Copyright © 2003-2011, Aishah Schwartz. Permission granted to circulate among private individuals, groups, or in not-for-profit publications in full text and subject title. All other rights reserved.

January 23, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak

edited by Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur

Written by David Barker
Published January 22, 2007


Living Islam Out Loud is one of the best non–fiction works I have read in a long time. It is a collection of pieces by Islamic women living in the United States. Their stories reflect a diversity of experience — from growing up within the tradition–laden strictures of immigrant families, to Afro–American women who are children and grandchildren of Nation of Islam founders. A common theme beneath these accounts is the hyphenated nature of existence for Islamic women living in a predominantly secular/Christian culture.

When I was a child growing up within Ontario's public education system, I was exposed — like thousands of others my age — to a social studies curriculum that betrayed more than a small hint of anxiety about the Canadian identity question. How were we to resist the looming presence of American culture creeping up from the south? One answer, as a matter of educational policy, was to teach us that there were differences, however subtle. One difference was the American melting–pot/Canadian mosaic distinction. Both countries are peopled predominantly by immigrants imposed on dwindling native populations. When immigrants come to America, there is a tacit expectation that they will blend in, dress in jeans, eat at McDonald's, watch Hollywood movies, and (of course) learn to speak English. But in Canada, perhaps because of Qu├ębec's presence as a constitutionally protected "distinct society," there is less pressure — at least officially — for newcomers to blend in. We belong to a mosaic. The hyphen is essential to our identity. And so we are Indian–Canadian, Euro–Canadian, Chinese–Canadian, and so on.

Sometimes I'm skeptical whether there is any truth to the official indoctrination we received as children. However, at least conceptually, we understand what it means to have a hyphenated identity, and, at least conceptually, we have little problem with the idea that a person might want to assert the part they have brought with them from their homeland. And so the voices I encounter within Living Islam Out Loud strike me as more assertive than necessary. Then I remember: I am not an American reader.

One of the boldest pieces within the collection is "The Muslim in the Mirror," by Mohja Kahf, and it perfectly illustrates the demand to be acknowledged as distinctive, She writes: "If there's anyone I was more sick and tired of than Muslims, it's Muslim–bashers. No one is allowed to criticize Islam and Muslims but those who do it from love. Those who do it from hate, step aside. And step aside, those who do it as a way to fame and fortune funded by neo–conservatives who think they can kaCHING up genuine "reform" in Islam and manufacture docile little McMuslims for the maintenance of U.S. McHegemony in the world. Neocons can kiss my Islamic ass.

"Not exactly the writing we expect from our stereotypical woman of Islam, demure in her hijab! But that is one of the points of the book — with women claiming identity from so many different sources, there is no such thing as a stereotypical woman of Islam.

Perhaps it is increasingly difficult for people in the U.S. to maintain the story of America as a cultural melting pot. I think of Ada Maria Isasi—Diaz, author of En la Lucha (In the Struggle): A Hispanic Women's Liberation Theology, who writes of mujerista theology among Hispanic women in America. There is a growing trend among Hispanic women to expect not only their faith, but also their social services, including education and health care, to happen on their terms, to be delivered in Spanish, and to be sensitive to the particularity of their culture and history as a distinctive people. What may strike some Americans as uppity (or even as bordering on treasonous) is a 350–year–old fact of life on Canadian soil — and no one seems to be worse for it. In fact, the converse may be true. It may be that we find ourselves enriched for allowing those we encounter to live on their own terms. Could America be moving in the same direction?

However, it would be misleading to suggest that the women contributing to this collection are primarily engaged in struggles against a hegemonic American culture bent upon pouring them into Barbie molds. For many of the contributors — certainly all those born to immigrants — the greatest points of tension arise from within Islam. The question of hijab is the least of their worries. Or perhaps, by its many different understandings, it reflects the complexity of life for women. For some, wearing hijab is an attempt at earnest devotion, for others, a bold assertion of identity, for still others, a great way to deal with a bad hair day, but for many, it represents views of sexuality whose unhealthiness has intensified once transplanted to American soil. Surprisingly (for a Westerner like me), if there is oppression of women, few of these writers find it in Islam itself. Like the Bible, the Qu'ran can be interpreted to support all sorts of nastiness, but these women read it in ways which affirm them. Instead, most oppression in their experience arises from an insecure foothold in a strange new land.

