The ‘Yin’ of Mosque Leadership: Bringing in the Feminine Side

The Islamic Monthly published the preliminary findings of my research on women and mosque leadership:

How do women fair in American mosques? How do fellow worshipers treat them? Are mosques accommodating the multiple needs of the female community?

These questions have been on the minds of many in the American Muslim community for a long time. Many women have complained that they are not treated well in their houses of worship. Some concerned Muslim women have even taken to “shock and awe” tactics to change mosque culture by entering mosques, wearing hidden cameras to document their experiences, post these videos online and expose various types of discrimination.

Nearly a decade after the Islamic Social Services Association and Woman in Islam, Inc. released its pamphlet, “Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers, ” which rated the friendliness of mosques, not much has changed for Muslim women.

To better understand how the American-Muslim community has faired in its treatment of women since this report was published, I decided to survey over 100 Muslim men and women and speak with female Muslim leaders, many of whom asked to remain anonymous. A number respondents argued that women have made only marginal gains in American mosques.   Female educators, scholars, activists, and community organizers are vital to the development of the American Muslim community. Yet, many mosques and community centersare not utilizing the intellectual and professional resources that Muslim American women have to offer.

Mosque attendance is optional for women, but so many women choosing to not attend raises some important issues.  I spoke with a female community leader who wished to remain anonymous about women-led organizations and traditional Muslim institutions. She highlighted what is at stake explaining, “When you lose women, you lose kids, and you lose the husbands as well. This is the crisis that we are in for the growth of Islam in America.” In addition, Ameena Jandali, a founding member, Content Director, and trainer of Islamic Network Group (ING) in the Bay Area, California, points out that not only women, but  “A lot of young people feel alienated by the mosque.”

Who could blame women for feeling alienated with the shabby carpet that is rolled out for them? Women’s accommodations are often cramped and poorly maintained. They enter through dirty back alleys, climb fire escape entrances, and navigate basement mazes to get to women’s sections. And many places do not prioritize women’s spiritual development or foster a healthy community life for women. “Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers” estimated that one out of five mosques do not have programs for women at all and just over a quarter have only occasional activities. An anonymous interviewee raised the issue, “How am I going to be engaged in the mosque if there is nothing for me to do there?”

Mosques that do not accommodate women often do not encourage them to take leadership positions either. Since I began my research last year, I discovered that many are dissatisfied with the lack leadership and decision-making opportunities offered to women.   Several spoke about the dismissal of female voices on governing boards. One respondent put it succinctly, “Even if women are in leadership positions, male opinions tend to be dominant.” Another stated, “There is a general level of discomfort with women who are too vocal, too active, too opinionated.” While discouraging women from taking general leadership roles, many mosques encourage women to teach children at Islamic schools, sit on women’s committees, and volunteer for cooking and clean-up.  One respondent wrote:

There needs to be an overhaul on how we view women in Islam. I am sick of hearing how Islam gave women their rights and how we as Muslims value women but in reality we don’t. Once we see the need for women to be more than the assistant to people in leadership positions or the people behind the scene, we will have women want to do more in our communities.

Many felt that Muslim women’s contributions were not appreciated.  Lack of leadership opportunities, hostility towards female voices, and lack of appreciation is turning away many women who could make positive contributions on an organizational level.

Yet, some women have the passion, drive, and assertiveness overcome institutional barriers to contribute to their communities. Aliya Khabir, has played an active role at United Muslim Masjid (UMM) in South Philadelphia, which is under the helm of Imam Shadeed Muhammad. The imam has pushed for women’s programming and female education initiatives. While no women serve on the board at UMM, Aliya has carved out a sphere of influence in a non-official capacity. Aliya commented, “In their head, they are justifying it with ‘men are the protectors and maintainers.’ Nowhere does it [the Qur’an] say that men are better at decision-making and execution. Women possess these skills that are needed and necessary to properly operate a masjid and meet the needs of all attendees, me included.” She remarked that other professional women ask her why she invests so much time in a community that has not afforded women official roles. Aliya explained,  “It is because of my passion. It’s not about titles.” UMM is not alone, a significant portion of American mosques do not allow women to serve on their governing board.

