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. Disappointed, I thought about “protesting” by simply asserting as the men before us had, their right to reject an inferior space accommodation. But not wanting to cause a scene, I decided against it, and instead protested this inequity and unfairness by writing to the people in charge of organizing the event. But most certainly, if the organizers try that again, I will refuse to be treated as a second-class believer. They may label me as “rebellious” or those feared “f” words of “feminist” or say that I’m causing “fitna” but in reality, it is they who have cause the fitna by denying that women have an equal right to be treated with the same dignity and respect that they so readily reserve for themselves. A simple test for any man, if you are secretly embarrassed to show others or would not deign to pray in the space afforded to women, then that space needs to change.
Recently our qabeelah organized a horseback riding trip and there was the usual talk of separate timings for men and women, which I found rather unnecessary. This is America not Muslim country X. We, or at least the majority of us, that did not grow up or still continue to live in a Muslim bubble are able to function in our largely non-Muslim secular society which does not have gender segregation as a cornerstone. We go to school, work, stores, restaurants, museums, theaters, ride public transportation and are able to function just fine, or if need be, you get to exercise and practice lowering your gaze. But at the mosque and other Muslim events, we become so uptight and uncomfortable, piety begins to equal how segregated we can keep each gender. This disconnect between our daily lived reality and the reality of the mosque is jarring and raises unsettling questions in a thinking mind. In the end, decided by the stable owners, we went as one large group, both women and men.
Since I’ve begun speaking out about these issues of gender, many people have thanked me for saying what many of us are thinking but are afraid to say for one reason or another. Only last year, I had to force myself to let go of pressure to remain silent and I once again began to raise my hand in class and ask my questions out loud. It seems trivial and I never stopped doing this in my secular studies but it was a big step for me to re-assert this within a Muslim environment. This past weekend, a woman who attends AlMaghrib classes told me that when she first started attending, she felt shy to speak up because none of those whom she regarded as “more religious,” which I think included me, used to speak, thus we were part of perpetuating the myth that women should not speak in public or in front of men. This is why as Suhaib Webb mentioned (beginning about 3:20 in), I have to be ethically committed to being an American Muslim woman and leader. I cannot let the cultural, political, and social dictates from “over there” dictate how we live here in America because it harms us as individuals and as a community.
This also affects how I view working in concert with others. I will not use the terms kafir or kuffar or yehud pejoratively as I’ve heard them used by others to describe non-Muslims and Jews. In contrast to my previous views, I’m open to working with individuals across the spectrum of Islam and also non-Muslims on issues of mutual concern without recourse to a litmus test for their piety. I will read and listen to authors and speakers, those whom I agree with and those with whom I disagree and I won’t apologize for that. I will join with my family on their days of celebration, not engaging in anything that I feel contradicts my religion, and I’m not going to apologize if that makes some uncomfortable. I will support the revolutions of courage happening in and around the Muslim world without apologies to those who believe protesting is impermissible in Islamic law. I will no longer sit idly by while I hear nonsense from the minbar or from my peers about gender, society, politics, and religion. I will not give in to the pressure to be silent and to disappear. And I will, when able, do my best to push my community forward towards good even if it make some uncomfortable.
I am an American Muslim woman.