April 28, 2012

Dear loved ones, I'm wearing hijab

When I started job hunting after trying to freelance full time for a few months, I decided that I didn’t want to start a new job without wearing hijab. I wanted the protection and the constant remembrance of God that come with hijab. I wanted it as an act of worship. And… I admit this a little sheepishly: I wanted the identity.

This analogy just occurred to me, so bear with me… In gender studies, we talk about gender as performative. That is, we perform the socially coded roles of men and women. Gender, in this way, is an activity. Our gender identity (usually man or woman) is communicated by the many decisions and behaviors we accomplish. For example, the decision to wear clothing that is marketed as appropriate for women is just one of the many ways that I communicate my identification as a woman. So, in my case, I both identify with the gender woman, and because of my appearance and behavior, other people can also identify me as a woman.

In the same fundamental way that I identify as a woman, I now identify as a Muslim. And I imagine this sounds really weird, but at my last job, I always felt like people were missing something fundamental about me in my interactions. They couldn’t tell that I was a Muslim, and that was alarming to me. I imagine that misunderstood feeling also arose from some dissonance between how I behaved and how I felt I should behave as a Muslim. Maybe I wasn’t as patient as I could have been, or maybe I didn’t look for the best in the person I had just worked with—didn’t quite grasp their humanity and our sameness.

In the time I’ve been wearing hijab, since I’ve imposed this identifiable Muslim-ness on myself, I’ve been more Muslim. I’ve been kinder. I’ve made an effort to smile more. I’ve felt more myself; more sincere. This seems a little contradictory. I don’t love talking to strangers. I just have to at my job. My face isn’t used to smiling all the time. So how is this more sincere? Well, these efforts are part of my spiritual practice. Muslims are supposed to be catalysts for peace, and connecting with the people around me, even in small ways, is working toward that. I have to admit, I’m also politically motivated to try to represent Islam well. If Islam were not under attack in the American media, I don’t think this would be an issue. But as it stands, I want to do my part to project a positive image of American Muslims.

Just like my conversion to Islam, the decision to wear hijab came gradually. Jason and I were apprehensive about whether wearing hijab was safe here. At least one hijabi in Austin has been attacked. The guy beat her up and ripped her scarf off. A couple days after I wore hijab to the interview for my current job, Shaima Alawadi was murdered in San Diego. May God give her jennah and her family peace and strength.

For the time being though, I feel very safe and the spiritual benefits of hijab outweigh any misgivings. Every time I start to think my hijab has triggered something bad, I’m blessed with something beautiful. When I arrived at my job interview, a woman walked into the building, looked back at me and squinted and frowned. Great, I thought. This white lady’s been watching too much Fox News. She kept walking, but then she turned around, walked straight up to me, and started speaking in Arabic. SubhanAllah. I was so sad that I couldn’t answer her! But it made my whole day. I couldn’t stop smiling and thinking about how I’d mistaken that lady for a conservative white Texan.

Wearing hijab has made it much easier to pray at work, which is really important to me. It makes it easier to explain that I’m a Muslim. People expect Muslim women to wear hijab, and fulfilling that expectation can be convenient. I’ve been blessed with an amazing manager who goes out of her way to schedule my breaks at prayer times. She filled out paperwork so I could pray in a private office instead of a public fitting room.

I hope this helps my family and friends understand why I’ve decided to wear hijab. My decision definitely has a lot to do with the ideas in my “Too Many Clothes” blog as well. It would be awesome if everyone could kind of let their guard down and ask any questions they have about hijab and why I’m wearing it. I guess I should start that conversation by explaining that hijab isn’t just a headscarf. Hijab is the Islamic code of modesty. Basically, it says that women should only show their faces and hands in public, and some schools of thought say feet can stick out too. I still wear flip flops. Muslims generally interpret modesty as wearing loose clothes.

Of course, leave it to patriarchy to make it seem like Islam only requires women to cover themselves. Men are supposed to be just as modest, although this isn’t something totalitarian regimes have found it necessary to enforce. Likewise, it’s not a personal choice many men take seriously, and the consequences for not dressing modestly are different for men. Just like in the broader American culture, if a woman at the mosque isn’t meeting the dress code, those who judge her are probably going to say that she’s flaunting her sexuality and may actually be promiscuous.

