is how we push forward in intellectual development.

I propose a sequel, “The Revolution Pt. 2: the Sister’s Struggle.” Yeah, that plot line is going to be crazy complicated as sistas gotta fight double oppression. She is going to be fighting beside her man, not behind her man. She is going to hold it down in his absence, even when he’s chasing fool’s gold. She’s going to liberate him from those mental shackles. Togther, they are going to be on the vangard of a movement to end imperialism and worlwide oppression. Black women aren’t waiting to be liberated, we just want to be respected partners in the struggle for liberation. I haven’t forgotten my Muslim sistas and all oppressed people world-wide. Each one of us wants to to live lives of dignity and security, but some of us work to ensure that for others.
Peace to all the activists and righteous teachers out there!!

In Touch

A few days ago, my friend told me he got an email from our mutual friend. Hes been abroad for some years, wandering around in some ancient land. I asked how he was doing and the reply was that he was fine. My friend said “That brotha is real special.” I agreed, “Yes he is.” This is not the only time I heard this. Several people have made the same remark upon meeting him. I remember my bosss first impression, when she said that he looked at you in the eyes and you could feel his warmth. And his mind operated on this unique level, he didnt try to conform to how society defined the way black men should act or think. Hed say things like, “Asalaam alaikum dude” in a cool Cali skater boy accent. When we were young, he wanted to be a park ranger. I always thought that was cool. And this brother was really beautiful inside and out. I think a lot of people were really caught up in his physical beauty, as opposed to truly appreciating his unique soul. No, this society doesnt offer a space for some special people. It displaces them, decenters them, makes unreasonable demands upon them, and marginalizes them.

Three years ago I began looking for my boy, I had heard he still lived in Oakland. I just wanted to know if he was doing okay and learn more about what he had experienced in the past ten years since we talked at length. I found out this past December that he was abroad again. I had only seen him once in that decade, after both our lives had changed so much.

It was awkward asking around for him because in my circles it wasn’t really proper. I remember asking a sister and she was like, “Why are you trying to get with him?” I answered “No, I just want to know how he’s doing and to tell him he’s been in my thoughts and prayers.” I also wanted to tell him about my trip to the Tafilelt in Morocco. The Tafilelt is in southern Morocco and was the ancient trading outpost between the ancient kingdom of Ghana and North Africa. You can see a thousand years of blending between North Africans and sub-Saharan Africa in the faces of the people that lived there. They often considered people from other regions of Morocco as foreigners. To me, this region of Morocco was the most beautiful and heart breaking. When we first arrived to one of the towns, I couldnt hold it in and I said “Look at all the brown people, they are beautiful!” Sheepishly, I realized that I was in a van full of white women and I said, Awesome!! (Later on, I got some heat for saying that. Why people had a problem? They could kiss my bootey cause they always commented on their white-ness)

The first night we arrived the girls and I headed to the market. I was absolutely shocked because I saw a spitting image of my long lost friend. I knew he travelled but what was the liklihood? But something in the young man’s stare told me that it wasn’t my friend. That warmth was missing.

On the second night in the Tafilelt, I was really sick had to be rushed off to the pharmacy/doctor to get medicine for my fever. I experienced so much frustration and isolation there. My heart ached as I saw the crippling poverty of this once prosperous region. All these brown children, so beautiful, would follow us with bright eyes and smiles. The women constantly begged us for money. We saw the beginning of the locust swarms devastate these poor date farms. The young men tried desperately to chase the locusts out of the trees by burning acrid smoke. Those locusts swarms started there and would later sweep across Africa causing the 04-05 famine.

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The above image is the Tafilelt Oasis Valley

When I got back from Morocco, I began asking different people if they had seen him or heard from him. On day online I ran into one of his friends. I tried to reach out and sent a message. I briefly told my Morocco story and wrote, “Send the brotha my salaams.”

I have always wanted to talk to people who, like me, had gone some place in search of knowledge and understanding. I remember jealously watching the brothas go away years ago in search of sacred knowledge. And I felt constrained. But after returning from Morocco, I wanted to reach out to that group. Maybe they could build with me and help me get my bearings.

This brings me back to my friend. We became friends when we were children on the cusp of adulthood when we were close. There was a tight little group of Muslim converts in the South Bay and we existed in this interconnected but dispersed network. Some of us knew each other from DeAnza, or as friends two well known brothers. When I was young, I had a lot of male friends. I think I spent an equal time building with my male friends as I did my female friends. A lot of my more conservative friends would admonish me for mixing with men and having too many male friends. Sometimes the intentions were clear and my relationships remained platonic. Other times it was fraught with tension. But all in all, I miss those largely innocent times. Im glad to hear that the brotha is doing alright. I asked my friend to send him my salaams. I am sure it will get to him this time.

Sunnah is Sexy

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.

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Finger Pointing and Faith

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.