Giving Islam a Bad Name

malala yousufzai 2Today, on her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations about her experience of being shot by the Taliban for speaking out on the importance of education for girls. On the day she was shot, she said, “nothing changed in my life except this—weakness, fear and hopelessness died.”

I can’t even imagine the courage it took, and still takes, for girls to attend school in northwestern Pakistan. There have been more than 800 attacks on schools in the region since 2009. Schools are routinely bombed in the middle of the night. Existing schools have armed guards during the day. And yet many girls still attend; their desire to be educated is that strong.

But this post isn’t primarily about their courage or Malala’s message. I’m writing today because of the great sadness, and yes, anger, I feel about the dishonor the Taliban and other like-minded organizations bring on Islam.

The Pakistani Taliban says that the education of girls is a symbol of Western decadence and governmental authority. They also bomb schools to keep the military from being able to establish temporary bases in them. But of course their motivation isn’t really about politics, it’s about protecting the sanctity of Islam.

Excuse my language, but that’s bull***t. And I’m sick and tired of organizations like the Taliban using Islam as an excuse to acquire power and intimidate enemies.

I accepted Islam as my religion partly because I admired its emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge. To me, education is almost as sacred as worship. For what good to Allah is a Muslim who is ignorant, especially willfully so? And why would Allah want women to be ignorant when they are the very foundation of the family?

It’s bad enough that some Muslims kill in the name of Allah. But most non-Muslims realize that these are the actions of a few deluded fanatics. However, when they hear that whole Islamic organizations advocate the repression and mistreatment of women, they find it hard to give Muslims the benefit of the doubt.

I’m tired of non-Muslims looking at me like I’m crazy when I say that Islam is an egalitarian religion and that Mohammad admonished his followers to treat women with justice and respect. I despair of ever convincing them to give Islam a chance when the news is full of stories about honor killings, female genital mutilation and deadly attacks on schoolgirls.

The media are partly to blame for sensationalizing the negative, but not as much as fundamentalists are for perpetrating the myth that Islam is patriarchal and misogynist. I feel like a mother whose child has been wrongly accused of wrongdoing; my heart breaks at the damage that is done to Islam’s reputation in the world.

Sometimes I imagine the day when all these “pious” Muslims will be judged for how they distorted Islam’s message. We all have sins we dread being confronted with on Judgment Day, but I hope that making the lives of half of Allah’s children miserable won’t be one of mine.

Why This Feminist Converted to Islam

I’m not sure why, but statistics about American Muslims are hard to come by. Estimates run from a little over 1 million to 7 million. Part of the reason for the discrepancy is the confusion over how to define Muslim. Are we counting only practicing Muslims? What about those who are born Muslim, but no longer observe Islamic rituals? And an even bigger mystery is the rate of conversion or number of converts in the U.S. Some sources put the number of converts at 17% of the American Muslim population. Others claim that approximately 20,000 Americans convert to Islam every year.

But whatever the number, most agree that there are more women converting to Islam than men. This puzzles non-Muslims who see Islam as a sexist religion that robs women of their autonomy. They tend to assume that the only reason a woman converts to Islam is because she is marrying a Muslim. While this is true in some cases, it doesn’t mean that the conversion is meaningless. And in my own experience, most of the women converts I’ve met converted on their own, for their own personal reasons.

Take for example a woman I know whom I’ll call Renee. She converted eight years ago when she was 24. She only recently became engaged to a Muslim. Her decision to convert had nothing to do with marriage to a Muslim. She is the only Muslim in her family. She wears the hijab and is active in mosque activities, particularly in the New Muslim Support Group. Most of the members of that group are women.

I’m another example. I converted two years ago at the age of 57. My husband is not a Muslim, nor is he interested in converting (although he completely supports my decision to do so). None of my children are Muslim. I had been a life-long Christian, even at one time the wife of a minister. And to top it off, I’m a feminist. Yet somehow Islam spoke to me and I found that I couldn’t ignore its call.

