Friday, May 20, 2011

Don't talk to me about hijab

Let me start by saying that I am a fan of hijab. I wear hijab. I believe that hijab is mandatory, and I think any efforts to keep women from wearing it are wrong. So don't think this is a post about how hijab is not relavent anymore, because that is a seperate subject. I'm just afraid that Muslims and non-Muslims alike have inflated the importance of hijab way too much. We have made it the key to a woman's piety. A prerequisite for calling yourself a Muslim woman. And (this get where you get ready to reach under your abaya to take off your shoe and throw it at me) I just don't think hijab is all that important. Yes, that's right. I said hijab is not that important.

Lets put that statement in perspective a little. Why would I say that? Well, because there are so many other things in the religion that should be taking precedence over the issue of attire. 5 big ones that I can think of, the pillars of Islam. Why when a woman makes shahada are we all over the topic of whether or not she will wear hijab and no one ever asks if she needs help with learning salat? Maybe memorising a few surahs? Did anyone ever ask a new brother whether or not he would grow a beard and cluck their tongue disapprovingly when he said he wasn't ready yet? Did anyone ever question a brother about whether or not he was still Muslim when he shaved his beard?

So here's my radical idea. Stop talking about it. Throw hijab out of the conversational mix. Stop making it a part of what you talk to non-Muslims about. Of course they will ask, but don't get stuck on the subject. And PLEASE don't get all philosophical and start using metaphors. God said wear it, so I do. Simple and to the point. Because if you keep things in perspective you'll realise it's a subject that's taking away from the things we should be talking about.

Maybe it's just me here... But I feel like when Muslim women is the topic of conversation hijab is the focus. That's wrong, it's not the way hijab was meant to work. It was meant to let people see us as honorable and pious women and take "maybe I could hook up with her" out of the equation. But I would go so far as saying it isn't even accomplishing that anymore. Humans send many non-verbal signals, and our young ladies who wear hijab can certainly send the message of availability with or without hijab. Of course that's no reason to say it doesn't send the message of modesty anymore... But it can be said that wearing hijab doesn't make you modest, your behavior does that.

That's my message here mostly I guess. There was a time when women dressed modestly in general, no matter what their faith was. Women covered their heads, didn't show their body. That was the societal norm. So I imagine (and I could be wrong here) that hijab as it is practiced in Arab cultures was not really shocking. It probably wasn't even worth talking about because all the people around them were fairly modest too. Jump to now, where the societal norm is mini-skirts and suddenly Muslim women really stand out. Hence, hijab is the most visible thing about Islam and it gets talked about a lot. Too much in my opinion. How many people know about hijab but have no idea we believe in the same one god as the Christians and Jews for example? I'm not claiming I know how to solve this, or suggesting we all go burn our scarves in protest... But I think it's something we all need to think about and try to overcome.

As usual, just food for thought here. I'm no scholar.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Convert Truths, Blog Carnival

When I saw this post I knew I had to throw my hat in the ring... Not just because I have always thought of the blogger as a kindred spirit, but because it's a topic I have been interested in recently too. I have been blogging since 2005, and I'd say things have changed a lot in my life... But then when I went back to look on the archives to see when I started my blog, I found that the oldest post was this post about not fitting in at the masjid and I just about fell over. Because here I am 6 years later about to tell you the exact same thing! I'd like to say that I decided to take the post in an entirely new direction because why rehash what's already been said, but I'd be lying to you. This issue is still very near and dear to me, so I think it merits revisiting.

Before I was Muslim I actually did attend church, I was a Sunday school teacher as a matter of fact. And I was also a vocal performer in college... So I sang at churches frequently. It may interest you to know that the minister at the church I worked at wanted to keep me on as the childcare coordinator. But after me showing up on Easter Sunday in hijab, other church members complained and I resigned. Anyway... Just an interesting back story. What I'm trying to talk about it mosques, and my experiences with them as a convert. I bring up my experiences as a Christian because obviously that's what I have to compare it to.