For men, I think the judgment is more about their faith. A man who dresses with overt Islamic modesty is seen as a pious man. Men who wear tighter clothes or shorts and short sleeves are judged as not being serious about their religion, and moreover, disrespectful to the mosque if that’s where they are. And to me, this critique makes a degree of sense. Modesty is a religious obligation for us, and if you’re not striving toward it, that’s between you and God.  But for women, their immodesty is seen as having a direct community impact; it’s automatically about sexuality, and it’s an affront.

I’ve gotten off track, but I want to make the point that modesty is not supposed to be just for women in Islam. Hijab is not an inherently sexist practice. I see my hijab as part of my personal feminist politics. I will start the Q&A here, and I’ll make another Q&A post if I get questions in the comments—which I hope I do!

Q: Do I wear hijab at home?
A: No, I wear hijab in public. I don’t wear it with my family or with lady friends I trust.

Q: How many hijabs do I have? Do I try to match them to my outfits?
A: I have six scarves that I wear on a regular basis. I try really hard to match them.

…Which reminds me… From late elementary school through high school I was super self-conscious about clothes and awkward about constructing my wardrobe. Sometimes I had rules for my wardrobe to make it easier. For a while in high school I only wore ironic polo shirts. In college, I almost exclusively wore tight, low-cut shirts. It’s pretty amazing to me that I now have logical, spiritually and emotionally and socially beneficial guidelines for creating a wardrobe. It just makes so much sense to me. And even though I don’t have the cash to build my wardrobe exactly how I want right now, it’s really comforting that I can buy clothes with a purpose. I feel like what I’m doing is good, as opposed to arbitrary.

Finally, you should read this beautiful essay written from the perspective of an American parent. http://www.oprah.com/spirit/Choosing-to-Wear-the-Muslim-Headscarf/1

March 25, 2012

Sisters Got Rights

RE: My post about walls in the masajid.

I just came across this awesome Muslim Male Privilege Checklist. Lately, I've been trying not to focus as much on these outward social issues. I've been trying to look inward and make sure that I'm in touch with God and how I'm supposed to be living my life. I've been trying to read Quran more and I've been listening to lectures, etc.

Even though that reflection has been important and beneficial, our ummah has issues. I've been made to second guess my criticisms of the status of women in the masjid--to try to focus on what I'm there for, which is to pray. But sisters' grievances cannot be ignored. Our place in the masjid reflects our place in Islamic society, and our God-given rights are being eroded. My complaints about a musty prayer space might seem insignificant, but there is so much more at stake. For example, Jamerican Muslimah's item #10 on her Muslim Male Privilege Checklist:

"If I wish to end my marriage, my decision is not scrutinized by an imam or other members of the Muslim community. It is respected as the final one. I am not denied a divorce or told to make tremendous personal sacrifices in order to remain in the marriage."

In Islam, men and women are equally empowered to end their marriages. If you want a divorce, you got it. It doesn't matter who you are. But as Jamerican says, women are pressured to forgo that right. Women's rights in Islam are even concealed from them in some communities.

In this context, it's natural for Muslimahs to take inspiration from that filthy secular movement (please note sarcasm), feminism. When the reality of their daily lives does not reflect Islamic ideals, of course Muslim women are going to look for other ways of gaining the rights that are manifestly theirs. And there is nothing wrong with that.

The demonizing of feminism in so many communities is disgusting to me. I mentioned before that the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, reflected that he would still participate in the Pact of the Virtuous even in Islam. A vision of justice doesn't have to be rooted in Islam for it to be valid. Allah loves justice, and Allah is aligned with any movement for justice, no matter the source. Allah is down with feminism. There is no question.

But more importantly, Allah has prescribed human rights for women, including very specific rights in their various social roles. The same is true for men. We can't call ourselves Muslims if we deny that this is true, if we fail to give people their rights.