So why do women convert to Islam, if it’s such a sexist religion? I don’t know about all women, but here are my reasons, based on how I see Islam and what I’ve read in the Qur’an:

Islam actually accords women a higher status than most other religions, including Christianity. Women are not blamed for the introduction of evil into the world (the Fall). Men and women are held equally responsible before Allah and are seen as equal by Him. Islam also reveres the role of women in society, particularly as mothers. Muslim men are taught to treasure the women in their lives.

Islam has a healthier attitude toward sex than Christianity does. Women are not seen as temptresses or whores. Islam teaches that both men and women have a right to sexual pleasure.

I actually like Islam’s call for modesty. I didn’t realize until I started dressing hijab (Islamically) how uncomfortable I’d been exposing my cleavage, for instance. Somehow it just didn’t seem right. I don’t excuse men for having “unclean” thoughts about women, but I do believe that a woman has a responsibility to not do anything to undermine the respect society should accord her. Please don’t take this to mean that I think a woman who dresses provocatively is a slut or deserves to be raped. I don’t. But I personally feel more comfortable being private about what I expose to just anyone.

This brings me to the hijab itself, or headscarf. I don’t wear the hijab because I think a woman’s uncovered hair is enticing to men. I wear it because it helps me to be less preoccupied about my appearance. I confess, however, that I still like to look attractive. I match my hijabs to my outfits and arrange them in ways that I think are flattering. But still, just the act of wearing a hijab reminds me of my commitment to Allah. It’s a little bit like being a nun who wears the habit. It’s an outward sign of an inner conviction.

Finally, I don’t see Islam as sexist. Yes, some Muslim men are controlling, arrogant and abusive. But you know what? So are some non-Muslim men. How a man treats the women in his life has more to do with his cultural attitudes and traditions than with what he has learned from the Qur’an and the example of Mohammad (pbuh). I’m deeply disturbed when I hear non-Muslims saying that honor killings and female genital mutilation are part of Islam. They most emphatically are not.

Men who keep their women sequestered away in their homes are not following Islamic principles. Women are encouraged to be fully involved in life, and especially in the pursuit of knowledge, in order to contribute more to society, no matter what they do.

There is a pragmatic side to Islam that makes me feel more connected to the world. Christianity has its missionary work, but the average Christian is more concerned about his personal spirituality than with the needs of society. It comforts me to know that Allah has a special burden for the poor, the orphaned and the widowed. Women are especially vulnerable in any society, and it’s important to me that the Qur’an mandates Muslims to take care of those less fortunate than themselves.

If you have any questions about this post, feel free to ask them either in a comment or by contacting me at ellen [at] femagination [dot] com. I’d love to hear what you think!

My next post is going to be about the special needs of women converts.




Worrying About What Others Think

I’m going to a memorial service this morning for my old Girl Scout troop leader. She was also my mother’s best friend and her daughters and my sister and I are the same age and were close friends when we were growing up. I haven’t seen the older daughter, the one my age, for thirty years. I didn’t even know her married name until I saw it in the obituary.

I’m looking forward to seeing people from my past, but I’m nervous, too. Most of them have no idea that I’ve converted to Islam. And I will be announcing that fact loud and clear by wearing the hijab. (I’m also considering wearing an abaya.) I worry that I’ll put people off, that they’ll feel uncomfortable around me. But I’m praying that Allah will pave the way. After all, my being a Muslim is to His glory and really has nothing to do with me.

Besides, one reason I dress hijab is because I want people to see that anyone can become a Muslim. There’s nothing in my background, other than a belief in God and an interest in religion, that points to the likelihood of my converting to Islam. Both my grandfather and my first husband were ministers and I have been sporadically active in the Christian church for most of my adult life. As little as three years ago, the thought of becoming a Muslim was the furthest thing from my mind (or so I thought at the time).

I’m proof that Allah is the one who guides our hearts. Mine has always been with Him, from my earliest memories. I just didn’t know how to express it in a way that would be completely meaningful to me.