I have always had a problem with the cliquish nature of the masjid experience, and even after so many years as a Muslim I haven't been able to get past it. It feels way to much like the high school cafeteria for me to be comfortable there. So, for the most part I just avoid going to the mosque. Now before you shout haram, hear me out and give me a chance to explain why. In my opinion, if going to a religious institution does not enhance your religious experience there is no reason for you to go to it. And if going to a religious institution actually makes you question your chosen faith, run away and don't look back. One of the things I love about Islam is the fact that your connection with God requires no intermediaries. Now I am not so uneducated that I don't know the rewards for praying in congregation, but I think a certain amount of common sense can be used in these matters. How many converts you know have been driven away from the religion by people in the community? Food for thought.

On a personal level, I have walked away from the mosque crying. I have cowered in my car wondering if I would be turned away at the door. I have been treated with disrespect. I have been ignored. I have been marginalised. And I have gotten to a point where I just expect it. So you get it. I hate the mosque, it means nothing to me. I will go out on a limb here and say I think my experience is shared by not a few other converts, but the majority of us. Going even further out on a limb... I think it's also the experience of even born Muslims raised here in the US. And I think it's about time that drives us to action.

Our mosques are not a reflection of who we are as a diverse, educated, forward thinking community. That has to change! I know from my conversations with other Muslims that we are all thinking ahead, wondering what the community will be like in 10-15-20 years. But we leave it at wondering. We are dropping the proverbial ball here sisters and brothers. We are hating the mosque and the community and not putting forth the effort to create something that really represents us as we are. I wish I knew why that is. I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that we are afraid we will be called the k word if we ever question the way things are. And there is some truth to that.

So I say, forget the guy in the jilbab who gets his panties in a bunch every time you talk about changing something at the mosque. We need our own mosques. I'm not sure what you would call them, reformed? Definitely not progressive (but that's another post). They would be open for everyone. People would be welcomed, there would be a special new shahada committee to help converts. There would be a youth group, and a mother's group. And no one would get asked how many raka are in the isha prayer before they entered. As a matter of fact non-Muslims would be invited regularly and be given an opportunity to see that Islam is not a members only club where you have to know the secret handshake to get in... We are a religion accepting new and different people all the time. Did I mention the charity work? I think it should have a soup kitchen and a homeless shelter. Maybe even a free clinic! Wouldn't that be great?

Muslims... What makes me sad is not that we are a mess and we seem so disorganised and hostile to outsiders. It's that we even seem that way to ourselves. We have got to change that. There are great moderate Muslims out there, we just have to unite. If you know me you have probably heard me say this in 100 different ways 100 different times; until we accept each other, we can't ask people to accept us.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Sex and Islam

You're listening now? Or maybe you are on the phone to the haram police frantically giving them this web address. A twitter convo (you know who you are) got me thinking about sex-ed and sex in the Muslim world, and just how messed up it can all get. And seeing as I have an 11 year old now, it's a topic that is on my radar right now anyway.

So what I want to say is 2 fold: first what should we be teaching our kids and why, second what should the average Muslim's attitude about sex be vs what it is now?

Let's start on the same page here. Let's start with the basic agreement that all aspects of our culture are saturated in sex. From the billboards you drive by on the way to school to the TV (even family programing)that you watch in the evenings, they are all full of sexual content. You don't have to go further than the Disney channels pre-teen programs to know that sex and dating are on the minds of even the youngest kids. The racy photos of Disney stars are proof that they know the dollar value of being sexy and are racing towards adulthood at break-neck speed. Lets also agree that none of this means sex is bad. Or that being sexy makes you a slut. Or that liking sex makes you a whore. Sex is like driving... If you do it before you are old enough and have your license it's bad, but after that no one faults you for it. And to extend the metaphor, you only drive your car... You follow the rules of the road and you will find that driving is useful and enjoyable, a vital part of being independent for many of us.

