Conver(t)sations | My Journey to Islam | AUDIO

Many thanks to Ayesha & Asma Ahmad and the George Mason University MSA for inviting several Muslim converts including me to speak about our experiences for their Conver(t)sations event in early March.

L-R: Asma Ahmad, Ify Okoye, Lauren Arnold, Tina Shahmohamadi, Danielle Gottes

Audio Highlights

My Journey to Islam: The Mormons helped me become Muslim

Converts need support because without a real understanding of their relationship with God they can easily fall out of Islam even if they have the external Muslim “name” and “look.”

Avoid using the word “kafir” or its plural “kuffar” in the pejorative sense to refer to all non-Muslims. It’s hurtful for us to hear our families, friends, and loved ones denigrated in that manner by other Muslims. I prefer to use people of other faiths or “poofis” as I once heard Imam Johari Abdul Malik say.

Side Note: I cringe like most people when I hear my recorded voice, part of that is a natural shyness and part of that is from being criticized for not sounding “black” enough when I was younger. I can definitely empathize with Jordan Shumate, a high school student rebuked by his teacher for not reading a poem by Langston Hughes in a “blacker” manner.

The topic of race and racism amongst Muslims deserves a talk by itself. Four years ago, during the previous presidential election, I tried to work out some issues relating to being seen as both authentically black and Muslim here and here.

Ingrid Mattson | The Importance of Community in Islam

This an oldie but goodie, which I first posted in back in 2006 but with GoogleVideo now defunct, I re-uploaded the video via YouTube.

You might also be interested to read Dr. Ingrid Mattson – Words of Wisdom, which includes two short lectures and a pdf of her Heaven’s Gate: How Muslim Women Open or Close Doors for Their Sisters lecture.

I’m heading out tonight to break my fast at a local mosque iftar, my first in several years. I used to love having iftar at the mosque but gave it up to have simpler and more familiar meals at home. I’m hoping that I will find a welcoming community. I’ll report what I find for my Ramadan in DC series, God willing.

Kingston, Ontario Mosque Signs

At first I was excited by this sign, thinking it was a sign of progress until I spoke to two sisters familiar with the area. Apparently, there did not used to be a barrier in the mosque and women were fully active and involved in the community. But in recent years, there has been a vocal minority pushing to have women put behind a barrier and this new partition may signal the beginning of that process. I was in Toronto last week but did not get a chance to go mosque-hopping, next time, insha’Allah.

Photos courtesy of two very dear friends.

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Book Review | Leila Ahmed | A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America

Leila Ahmed is a professor at the Harvard Divinity School and in her latest book A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America she delves into the history and reasons why the veil or hijab has once again become a prominent symbol of not only Islamic modesty but also more surprisingly of social change and activism for many Muslim women. Ahmed’s book while academic and well-researched is not dry and is wholly readable. Her voice is observational and fair in stark contrast to some of the more abrasive commentary about Muslims popular today from voices like Irshad Manji, Ann Coulter, Glen Beck, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

One evening in the late 1990s as Ahmed and a friend were walking past the Cambridge Common, they unexpectedly came across a group of 40-50 women engaged in a private event. Ahmed describes, “what was arresting was that all the women were in hijab-the veil or headcovering that some Muslim women wear.” It would be this event and subsequent discussions over the seeming reemergence of the veil amongst Muslim women in America that would serve as the catalyst for Ahmed’s book.

In order to more fully trace the complex history and relationship with the veil, Ahmed turns to Egypt at the dawn of the 20th century, still firmly under British colonial rule and influence. Among the elite and  middle class of Egyptian and Arab society, imitation of Western norms and culture including European dress was gaining ground. Muslim fashions embodied in traditional dress including the hijab were considered “backward” although these views were not widely shared by the working class or farmers in the more rural countryside. Influential Arab writers of the day like Qasim Amin argued that for Muslim societies to advance, women would need to “cast off their veils” and this Amin argued, was “not contrary to the principles of Islam.”