And yet I’m still afraid of what others think of me sometimes.

I went through this when my youngest daughter got married. From the moment she announced her engagement, I started worrying about wearing the hijab to her wedding. She and her fiancé were perfectly fine with it, but I wasn’t so sure that others would be. The groom’s family was also fine with it, even though they’re Catholic. But there were going to be others there who were sure to be taken back by the hijabi in their midst, especially once they realized that she was the mother of the bride.

My husband took it for granted that I would wear the hijab to all the wedding festivities. I wasn’t as sure as he was. I fussed for months about what I could wear that wouldn’t look too “Muslim.” As if the hijab wouldn’t be a dead giveaway! I finally settled on a long skirt and jacket for the rehearsal dinner and a lavender abaya for the wedding.

I knew that I was being silly, but I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself at my daughter’s wedding. I didn’t want her to be sorry when she got her wedding pictures and there was her mother sticking out like a sore thumb.

I did feel kind of isolated because no one came up to me to congratulate me or compliment me on my lovely daughter. But there wasn’t a reception line, so that wasn’t all that strange. And I was asked to give a toast to my daughter and new son-in-law. I appear in many of the pictures and I don’t really look out of place. It seems that I worried for nothing.

I was actually relieved when one of my relatives came up and asked me about my conversion. I’d rather people acknowledge it in some way than talk about it behind my back. I did have another relative ask me after the wedding, “What do you think your grandfather would say?” but that was the mildest form of disapproval I received the entire weekend.

The fact is, I haven’t had any negative comments since I started to wear the hijab. Most people ignore it and those who do mention it are usually just curious. I don’t know whether this means that people in Ohio are more accepting than people in some other places or if they just don’t know what to say. I did have a man greet me at the bus stop the other day and when I responded, he said, “Oh, I thought you were one of those Arab ladies until you spoke!” But he was perfectly friendly. It seems that people are more puzzled about my ethnicity because I don’t look like what they imagine a Muslim looks like than they are about the fact that I’ve converted to Islam.

I know that wearing the hijab is a big decision for many Muslim women. But I can attest to the fact that we worry about it too much. The burden is really on others to decide how they’re going to react to it not on us to make them feel more comfortable about it.

This is who I am now. I’ve announced it to the world on Facebook (that makes it official, right?) and I announce it every day when I walk out of the house in a hijab. I don’t want to return to the way I used to be, unsure about my relationship to God and unhappy with every religion I encountered.

But I still have to remind myself sometimes that I’m proud to be a Muslim, that it was my free choice to convert and that I haven’t regretted it for a minute. Maybe I’ll get a chance to tell someone that today. But if not, my hijab will tell people for me.




What Motherhood Means in Islam

The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) made it very clear what he thought of mothers. He taught that “Heaven lies at the feet of a mother.” Then there is the well-known hadith about the importance of mothers:

A man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship?’ The Prophet said: ‘Your mother.’ The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: ‘Then your mother.’ The man further asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: ‘Then your mother.’ The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: ‘Then your father.’ (Bukhari, Muslim).

With great honor comes great responsibility. These words were not said just to make mothers feel good. If anything, they should make mothers even more aware of how important their role is. For a bad mother could just as easily bring Hell to her children. And if children are going to look to their mother for companionship, then she needs to be the kind of person Allah commands her to be.

Both parents are necessary to teach a child what he needs to know to become a mature and righteous adult. And indeed, the Qur’an and Mohammed both stress the importance of honoring our parents. But because of the unique relationship mothers have to their children, they are in the best position to teach them one of life’s most important lessons: how to be loving and caring.

But a mother cannot teach these lessons unless she earns her children’s trust. That is the very essence of the bond between mother and child. If a child doesn’t learn at her mother’s knee what it is to trust another, she will have a hard time trusting anyone, even (or especially) God.