So, knowing that... When should we teach kids about sex? How? What exactly should we talk about? Well, I say let the kids lead. And they know all about how cool and fun sex can be from the world around them already by maybe 12 at the latest. So, I think you have to start talking to kids about the reproductive system and all the changes that will be happening in your body by about age 10. I would go even younger if you have reason to suspect that they may go through puberty early. There are plenty of great books out there that you could use, and it's important to know what you are talking about when you get into this discussion. Then, not all at once you can start talking to them about the other aspects of sex. Use the openings where you see them, maybe a scene in a movie is a good chance to say how even though watching sex isn't appropriate, when you are married these are things you will enjoy with your partner. I have been open with my kids about the birth process, and I think that falls into that category. It's a good chance to tell your kids who are old enough how pregnancy happens and what giving birth is really like. I seriously doubt that anyone ever fell into sin because they couldn't stop thinking about what their father told them about how babies are made. Really. And he same goes for birth control and STDs. We know from abstinence only education that kids aren't put off by not talking about sex. They just learn how to technically stay a virgin. Which is just more reason that we should be frank if you ask me. Yes, there is something called oral-sex and it feels great... But you can't do it until you are married. Yes, you can give a guy a hand-job in the school parking lot... But that is not OK. These conservative people have taught us that there is danger in omission. So I'm not for it.

I guess my main view is that I don't want my son's education to come from the porn industry. It's not a realistic view of a male female relationship, and I certainly don't want my son to think his wife will be like an actress in one of those movies. So it's my job to moderate all the wild fantasy in movies and locker rooms with a dose of the reality. But, I want them to know that there is exploration to be done too. Just not before they are married. And I don't think this conversation can wait until the engagement party, not in the world we live in.

As for the Muslim world and our view of sex... Unfortunately, I think it's pretty screwed up. Men are up all night watching porn on the dish and then they go to wives who are still being conditioned to think of sex as dirty and everyone suffers. Now I think sex is an issue in any marriage, something you have to work on. It takes a frankness and lack of shame to tell even your spouse what you want, what turns you on. And having this attitude that sex is dirty and shameful makes it hard to talk about those things even in the context of marriage. Men and women have a fundamentally different view of it to start with. We look at as a chance for deepening intimacy and men look at it as a recreational sport. But we can meet in the middle. IF and only IF we get rid of the idea that Islam discouraging sex outside of marriage and Islam discouraging sex are the same thing. They are not. Men are told to go to their wives as they wish, and advised not to just ride their wives like bulls but instead to play with them. So when did sex become dirty? And how are we daring to throw women who have been sheltered from anything sexual into marriages with men who have been viewing porn (and I think that pretty much all men) since puberty? Well, I think that in trying to discourage sex outside of marriage many parts of the Muslim community opted to just plain discourage sex. It was complicated to separate the two, to make rules... Or was it? I come back to the car analogy. No one would let a 12 year old drive. No one would let even a 30 old drive if they didn't have a license, but we don't discourage driving or prevent people from learning about it for fear that they will do it without a license. Where this analogy fails is that sex is private, no one knows but you if you are violating the license. So of course we are more likely to do it. That's where the consequences and the information comes in.

Teaching people about sex can really help them enjoy it when they do get married. Not teaching them doesn't really prevent the experimenting biology drives us to do, it just makes us ashamed of our sexuality. So in my mind the way forward for the Muslim world is to teach our children about sex. In the time of the prophet people would have known about it because they lived in close quarters and people in the past were just more frank and open about it. Definitely children would have seen birth and animals mating... So they knew more. Now we live in a more closed society that is bombarding you with only half the story about sex, the good part, and ignoring the complex reality of it. Balance people, balance in all things... So the more we have thrown at us, the more we have to balance it. You can't ignore it, not with any good result, and throwing out sex-ed is ignoring it. The key to having a good sex life and preventing pre-marital sex are the same to me. INFORMATION.