Submission: a word that makes us squirm

Islam means submission to God. A Muslim is “one who submits.” When I started learning about Islam, the word “submission” was hard for me to deal with. Submission is such a dirty word in American culture. It refers to the historical coercion of minorities and women in white supremacist, patriarchal society. It has kinky sexual connotations. It stinks of tyranny and fascism. But all of these associations deal with humans in relation to other humans.

There is dignity in submission to God. While it is repulsive to submit to another human who has no real power over you, submitting to the One God who sustains you and invests you with rights and choice and responsibility is liberating. It sets you free from the illusions imposed by social norms and your own self-concept. You understand yourself as you truly are, in your true relation to the world.

In Syria, Muslims have been gunned down while yelling, “La ilaha illallah”—there is no God but God. They are proclaiming that Bashar al Assad has no power over them. They submit only to God. They accept God’s sovereignty alone; the oppressive Assad regime has no legitimacy and it cannot control them. That’s dignity. That’s reality. God is in control and God knows best.

When I say la ilaha illallah, there is no God but God, I admit that I am not in control of my life. That’s something I had to come to terms with gradually. Even after learning about the guiding forces of DNA and social class and the social construction of everything and the philosophical problem of free will, I wanted to believe that I was the master of my destiny. It’s the American doctrine, right? But control is an illusion. Certainly, I have choice, but that’s not the same thing.

I’m not the best Muslim. I don’t always pray five times a day. I’m chronically arrogant. I’m a blunderer. But somehow, I choose to be a Muslim. Alhamdulillah.

Imam Islam Mossaad at North Austin Muslim Community Center explains the words “Islam” and “Muslim” more completely. This is part 2 of 7 in this Islam 101 session. You can find the whole playlist here. Click “play all” to watch the whole class.

Trees are my favorite Muslims. This song has trees in it.

March 9, 2012

Muslims and Atheists for Justice in 2012

A friend recently told me that when we first met, he was surprised to find out that I believed in God because he “thought that all smart people were atheists.” I used to think that too because, after all, I did some very stupid things as a religious adolescent. But then I met some really stupid atheists. And I did some stupid things as an atheist too. I’ve gone through phases of both ardent religiosity and deep skepticism. I know what it’s like to squirm while someone tries to press upon you religious convictions that you don’t agree with or just don’t want to hear. I’ve also been the person doing those awkward things.

Once, after dwelling perhaps too deeply on a hymn, I announced to my eighth grade English class, “I have decided to adopt the eagle as my personal mascot.” I also invited my best friend to my Catholic youth group and then warned her to mind her atheist manners—which, it turns out, was the wrong thing to say. I wouldn’t be surprised if this blog forayed into such awkward material at a future date, but I’m going to try not to make that happen right now.

I have a lot of atheist friends—certainly more atheist friends than Muslim friends—and I’ve been trying to figure out how to bring them into the conversation of this blog, to have the kind of respectful discussion that I’ve always enjoyed with them. In Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi, Pi feels that atheists are his brothers and sisters of another faith. What I feel is that we share a faith in human reason and the value of rational discourse.

Where we differ is in our understanding of where that reason comes from. I believe that the human intellect comes from God, and that we have a responsibility to use that intellect to the best of our ability. It seems like so many problems in the world come from people refusing to use their brains and from the incessant dumbing-down of cultural and global conversations. We find it easier to assign blame than to think about things, and unfortunately, people in power stand to benefit from and pander to that eagerness to stop thinking. It also seems like the refusal to think is sometimes blamed on faith in God. But my faith tells me to think. In fact, I can only understand the force of God in our world by using my intellect.

When I was moving away from agnosticism and toward Islam, my dominant feeling was that there was something transcendent about the world and our existence in it. In her posthumously published Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf writes:

From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.

I loved this quote when I was an agnostic, and I still love it now. Woolf’s hidden pattern is what I call God. Some deists call it the Oversoul. Quantum physicists call it the collective unconscious. It’s something that unites us and connects us to the physical world and to each other. It’s there to be discussed and experienced. The mere idea of God should not have to be a source of strife. Because if it is, we’re playing into the powers in this world that wish us to stop thinking and sharing ideas. That’s part of the anti-intellectualism we face.