When I had my first child, someone sent me a card of congratulations. But it also contained a prayer that asked God to “help me to be worthy of the trust in those precious eyes.” I framed the prayer and kept it through the births of all four of my children. There were many days when I needed that reminder! It’s a heavy responsibility to be the face of love to a child.

Which brings me to Mother’s Day. I read an opinion the other day that Muslims shouldn’t celebrated Mother’s Day for two reasons: 1) The Prophet (PBUH) taught us only to celebrate two Eids and anything else is an innovation and thus outside of the will of God; and 2) Mother’s Day is a holiday established by kuffar (non-believers) and is therefore haram for Muslims.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not the strictest Muslim in the world. For one thing, I don’t know enough about what is and what isn’t haram. I’ve only read the Qur’an through once so far and I am familiar with only a few ahadith. For another, it is extremely difficult for me to suddenly throw off a lifetime of traditions and experiences and become an entirely different person.

But if I was to just use my common sense, I would say that the Eids Mohammed (PBUH) instituted were meant to be part of our worship of Allah and are therefore religious. Obviously it would be haram for us to celebrate religious holidays that are not Islamic. I completely understand why we’re not to celebrate Christmas or Easter, for instance. But what about secular holidays? If the country we’re living in has holidays that have national, but not religious, significance, what is the harm in at least recognizing them?

I don’t believe in cutting myself off from non-believers by insisting that anything they do is somehow unclean and unrighteous. In my opinion, the more we say to non-Muslims that what they do is wrong, the wider the wedge we drive between us. How is it possible to witness to the truth of Islam when we repeatedly tell non-Muslims that we can’t have anything to do with them or their ways?

I’m not proposing that we should accommodate ourselves to the non-Muslim world. But if we are to encourage non-Muslims to enter our world, where is the sin in showing them that we have beliefs and customs that reinforce, or at least do not negate, some of theirs?

Muslims make a special point of honoring motherhood. So do non-Muslims on Mother’s Day. So why can’t we see Mother’s Day as common ground between us?

It’s true that Muslims believe that mothers should be honored every day and not just one day a year. But by celebrating Mother’s Day, non-Muslims aren’t saying that they only honor mothers on that one day. What they are saying is that mothers deserve a special day of recognition. Is that really an attitude that is incompatible with Islam?

My daughters took me out for brunch yesterday for Mother’s Day. Can you imagine if I had told them that I couldn’t celebrate Mother’s Day anymore because I’m a Muslim? I think they would get the wrong impression of Islam if I did that. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t help but think that they came away with a favorable opinion of Islam by the fact that their hijab-wearing mother wanted to share a special day with them.

After all, Mother’s Day is also about my gratitude to God for the children with which He blessed me.





Join the Discussion

I’ve been having a discussion on my other blog, Femagination, with one of my readers who refuses to believe that I can be a feminist and a Muslim. (See the post “Islam and Gender Roles” and the comments about it here.) He or she has raised many interesting questions, but has also been rather aggressive in his or her challenges to my reasoning.

Here are some examples:

You have to be obedient to your husband, he can hit you if you deserve it, you may not leave the house without his permission, and then only in a hijab, and he can have other wives. On top of that your beloved prophet killed the male relatives and kidnapped women and took a child bride amongst his many wives.

I’m just trying to understand how a feminist can buy into a religion that sanctions the near total or total control of a woman. And that is only the written law. The practice in many Muslim countries is much worse: honor killings, female genital mutilation, and the Dutch Muslim “smiley”, and the “cultural defense” to rape in Australia.

However, this person also wrote some things that I thought were worth exploring. For instance:

What most interests me is personal freedom, the right to bodily integrity, freedom of movement, of occupation, freedom to choose, the freedoms that we take for granted in the west, yet are restricted in sharia. Right now you have chosen Islam, but you are not living under sharia law. So you can pick and choose, as you please. But maybe you will feel differently when you are married to a Muslim man, subject to his wishes, and subject to a sharia legal system. Then your personal feelings about these and many other issues will simply be irrelevant.

