On My Ten Years of Modesty

(Before you read this post, read this piece on Salon.com.) 

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There is so much more to these ladies than just plain old “modesty.” Click to visit my Pinterest board “Hijabis being hijabis.”

The alarm bells should have gone off when I saw the words “modesty experiment” in the opening sentence, but maybe I was too curious too notice. The author, Lauren Shields (who, it turns out, is making a writerly career out of her nine months of dressing modestly), spoke of how refreshing it was to let go of her “Beauty Suit”:

I learned that looking good isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it becomes the cornerstone of your identity — like the advertising industry tries to convince us it is — then you’re doing nothing but damage to yourself.

It’s a wickedly delicious piece, a piece that made a hijabi like me say: “yayayyay that’s me down with objectificationz!”

And then, as though I had inhaled a slice of cake far too quickly, I started to feel a little queasy.

It’s nice to think that as a woman who covers to be modest, I’m consistently focused on “something else, something more important than what [is] trendy.” But ten years into the hijab, a soul-gripping battle with it, and evolving with and through it, here is what I say: Dressing modestly isn’t about being above it all. Also: framing it as though it is is insulting to women who do dress up, bare some skin, and do so with their self confidence intact.

I can appreciate the writer’s relief at unburdening herself from societal expectations, but there’s also the other side we need to remember: in several places, modest dress is used as a means for controlling women and dictating their worth. To these women, dressing up is the means of resistance, just like modest dress is a means of resistance for Shields.

Plus, dressing modestly can correspond heavily with looking frumpy and unkempt. Yes, there are hijabi fashionistas, but there are also hijabis who, in their religious zeal, forgot what it means to pluck one’s eyebrows, exercise regularly, or buy clothes that suit one’s body shape.

Dressing modestly is not a ticket to looking like you live in a library basement. Looking clean and groomed is part of the Islamic tradition.

I do that, and, circumstances permitting, I try and go a step further. So I can actually highly relate to the burdensome primping the writer describes in depicting her pre-modest life. Yes, I, a person who dresses modestly, also have to undergo considerable effort in looking nice. And I do so not for other’s attention: at least I hope not.

I do so because the face, the body, is a canvas. And God has bestowed us means of expressing our individuality, so many ways of showing the world what makes us us.

Let’s not paint any group of people with the same brush and try to take shots at people’s intentions for dressing the way they do. In any case, I suspect that the criminally trendy are not guilty of wanting attention nearly as much as they are guilty of lacking an imagination, lacking the depth of the spirit that outwardly manifests in a precise combination of hair, makeup, facial hair, clothes, and accessories.

A canvas, I tell you.


On One Billion Salawat Day

It has been a horrendous week, so this announcement is going up much later than intended. But better late than never…

Tomorrow (November 4th 2012) there will be a worldwide event commemorating the love of the Prophet through the repetition of the following:

This prayer upon the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), called the salawat, is highly recommended as a means of general remembrance in all situations. Whenever my grandmother saw that I was distressed, she would remind me to repeat it over and over, telling me that it provides ease in all matters. (She’s right. I do it to this day.) My mother recited it to herself continuously and quietly on the wedding dais to ward off the anxiety that comes with taking such a major step in life. As a close family friend told us, this prayer should fill in the empty gaps of our day, such as the few seconds when we are waiting for someone to pick up the phone. Hamza Yusuf calls it a cooling prayer, in contrast to the supplications that call upon God’s intense and powerful qualities. Similarly, I have heard that saints undertaking recitations of God’s most mighty and powerful names padded them a hundred recitations of the salawat to balance the powerful impact of those names.

I love the concept of this event because we need spiritual solutions as much as we need logistical ones. We live in strange times, and while these strange times entail exploring new and creative means of enacting spirituality, they are also times of fitnah, of great trial and hardship. No matter which way you self-identify as a Muslim, I’m pretty sure you agree that we face enormous challenges, serious confrontations to our faith, and at times bewildering anomalies that push our patience and understanding to their limits. A 14-year-old girl gets shot because she openly criticizes those who deny her the right to education. Muslims go mental when someone of no significance makes a film insulting the Prophet (PBUH), but hardly bat an eye when it comes to destroying the historical sites that are the only remaining fragments of his legacy. There are people spending a lot of time and money to ensure that Islamophobic motifs have a presence in people’s daily lives. There are a host of issues related to Muslim women: they are in dire need for more inclusive spaces in the mosque, they are also having a worse time than men in finding spouses, and certain governing entities think that legislating their clothing is perfectly acceptable.