As these ideas continued to spread throughout the Middle East, more and more women stopped wearing the veil or were born, as Ahmed was in 1940s Egypt, into societies where to be unveiled did not “signify their rejection of Islam or their secularism.” This is in marked distinction to the dominant view today amongst conservative Muslims that to be unveiled means one is a less pious and/or secular Muslim. According to Ahmed, up until the mid-1970s, when the veil first began to reappear amongst university students, “devout, mainstream Muslim women, and not merely secular women-had not worn hijab.” In the 1980s, Ahmed highlights the work of Arlene Elowe Macleod who interviewed Egyptian women and found “essentially no correlation” between wearing hijab and an increase in religious observance.

In the 70s and 80s, a number of anthropologists began to study the phenomenon of the reemergence of the veil in Egyptian society. The reasons women gave for beginning to wear hijab were diverse and largely personal but for some there were also larger political motivations. Among the reasons given by Muslim women were a renewed sense of religious commitment, as a means of protection on crowded public transport or in lecture halls, a feeling of inner peace, a rejection of Western values, as a sign of wealth for Egyptians returning from working in the Gulf, identification with the Palestinian resistance movement, in some cases women were pressured to wear hijab by charismatic preachers and some were even paid to wear hijab in order to promote the visualization of a specific ideology.

Another central component in the story of the veil’s reemergence comes from the conservative activist version of Islam or Islamism associated with groups in the Muslim world like the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-i-Islami, and the Muslim World League. And in America, through closely related groups comprising the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and its offshoot the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), as well as the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). Ahmed devotes quite a bit of time tracing the history of these movements and their ideas about Muslim women’s roles in society including their participation in Islamist movements and their clothing choices. These various movements with their shared commitment to an activist message of Islam on both a personal and societal level, which they promulgated through mosques, schools, health clinics, conferences, and publications gradually began to spread the message that a good Muslim woman was one that wore hijab, if not niqab, and also a long flowing outergarment.

In 1985, Zainab al-Ghazali, the unsung mother of the Muslim Brotherhood, in an interview with a non-Muslim journalist quite sternly explained the importance of hijab in her view, eyeing the interviewer’s short sleeve dress, she offered flatly, “If you don’t go back to your religion and dress as I do, you’ll go to hell. Even if you’re a good Muslim and you pray and do what is right, if you dress the way you do all your good deeds will be canceled out.” And as is so often the case, despite her stern views on what constituted appropriate clothing for women, Ghazali believed in that feminist notion of equality amongst the sexes, although, I’m sure she wouldn’t use the term as many are loathe to do even today stating that “Islam is best, because it makes women and men equal.” Ghazali also believed that women should be able to choose to marry, to work, or the utilize family planning and that this could be fully consistent with conservative ideas of women’s roles within the home as wife and mother.

Ahmed also points to the contradiction in some views held by Islamists such as Syed Qutb whose views on women were “systematically restrictive and confining” with the liberation many women felt within the Islamist movement. Continue reading

On the Need to be Ethically Committed to being an American Muslim Woman

I was struck by the news this week that one orthodox Jewish newspaper had photoshopped Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason, the Director for Counter-Terrorism out of the recent situation room photo taken during the raid on bin Laden’s compound. I thought this easily could have been a Muslim publication although perhaps instead of completely erasing them they might have airbrushed a hijab or niqab onto them. I’ve worked with a number of Muslim groups, who still struggle over the question of whether or not to show women in their publications or productions or even to have women as guest lecturers. And I always wonder if it ever occurred to those in charge, usually men, what kind of impression is given off about our faith when the only reflections of Muslims portrayed is of Muslim men? Don’t Muslims, especially but not limited to women and girls, need to see other women as role models?

In 2006, I began a process of re-asserting the name given to me by my parents by casting off the “Muslim” name I had assumed shortly after my conversion to Islam. This decision marked the beginning of process, which continues today, where I have to consciously assert my American identity even if it makes others uncomfortable or pushes me outside of my own comfort zone.

One way this assertion of American culture manifests is in discussions of gender relations, roles, and expectations within the Muslim community. Two issues for which I have a particular passion are prayer space accommodations in mosques and seating arrangements at Islamic events and lectures, which reflect my cultural and religious bias and worldview.