I might come back to refine this post later... But I just wanted to give you all something hot out of the mental oven so to speak. Some food for thought. OK, you can call the haram police now if you'd like. I think I'm ready to defend myself.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Growing into Islam

I have been trying to define Islam for myself since I converted, almost 13 years ago. Sometimes I feel like Islam is an over-sized sweater I am hoping to wear once I grow into it. And like many converts, finding my niche has eluded me. This comes out as anger at the ummah, anger at the born Muslims, anger at the robots that have inhabited the brains of many fellow converts forcing them to parrot culture and Islam as if they were the same thing. I know this sounds trite, and maybe you think I'm just stating the obvious here... But being a convert is a struggle for me. Not because I am not smart enough to learn the deen, not because I don't speak Arabic, not because I have doubts about the truth of Islam... But because it just is.

Somehow I think that part of it is rooted in the fact that being "religious" at all seems sort of hoaky to me, forced. I have always been a believer, but I have never been an ecstatic born-again type believer. To me there is a personal element to faith that makes proclaiming oneself anything feel a little strange. Now I know we should be proud to be Muslim, and we should be sharing it with others... But somehow sharing feels more like defending in my case. It's different when we are around lots of Muslims, but most of the time I am pretty isolated. However, even among born-Muslims I have some feeling that I am defending my belief, in that case not the faith itself but my true adherence to/ belief in it. Which is a different problem, But it carries the same burden.

It is a rarity for me to go somewhere and feel like, "Yes, these people get me!". Other Americans are pretty sure I'm crazy and probably brain-washed by my Muslim husband, and converts often don't seem to come at the religion from the same place as I do. I became Muslim before I ever knew my husband you see, before I really knew many Muslims at all. And that makes me a little different. I see things without the lens of a culture really because when I came to Islam I came to ISLAM, not the Egyptian Islam, or the Saudi Islam, or the Pakistani Islam. Pause and consider this for a minute. If you are from a large community where people tend to divide off into groups based on ethnicity, it will start to make sense to you. In these groups you can see that people are comfortable because they all agree on a certain version of Islam. Now, I'm not saying this is right or wrong... Maybe their ideas are correct, but right or wrong they all share the same basic ideas.

Converts don't have the luxury of assuming anything. If you are married you can fall back on your husbands culture, otherwise you are on your own. So the question that we have to ask ourselves is, "How can I be Muslim and American?" and "How much of what I considered my personality, my habits, myself, have to change now that I am Muslim?". Unfortunately all the love you get at your shahada... All the sisters saying masha'Allah with tears in their eyes, won't help you with that. You are on your own. Completely. Utterly. And being on your own is lonely.

Now before you think this is a poor me life is hard post, I want to say that this can also be a real blessing. Because you are not culturally biased and you have not grown up thinking something is Islam when it isn't, you don't suffer from re-examining your entire upbringing. You don't have to go though family members telling you you are insane when you correct something you have been doing your entire life. I can't imagine how some first generation hijabis feel, for example. You can just safely split your life into two categories, "before I was Muslim", and "after I became Muslim". But how does this help you define Islam for yourself you ask? Well, it doesn't but I just want you to see I'm not all gloom and doom.

When I first converted this categorizing things seemed to go to an extreme. I rejected things I loved because people told me that was Islam. Somehow harder seemed to be more devout, so I welcomed the challenge. I gave up music, I stopped wearing make-up and western clothes. I even started trying to eat the foods I saw other Muslims eating. Now, don't laugh... Many of us converts go through this phase, and I was unmarried and had no Muslim family. Now, there are so many things about me that have changed. I have opened myself up to accepting the things I like and want and really pursuing the question of whether or not these things are permissible for me.

I want to clarify here, that I don't think you should go "shiekh shopping" or seek people until you find the fatwa you want. I just think if you really miss music, be honest and seek the answers about why it was forbidden, and under what circumstances. If you love animals and miss your dog Fido that you had as a child... Seriously pursue an answer to the whole reasoning behind dogs being unclean, and what that means in regards to owning one. Is everything you are denying yourself based on authentic information? You owe it to yourself to find out.