Some of the most ethical, moral people I know are atheists or agnostics, and it’s easy to talk to them about social justice and philosophy and politics and concerns that embrace all of humanity. For me, the fact that we can access morality through our reason is one of the proofs of God. In his book, In the Footsteps of the Prophet, Tariq Ramadan writes, “Islam and its message came to confirm the substance of a treaty that human conscience had already independently formulated.” Ramadan is referring to a specific treaty that the Prophet Muhammad—may the peace of God be on him—participated in before Islam, and that he upheld after Islam.

What I take from this is that in secular society, it is our responsibility to use our reason to establish justice. This seems like such an obvious thing to say. Both atheists and Muslims, along with many other religious people, find this manifestly true. Yet we see rational thinking coming under attack, especially in this election season. Whether you find it obvious or surprising, atheists and Muslims are on the same side—along with people of all other religions who value justice and reason. We need to think and act like it.


March 3, 2012

Something there is that doesn't love a wall (in a masjid)

Today, we went to Friday congregational prayer (jummah) at a mosque we had never been to before. This was the fifth mosque we have been to in the Austin area. Each one has had its own quirks, but there is something all of these Austin mosques have in common that we did not encounter in Michigan. Gender segregation is enforced by a physical barrier during prayer. A wall, a screen, or a curtain typically separates the men’s side of the mosque from the women’s side. At the mosque we went to today, men and women prayed in completely separate buildings, with the sermon (khutbah) projected from the men’s to the women’s building via a speaker and video system. Sophisticated measures have been taken to accommodate the women’s separate access to the prayer.

Just as there is great variation among Christian communities, there is variation among Muslim communities. This is something we’ve come to understand gradually and with much confusion. We really loved our mosque in Michigan, and we wanted mosques everywhere to be just like that. That’s a pretty big burden and assumption to place on Muslims of the world. Be like Michigan! Please! This demand is definitely not fair of us and we’re learning to adapt.

However, I don’t let the need to understand and accept this new milieu stop me from thinking critically. For me, “separate but equal” is not working out so well. The manner in which the genders are segregated sends some powerful social messages that I cannot ignore.

The mosque we went to today is on a beautiful piece of land. It’s woodsy, it’s green, it’s very inviting. The mosque itself is a converted house along with a large converted accessory building, possibly a former pole barn. The men pray in the house. The women pray in the pole barn. I see a hierarchy established in that fact. Need I explain? The house lends legitimacy to the men’s space. It’s difficult not to see the pole barn as second-class seating.

I had never experienced a jummah prayer where the women were in a completely separate building. To me, that’s not congregational. The khutba is delivered by a man, from the men’s building. In the women’s building, I felt so removed from the source of knowledge. I felt like a spectator rather than a participant. The women’s building smelled like the gym I used to practice gymnastics in--a combination of chalk, sweat, and mildew. Maybe the house is just as rustic, but Jason didn’t notice any smells there.

Now, in every mosque we’ve been to, there is a real shortage of space. Jason said the men’s section was completely filled today. Before the prayer, they had to sit shoulder to shoulder to make room for everyone. There is no elaborate seating in mosques. We sit on the floor, and this is necessary because prayer is a full body activity. We stand, bow, and prostrate with our foreheads touching the ground. This doesn’t allow room for benches or a lot of chairs.

Therefore, I understand that there just isn’t room for the men and women to occupy the same space at this facility. But for me, that makes it a less than ideal facility, and I don’t think the whole congregation ever fit in the house. That men and women would occupy separate buildings seems to have been the original plan when the property was purchased and repurposed. It’s disturbing to me that the hierarchy of men’s and women’s positions in the mosque was so deliberate. In other mosques, it at least seems accidental that the women’s space is smaller than the men’s. Nevertheless, my dominant impression in all of these mosques is that the women are actively separated from the men—not the other way around. We are the “less than” population.