I find it challenging to reconcile between my belief in my faith as one that within limits is both progressive and pragmatic with one that bears no relation to my lived reality. The Islam I believe in respects and encourages women to be full participating members of society. It’s not one, which seeks to restrict women to their houses and limits their opportunities for spiritual growth and development simply due to their gender. That I believe in the equality of the sexes does not detract from an understanding that women and men do have some differences specific to each gender.

Trying to fit in with the prevailing views in my conservative community led to a disconnect between who I was, and who I thought I needed to be, in order not only to be a good Muslim but the best Muslim. I took on a “Muslim” name, I  began to become silent in public, not because I thought a woman’s voice was awrah (something that should be covered) but because community pressure emphasized that it’s better for women to neither be seen nor heard. I reduced my visibility in public, not by my clothing choices because wearing various forms of clothing identified me as being Muslim, but by sitting in the very back of mixed gatherings, never daring to raise my hand much less speak out loud if I had a question (and I often did have questions). I began to view perfectly normal social interactions such as passing by a man and saying salam as awkward.

Becoming the ameerah, one of the lead volunteers in an AlMaghrib qabeelah, was a catalyst for me to cast aside the lingering remnants of this cultural and social awkwardness. I had to reconcile and make amends with the culture that raised me. I can say honestly that I am a proud and patriotic (which doesn’t mean pro-government) American Muslim with all the nuances that come from being raised by Ibo Nigerian parents in a small predominantly white college town in upstate New York and of converting to and living out much of my Islam in the Washington D.C. area post 9/11. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point but it’s so much more honest and reflective of who I am and of a way of being that can flourish in America in the 21st century.

Among the first questions, which I had to contend with as ameerah, revolved around seating arrangements in our seminars and prayer space accommodation. Ultra-conservative voices were advocating for an arrangement, which placed men in the front rows and women in the back and some even suggested we have men and women in separate rooms. I struggled against both suggestions to prevent them from gaining any traction. As a woman, and as a leader, I had no intention of disenfranchising the very women that I was supposed to be represent and advocate for! A solution, which works in my area is for us to provide the opportunity for the most choice possible, where even the ultra-conservatives have the ability to choose a seat that reflects the setup they prefer, albeit in a more limited fashion, but where no one opinion dominates.

When it comes to prayer space issues, I also advocate for choice, common sense, and respect. We can be modest without resorting to placing women and children in inferior spaces symbolized by penalty boxes, balconies, basements, curtains, and walls. One beautiful example to illustrate this point occurred at the Friday prayer I most frequently attend, where men and women pray in the same room separated by a row of chairs. One day, expecting an overflow of men, the organizers placed a sign directing the men who came late and could not find any space to pray, downstairs in the basement. Strangely enough, many of the men refused! They stood out in the hallway impatiently looking in, exhorting their fellow worshippers to move up and squeeze in closer in order to make space for them because they knew, without even going downstairs, that the experience in the basement is highly inferior to that of the main hall in the presence of the khatib.

One day, around the holidays, I invited two Muslim women to join me for jumu’ah, extolling the benefits of the good setup at this particular location. Only to be shocked and saddened upon arrival that the women had been completely kicked out of the main hall due to the expected overflow of men. We were being forced down into a dark, cold, and dimly-lit basement with only a single speaker giving us an audio connection to what was happening above us. Continue reading

Hijab-less by Choice, Muslim Women in Their Own Words

NPR: Lifting the Veil

It’s always so powerful and inspiring for me to hear people tell their own stories in their own words. Included in the multimedia presentation for this NPR story are 12 Muslim women explaining their choice to unveil. So many of the themes of doubt and questioning and negotiating recounted in their stories resonate with me even as I choose to continue wearing hijab.