I am not shooting off these pain points because I want to keep you up at night. I’m sharing them to show just how badly we need Allah’s help in working through these situations.

When I told my mother about this initiative, she recommended that those participating in the event begin with asking forgiveness from God with with a hundred recitations of astaghfirullah. I agree with her. Who knows what wrongs we are committing that are distancing us from Allah (SWT) and worsening our situations. It could be doing nothing about the cultural taboos surrounding disability and mental illness. Or it could be working tirelessly to get people to convert to Islam, only to harangue them about getting rid of their dogs. How about bringing our girls up with the idea that their bodies are something to be ashamed of? Or slaughtering animals in the most inhumane ways imaginable, thinking that just saying His name is enough to render it halal? Indeed, may Allah forgive us. May He hear us in our united proclamation of love for His messenger and instill us with the grace and spirit worthy of his legacy.

By turning our gaze heavenward and engaging in this collective worship, our hearts will, Insh’Allah, be given ease. With along hard work, common sense, and a genuine openness for solutions in forms we may not have imagined, this could be a start

I deeply hope and pray that it will. There has not been a time that I recited the salawat and not felt at least a temporary relief, enough ease and calm to be able to see solutions rather than dwell on problems. Perhaps the baraka in this can benefit us all on a grander scale as well.

On Reading The Butterfly Mosque

Title: The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam

Author: G. Willow Wilson

Publication Date: August 2010

Genre:  Autobiography

Source: Local library

This startlingly lovely book gracefully and tentatively walks the tightrope between being a gentle narrative and a grimly realistic testimony to the growing divide between the East and West.

It’s not inaccurate to say that this book is about a woman’s conversion to Islam, her move to Egypt, her marriage to an Egyptian Muslim, and her struggle to come to terms with the American/Muslim/Egyptian dimensions of her existence. I feel, however, that even that description alone does a disservice to this story. There are so many ways Wilson could have written a book that fits this description. The precise way she wrote it and her specific treatment of her subject matter, however, are what make this book a must-read for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Here is what makes it so:

  • The Muslim and non-Muslim reader of this book is on equal footing. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I assumed that I was not the kind of reader Wilson was writing for. I thought that her treatment of Islam’s tenets and history would be very basic, and that this would be a mere readable and feel-good record of her cultural immersion. I was so glad to be proven wrong: her account and writing can be revelatory for readers of all faiths. She remarks, for example, on the fact that the Islamic calendar are not fixed, and therefore occasions like Eid can occur during any season, reflecting that God does not want us to worship nature or become to attached to the material, even if it is through associating a certain type of season with a holiday. Such a description is only one example of how she can introduce a fact about Islam while introducing a refreshing perspective for a practicing Muslim.
  • The author is very honest about her romantic relationship and her struggle with it. I loved this honesty, which is more heartfelt than raw, and I loved how she is very upfront about the realities of loving someone from a vastly different background. It isn’t for no reason that love blossoms between Wilson and the man who would become her husband: they are passionate about Islam, about Egypt, about art and spirituality, and both are anomalies in respect to their indigenous cultures. He is amazingly tender towards her (he’s so dreamy) and they have a beautiful wedding. I really, appreciated, however, how Wilson makes a point that love stories, even in memoirs, often miss out on: love is a struggle. The more disparate your backgrounds, the greater a struggle it is. She writes: “Love is not a benign thing. No corner of my life remained unaltered by the consequences of what I loved. The most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me brought me neither peace nor comfort. But it did bring me Omar. And that was more than enough.”
  •  She gives a similar treatment to the Egyptians and Iranians portrayed in the book. All too aware that she does not speak for them, she carefully presents their attitudes and norms without apology and with careful explanation from within the cultural framework. In fact, she goes even further by posing some striking perspectives when it comes to being a woman in an Egyptian society:

When people wonder why Arab women defend their culture, they focus on the way women who don’t follow the rules are punished, and fail to consider the way women who do follow the rules are rewarded. When I finished an article or essay, all I received was an e-mail from an editor saying, ‘Thanks, got it.’ When I cooked an iftar meal during Ramadan, a dozen tender voices blessed my hands.