So what have I decided about who I am as a Muslim after 13 years? Well, I think I'm more liberal now than I was before. I have decided that moderate Islam is actually more Islamic many times. Islam is easy, right? Because as narrated by Ibn Mas’ud: The Prophet said, “Ruined are those who insist on hardship in matters of the Faith.” He repeated this three times. (Muslim) Also, I try not to judge other people concerning where they are in their journey because as narrated ‘Aishah: Allah’s Messenger said, “Allah is Kind and He loves kindness, and confers upon kindness which He does not confer upon severity, and does not confer upon any thing besides it (kindness).” (Muslim) I guess what I'm saying is for me, I am at peace with the fact that I am Muslim by religion, and American by birth. I still like to watch movies, go to the spa... And all the things I did before. I also haven't changed the way I feel about many things that might seem un-Islamic. But that's part of who I am. I had an identity that I brought with me to the religion, and it didn't change. I'm me, only now I'm Muslim.

So I hope that other converts can come to that place. That they can see whoever they are and whatever they are doing is FINE. As long as you are striving to please Allah, forget the people around you! The struggle with yourself is the greatest jihad. Don't feel like you aren't a good Muslim because you aren't like the Muslims around you; because sometimes, the exact opposite might be true.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Quick, grab the AED! Call 911!

OK, so maybe that's a little dramatic... I have let this blog go for so long that I fear it may be terminal. Hopefully it can be revived with the proper first aid. If you know me, you know I've got a million things going on, but I have been missing blogging... So here I am. I have so many ideas for posts floating around in my head you wouldn't believe. Or maybe you would because you see I'm kinda long winded and I like to talk. Whatever the case, I'm back on the blog, hoping to post more frequently if anyone out there is still reading!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Now that sounds familiar...

I am at a seminar for early childhood teachers right now, Lifeways. It's Waldorf based if you haven't heard me say that 100x's already. Today we covered diversity, and a little analysis of how children come into their own ethnic identity through adolescence really struck a cord for me. "But why UmmLayla??? You're a white girl?" you say? Because I think that converts go through the same stages to some degree when they accept Islam. OK, maybe I'm crazy here... But I think you will see the similarity. It's like by accepting Islam puts you back to that struggle with identity that we all go through as a teen... What do you think? See if you agree:

Stage 1: Conformity
Preference for the values and norms of the dominant culture
Strong desire to assimilate into the dominate culture
Negative self-deprecating attitudes toward themselves and their racial group
Attitudes toward the dominant group are positive
-How that applies to the convert: This is the stage when you first convert (so Islam will be the dominant culture here) and you are trying to fit in desperately. You do whatever you see the "Muslims" do because you think it must be right and good. This is the stage where you shop at the Arab markets even if you don't really know what to do with what you buy there. This is also the stage where you develop a negative attitude about the "kafir" and complain about your "kafir" relatives frequently. You also the reject input from more moderate Muslims assuming they are just being influenced by living in the land of the "kafir".

Stage 2: Dissonance
Individual begins to question pro-dominate culture attitude and behaviors
Individuals alternate between self- and group-appreciation and deprecating attitudes and behaviors
-For converts this is a stage where you just might lose the whole converting thing. You have started to see that Muslims and Islam may very well be different things. But you still want to be a "good Muslim" by the standard of the community and are unsure about rebelling against the things you are starting to see as flaws in the fabric of Muslim culture.

Stage 3: Resistance and Immersion
Individuals embrace their own racial/ethnic group completely
Blind endorsement of one's group and all the values/attitudes attributed to the group
Individuals accept racism and oppression as a reality
Rejection of the values and norms associated with the dominant group
Empathic understanding and an overpowering ethnocentric bias
-This is where you wake up one day and say to yourself... "Hey, I know I'm Muslim, but I happen to be (insert racial identity here) too!" You then commence eating copious amounts of the foods you grew up with for iftar unless you just feel like middle eastern food that night. Now, I'm not suggesting that this means you reject Islam... This is where you start to reject the culture surrounding it. You can now look at Islam vs Muslims, and probably by now you've decided that non-Muslims are not evil... Hey, you were one yourself. And oh yeah, it's totally OK to admit you miss x-mas and all the other things you grew up doing. But hey, it's all part of the personal struggle that is your deen, right? This is the stage where you may go to the extreme of deciding that all born Muslims have never really explored their deen and all they know is "Muslim culture".