Kim Joseph, a convert to Islam, remembers that before she even took her shahada, the phrase which one utters to enter into the faith of Islam, the Muslim women around her put a hijab on her head. She wasn’t even Muslim! It seems the priorities were mixed up. And Joseph now says without hijab, she is able to “develop her faith from the inside out rather from the outside in.” I don’t think there needs to be dichotomy between the external and internal parts of faith, yet when the internal meshes with the external, they seem to reinforce each other. Before I converted to Islam, when I was simply delving into learning about the faith, I test drove several mostly unorthodox hijab styles. I just wanted to see what it’d be like to wear hijab were I to convert to Islam.

Sana Javed looked familiar to me, she attended the University of Maryland and was involved with the on-campus Muslim events so I’ve probably have seen her around. She expresses a sentiment that is felt by many, that as long as you look the part of the ideal muslimah, hijab and demeanor, it’s all good but once you challenge those stereotypes, you can expect a wave of negativity directed at you to force back into the orthy box. Hijab in  that sense, is seen as a “litmus test” for one’s piety. Which brings up the issue of the assumptions and expectations that go along with wearing hijab.

Hijab is a religious, political, and social statement. It means different things to different people but no doubt those many statements, assumptions, and expectations come to the fore. People, both Muslim and non-Muslim often see the hijab before the woman. For some, this is preferable and desirable and for others it becomes a burden, a hindrance, and brings much unwanted attention. And for some of us, hijab is a little bit of both. Samia Naseem mentions how she actually feared for her safety while wearing hijab in this sometimes hostile environment post 9-11. And I think it’s important not to diminish these voices, a garment that is supposed to offer a form of protection does also quite visibly at times put women at risk of physical harm and abuse. Despite her own choice, Naseem doesn’t want her unveiling to be used as support or encouragement for other Muslim women to unveil. The choice, which every woman should be free to make is deeply personal.

For Rasmieyh Abdelnabi, wearing hijab is akin to being forced to be a public and visible representative of the Muslim community at all times, which is not a role every woman wants to assume for herself. It’s remarkable how easily many Muslim men can blend in and are even encouraged to blend into society, to not stick out, and live public lives nearly indistinguishable from the non-Muslims around them. For Muslim women, one of the only ways to do that is by choosing not to wear hijab.

Nadia Shoeb expressed that she felt naked the first time she went outside without her hijab as if she had gone shirtless. I think this is something many of us can relate to, either being asked to remove our hijab in public or having a man unexpectedly walk in on us without our hijab. Such an experience can be deeply embarrassing or humiliating. Shoeb also noted something interesting, that the experience of these Muslim women chronicled in the story is “distinctly American.” Continue reading

Stop the Hate, Evolution, & Why We Care about Issues

Haters never Prosper

In Orange County, California (remind me to strike that off my places to visit other than to show my support for the Muslims there), the worst and the lowest of anti-Islam protestors showed up to a fundraiser organized by a Muslim organization to raise funds for women’s shelters and to aid in the general fight against hunger and homelessness here in America. They were greeted by politicians, tea party activists, and a group of protestors akin to the repugnant Westboro Baptist Church members who protest at the funerals of dead military personnel.

Now, I’m a big free speech advocate even if that speech is offensive and it may reflexively feel good to prevent it. I agree with the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday protecting the right of expression and don’t agree at all with the implementation of so-called blasphemy laws in some Muslim countries, which are largely used as tools of injustice to persecute minorities or political opponents, which even if there is some basis in the religion, was never the intent of law.

Here’s the video, not for the faint of heart, of the protestors harrassing the Muslim attendees at the fundraiser. I hope and pray each elected official that spoke at the rally is voted out of office or recalled by the people and for understanding and civility to enter the hearts of the protestors.

The Theory of Evolution

I made some comments on Muslim Matters in response to a comment indicating that Muslims find the theory of evolution to be a heresy. Among other comments on that post about the assassination of Salman Taseer in Pakistan, I said the following, “I neither think that parts of the theory of evolution are a heresy nor blasphemy laws as we see implemented today for a plethora of reasons should be considered a part of religion.”