  • Her description of Cairo is magnificent. Really, I’m at a loss to explain what made it so wonderful. I’ll only say that if I ever visit the city, I’ll make a point of re-reading the book and mapping out the monuments, buildings, and cafes she describes. I also greatly admire her for refusing to life the insulated life of an expat in the city and getting as close as she could to experiencing life as an Egyptian woman.
  • This, a passage that made me experience a deep sense of kinship that had me reeling for days:

In her book The Trouble with Islam, Irshad Manji smugly announces that . . . ‘it was Islam’s job’ to keep her from leaving the faith. I never thought it was Islam’s job to keep me. My faith was not a contract, not a deal; there were no clauses I expected God to abide by and which, if violated, would give me an excuse to back out. . . It was certainty that animated me; it was certainty that allowed me to watch the progress of the extremists and feel anger and disgust, but never disappointment. It was not my place to be approving or disappointed: I had submitted too completely for either. Through the bile and ignorance of the radical imams and self-righteous apostates, through the spin of the news networks and the pomposity of academics, I saw a straight, unwavering line. How could I be disappointed? I did not believe in Islam; I opened my eyes every morning and saw it.

I have often wondered how it is that I could be confronted with a stream of staunch disbelievers, radically liberal reformists, and pathological conservatives and still believe. I now understand, for Wilson articulates in this passage what I could not put words to even after years of thought.

I don’t think it’s very often that one can get the kind of nuance and beauty in nonfiction this book offers, especially in nonfiction about transnational Muslims. By sharing her story, Wilson gives sensitively and remarkably-framed insights into the struggles of Egypt, the real struggle for the soul of Islam, and the turmoil that comes with being a Muslim who is forever battling the opposing sides of her cultural and spiritual heritage.


On Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "Caged Bird" and the Power of Metaphors

I’ll start by admitting that I haven’t read any of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s works. Knowing the basis of Submission and her simplistic, insistent blaming of Islam for the world’s evils didn’t make me very eager to read her.

Thanks to Amy’s strong recommendation and her lending me her copy of Wanted Women: Faith, Lies, and the War on Terror, I learned a lot more about Ali’s life and her rise to stardom in Western intellectual circles. There were not too many surprises in this biography. If anything, I was a little taken aback at how little she has done to implement policies and practices to curtail the violence and oppression of women.

What struck me more deeply, however, was her explanation of the Muslim women who immigrate to the West and are reluctant to let go of their faith or culturally-instilled modesty as easily as she did. In Infidel, she writes:

Islam [is] like a mental cage. . . When you open the door, the caged bird stays inside: it is frightened. It has internalized its imprisonment.

As a Muslim immigrant who strives to be reasonably self-aware about being shaped by Western culture, the metaphor of this caged bird is now what appears in mind’s eye any time I sense any kind of personal inhibition. When I seriously reconsider whether the hijab is for me and decide that it is. When I refrain from a lingering one-on-one sit-down with a man. When I am invited to a bar with a new group of acquaintances and say no (not because of being in an environment with alcohol, but because of being in such a loud environment around people I don’t know and am not comfortable with). Normally, I wouldn’t have given such choices a second thought. But now, there is a voice–call it my nafs, call it my baser self, call it my enlightened self, even–that tells me: “Shame on you for holding back. You’re that caged bird. The cage is finally open, and you just sit there.” Simply having that metaphor, that idea of a bird, is powerful in itself. It has latched onto my thinking, making my self-reflection spiral out of control into the place where there are no absolutes.