The ADAMS center in Virginia, on the other hand, welcomes women in decision-making roles. Yasmin Shafiq, a board member of ADAMS, explains, “It was clear that the leadership at ADAMS values diversity in its membership and makes efforts to include the voices of young people, women, and otherwise underrepresented populations in the community.” Others have also looked to ADAMS as a model for encouraging female leadership and the community boasts an erudite female resident scholar, Dr. Zainab Alwani.

As a vibrant Islamic Center, ADAMS Center’s progressive approach indicates what Muslim communities could stand to gain from the expertise of Muslim women.

Women have led many successful Islamic organizations and initiatives outside the mosque. Yasmin acknowledged, “Unfortunately, I don’t think such traditional institutions usually have a well thought-out plan for utilizing highly educated women.” All of my conversations with female Muslim leaders emphasized women taking an active role in creating spaces for themselves, whether in the mosque or outside of it. Many people urged women to take initiative in their communities. Certainly, the success of communities that have welcomed women who are willing to step up to the plate makes a compelling case for mosques becoming a strong base for women’s empowerment. But we are not there yet, and more work needs to be done, by both men and women.

You can read the full article  and other thought provoking pieces at Islamic Monthly. Please post your thoughts in the comments section below.

Nana Asma’u: A Spark Who Continues to Illuminate

Nana Asma'u-1

Living as a Muslim minority in the West, I have often felt frustrated by religious intolerance, but also from a community  that does not fully honor the rights that are accorded to women in Islam or provide many outlets for women to become scholars. This was the case in late 18th century West Africa, in what is now modern day Northern Nigeria, when  Uthman Dan Fodio criticized oppressive customs and encouraged female education. Nana Asma’u bint Uthman Dan Fodio was a product of her father’s commitment to quality Islamic education for women. She became a legend in her own right and through her writings and education movement, ‘Yan Taru, she has inspired countless women for generations.

 

As a Nigerian with dual American and British citizenship, researcher Rukayat Modupe Yakub is aware of the legacy of Nana Asma’u. Rukayat points outs, “For so many Muslims Nana Asma’u is still unknown, but for those who are familiar with her she was an educator, writer and poet who was passionate about education, For this reason you find schools in places like Nigeria named after her.” In addition to her poetry and education movement, Nana Asm’au is also considered an Islamic leader who was known for her ability to mediate political disagreements. She was fluent in Arabic, Hausa, and the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg. Like her father  and brothers Muhammad Bello and Abdullahi, Nana Asma’u was a prolific writer who left a tremendous literary legacy. She wrote to keep her father’s memory alive in the minds of the people and in support of her brother Muhammad Bello’s  Caliphate. At 27, she was given the task of organizing her father’s corpus of works, all while overseeing a household of several hundred people and ensuring that they were provided for.

 

Jean Boyd gained access to her works in 1975 and later wrote The Caliph’s Sister, which provides a detailed biography of Nana Asma’u’s life and legacy. Jean Boyd collaborated with Beverly Mack to compile her poetry and religious treatises in Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman dan Fodio (1793-1864). The book compiles her impressive body of poems and treatises in Arabic, the Fula language, and Hausa. Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd also co-wrote a book which analyzes the social and political function of many of her poems titled One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. 

 

Rukayat says that Nana Asma’u continues to serve as an important inspiration because “She was involved in social work and had political clout, she was a mother and wife, sister of the head of state, daughter of a legendary a political and spiritual leader, she could have had any life she wanted but she choose to be of service.” Around 1830, Nana Asma’u trained a group of women to travel around the Sokoto Caliphate to educate women. Each woman in this cadre held the title jaji  (leader of the caravan) to designate their role as female leaders.