I didn’t make those comments lightly or flippantly. However, some critics, reading in their own biases then interpreted those comments to mean that I have given full and unconditional support to Darwinian (where did I say Darwinian?) evolution. Did we miss the word “parts” used as a limited qualifier?  Many conservative Muslims find Darwin’s theory of evolution to be incompatible with Islamic theology and the story of the creation of human beings. To what extent one accepts or rejects evolution is controversial. However, for me, learning and working as I do in the healthcare field, parts of the theory of evolution, Darwinian or otherwise, is simply incontrovertible, that some organisms do evolve and there seems to be a form of natural selection at play.

One can always disagree about anything, pseudoscience is there for the taking but real science confirms (as it can in its limited way) the existence of newer strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria for example common in TB patients and of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). I’m currently doing a unit in maternal nursing and women’s health. Have you ever seen a child born with genetic mutations incompatible with life? Continue reading

Un-Mosqued | Leaving the Mosque Behind

Leaving the Mosque Behind

We are leaving. Leaving what? Leaving Islam for some, leaving the mosque and and sense of greater Muslim community for others, carrying with us the broken and unfulfilled promise of an Islam, which really did elevate the status of women and truly does view women as full active and contributing members of society worthy of respect, dignity, and inclusion. Not that we were ever truly welcomed here by so many of our communities. A victory of sorts. Victory for those asking us to convert out of Islam for challenging the status quo, victory for those who believe women should neither be seen nor heard nor step outside of her home, and victory for those who say Islam is an intolerant and backward faith in need of reform.

The Un-Mosqued

In the film Me and the Mosque by documentary filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz, Dr Aminah Mccloud, a professor of Islamic Studies at DePaul University notes that many Muslims are “un-mosqued.” These are the Muslims (the absent and mostly silent majority)  that have been unable to find or participate in helping to create a mosque space that welcomes and reflects the desire of (not only) Western Muslims, especially but not limited to women, to have a real voice and equitable space (and other) consideration within Muslim communities, near and far. For many reasons, mosque attendance has become associated with multiple levels of pain and anguish so much so that many have given up on their communities and have become un-mosqued. At the recent Muslim Public Affairs Council’s annual convention, Imam Johari quipped that while Muslims may be un-mosqued they are not “un-Muslim.” In some communities, attendance at the mosque for prayers, lectures, events or weekend school is a kind of litmus test for one’s faith. Those who come more frequently are often assumed to be more pious and to have stronger faith than those that come infrequently.

It’s not only women who have grown dissatisfied with the general attitude of non-concern, which permeates many Muslim communities whereby more than half of mosques in North America relegate women to basements, penalty boxes, balconies, partitions, and other substandard accommodation in addition to excluding their meaningful participation in the affairs of the community. Professor Jeffrey Lang, recounts in a three-part video lecture his personal and devastating experience with his own daughters as they gradually became un-mosqued. Unable to find a place to nurture their faith in the man-cave of the mosque, which never welcomed them, many women have grown accustomed to developing and practicing their faith outside of the mosque without a sense of greater community. Again, a victory for those who emptily parrot the hadith that the salah of a woman receives more reward in her home as though that can capture the full range of meaningful experience of vital importance to cultivate and strengthen one’s faith.

Why do we seek to engage in our communities through the mosque? The reasons are many and includes so much more than just the multiplication of reward for engaging in salah. The mosque is not only a place to pray but also a community gathering space. Yes, when out and about and in need of a place to pray, I delight in praying comfortably in a mosque. The mosque is also a place to see the diversity of Islam’s adherents and meet other like-minded Muslims, I think I’ve met the majority of my friends either at the mosque or through mosque-led events. Being in community and interacting with others with its attendant joys and bearing its harms is a way to put one’s faith into practice. Getting up in the early pre-dawn hours, day after day, to pray fajr and other salah in the mosque teaches you discipline and time management, standing next to a fellow Muslim in prayer inculcates the beautiful manners of Islam including patience, gentleness, humility, forgiveness, and a concern for others, and breaking fast together or performing other communal worship strengthens one’s own faith, deepens the ties of connection, and fosters a sense of real community.