Stage 4: Introspection
Individuals develop a security in their racial identity that allows questioning of rigid Resistance attitudes
Re-direct anger/negativity toward dominant culture to exploration of individual and group identity issues
Conflict between allegiance to one's own ethnic group and issues of personal autonomy
Individuals acknowledge there is variation amongst all groups of people
-Getting to this one is a little harder, but I assert that many converts make it there because we are all working on ourselves (that's probably why we converted in the first place). This is where you leave your whole history and "Muslim culture" behind and try to forge a new you... The Muslim you. The person that is an amalgam of all the good parts you can glean from both worlds. There are bad days, because you see you aren't really a member of either group and you now need to form your own identity as an individual. You now see that hanging with other converts is no more a solution than avoiding born-Muslims, you find individuals you like in both groups.

Stage 5: Synergetic Articulation and Awareness
Characterized by a sense of self fulfillment with regard to racial identity, confident and secure
Desire to eliminate all forms of oppression
High level of positive regard toward self and toward one's group
Respect and appreciation for other racial/cultural groups
Openness to constructive elements of the dominant culture
-This is the final stage... But it doesn't mean you can't go back to an earlier stage again later. Maybe you have a great experience and reach this for a short time... Maybe you are super-cool and you feel like this all the time. This is where you finally peel back all the layers of your original cultural identity and glean things you find useful from the "cultural Muslims". Now you can focus on the religion without getting caught in all the cultural aspects, internal and external.

Friday, January 01, 2010

New ideas around our house...

I have been reading my notebook from the Waldorf seminar I went to (Lifeways) and I have been inspired to make some changes around my home. One of the articles that really struck me was about wearing aprons. Now, I know, it sounds silly... But I have been wearing the apron I made that you see pictured above, and I think my attitude changes. You have a uniform, and like any uniform it helps you get your head in the game. I have long heard programs about getting organised and extolling the virtues of getting up and getting dressed every day. Don't hang around in your PJs and expect to get things done. In my mind the apron takes it to another level. Now you are dressed and ready for a very specific job, nurturing your family. So in my epic struggle to be a better mom, wife and homemaker... I will count the apron as a small step in the right direction.

The other thing I have been trying to do is get more whole foods into my children's diet. DH has his tastes... So it's hard to do in my family because he won't eat it. Once again at the Lifeways training I had the opportunity to learn about a great way to get more whole grains and veggies into your lunch menu. Enter the new permanent resident in my kitchen, the rice cooker. I have been using it to cook different grains and then I saute some veggies and mix them in... Lunch is served. The good thing about it is that it's quick. In maybe 20 minutes prep time I have a nice lunch ready. This week... Rice with onion, zucchini and tomato. Millet with onion, sweet potato and spinach. Quinoa with onion, cucumber and tomato. All by cooking the grain with 1 cup grain to 2 1/2 cups water and then sauteing the veggies and tossing them in once the grain has finished cooking. It's a revelation! Whole grains without the fuss... And I haven't ever been big on lunch meats or chicken nuggets, so this is perfect for lunch. I'm planning on sending the kids to school with it next week!

So there you go... We have had a fun winter break, and I have gotten some things done around the house that I have been meaning to get to for a long time, which feels great. I have purged the kids rooms. I am down to a much simpler environment for them. I kept a kitchen and a wooden dollhouse plus two cloth dolls for the 3 year old. And the boys have legos and some army toys. My older girl has a couple of stuffed animals and her art supplies. And collectively they share a dress up chest. I have told myself no more mediocre toys that just become clutter from now on. If it doesn't foster creative play, why would I buy it? It's a work in progress. I want to make their beds nicer, and maybe rearrange their desks... But it's getting there!

We have been making things too. Felt balls and tie dyed shirts. Both were fun projects. Although I hate working with gloves, so my hands are still green from the dye!LOL There is a great tutorial on making felt balls (although I do it a little differently) at And for tie dye I recommend checking out for anything and everything you need.

I hope the new year is good for everyone... Talk to you all again soon!