 

One hundred and eighty years later, Dylia bin Hamadi Camara is one such Jaji who explains, “We have the name of all the jajis before me so mine comes after a long line of the unbroken chain of scholarship and service to women, children and the Ummah at large.” Jaji Dylia explains that the methodology of learning that Nana Asma’u develop still educates men, women, and children. In the United States, the ‘Yan Taru Education Foundation and Charitable trust has chapters in Pennsylvania, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and California with 33 women in intensive training and intensive seminars and classes which are open to the public.* Teachers like Jaji Dylia travel internationally and use email, teleconferencing, and text messaging to educate their students on classical Islam. Preparing for a trip to Guinea, Dylia stated her next goal is to translate Nana Asma’u’s teachings into French because the Francophone world has largely been unaware of this rich legacy. My hope is that we begin to learn more and more about the named and unnamed women who have been responsible for educating our ummah. They have passed on a rich legacy, one that reminds me that even when faced with the greatest challenges, we  as women can be brilliant and provide guiding lights for others.  

You can read find other stories of inspirational Muslim women, along with this one,  in   the February edition SISTERS magazine 
*Jaji Dylia updated us and told us that Yan Taru trust has chapters in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland , Florida and Massachusetts. She also has some students in Toronto who are not Yan Taru. She is currently in Benin, where she also has students.
To date, Dylia translated Tanbeeh l Ghafileen  and prays that Allah grants her the himma to translate even more in the future, insha’Allah.

 

The Problem with Muslim Greetings

وَإِذَا حُيِّيْتُم بِتَحِيَّةٍ فَحَيُّواْ بِأَحْسَنَ مِنْهَا أَوْ رُدُّوهَا إِنَّ اللّهَ كَانَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ حَسِيبًا
4:86 But when you are greeted with a greeting [of peace], answer with an even better greeting, or [at least] with the like thereof. Verily, God keeps count indeed of all things.

I’ve had the experience of traveling abroad, living in Arab societies, and staying in Arab homes both abroad and in America. I am particularly fond of three families that played important roles in the formation of the community that grew from masjid an-noor to the MCA. The Arab Americans I came to know in the Bay Area are some of the most hospitable and honorable people I know. Over the years I developed friendships and bonds with Arab, Black American, African, South Asian, Indonesian, Pacific Island, Eastern European, Vietnamese, Chinese, Latino/Chicano, and White American Muslim women with the start of a simple greeting. That greeting is the universal greeting that Muslims exchange by saying, “Salaam alaikum!” (Peace be upon you) and the return, “Wa ‘alaikum salaam” (And upon you be Peace).

As a religious minority in America, everyone I know who wears hijab, including myself, gets excited when someone greets them with respect and honor. It especially means a lot in this society where you get a lot of Americans cutting their eyes, looking at you with pity or apprehension because your outer garments displays your religion. Some ethnic groups are more enthusiastic about their salaams, while other times it is really about the fervor of an individual Muslim.

Arabs are known for elaborate and long personal greetings and farewells. They are also very polite in their speech, with honorific terms denoting class and gender. In Muslim societies, people don’t salaam everybody they encounter on the street. If they did, you wouldn’t get anywhere. Maybe it is possible in the village, but in large cities, you go about your business and only give greetings in personal encounters. But often, a person arriving into a small store, shop, class, or gathering will give salaams, and everyone returns it. Everyone returns it because they have at least the requisite knowledge that the return of the greeting is their religious duty.

In Philadelphia, and especially in the area where I live there are a lot of Muslims. Black American Muslim men occasionally greet me on the street. Muslim men don’t always greet each other and vice versa because it may seem inappropriate to talk to the opposite gender. But that problem doesn’t exist whenever I see Black American Muslim women, where they often give me warm enthusiastic salaams. The White American Muslim women I encounter within stores will break a small and offer salaams. I’ve seen women from South East Asia whose faces have brightened with wide smiles as gave me the universal greetings of peace. But there is a big problem with Muslim greetings in one high profile group, immigrant Arab women who happen to wear hijab. Perhaps it is a Philadelphia thing, but I have heard of similar things in places like Chicago and Detroit. I’d further this by saying that the problem is not with Arab men. I may be wrong, but I haven’t heard of Arab men refusing to greet Black men in this city. The other day, I was walking with my husband and an Arab cab driver honked, waved, and gave us the fist. I see this problem as gender specific. Nor do I don’t think it is is an immigrant women versus Black American women thing. Little South Asian aunties will return salaams too. And on college campuses, such as UPenn and Temple, Muslim girls from all backgrounds are all happy to give salaams and even break out in a smile when they see a Muslim. I’ve experienced it and have spoken with some Black American Muslim women in Philadelphia who have noticed the reluctance of some Arab women to give greetings and the refusal of some to even return someones greetings and salutations.

