This post is my entry in Liberation Theory’s “Coming Into My Own” Blog Carnival. See her entry and the entries of other women here.
In Islamic eschatology, one of the trials of Judgment Day is crossing a bridge situated over hell. This bridge, called sirat, is so narrow and difficult to cross that it’s reportedly thinner than a hair and sharper than a sword. Believers will make their way to heaven or fall off for an appointed time in hell according to the degree of enlightenment they reached in this life. In my experience, crossing the sirat is an apt metaphor for American Muslim womanhood.
There are so many claimants to an American Muslim woman’s soul. Stakeholders from opposing ideologies contend for the right to mold our thoughts, actions, our very identities as if the fate of America, or Islam itself depends on their victory. A young American Muslima wielding her own agency to build the kind of life she envisions for herself finds that she must carry a lot of other folks’ baggage on her journey to womanhood. She carries the burden of beauty: a narrowly defined set of physical ideals that women are expected to meet at great cost, while appearing as if they’ve expended no effort at all. “Be beautiful,” American woman are told, just don’t look like you tried. She carries the burden of idealized identities that are at odds with one another, at once the patriotic American woman, uncritically proud of and unquestionably loyal to her country, and the high-achieving, pious, modest and self-sacrificing Muslim daughter, wife, then mother. And of each detail of our being. picked apart, analyzed and constructed for us by the claimants to our souls, none is so contentious as our clothing. Hijab or no hijab, how you hijab or don’t, details down to the way our scarves are pinned can be seen as a sign of support of one religious or political ideology or another.
The path is narrow and sharp. The burdens are many, and heavy. Voices call out in an endless cacophony from below, all saying the same thing, “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!”
I’ve spent the 22 years after my conversion at 13 dancing across, balancing precariously on, and clinging mightily to this sirat. I’ve finally found the courage to hand the claimants their burdens, and firmly, but politely inform them that I own my own soul. The only thing I carry now is the parachute I strapped on when I jumped to peace. Heaven or hell, I’ve got to do it on my own and on my own terms, or else it will never be real.
And God says, “No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another. The human can have nothing but what s/he strives for. The fruit of his/her striving will soon come into sight. S/he will be rewarded with a reward complete. To your Lord is the final goal.” Qur’an Ch. 53 verses 37-41
Sexuality: Madonnas and Whores Between the Ornament and the Instrument
I see my body as an instrument, rather than an ornament. ~Alanis Morissette, quoted in Reader’s Digest, March 2000
I understood early that it was not enough to be chaste. As an American woman, particularly a black American woman, my default position in much of the American Muslim community is the whore. In order to secure legitimacy I’ve had to position myself, indisputably, with the Madonnas. Years of Catholic schooling had done a fine job of imprinting the Madonna ideal in my mind. Being soft-spoken, demure, self-sacrificing, maternal and pious came naturally, though not always easily. I interpreted the Qur’anic mandate to “lower the gaze and guard the chastity” quite literally and spent years interacting with professors, co-workers, sheikhs and imams– in short, all marriageable men– without ever looking one in the eye. I still find eye-contact with unrelated Muslim men uncomfortable, not for fear of transgressing ethical boundaries, but because of what I think they’ll think of me. In communities where the details of male/female interaction are so carefully scripted, subtleties hold a great deal of meaning. Eye contact, especially when held for a little too long, may be easily (mis)understood as flirting.
Maintaining the ideal has meant absolute vigilance over my every public move: I was mindful of what and how I ate in public, careful to avoid seeming seductive; I never laughed too loudly, or smiled without turning slightly out of range of any men who might have been close by. It was exhausting and it worked: My reputation has always been stellar. I’ve been told by the immigrant men and women who set and police the standards in conservative Muslim circles that I am “good,” “ladylike,” an “excellent role model.” Men sent their newly converted wives to befriend me, hoping their wives would view me as a model of how to do this Muslim woman thing right. I didn’t have a choice, I had to work 5 times harder than a woman born into a Muslim family to be considered half as legitimate.
Part piety and part feminist resistance, I played around with hijab at 15 and started covering consistently the summer before my junior year in high school. I was, as I shared with anyone who’d listen, “tired of boys and men staring my chest instead of my face when I talk.” I was a young woman with ideas and I wanted to be heard. I needed to be heard. It worked, for the most part, and my conservative interpretations of hijab– shapeless, wrist-covering, ankle-length dresses and large scarves covering the head, ears, chin, neck, shoulders and breasts–further secured my distance from the whore archetype threatening my place in the community of believers.
But I didn’t just live my life in the community of believers. I went home to a community of largely poor and working-class, African American, Mexican and Pacific Islanders struggling with the aftermath of the crack cocaine epidemic and the drug-wars playing themselves out in front of our pastel homes and carefully tended flower gardens. I worked for the most innovative companies in the mid-90s Silicon Valley, earning more than many of the adults I knew, even the college graduates. I didn’t just balance on the sirat, I pirouetted with a fierceness that’d make RuPaul blush.
I worked full-time, attended college part-time, taught Sunday school at the masjid, volunteered at the campus Women’s Center, and had an active social life centered on my relationships with other young Muslim women and men living different versions of life on the sirat. While I never so much as shook hands with men or looked them in the eye, I’d still managed to master subtleties that made me likeable and taken seriously to those who didn’t speak the language of conservative Muslim gender roles. A young, white English professor told me he’d never met a woman like me before. To which I responded that he must have met many other Muslim girls just like me. It was true, he said, that he’d had a number of soft-spoken hijabis with averted gazes, but he’d never seen one who was so confident and self-assured. I had somehow managed to do more than appease all the stakeholders in my identity, I’d impressed them.
But I was 19, I had no idea how much more they’d demand.