28 July 2015

so, are you converted yet?

"When did you convert?"

"You should be doing it this way..."

"Are you...converted??"

Saying, "Yes, I have fully converted! I am now officially a Muslim!" in this short of a timeframe would be fairly unprecedented, and I think irresponsible. I started wearing hijab for all of the reasons I explained in my previous post and as a symbol of my decision to make this transition of faith. It is my desire to be Muslim. I am here to learn so that I may one day say, yes, I have completely converted.

A transition of faith, a feeling, a belief, no matter how heartfelt will never give me all of the knowledge I need. All of what I have been doing are baby steps. They are not going to inform me of all of the relevant social issues that, let's face it, are numerous in Islam. They will not ~magically~ give me experience. They will not make me wise.

People have told me that Islam is not just a religion; it is a way of life. I'm basically stepping into a whole new culture that is rooted in a lot of other cultures. Not to mention, the fact that I am in a relationship with a woman puts me in a very difficult position. Do I have expectations that this will be a rainbows and sparkles, reflective of the of the dreamy pastel world with which many believe I am so obviously disillusioned? No, of course not. It's not very easy now, but I am allowed to be happy. I am allowed to not dwell on the negative aspects.

Today, I started the process to sign up for classes. I am not sure if I can take the three of them concurrently, or if they must be taken progressively. Either way, I am looking forward to them! They are evening classes and on separate days of the week. Thankfully, they are also free! One night of the week is that night everyone meets up, first for weekly prayer, then for socialization. I think this will be a very positive experience.

Every Muslim convert's experience is different. Let's first take a look at the following individuals, for example, from the article "Why Do Western Women Wear Hijab" published in 2010 by Dr. Janet Testerman, a faculty member in the English Department of Gulf University for Science and Technology. (If you're reading this, Dr. Testerman, you can stop now. I am not well-written. I apologize that you've made it this far.) It is a look into why women wear hijab, why they converted, and their experience in a clash of cultures which something that most Westerners, including myself, will not have experienced. She has some other interesting academic articles around the topic of religious conversion and Islamic fashion that you might find interesting.

It interviews several Western women living in Kuwait who had converted to Islam, began wearing hijab, married a Muslim man in Kuwait, or some combination of the aforementioned. The focus of the article was mainly on the women wearing hijab, and Testerman noted that the hijab had a slightly different meaning for each hijabi:

"The significance of wearing hijab varied among the interviewees with some, like Rashida, Sakina and Teresa, assigning great importance and deep meaning to the headscarf with others like Brenda, Mickey and Lana finding wearing the abaya and headscarf to be handy in that it freed them from expending energy on fashion and hairstyling.  In every case, however, peer pressure, social pressure and male pressure bore profoundly on their decisions, perhaps overpowering their ability to practice hijab purely from their hearts.  The dichotomy between voluntary, genuine devotion and conforming behavior grounded in fear presided over the women’s actions."

However, the stark cultural differences between the United States and Kuwait, as one would imagine, are many. Life has changed significantly for them:

"While she worked as a phlebotomist in Saudi, Mickey faced sexual harassment, rude comments and unsolicited advances until she decided to cover, even before she converted. Even Lynda, who is still Christian, feels the sting of public disapproval if she does not dress modestly, and she conforms to protect her husband and his family from public humiliation. ‘He knows I’m American, he knows I’m not going to wear a hijab. Now, that does not mean that I can wear just anything.  If we’re in the United States, then I wear sleeveless tops.  I have to watch what I wear here (in Kuwait).  I would not wear sleeveless out.  It’s amazing because a lot of times people would think of someone who wears that as a loose person.  I don’t want to embarrass him or his family and make them think I’m a wild American. I dress more conservatively because of him. The people living in our apartment building would see me and think that my moral fiber is less than it should be.  You don’t want the neighbors to think that you’re…there are prostitutes in this country."

Have you ever had serious concerns about your reputation and your family's reputation, potentially for generations, because of wearing a tank-top? This is a reality for women in Kuwait. This is not akin to worrying about getting posted to a hate website because your outfit is bad or someone doesn't like you. I have never had to think about this at any point in my daily routine. Have you? One woman, Gwen, had to accept the fact that jogging was no longer an option:

"I was surprised when Gwen told me she missed running, and activity she frequently enjoyed in the US: ‘The fact that I can’t go running out here really bothers me.  You can’t even go walking as a woman out here.  That’s a cultural thing.  I can’t go walking.  Well, with somebody, a male somebody.  As a family we go to the park and we walk and everything but like for me to go, especially like I used to love to run in the evening, to just go out, you know.  It’s not an Islam thing, because in California and Michigan I went running, I had a spandex hijab I even made. It’s funny but I used to run and swim, everything, but over here…’  When I told Gwen I both ran and walked by myself at all times of day, here, in Kuwait, and asked why, since it was Islam she was practicing and not the culture, she couldn’t’ still run and walk without a male escort she replied ‘I could, but there would be cultural implications.  So do you want to be seen as “oh, that woman, that woman on the block who runs”?’  I then asked her about what social effects could possibly arise.  She said ‘…the culture here affects your family.  It affects a big, big circle of effects.  That’s what I picked up about the culture, that you do one little thing, good or bad, usually bad, it spreads more, but it has these ripple effects throughout history.  Your children’s children will be judged by that thing that you did.  That’s strictly culture.’ When I joked that she should strap her running shoes on and go run she said ‘That’s a freedom you have in the States you don’t have here.  You can behave like this is my religion, so I’m going to cover, but I’m going to do this (run).  Over here you can do that but you’re going to justify yourself to 100 people.’" 

Despite this, she's not in opposition to the hijab. She readily accepts and supports wearing it without forcing her beliefs on others:

"For Gwen, however, the hijab was not that big of a philosophical deal ‘It’s part and parcel of being a Muslim.  It’s not huge; it’s huge in the fact that it’s visible.  You know, prayers are invisible, fasting is invisible. So it’s big and I recognize how big it is to everybody else.  And it is about modesty…I think I’m doing the right thing.  I try to do what I should be doing and I believe the hijab is something I should be doing.  As far as what anybody else does with their hair, I don’t really care.  It’s not like…when my daughter gets of age, she chooses it.  I won’t force.  I don’t think it’s a real reflection of how great a person is.  I really have a problem with that.’"

Paradoxically, Gwen also takes part a little in the judgment of others. This was interesting to me as she was under pressure of potential judgment herself, being held back from a favourite activity that could effect her greatly if she participated. It seemed like she was particularly aware of social pressures and against them here,

"Theresa’s and Gwen’s beliefs that a woman’s character should not be judged by the presence or lack of hijab is not widely shared in the Muslim world.  There is an enormous amount of social pressure for women to conform to modest dress standards.  And even though Gwen, herself, may not ascertain others’ worth according to their headwear, she is acutely aware, and fearful, of the wrath of public censure for those who do not conform.  ‘There’s a lot of judging other women and how well adorned they can be and whether the hijab can be pink or not.  In the States you can recognize a Muslim by (whether) she’s wearing a headscarf.  So whenever I see one I smile, you know, but if I was wearing jeans and she’s in her full thing, sometimes she won’t smile back.’ " 

 seems to be relaxed at home,

" Thus, Gwen wears a looser, more revealing veil indoors but outdoors, out of fear of public censure she covers her hair and neck completely because of what neighbors will say. ‘Outside I’ll wear the actual scarf so they’re not asking ‘Oh why is she showing a little hair here?’  I think there’s way too much interest placed on dress.” She whispered “Way too much.  People here see you wearing a hijab and (think) “Oh you’re a great Muslim” but maybe I don’t pray.  It’s very frustrating.’"

but then goes on to make the following remark,

"On the other hand, Gwen had already begun to practice the cultural custom of judging others’ hijab-worthiness: ‘So you have the Quran and the sunna which make up how you practice.  So you put it all together and I believe that you should cover your hair, but not just your hair.  You see people cover their hair but they have full makeup on.  Yeah, so how modest is that?  In my view, you will be answerable for wearing the hijab.  But that’s not just covering hair. You’re wearing skin-tight everything else and just covering your hair, whoop-dee-do. Got full makeup on and covering your hair?  God’s not stupid, right?  Who you think you’re fooling?’"

As you can see, this is a deeply complex issue, and in the example of Gwen, there seems to be a battle externally, as expressed by what she can and cannot do, and internally as her mode of cultural expression varies or changes over time. This was five years ago. How do you think her opinions have changed? How about how she expresses herself?

I live in an enchanted place where I have a great freedom of expression. As I enter into Islam and conform to rules of dress, it's because I have chosen it. There won't be these layers upon layers of additional ideologies I have to think about just walking outside.  The only time I could be judged similarly would be by stepping into a Muslim space where, depending on the cultural background, school of thought, and level of conservativeness of an individual or group of individuals, will I be judged. It would not by an entire society like the woman in this article.

I'd like to end every post with the daily Hadith from my app "Hadith of the Day." Today's Hadith is about undesirable traits. (It can also be found here.)

I had no idea what Al-Mustafaihiqun was, and according to this Hadith which looks the same as the above, but further elaborated, it means, "the arrogant people." Garrulous, I'm embarrassed to say I did not know the definition of it, and darn it, am I very guilty of excessive talking in a rambling, round-about manner. 

Looks like if I want to do okay on the Day of Resurrection, I need to work on my brevity. We all could do well to think of our manners more often, and be more humble. It is part of the path to Jannah, and a great way to help others feel more considered everyday.

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