The book Deborah Scroggins refers to as “a thin patchwork of heavily edited opinion pieces.” Notice how the author name is in larger text than the title? That’s done when the book is riding the author’s coattails. Image source: openlibrary.org

What I have to do is remind myself that the bird and the placement of it in the cage is a construction, an illustration done with a very specific agenda and view of a Muslim woman. It presumes a cage. It presumes that ploughing ahead and being in every situation I am not comfortable in is the only way to escape that cage.

But it’s powerful. So powerful that as much as stunned as I was by the naiveté of some of Ali’s stances and her presumption in extending her experience of Islam to all Muslim women, this metaphor managed to lodge itself into my way of thinking. I may disregard and dismiss everything else she says, but the image, the metaphor, of this caged bird triumphs where all of her other tools failed.

Reflecting on whether one is being true to themselves is never a comfortable exercise. But this metaphor is not a means of complete self-doubt: it is a tool for that critical self examination, an acknowledgement of possibilities I may be too afraid to own up to. I cannot completely disregard it. But I would like to understand where this metaphor is effective for me and where it isn’t. Maybe I am a caged bird in a way that so many women–both Muslim and non-Muslims–are caged birds due to societal expectations. I may never know whether it holds water as far as my life and my self is concerned. But I would like to know. I’d like a metaphor, a model, that gives an alternate explanation of me. It’s only fair that this caged bird be countered with something else, something equally if not more powerful, and something that is a source of inspiration and encouragement rather than debilitating, guilt-ridden self-examination.

(7/6/12 update: Here is my complete review of Wanted Women)

On Mona Eltahawy's "Painful Places" and the Power of Stories

There is something about the conversation surrounding Mona Eltahawy’s flame-stoking article “Why Do They Hate Us?” that struck a raw chord in me (besides its extremely disturbing and offensive accompanying images, mercilessly dissected by Naheed Mustafa and fittingly called “niqabface” by fellow blogger Huma Rashid).

The unwitting story caught in the storm. (Image source: openlibrary.org)

I’m writing this because Eltahawy opens her piece by recounting a work of fiction, no less. She refers to the opening of Alifa Rifaat’s Arabic short story “Distant View of a Minaret,” in which the main character, after a bout of routinely unsatisfying and mechanical sexual intercourse with her husband, washes up and “loses herself in prayer–so much more satisfying that she can’t wait until the next prayer.”

Call me a wimp, but I was too heartbroken to read on. I accepted the assumption that the Rifaat’s intention was to pit faith and female sexuality against one another and didn’t consider the possibility that this pitting happened not in the story, but in Eltahawy’s interpretation of it.

So it was to my great relief that the scholar Leila Ahmed took issue with this opening, (in her FP response here and her discussion with Eltahawy here) saying that Rifaat could not possibly share Eltahawy’s “sweepingly dismissive views of prayer and religion.” Rifaat herself identified as a woman who, like the character in the story, lived for prayer. Prayer, as described in the story, isn’t just a form of what Eltahawy calls “sublimation through religion.” Prayer is not just the distraction Eltahawy’s making it out to be: it’s an integral part of the author’s existence, in both good times and bad.

The reason the opening of Eltahawy’s piece broke my heart was that its use of a story to pit faith and liberation against one another. Fiction is a place to expand the imagination. Not to eschew reality altogether, but to chart paths into a different kind of reality, to suggest alternate possibilities. When fiction is applied so carelessly that it is employed in reinforcing prevailing stereotypes and attitudes, it becomes lethal to people’s mindsets. Who can argue what a character “really” feels when she can’t speak up for herself, when she is, quite literally, a figment of the imagination?

What Ahmed alerted readers to is something I want to expand on here: faith and a powerful spiritual inner existence does not feed off of systematic, entrenched injustice, whether it be in the form of misogyny, racism, or any other system of oppression. In light of prevailing stereotypes about Muslim women, it’s too easy to say “Well, of course she has to believe in God, she has to meditate and escape from her reality, look at what a sodden sex life she has!” Sodden sex life or not, the places where women are truimphant–whether it be affirming their individuality through prayer or marching in the streets against tyranny–deserve to be examined on their own terms, not some heinous, monolithic, patriarchal hell they have to escape. Mona Eltahawy keeps stressing how she wants to “shake people up” and “poke the painful places,” but it’s one thing to poke that place, and quite another to aggravate it.