Photo Source

I never felt that in Michigan. My home mosque is very open. The women’s side is as big as the men’s side. For a regular jummah, there is room to accommodate the whole congregation, although they use a gymnasium for overflow space during Eid prayers. For women who want some extra privacy, there is a room divider like the picture above, but it is usually only stretched about a quarter of the way across the room. And it’s nice, because it offers some shielding for women who want it, but they can still see the speaker through the lattice work. Not being able to see the speaker is what bothers me the most about walls in masjids. For me, it’s isolating and it makes me feel like I’m not being spoken to—like I’m not part of the conversation, as if the talk is not meant to be for my benefit as well.

Once, I went to an evening halaqa where the women’s section of the mosque was corralled off by a green nylon screen, the same material as cots at my daycare when I was little. The talk was interactive. The speaker asked questions of the audience, but I couldn’t answer because I was behind the screen. Only the men could participate! It was so infuriating and I felt so humiliated. There was no question of providing modesty during prayer in that situation—which is the rationale for men and women sitting separately in mosques. This was an educational talk. To me, gender segregation in that setting is downright un-Islamic. We’re supposed to strive for knowledge without shame. (See Jason’s post, About ‘At The Masjid’)

Alhamdulillah, the last time I attended the 'At the Masjid' facility for an educational event, the curtain barrier was raised and the room was arranged so that the women could sit and participate equitably with the men. I confess, this was the result of speaking to an imam about the situation, and he intervened. My point here is that this isn't a problem without a solution. It isn't a problem that challenges my faith. Moreover, it's a problem that I don't fully understand the source of, because I'm not a native of this community. Right now, I can only the describe the effect that gender segregation has on my experience of the masjid. But I understand that it is my responsibility to learn about why things are the way they are here.

There’s nothing left for me but to invoke Robert Frost:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

Reading “Mending Wall” in this light, examining real walls before my eyes, it says precisely what I feel.

February 24, 2012

My Mom and Malcolm X


February 21 was the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. He lived and died fighting oppression. This is Yasiin Bey’s (Mos Def) amazing tribute to Malcolm X and everything he stood for:

Bey’s song describes the experience of poverty, of living on the margins of society. Malcolm X grew up in such poverty. That’s something that shapes a life and how a person relates to others. Poverty is an experience Malcolm X shared with the prophet Muhammad—God’s peace and blessings be on him—who was poor and orphaned as a child. Like the prophet Muhammad, poverty enabled Malcolm X to have compassion for his community, the vast majority of which toiled in the urban centers.

This was at a time when one of the most prestigious careers available to a Black man was that of a doorman. The oppression of the African American community was such that people struggled to support their families by legal means and felt compelled to turn to the underground economy just to eke out a living. Malcolm dropped out of school after the 8th grade because he wanted to be a lawyer and his white teacher told him that was impossible because of his race.

Circumstances have evolved, but our nation is by no means liberated from poverty or from the constraints of life chances that compel people toward the underground economy. In the city I love, it's often easier to deal drugs than it is to get a job.

When I listen to Yasiin Bey’s tribute to Malcolm X, I think of the kids my mom works with in that city, a poor urban area only a matter of miles from where I lived a relatively privileged childhood. Bey writes, “This shit weird. We be home and still be scared. It’s grief here. It’s peace here. It’s easy and hard to be here.” I think of my mom’s students, falling fast asleep at their desks because their lives at home are so tumultuous, they can’t rest there.

Her students come to school shivering, wearing t-shirts in the dead of winter. They’re starved for attention. Their parents can’t read to them. They don’t have access to doctors when they’re sick. A little boy came to school with an inflamed ear, pus leaking from it.

These are the children Malcolm X fought for, and my mom fights for them today. She teaches them how to read and how to learn, and her students are thriving. Her work is exhausting. It’s emotionally draining. But the song alludes to the reality of young people dying violently, the way Malcolm anticipated his life would end. My mom’s work is disrupting assumptions about what her students will grow up to do—when they grow up; not if.

As I honor the legacy of Malcolm X, I want to honor my mother, who carries it forward. For me, she is the embodiment of mercy and compassion.

The song says, “We’re seeking for forgiveness and safety for our children.” God forgive us for the little good we do. Help us to honor Malcolm X by working against the oppression of poverty and apathy. Ameen.