My personal experience brought it home. On our way back home from errands in Center City a few weeks ago, my husband and I decided to stop by the Trader Joe’s which was right by the trolley stop. As we walked to get the front door, an Arab women in hijab came out and I said out loud, “Salaam alaikum.” She just walked straight past me without acknowledging we existed. My husband said maybe she didn’t hear me. As he went to get a cart he repeated the greeting. She acted like he was invisible. We are supposed to make seventy-something excuses, right? Let me think of some: 1. she was deaf, 2. she was blind, 3. she was mentally disabled, 4. she never read the Qur’an all the way through, 5. she never read a book about how to be a Muslim, 6. she never picked up a hadith book in her life, 7. we scared her by saying salaam alaikum too loud, 8. she must have saw me and thought I was one of those hijabi bandits 9. ummmm, I am running out of legitimate excuses… The reality is, my cousin who is Muslim and has lived in Philly all her life has had several occasions where Arab women have refused to return the greeting. One woman in a halal store refused on three separate occasions. One time, the woman saw my cousin from behind and mistook her for someone else and said, “Salaam alaikum!” When my cousin turned around and returned the greeting the woman looked in disgust that a Black woman gave her the greeting.

As I run my social experiment, I am still waiting for my hypothesis to be verified or falsified. But for the most part, whenever I’ve encountered immigrant Arab women–no matter how piously dressed–rarely initiate greetings. Since I’m trying to avoid confrontation or feelings of anger, I tend to pass them by without giving them salutations and greetings. I have either two options, to woman up and nurse my wounded feelings as I get dissed on a regular. Or I can tighten up my Arabic so I can give them a mini khutbah on the rights of their brothers and sisters.

The irony of this is that the above mentioned verse in the Qur’an states that you are required to return greetings in kind, but it is better to extend them. The reality is, even if you had a major dispute with another Muslim if they were to give the greeting, you return it because it is their right. The refusal to return greetings is a sheer sign of arrogance and prejudice. To me, it is a major sign of hypocrisy. It also sows seeds of discord and mistrust within our community. I think it should be addressed by the imams and religious leaders because this is not a way for any Muslim woman to conduct herself. This is why I hope that this post trickles up, that people read it, that they remind their moms, wives, daughters, sisters, aunts, and friends that this is their brothers’ and sisters’ right.

How Lack of Accountability Led to Rise of a Monster

Zerqa Abid wrote a very important post that highlighted some of the issues and concerns that I have with accountability in our Muslim communities. How could we have allowed someone like Muzzammil Hassan, a Muslim man of questionable moral character with legal documentation of a history of abuse, to rise to such a position of leadership?

It’s been five days now that my family along with the whole American Muslim community has been in shock. The fact that Muzzammil was married to my first cousin before marrying the victim still horrifies us. Ms. Zubair was his third wife. Both of his earlier wives filed divorce on the same grounds of severe domestic violence and abuses.

My cousin lived with him for only a year. Yet, it took her several years to get rid of the fear of living with a man in marriage. He was known as violent and abusive in the community. He had nothing to do with Islam. He had changed his name from Syed Muzzammil Hassan to Mo Steve Hassan. He had no background of community service or involvement in the Mosque or in any other organization. Neither his character and nor his faith were sound. In addition, he had no background or expertise in TV production or media.

But it did not matter. Even with this bad reputation, horrible background and lack of experience in media market, he still got the stage at the most reputable American Muslim conventions. Our leaders and established organizations did not bother to vet him. No questions or flags were raised about him. He was introduced at these conventions with huge respect and the Muslim community was told to give him generous funds for Bridges TV.