I admit that I don’t know a lot about Shariah. Even so, I answered this way:

Did you know that Sharia is a reflection of God’s will for mankind, but that there is no universal agreement on exactly what the rules and laws of Sharia are? There is room for interpretation and innovation, particularly if you’re a Muslim of the Sunni tradition, which I am. I don’t believe in some of the adjudications that have been made in Sharia courts and would not live anywhere that practices things like stoning adulterers. But just the fact that these practices are not followed in every Muslim country should tell you that Sharia is not set in stone.

When the commenter accused me of not being willing to critically examine Islam, I wrote:

I am most definitely not closed to looking at Islam critically. I did the same with Christianity and when it failed to make sense to me, I left it. I still hold a lot of Christian-influenced views–Muslims believe that Jesus was one of the greater prophets after all–but I no longer feel that the Trinity is the best way to describe the nature of God. I wasn’t traumatized by things that happened to me in the Christian church—on the contrary, I believe that I found what I needed in the Christianity at that time in my life.

Please feel free to add to this discussion either here or on Femagination.

Sexual Rights, Human Rights

As part of the “One Day, One Struggle” 2010 campaign to promote sexual and bodily rights in Muslim societies, Lebanon-based groups Nasawiya, Helem and Meem developed this video campaign, focusing on bodily autonomy and sexual rights of individuals.

On November 9, 2010, the 2nd international “One Day One Struggle” Campaign called for public attention to issues like Right to Information, Sexuality Education, Sexual Health, Bodily Autonomy and Sexual Rights of Individuals, LGBTTQ Rights, Sexual Diversity and Islam, Sexuality and Shari’a as well as the struggle to stop sexual rights violations ranging from Polygamy to killings of women, gay people and transsexuals. The campaign took place in 12 countries across the Middle East, North Africa, South and Southeast Asia. Almost 50 participating human rights organizations, universities and municipalities will participated.

Launched by the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR), “One Day One Struggle” is a unique effort to underscore the joint struggle against the violation of sexual and bodily rights in Muslim societies. Nasawiya, Meem and Helem are part of CSBR.

Some Muslims take offense at campaigns like this because they feel that a person’s sexuality, while a private matter, should be regulated by Islamic rules and regulation and the morés of Muslim society. However, sexuality is often used as a tool for political oppression and human rights violations. This is especially true among militaristic, conservative Muslims who politicize Islam as justification for their attempts to control society, chiefly through their control of women.

I’m not arguing that Muslims should be free to do whatever they want with their bodies. But their obedience in these matters should be to Allah and not to civil or religious authorities.  Judgment and punishment is Allah’s to dispense. We have no business punishing individuals, especially all out of proportion to the act itself,  like execution for adultery.

A society that punishes its women for wanting to come and go as they please or to socialize with whom they please is a society that doesn’t trust Allah’s ability to guide those who believe in Him. Sure, people will make mistakes, but the only time that sexual actions should be punished by man is when they are perpetrated willfully against the innocent (such as rape or child abuse).

And I especially do not agree with judging women more strictly than men for the same actions. For example, women are told that they have to be modest so they won’t tempt men. Why isn’t as much emphasis put on men to control their thoughts and actions (as well as to be modest also)?

One reason I’m a feminist and a Muslim is because I believe that men and women are equal before God. They should share the same burden to be chaste and to fulfill the obligations that are put upon them by Allah. I don’t buy the idea that women are the source of all evil and therefore have to be controlled by men “for their own good.” Men and women are to help each other to be virtuous.

Education and example are the keys, not punishment and control.

Read more about the “One Day One Struggle” campaign here.

Tales From A Hijabi

One good thing about wearing hijab is that you are immediately identifiable as a Muslim. That’s also one of the bad things. Because the truth is, sometimes it feels more comfortable to travel incognito. I don’t always want everyone who sees me to know what religion I belong to. And not only what religion I belong to, but also to know that I think enough of it to allow myself to be “branded” as one of its ambassadors.

