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. 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.

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Author: Ify Okoye

Muslim woman, RN, & rebel with a cause.

15 thoughts on “On the Need to be Ethically Committed to being an American Muslim Woman”

  1. mashallah sis! This is awesome! I agree 1000% I attended a university in DC as well but now I am married and living in New York. Prayer space accomadations is such a jarring issue in our daily lives its exhuasting and makes me ashamed.

    I am shocked about how those men refused to go to the basement. I wish I was standing there and saying Uh huh! now you know how we feel..the last thing that the majority of the brothers are doing is policing the ummah for the equality it was meant to establish. Unfortunately that mostly falls on our shoulders and the fact that women are considered “trouble makers” for speaking out for common decency and equity already established with solid proof in our faith is sad. I understand why so many of our sisters feel its better to recede and stay silent however may I offer some advice. To me I believe its a weak show of iman to care so much what others think that we would prevent ourselves from forbidding this degrading behavior. The more learned and conscientious we become of our faith the more obvious it should be to not stand for it. Its not about what others think, it is about what the Almighty swt thinks.

    I never got used to nor feel comfortable using words like kafir and yahud. I truly believe that those that use it regularly adopt an air of superiority within themselves which is incredibly prideful and unislamic behavior.

    Also, I think its strange how when brothers and sisters get together they act like juvenile scared bunnies wanting to run into separate buildings. As if the more shy one acts the more seemingly humble and taqwa he can exude.. Yet these brothers and sisters chose to attend coed colleges and function daily in this society, work in teams…etc. Yes there are boundaries that we should not cross but the policing off our nafs should be an inward struggle first. Our ummah in the states suffers because the lack of cohesiveness and understanding which I believe greatly relates to the way we treat our women.

    Excuse me for the rant and long comment 🙂

  2. Is-za, welcome to the blog! Rants and long comments welcome, my post was a kind of manifesto, especially when I read aloud to myself.

    My continuing hope is that as a community we can begin to have more honest discussions about simply being “real” as it relates to gender issues and that we can cast aside these outdated modes of being, which neither reflect the reality of lives here nor a viable future for the succeeding generations.

    For every lecture I hear about the need for women to be more active, those words are undone by the underlying messaging from our community through our actions and something like mosque setup, which speaks so much more loudly.

  3. Salam sister,

    I wanted to thank you for your interesting blogpost. As a male, I was very interested to hear about the female perspective in our Muslim community. As a Muslim, I fully support your belief that women should assert their rights whenever it is being trampled upon. How can we grow as a community when half of us are ignored, silenced, or put in a basement corner?

    Best of luck to you and your efforts. God bless.

  4. Salam Disillusioned, you’re quite welcome, thank you for reading, commenting, and your support. Heartened to learn of more good people of conscience recognizing the seriousness of the issues we’re advocating for.

  5. Salaam!

    “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 experienced this, too, in my undergraduate MSA. I spent two years trying to be someone I wasn’t, an image of a Muslimah that was foreign to the Islam that I was raised in, the Islam that I came to know through my mother, two of my aunts and my grandmother, the matriarch of my extended family. The Islam I learned while in the MSA, that I felt I had to learn, was so different from the more organic Islam I grew up with…and as I find my way back to a healthier middle path, I draw from my role models, these Muslim women in my family, to find my way to the Muslimah I really want to be, and not the one I feel I need to be.

    I love your posts, by the way! 🙂 It’s great reading about you balance identities, as I’ve had to do a similar thing. I’m glad that you feel more comfortable speaking up in class, celebrating with your family…basically, being more yourself!

    ws, ~Chinyere

  6. Salaam Chinyere,

    It’s so refreshing to not be bogged down by social and cultural complexes of others. I love seeing and hearing the stories of American Muslims who have been Muslim for decades or who have been Muslim in America for generations because they tend to have a more mature understanding and the experience of living their Islam here. And yes, I’ve been raising my hand and asking my questions and exchanging salams more frequently without awkwardness. Intend to be on the microphone more at our classes as well, insha’Allah.

  7. Pretty devastating comment left on my photoblog from one Muslim woman disheartened by the poor setup and excuses given to justify inferior seating arrangements:

    Thank you. I have been struggling with this as well, I’ve been living in Canada for 24 years now, and I am so upset with the way we are treated.

    I’ve attended a seminar with Al Maghrib Institute last week end and this week end in Edmonton, Alberta, and the first thing I noticed was the seating arrangements: all Front rows were reserved for men and women were given the back rows starting from the middle. I complained to them saying I have paid the same amount and don’t see why I should get a less desirable seat…

  8. As you know, Sr. Ify, I agree that there should be more gender equality, and improved prayer spaces for women, though I may not agree with the way the organization Pray In Protest has been carrying out.

    Regarding both of your examples:

    #1 The brothers had to once pray downstairs in the basement, and the overwhelming majority of brothers did not have a problem with it. I have seen in an earlier post that “unsurprisingly” most brothers were against it but unfortunately, I was in the basement myself and saw it to the contrary.

    #2 Regarding the horseback riding trip, it’s different to be merely conversing with sisters, which is fine, as opposed to having to ride on a horse, which many may feel uncomfortable doing with jilbabs on. I’m sorry if I’m considered an extremist for thinking that it’s better for women to exercise and go on these trips at their own times, but I still think that there are legitimate concerns, and simply pointing to our societal norms is a flawed example at best.

  9. Arif,

    I remember at least one or two occasions last year where the overflow worshippers were directed downstairs and on one occasion quite a number of the brothers refused to go downstairs. They stood out in the hallway looking in, I know because I was there upstairs and the brothers had to move up and in closer about three separate times to make space for them.

    Then after this was the shocking and completely dismaying day when all of the women were kicked out of the main hall and forced to pray downstairs. One sister who only gets to attend jumu’ah infrequently told me afterward that she was so “disappointed” by the setup that day that she almost turned around and walked out.

    You don’t need to apologize to me, if you consider yourself an “extremist” that’s your business but recognize that some of us and in this case the majority don’t always feel a need to cater to your views. And this is especially pertinent when leading large groups, you’ll always have people on either end of the spectrum and everyone else in between. What’s important is not what you or I believe as individuals but what’s in the best of interest of majority. An issue may come up where I lean towards a more conservative or liberal opinion, yet I keep that to myself, and go with a view I don’t particularly care for or subscribe to because I think there’s a greater good involved.

    1. I’m not sure if “quite a number of the brothers” counts as a majority.

      I also agree that it is up to the decision of the majority, in most cases, to decide what is best for them and that a leader should reflect the views of the majority.

  10. I stumbled on your site quite by accident today, I totally love your blog. You could have been interviewing me for this piece, as almost if not all of your points I agree with. As a convert, I have struggled with this attitude of “us verses them” I reject this completely, because we are all going through the same struggle of life, no matter your faith or gender. Peace and blessings to you sister. May God shower you with all the good of this world and the hereafter.

    1. Salaam Aliya and welcome to the blog and ameen to your dua! I’m happy to be able to share part of our common experiences here. And yes, the struggles are the same.

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