When I converted to Islam I was immediately faced with the issue of following the “right” path. The people in my mosque made sure that I understood that there are two types of Muslims: The “rightful” ones and the “Westernized” ones. It did not take long for me to realize that I did not belong to neither of them.
Being a “rightful” Muslim meant being a “rightful” woman, an emphasis that MUST be added, when dealing with contemporary scholarly interpretations. I soon learned that my femininity will depend on my ability to comply with specific interpretations of Islamic sources and with on my relationships with the opposite sex, more specifically with a husband.
On the other hand, the “Westernized” category had a place as its basic component. Yet, the “West” entails everything that is not “arabized.” Since I am not Western and I do not identify with a number of Western tenets, I was left in the middle, with no category and with a number of questions to answer.
Coming to Islam meant for me questioning my deepest principles and values and reconciling them with the “new” acquired experience. Nonetheless, this is not an automatic process. Until now, I struggle with myself, with my community and Islam. I carry on a personal jihad every morning. I question every single piece of every single activity I do to make sure it feels right.
I fight myself and my practices, but I also question what I am called to do as Muslim woman in the West. I do not think my struggle is unique, I think it is quite common. However, Muslim women are often called to suppress it. Ironically, these questions reaffirm my identity as a non-Western Muslim living in the West. Yet, this has also led me to seek alternative interpretations. I am faced everyday with issues that male Islamic scholars do not satisfy and I am countered by non-Muslims and current conceptions of Islam as an extremist-terrorist religion.
As a Muslim woman, I am always challenged by these:
1) My place in liturgy. Can I be an Imam? Why not?
2) Women’s purity. Let’s get it straight! Purity, dirtiness and lack of ability are not the same thing. Besides… we should rather say “Human purity.”
3) Polygamy. A man and four wives.
4) Terrorism. Jihad and the Holy war.
5) Hijab. Mandatory or not…. To wear or not to wear? That’s the question.
6) Good and obedient Muslim girls vs. Bad, Westernized Muslim Feminists.
7) Gender segregation.
8) Praying behind the glass as not to distract the “brothers.”
9) The “brotherhood” and “sisterhood” in Islam with those who call me and my family “infidels.”
10) Islam as Arabism. Is being Muslim being Arab?
11) Arabic as a sacred language. Really? If it Prophet Muhammad had been Chinese then Qur’an would be in Chinese too.
12) Following one of the four Islamic schools of thought. What about if none of them satisfy my needs?
13) Islamic scholarship as the institution of the male elite. Why all the scholars and Muftis are men?
14) The expectations around my role as a “future” wife.
15) The call not to expect anything from my “future” husband.
16) Islamic as undemocratic.
17) Islam as anti-feminist.
18) Islam in opposition to the West (and vice versa).
19) Following the 5 pillars of Islam to go to heaven. What about the things in between? What about issues of humanity? Will praying get me into heaven as opposed as doing something for humanity?
20) Islam as homophobic.
21) A man is worth half a woman.
22) Capital death and blood money.
23) The male is the head of the family. Should I go with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and say that women are the neck and make the head turn in any direction?
24) A woman cannot refuse sex to her husband. Can he refuse it to me?
25) A man can beat his wife. Can I beat him back? Or should I get someone to do it?
26) A woman needs a male wali. Can’t my mom look for my best interest?
27) Prophet Muhammad married an underage girl (A’isha).
28) He had more than nine wives.
29) He had two concubines.
And the list goes on… In my experience the challenges come piece by piece and many times they are irresolvable and irreconcilable. It is then, that I look to the bigger picture, what is Islam for me? What are the principles that drew me to the religion?
This is not to say that these issues must be ignored or overlooked. Not at all. Each one of these issues should be carefully studied to further advance women’s rights and independent interpretations.
However, it is the bigger picture that allows me to challenge the barriers that my own Muslim community and Islamic scholars tend to put on me and on other women.