So, for example, Samina Ali tells how she came with her family to Minneapolis from Hyderabad, India. When she married, she had to be a virgin. If not, she would be useless to her husband and would bring dishonour to her family. Along with her Islamic friends (making lasting friendships with Americans was out of the question), she was married off to a young man from India.

"Our parents plucked these men out of their homelands for this very reason: the daughter's purity should match her groom's, a man not exposed to and perhaps even controlled in some invisible way by demonic Western possession. In this manner, the daughters of the community became mere vessels of parental legacy.

"Utterly naive, Samina Ali blamed herself when, after the wedding, her husband refused to touch her and was repulsed by her body to the point of vomiting. She was convinced that she must have done something wrong. Even after he confessed that he was gay and left her, she continued to believe that her own faithlessness was to blame for the failed marriage. Family and friends disbelieved her story and assumed she was slandering her husband. Her husband could not possibly be gay; she was merely failing in her duties as a wife. What followed was the difficult work to establish a sense of herself apart from family and faith, before re–entering her faith with a more mature understanding.

But we must be careful not to presume too much sexual oppression. "A Day In The Life," a poem by Su'ad Abdul–Khabeer, makes it clear that if we use Western mores as our yardstick, we may find ourselves on questionable ground:

"And their mani–pedi
talk smack,
like they kick it
with freedom on the regular
their angular
under the guise
of liberty.
Free yourself!
they tell me,
patting my hand
tugging my scarf,
From the tyranny of Faith —
So ...I can be neatly chained
to a thong?"

Another struggle from within Islam arises from the segregationist practices of many mosques, which require women to use separate entrances and to pray behind a curtain or wall. In 1994, only one-third of American mosques had instituted this practice, but by 2000, the number had risen to two-thirds. In "Being the Leader I Want to See in the World," Asra Q. Nomani tells how, despite feelings of inadequacy, she found herself inevitably challenging the practices of her mosque in Morgantown, WV. It began as personal indignation, and grew into a national media event that brought about change and resulted in "An Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in Mosques" and "An Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom."

Although this book is about gender and identity and asserting power over one's own destiny, all these themes get rolled into a larger theme — this is a book about spirituality. It isn't surprising, given that Abdul–Ghafur serves on the Board of Directors of the Progressive Muslim Union, that her book includes several progressive contributions. So, for example, Mohja Kahf concludes her piece with two wonderful paragraphs that seem to rise out of Islam resonate across the faiths. They begin with:

"...I began to free myself of the false god who lived within, the god whose obsession is obedience. I had been battered by an internalized idea of this god. My prior clumsy attempts to make my way around him by myself gave me that crazy schizoid feeling — that I must be doing something terribly wrong in going outside the house of tradition, disobeying, while a yaqin–certainty told me that not to do so violated everything I knew to be sacred.

"And near the end, Inas Younis offers "My Son The Mystic," which grounds some of the most profound reflections on the nature of spirit in the experience of dealing with an autistic child. Her reflection runs in two directions. Looking one way, she asks: how could it be wrong for her to make room for ego when it was the absence of ego which lay at the heart of her son's disease? And looking in the opposite direction: was there not something strangely holy about her son who lived permanently in a state that only the holiest of Sufi mystics ever knows? While the challenge which Younis must confront differs considerably from the challenges of the other contributors, she follows their path insofar as she rejects a simplistic understanding of Islam and moves to a more mature engagement with her faith. Perhaps that is all any of us, whatever our faith, can or even should aspire to.

Theoblogger - a forty-something ex-lawyer theologian from Toronto dedicated to finding the nuggets beneath the mountains of crap that some try to pass off as belief.

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