All that said, I do want to thank her for introducing me to the woman who loves to pray so much that she cannot wait for the next one. Her soul-sucking marriage doesn’t make her damaged goods, and does not make her faith any less real. I very much want to long for prayer the way she does.

On Reading Love, InshAllah

Title: Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women

Editors: Ayesha Mattu, Nura Maznavi

Publication Date: January 2012 

Genre: Romantic creative nonfiction 

(I made that up, but it sure beats “Women’s Studies”!)

Source: eGalley from editor

With the very conscious agenda to dismantle stereotypes and perceptions about Muslim women and love, Love InshAllah gives a glimpse into the richness, plurality, and self-actualization inherent within American Muslim women’s love lives. It holds the enormous potential to astonish both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences, albeit for different reasons. This post is one Muslim woman’s reaction to reading about her fellow Muslimahs’ love lives in this remarkably candid, courageous, and soul-stirring collection.

Love, InshAllah, at first, brought me face-to-face with a glaring prejudice I have unconsciously created about what for me is fair game for love stories.

When Bollywood started to produce movies that involved more explicit love scenes, I remember my best friend, the least prejudiced person I know, saying “Aurgh, I don’t want to see that!” I chuckled: “So, what, it’s okay if white people do that onscreen?” She tried to explain what she felt: “No, but that’s brown people. That’s us!” Thanks to the media’s disproportionate portrayal of what particular acts should look like or whom they should involve, having intimacy is being acted out by people of “our kind” can be temporarily disorienting for even the least ideologically prudish Indo-Pakistani Muslim ladies like myself. 

I confess that, on some level, that’s what I was feeling when I read Love, InshAllah. It’s one thing to know, abstractly, that those stories are out there. Before reading this collection, I did know about gay Muslimahs, about the niqabis who have multiple sexual partners, about Muslim children having to live dual lives because they could not conform to their parents’ standards. But it’s one thing to have these faint blobs of abstraction floating around in one’s consciousness. And it’s quite another to be reading a succession of those stories by the women who own them. For reading such works constituted an experience I could never have readied myself for.

I, of course, mean that in the best way possible. 

Being a single person who’s been feeling a bit shortchanged in the love department lately, I did at times have to face the demon of loneliness while reading the stories. And being a Muslimah–which for me means having an inner universe that is shaped and conditioned by the moral tenets of the Islamic faith–means that the moral quandaries raised in some of those stories make reading them a gut-wrenchingly conflicted experience. Yet, ultimately, reading Love, InshAllah created a glowing, steadily increasing burn of recognition of myself in the stories as a whole.

The beauty of this collection lies in how pluralistic it is, and how any attempt to explain the experience of reading these stories will fail to do justice to this collection in its entirety. Therefore, I have decided attempt to group the stories based on my experience of reading them. These categories are far from perfect, but they help provide some insight into how varied the reading experience can get within the scope of such a collection. 

1. Deceptively Traditional Stories: These stories moved me because they revealed the beauty of what might, on the surface, seem to be unappealing ways to meet a significant other. Aisha Saeed’s “Leap of Faith” is a dream for any South Asian girl who’s had to go through strangeness of having her parents play matchmaker. “Otherwise Engaged” is an endearing account of Huda Al-Marashi’s yearning for a date with and formal proposal from the boy she was set up to marry. 

2. Too Good to Be True Stories: Stories that seemed too good to be true to the point of irrelevance. Although I recognize that they were a necessary part of the collection and are as true as the other stories, they’re not the kind of situations most Muslim women are lucky enough to be in. Ayesha Mattu’s “The Opening” and Angela Collins Telles’ “Love in the Andes” both involved meeting gorgeous non-Muslim men who ended up converting to Islam. Again, while I’m extremely happy for them and for all the women who have been so blessed, I’m too aware of the thornier issue of women who fall in love with good, worthy non-Muslim and are forced to choose between love and deen. 