The surprise was changed into shock and worry when I learned that Bridges TV was owned and operated by the same Muzzammil Hassan who I knew as a serious criminal. To me domestic violence is a serious crime and a person’s character must be judged by the way he deals with his family. At my return, I warned some community leaders, but the response was not encouraging. People told me that his personal life may be messed up, but he is doing a good job so we should support him no matter what.

The Vice President of Islamic Society of North America, Imam Mohamed Hagmagid Ali, has posted an open letter on ISNA’s website. He writes, “Our community needs to take strong stand against abusive spouses and we should not make it easy for them to remarry if they chose a path of abusive behavior.”

What about making community leadership easy for them, Imam?

Shouldn’t Islamic organizations also take responsibility of vetting new comers before presenting them on the stage? Common people rely on organizational leadership and judgment.
Vetting of community leader has been established since the time of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) and is now in practice within the conscious communities all over the world….

Clearly, this is a rare case that has ignited the nation’s imagination. It is fodder for Islamaphobes and Muslims throughout the country are scrambling trying to deal with the PR damage. While I do not feel that I have to go around apologizing for every wrong action a Muslim does, I decided to write about this case because it brings to light some underlying issues that are poorly addressed in our community. There is little accountability in our communities. Every media report reminds us that Muzzammil was a respected and influential member of the Muslim community. This is why it is absolutely imperative that we not shield abusers and turn a blind eye when we see something funky go on even with the most promising and prized leaders.

My friend recounted in horror about a case a few years back in the Bay Area where a South Asian Muslim man had beaten his wife so badly that she had to be hospitalized. Both of us were hurt and angered when we found out that a number of people in the community came out to support the abuser. It is this type of backwards thinking that not only infects immigrant communities, but it is prevalent in convert communities where the jailhouse Islam and criminal culture is prevalent. Sometimes communities will give shelter to convicted sexual offenders and violent criminals. On rare occasions those communities get raided by the FBI. Before we lend some material support, let alone marry off some hapless new convert sister to sketchy Muslim man, do we do any background and criminal reports? And women, when you are marrying someone who has been divorced, has it ever occurred to you to have an honest and upfront conversation with the ex-wife? Do you think you can do it better than she did? Or are you afraid that you may hear something you don’t want to hear? Why didn’t Aasiya’s family contact the first two wives? Why did everyone fail to look into the divorce cases?

I’ve heard cases where a Muslim leader used his wife’s work, treated her poorly, was booted out of one community to only cross the country and set up shop somewhere else. On several occasions I’ve heard stories from the mouths of women that really shocked me. Too often the women refuse to identify the leaders who abuse their power in an effort to not backbite. Often these stories are dismissed as gossip. Our Muslim communities need to start listening to women a lot more. A large part of it lies in what Tariq Nelson calls “the culture of denial pretense,” the one where we are always trying to cover up our bad deeds and our brothers’ (but not so much the sisters’).

Letter From a Brother

For a long time, I’ve wanted to post a link to Charles Catching’s post titled, A Letter From a Brother.

It should be easy for me to close my eyes and ears, to ignore all the problems BAM women and men are having with one another but I have daughters. One sister responded to me being concerned about my daughters by saying other brothers are simply disconnected, that they do not relate their objectification and mistreatment of BAM women to their daughters, and if she is right then woe to us.
….

In the past year I’ve read numerous blogs and articles about the suffering hearts of Black women. I have heard countless conversations depicting the atrocious acts of Black men against women. Keep in mind here, I’m talking about Black Muslim women, women who came to the religion for God and a good man! If you haven’t read, and you probably haven’t because you’re a guy, you should read a book called Engaged Surrender: African-American Women and Islam along with some critiques, questions, and concerns from other Muslim women about the book. Women have absolutely no problem reading the latest from a male scholar/author/activist/blogger about issues in the community. But hey, if women are championing mens’ causes don’t you think you need to take a second look at theirs?