Because that’s what you are when you wear a hijab. I’ve written about this before (“Muslim Women: Ambassadors for Islam“) but now that I’ve been a Muslim for a while, I thought I’d revisit the topic.

I’m fortunate that I haven’t received any negative reactions to my hijab, either at work or when I’m out in public. But sometimes the hardest situation to get through involves family members, especially when you’re a convert and no one else in your family is Muslim.

This has been on my mind a lot lately because my daughter is getting married soon and I had to decide what I was going to do about my outfit.  Mother-of-the-bride dresses tend to be conservative in appearance, but none of them appealed to me (they all look the same). Not only that, but I wasn’t sure how they would look with a hijab.*

Mind you, I wasn’t even sure I was going to wear the hijab. I felt uncomfortable about being “exposed” as a Muslim at my daughter’s wedding. What would the other side of the family think (they’re mostly Catholics)? What would my daughters’ father think (he’s an ordained minister)? And most importantly, what would my daughter and her fiancé think?

I finally got up the nerve to ask my daughter and she was almost surprised that I’d considered not wearing my hijab. “It’s who you are, Mom. Of course you should wear it.” She and her fiancé are totally fine with it.

Then I realized that if I was going to wear it to the wedding, I’d also have to wear it to the bridal showers. That made me nervous because it would be the first time I would be meeting anyone from the groom’s family, besides his mother, and I hadn’t been dressing hijab then.

I could tell that my oldest daughter was uncomfortable with my decision. She was afraid that people would make a big deal about my being Muslim and that it would detract from the wedding festivities. Not only that, but she hadn’t even told her boyfriend that I was a Muslim. As far as I know she still hasn’t. (My grandson, who is eleven, has been with me when I’ve worn hijab and he barely seems to notice.)

I was nervous when I went to get dressed for the first shower, but as soon as I put on the hijab, it felt so natural that I calmed down immediately. And as soon as I got to the shower, I realized that I needn’t have worried. Maybe my hijab was the elephant in the room no one wanted to talk about, but no one acted funny toward me.

My ex-mother-in-law, however, did mention it. She wanted to know why I wore it and how I came to be a Muslim. But she didn’t say it in a judgmental way; she seemed genuinely interested.

I can understand people having questions. And I’d rather people ask than talk about it later, when I’m not there to correct any misconceptions they might have. Once when I was waiting in an airport with my husband, the woman sitting next to me said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I was wondering about your scarf.” She wanted to know if I had to wear it all the time and if I had hair under it. But that led to more questions about Muslims in general. She was perfectly pleasant and seemed happy that I would talk about it with her.

It wasn’t lost on me that we wouldn’t have had that conversation if I hadn’t been wearing my hijab. But the flip side is that I was thrust into the role of being a representative for Muslims. That’s not a bad thing, however; at least I was able to show one person that not all Muslims are terrorists and suicide bombers.

I met a young woman at the mosque a few weeks ago. She was wearing a hijab of course because she was there to pray. But she told me that people don’t ask her much about Islam because she doesn’t wear the hijab normally and a lot of people don’t even know that she’s Muslim. All I could think was, “What a lost opportunity!”

That doesn’t mean that I think all Muslim women should wear the hijab, but at the same time I wonder why some of them don’t. Are they uncomfortable being asked about their faith? Have they had bad experiences when they did wear it? Do they work somewhere that frowns upon their wearing it? (Although technically it’s illegal to prevent a woman from wearing a hijab at work, there are instances where it might not be appropriate, or where the woman herself might not feel comfortable wearing it.)

I’m glad I made the decision to wear the hijab. There are times when I wish I didn’t have to wear it (like when it’s hot), but for the most part I feel more “complete” when I have it on (and I don’t have to worry about what my hair looks like!). I enjoy the instant camaraderie I experience when I meet another Muslim (even, or especially, when he or she is a stranger). And I’m proud to wear it as a symbol of my faith.

From East

*I finally decided on a lavender abaya with a white lace hijab for my daughter’s wedding.