3. Stories that are Not for the Faint-hearted: This collection of stories are better skipped by those who are squeamish, especially about Muslim women. In Tanzila Ahmed’s “Punk-Drunk Love,” Taqwacore sensibility intersects with the heartbreak and the transience of intense passion in a way that that seared my heart. Najva Sol’s “The First Time” recounts her coming to an understanding about her sexuality in a way that pulls no punches.    

4. The Real Stuff of Married Life Stories: These stories dealt with what married life (as far as I can tell) is really made up of. Melody Moezzi’s “Love in the Time of Biohazards” is a beautiful portrayal of true spousal devotion in the face of pancreatic complications. “Love at Third Sight” by Patricia M. G. Dunn provides much-needed lessons about what real love, in the context of marriage, is, and the kind of trials or uncertainty one might have to go through in order to actualize this form of love. 

5. Self-Defining Stories: Rather than relegate these stories to some overloaded form of a “miscellaneous” category, I wanted to highlight some gems in this collection, freestanding entities that made impressions I won’t easily forget:

  • Aida Rahim’s “Brain Meets Heart” is a story about how she and her daughter found the right husband and father (who incidentally is none other than Hijabman!) for themselves. I felt that this story brings out the much-needed voice of the smart, independent, admirable Muslim woman who doesn’t become any less of those things just because she happens to be a mother and a divorcee.
  • Nura Maznavi’s “Last Night on the Island” I found to be a wonderful story not just for its plot and narration, but because it functions as a portal into a grander narrative about being single. To see this included in a collection of love stories was something I had not expected, and this act of inclusion deeply moved me. 
  • “Sex by Any Other Name” is a wonderfully uncomfortable read that explores virginity, perceived ownership of such a virtue, and the complications and anxiety that result when these phenomena are continuously confronted.
  • Asiila Imani’s story “Three” traces the usual journey of love towards an unusual and controversial form: polygny. Given that a considerable number of Muslim women hold Imani’s perspective and have had experiences similar to hers, I was especially glad to see the inclusion of such a voice in this collection.
  • Suzanne Syeda Shah’s “Kala Love” is a raw, powerful account of complex family relationships, a pronounced clash between first and second-generation immigrants, the trauma of assault, and redemption through faith and sex. Because there was not only redemption, but redemption through a worthy man, I feel that this story epitomizes what–to me–is the real stuff of romance stories. 

When I look back at the climate that surrounded my education on love and sex, I am bemused by the skewed ways that women of my religious and cultural background learn about these things: the way we would devour romance novels, the ridiculous myths about female anatomy that would circulate the unmarried girls’ side in dinner parties, the simplistically treated assumption that one transforms from being ‘innocent’ to being someone who knows of these matters over the course of a wedding night. To realize that I made the transition from that background to being part of a Love, InshAllah post-publication world gives me a great deal of hope and self-affirmation. It is now, by virtue of this book, becoming a world I want to raise my daughter in.

At first I wasn’t sure if should put myself through reading this book, thinking that it would only make me confront the demon of emotional loneliness. And to an extent, it did. Amazingly enough, however, by the time I reached the end, it had done the opposite. It instilled me with a sense of hope and empowerment I couldn’t have gained in any other way. Although a little disorienting at first, it eventually lead me to breathing sigh after sigh of relief, knowing that my story–be it that of failed love, triumphant love, or singlehood–is part of a narrative that can never be conveyed simplistically, a narrative whose beauty comes from the plurality of experience and candidness about the places they come from.

This collection may be subtitled, “the secret love lives of American Muslim women,” but this book brings those lives out in the open, making them secret no more. I applaud its honesty and its celebration of female sexuality from within the Muslim universe. And I hope it paves the way for more such works about Muslim women in other places and countries and other conceptions of intimacies, starting, perhaps, with Canadian Muslim women.

On (my lack of) Muslim Feminism

Although this blog is about faith in strange times, I somehow made it this far without talking about the looming elephant in the room: Islam and feminism.

The thing is, when it comes to Muslim feminism, I’m a bit of a coward, me. I knowingly and actively partake of the benefits feminism bestows upon me while skirting away from the feminist label itself. And here is why: while I wholeheartedly love and am thankful for feminist theory in itself, being specifically a Muslim feminist opens up a host of negative connotations that I simply do not wish to be associated with.