Just the other day egg was thrown on my face by a co-worker. The African-American woman praised Black Muslim men stating that the reason she loved us so much was because of our respect and love for “the Black Woman”. I wanted to receive her praise as a truth but no longer had I started puffing out my chest when I got an horrible email, a story I will share in a moment. Seeing as though this woman is 50+ years old, I gathered that she was speaking more about the men in the Nation of Islam and not of Muslim men in America at large and that was sad. At that very moment, I felt my obligation went beyond informing her of any differences between the Nation of Islam and others to factually stating that many African-American Muslim women are well beyond fed-up, sick-and-tired, and too-through with brothers because of our shady ways. These women came to Islam hoping to find protection and security in addition to monotheism and have been struggling to accept the prophetic message against the backdrop of criminals, deadbeats, cheaters, liars, bigots, and bootleggers posing as lovers of Allah.

Lastly, as you read this there are others doing the same, wondering if I have any solutions or if I am even qualified to talk to African-American Muslim men about marriage. I have two answers; first, it’s time for those of us who have decent marriages to help others cultivate the same for it is so easy to read about horror stories all day. I know single sisters who have never been married swearing off men because of these stories. They need happily married Muslim women to look up to and brothers need solid examples, not charlatans. Secondly, I have daughters, and there is just no way on this earth I’m going to subject them to the kind of nonsense present today so over time, as it permits itself, I will continue this letter of sorts to my brothers, hoping that someone out there heeds the call to be more and do more without wanting more.

I frankly, was shocked by the treatment of women in the sunni Muslim community. A number of womanizers use their Muslim celebrity status and their close relationship with leaders in the community to prey on women and misuse their position to garner free services. I’ve written before about pathological narcissists and as I stated they are often charismatic. I am not saying that we should start gossiping to uncover everybody’s dirt or create the religious police with some gestapo like investigation capacities, but our leadership should take active steps to ensure that the brothers in their circle are upstanding members of the community. If they have some dirt in the past, they should repent and be currently living upstanding lives. I believe we should forgive our brothers and sisters who make honest efforts to clean up their acts. At the same time, anybody with some nefarious dealings, should be checked. The sad thing is, the women who have been preyed upon and subject to multiple sham marriages is seen as damaged goods. Women who have even been in legitimate marriages, but are divorced are often seen as damaged goods. However, a man who leaves a trail of broke-up women is never seen as damaged. Rather he is a pimp, and a lot of young brothers celebrate him.

I had a conversation with a man from the Nation of Islam who commented that sunni Muslims often show very little respect for their women. He said, “Sunni brothers are just HARSH with their women.” He believed that some of it was the misogyny that is now prevalent in our culture, but also due to the adoption of some foreign attitudes towards women. In some ways I agree, its like a number of convert men adopted the misogyny from the BAM movement and Hip Hop culture and combined it with the structures of gender relations from the Middle East and South Asia. It is as if they gained the worst of both cultures when it comes to dealing with women–misogyny and patriarchy. The same man recounted a story about how a brother who was going to jumu’ah made his wife drop him off at the door and she had to go part the car and walk a long distance in the rain to get into the crummy women’s section. He also commented that there was nothing in place in the sunni Muslim community to protect convert women from predators.

Not all of us are wallowing in misery. And there are a number of men, like Charles, who are appalled by the current state of affairs. Simply put Charles is calling all the ethical brothers, especially the married brothers, to provide examples. There are countless examples of good men who are striving to be good to their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, cousins, associates, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Please check out the site and respond to the brother’s call.

Am I Just a Muslim?

While my heart is at home, some things right now seem more real to me than some of the things that are preoccupying my friends and loved ones.   I am not saying that I’m not interested in this historic moment. There is something amazing about a Black man making it this far in a presidential election.  But, the lack of nuance in media representations of race and gender in the presidential election is not as real to me as making sense of being a Black woman in the Middle East. I know everyone is a buzz in the US. But being in a predominately Muslim society puts a lot of Muslim issues to the forefront. I am constantly wondering if there is a spot for me in this imagined community of ours, as a Black American Muslim woman.