So the loss of the mosque in one’s life is acutely painful. Practicing one’s faith alone can be lonely. It’s profoundly disheartening to experience the disconnect between the theoretical Islam where Muslims happily recount the list of Muslim-first achievements (women having the right to own property and inherit, to keep their own names, to whatever) and the repeated use the easy hijab and gender stereotypes, while the ugly reality of inequity and belittlement, which is experienced by so many simply on account of their gender exacts a heavy toll on one’s faith. Those that bear witness to such inequity mainly do so with either silent acquiescence or protest. I’ve tried the former and am increasingly convinced the latter is better. Protest can take many forms chief among them is the prayer coupled with action.

Pray in Protest

Moving out from behind the partition and penalty box, the basement and classroom, and the balcony and other inferior disconnected spaces, I’ve decided to write and continue to highlight the words of other strong and eloquent writers on the issue of women’s prayer space and community inclusion, here and here, which continue to generate much discussion. In addition, I’ve started a photoblog to highlight prayer spaces around the world. Recently, after publishing pictures and my own reflections of the experience at a local mosque, a board member at that mosque responded in the comments excusing the substandard accommodation and promising reforms and improvements in the near future. A small but important victory of sorts.

Among the beneficial aspects of highlighting the issues surrounding women’s prayer space and inclusion within the Muslim community has been to find a community of Muslims around the world who have been struggling for improvements for years and increased awareness and attention paid to these issues by Muslim writers, activists, and imams. In the last year, Suhaib Webb, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, and Yasir Qadhi have been speaking out against the shameful ways women are treated in our community, of which one aspect manifests in poor accommodation in mosques.

The decision to leave the mosque behind in search of a safe place to nurture one’s faith is not taken lightly by one deeply connected to the mosque and Muslim community. But for some Muslims, it’s a retreat that is needed in order to hold onto both faith and sanity. We may be leaving the mosque behind but we’re not leaving our faith, at least not most of us. As for me, I’m not willing to give up on my faith or the Muslim community or the mosque and so I will continue to utilize my energy to improve the situation and continue to pray in protest.

Muslim Link: Breaking the Ranks or Peaceful Protest?

The Muslim Link has finally decided to take up the issue of the Pray In movement through an article in its most recent edition: Breaking the Ranks or Peaceful Protest?

The article gives off the appearance of being fair and balanced, which those unfamiliar with the issues might believe, but the paper’s bias is clearly evident. I’ve written a post to respond directly to some of the inaccuracies but am waiting to see if I can publish on MuslimMatters first before publishing it here.

Scanning through the archives I see issues surrounding the access and accommodation of women  in prayer space and in our communities has been an issue I’ve been concerned about for years:

November 2006: Women’s Jihad – Praying in the Masjid

August 2007: The Masajid Around Seattle

October 2007: Second Class Believers: An Unfortunate Sign at the Masjid

June 2008: Praying on Mountaintops in New Zealand

December 2008: Modern Muslim Chivarly

February 2010: The Penalty Box: Muslim Women’s Prayer Spaces

Outside the Box: A Beautful Jumu’ah

Stand In at D.C. Islamic Center

New Photoblog: Muslim Women’s Prayer Spaces

Stand In at D.C. Islamic Center

Police Officer Barry Goodwin squatted next to a woman finishing her prayers inside the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.

He listened to her explain why she had a right to pray in the main hall of the mosque, while a mosque employee countered that she was violating the rules.

“I don’t know the rules,” Goodwin, who’d been called to the mosque by the employee, admitted to the woman and the mosque employee.

“What’s going on here?” asked Goodwin.

What was going on was a protest last Saturday, Feb. 20, against the center’s requirement that women pray behind an 8-feet-tall, wooden partition at the back corner of the mosque, behind the male worshippers. The protest was led by Fatima Thompson, 44, of Owings Mills, Md.

Asra Nomani: Let These Women Pray!

Margot Bardran: Ejected From God’s House

WAMU 88.5: Stand In Review

Women’s E-news: Protesters Break Rules at Leading Mosque

Omar Sacirbey: Muslim Women Launch Long-Ditch Effort to Remove Prayer Partitions

AFP: In US, Muslim women challenge mosque separation