Yep. Told you I was a coward.

Because I don’t adhere to either essentialist notions of Muslim femininity or the idea of female imams or praying when one is menstruating, I wonder if there’s a place for me somewhere in between. I realize I’m posing my own framework by denoting extremes and thinking that there’s a “middle,” but that’s how I see it.

Muslim feminists have tirelessly repeated themselves in saying that their stance is based on the premise that the Quran addresses men and women equally. I, of course hold that stance. And I also greatly admire the conscious efforts undertaken to talk about prolific Muslim women in a way that has not been done earlier due to prevailing patriarchal structures. I even acknowledge that historically and culturally-entrenched male privilege is something very real, and a serious force to be contended with in the realm of the Muslim community.

What I have a problem with is the notion that Islam needs to be redefined and the Quran needs to be reinterpreted in light of feminist ideals. I am very skeptical of apologetic tendencies about the parts of faith that are unpopular. I find feminism liberating in terms of negotiating with my South Asian cultural baggage (Now, why on earth can’t I dance at my brother’s wedding?) but I just don’t see it working in terms of my internal faith. I am more in favor of conversations that confront the unpleasant realities of Muslim practice and their legal bases.

The extent to which “Muslim feminism” doesn’t compute for me recently became profoundly clear when I noticed how glad I was to read a piece in favor of the motion that Islam is incompatible with feminism. Although reading responses to the piece (especially those at Muslimah Media Watch here and here) made me rethink some of the nuances of Taabba’s argument, a part of me was still glad that someone managed to take the unpopular stance and at least attempt to address what is unsound about reconciling the two in any way. The part that resonated with me the most was the idea that

Islam is not feminism, just as feminism is not Islam. . . Each has its own foundations, epistemologies, methodologies, worldviews, discourses and paradigms. This means that, while they have the potential to overlap at times, they cannot be coherently merged into one another without fundamentally compromising one or radically expanding the other.* The push to merge Islam into feminism is akin to trying to squeeze an elephant into a birdcage; either the elephant will be killed by being forced into such a narrow entrance, or the birdcage will have to expand so significantly that it would no longer be recognised as a birdcage.

*(my emphasis)

Tabbaa’s finer points about feminism being based on a “Godless” postmodernist discourse were much better handled in the MMW responses, and my philosophical theory is too rusty to be able to comprehensively respond to their arguments. What he says in the above paragraph, however, gave me the disembodied feeling of seeing an idea that I before had never been able to put words to.

It’s like how belief in God operates as a light switch: it’s either there, or it isn’t. No amount of scientific rhetoric about evolution and the origin of the universe can make a believer stop believing. Similarly, no amount of exposure to feminist approaches to Islam is doing anything to change my core belief and uneasy feeling that the two schemas are not fitting nicely in my way of thinking. I wish I could do a better job of explaining why, a way that builds on the paragraph above, but the task proves just as difficult as explaining why I believe in God.

So this is me coming out as a pseudo-feminist who–at least for now–is eschewing the “Muslim” label. I have a deep respect for the profoundly intelligent women at MMW and my personal Muslim feminist idol, Wood Turtle, and that respect comes from the fact that they are doing what I am not made to do. They give me a much-needed way of seeing the Muslim community. They provide tools for thinking that are direly needed in order for Muslim women to actualize themselves as meaningful members of the Ummah.

But for me, that is where it ends. I take what they offer and run. I don’t agree with the complete version of the way some Muslim feminist scholars envision the roles of women and, by extension, Muslim community to operate, but I do think that their critiques can result in much-needed changes in our ummah: the expansion of prayer spaces and including women in the same hall as men, having more women deliver lectures (not sermons, but lectures) and talks in the mosques, having more women like Ingrid Mattson who are leaders in our communities.

I am more than open to–and even love–reading Muslim feminist discourses while knowing that I don’t subscribe to the entirety of what they purport in terms of affirmative action. So perhaps Muslim feminists operate for me the way Taqwacores did: I can’t create or even entirely endorse their idealized universes, but I can laud the spirit of what they do. Just like I’m glad Taqwacores exists, I’m glad that Muslim feminism exists.