There are times when I felt like there wasn’t room for me and that my experiences were dismissed. Two recent pieces have reminded me of the pressures I experienced as an early Muslim. But at the time of the articles, the country’s internet was either down or I was in transition. Since these pieces were published, I have had some time to reflect on how a Black American Muslim identity causes a lot of dissonance in an Arab Muslim society. Abdur Rahman wrote a very insightful and historically grounded piece called, I’m Just A Muslim Muslim Tariq Nelson also contributed to the discussion with his take on, Just A Muslim. He wrote:

It is this understanding of being “just a Muslim” that I reject. You must – like the brother in the meat store – become a pseudo-foreigner of some type and adopt a hodge-podge of immigrant cultures rather than adopting Islamic values. Being “just a Muslim” has essentially come to mean running away from one’s family, and history in some attempt to “pass” into “non-blackness”. In addition they adopt a parochial and reactionary attitude and a paralyzing suspicion of all things American or Western.

Years ago,  a young Arab American woman was pretty upset with me. She was mad because of the paper I wrote in a sociology class on inequality and social stratification. The paper was about multiple identities. Much to my suprise, the title upset her.  I had felt it was a pretty inocuous title. I don’t even think she really read too far into my paper. Besides at that time, I was still pretty new to the religion. I was naive and wet behind the ears. So, my paper definitely didn’t have the sharp critique you might find in my writing today. But still, the following bothered this young woman enough for her to tell me how much I sucked:

“My Multiple Identities as an African American Muslim Woman”

It got under her skin. To her, it showed where my loyalties were. “You didn’t put Muslim FIRST!” She said in a distressed and judgmental voice “The Most IMPORTANT thing is that we are MUSLIM!” This kind of bothered me. Because at the time, of almost all the Muslims in this little circle, I was the most identifiably Muslim Muslim. I wore hijab at the time. I participated in the Muslim Student Association, as well as the Black Student Association. Despite my efforts, my loyalty as a Muslim was constantly called into question by my Arab and Desi peers.

Someone called me a nationalist because I still participated in the Black Graduate Student Union. When I used to point out that they go to ethnic picnics, Lebanese iftar, Egyptian Day, Libyan picnic in the park, Bangladeshi dinner, Pakistani gathering, not to mention the ethnic after-eid-after parties. These were places I was never invited to. I pointed out that they all these ethnic functions. The argument someone made was that the people in their closed ethnic gatherings were all Muslim. For them, their ethnicity was intrinsicly tied to being Muslim. They were preserving their culture and language because one day, they hoped to go back home. Their functions or fundraisers could be completely secular and or for some nationalistic. But they were helping other Muslims.

Me, on the other hand, I was encouraged to divorce myself from the Black community. At the same time, I was told to give dawah. In fact, I was encouraged to give dawah. But dawah basically meant repesenting some Muslim issue overseas in some campus event. I’m not saying that no immigrant Muslims cared about African Americans. There was one who took an active interest in supporting the cause of a young Black man who happened to be Student Body president was arrested for showing up to a Senate meeting on campus.Many of the people who put those pressures have since changed their views. In many ways they too had utopian visions of what the Ummah looked like. Their own cultural practices were illegible to them, because for them they operated within an Islamic cultural matrix.

While some Muslims were mad because I didn’t claim I was just a Muslim-Muslim. I was never really allowed to be just a muslim-muslim. I was constantly referred to as “The Black” sister in a community that was diverse, but Black American were underrepresented. I was sort of relegated to Black things, like marrying ex-cons and being broke all the time. I was even told that I wasn’t just a Muslim indirectly in some not so nice ways.

Perhaps I felt pressures more intensely because of the relative isolation. But the pressure I experienced raised some important questions. Does participation in a community entail that you give up who you are? Should we end our participation in other communities, our ties with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, associates, sorority or fraternity brothers and sisters. Do we give up affiliations, inclinations, cultural tastes and affinities and adopt others? How do we talk about who we are? What are we? Can I be just a Muslim, while holding on to those descriptors that make me unique? I think my stance on some of these questions is quite clear. I also believe that these broad communities and categories do not make a human. But they are a part of who we are and our being in this world. At times I feel like a composite of many different things and experiences. Some of them intersect and and reinforce what I feel is the true person inside. At times my experiences and things conflict. But never once have I felt like a Muslim divorced from my cultural context as a Western woman of African descent who became Muslim as an adult. Once I become Just a Muslim, I lose my voice and am lost to some authoritarian dogma.

Modest Sexiness

I wrote a bit about it Abayas and ‘ho shoes in my entry, Hot Girls in Kuwait. While i was in Egypt, I noticed that nearly 90% of the women on the street wore hijab. But even with hijab, there were many levels of modest from sexy to completely niqab. As for the sexy women, they ranged in age. Many of them were young women who covered each inch of skin.  But they wore tight jeans, shirts, and figure revealing outfits. A lot of Muslims dismiss them outright. Media Watchers extensively discussed the negative attitudes and pejorative terms used to describe women who wear hijab and sexy outfits.

Speaking of words we call ourselves, I must mention the derogatory terms. “Hojabi” and “muhajababe” have worked their way into our vocabulary (hojabi even has its own entry in UrbanDictionary.com). And, they are pervasive enough that non-Muslims have begun to use them in reference to us. They exist because we ourselves have invented them and used them, and they are born out of words that describe what one wears on one’s head (I haven’t come across any derogatory terms for bihejabis, but feel free to enlighten me).

Women who cover their hair while wearing flashy or figure revealing clothing are frequently looked down upon by both people who support hijab and those who don’t. That is the irony of it. Without looking into the contradictions that these women straddle, the pressure to affirm their Muslim identity through hijab and the pressure to be considered desirable and attractive. Both pressures exist in Muslim societies, as well as Muslim communities in the West. Pamela Windo recently weighed in with a very insightful about hijab in Morocco titled, Hijab and High Heels.

I returned to the States in 1997, but I continue to pop back to Morocco for my yearly nostalgic pilgrimage. I’ve just been on one of those trips and was surprised, alarmed even, to see how many more women are now wearing headscarves, most noticeably in the modern cities of Casablanca and Rabat. Not older women, but young ones; the same age group as the young women who had so exuberantly discarded them a decade before. And instead of scarves tied under the chin, they have now adopted the hijab, which is swathed closely around the head in the stricter Middle Eastern way.

Although they are made of colorful fabrics with pretty clips at the back, what most struck me was the blatant dichotomy between the hijab and their other clothes. While a few women wear it with a subdued djellaba, and others with their everyday modern suits, skirts and coats, a startling number of young Moroccan women combine the hijab with figure-revealing blue or black jeans, elaborate glittering belts, modern sexy tops and designer sunglasses. Equally striking is the glossy-magazine-style make-up, heavy on the lipstick and black kohl eye-liner.

For Muslim women, the hijab, worn for centuries by their forbears, is an essential part of their identity. Given that it is a symbol of modesty and sexual purity, and body-revealing clothes the hijab’s opposite, the alarm I had at first felt was quickly followed by empathy.

I really liked this article because it explores the realities of hijab without casting judgment. Because they explore the realities and pressures, their discussion of hijab is a lot more nuanced than the idealistic depictions of hijab. However, just many of the blog entries in  Muslimah Media Watch indicate, more and more Muslims are sensitive to the pressures that we face. I am also hopeful because there are some up and coming scholars. One such scholar wrote a masters thesis on the ideas of beauty in Arab societies. She argues that Arab Muslim women strategically navigate the seemingly conflicting Islamic ideal of feminine modesty and Arab society’s ideals of beauty. What I really enjoy about her work is that, while not being an Arab, she is a Muslim woman who wears hijab. She deals with those pressures and projections. Even those of us who don’t wear hijab are fully aware that our bodies are the subject of so much scrutiny. People in the West want to claim that we are liberated while Muslims want to liberate us by pressuring us to cover.  I believe that there is no compulsion in religion. However, I recognize the reality that we have many explicit and implicit pressures that tell us how to be, how to act, and how to dress as Muslims.