Lectures that Kill
This post comes after a recent lecture that I attended during Ramadan, where a fellow convert used his previous Christian experience to justify Islam and tell us that “we, and only we, are the real thing and we are God’s true believers.” I also attended this lecture right after a group of fundamentalist Christians put out a sandwich board in the street that read: “A present for our Muslim friends.” The group harassed my friend and I through our way to the mosque by telling us to listen to the “true” message that Jesus Christ had brought along… they called us “God’s haters.”
When I became a Muslim, I saw the mosque as a second home. I did not have the opportunity to be there every day because I had to commute for over an hour, and I was working full-time while in school. Yet, I made every effort to attend every Friday at maghreb time. As a convert, I was thrilled by the warm reception I received from other women in the community. I also saw going to the mosque as a way to help out those who had welcomed me into the religion.
Unfortunately, I slowly became disenchanted with a number of situations that appeared during my visits to the mosque. One of them was the issue of Islāmic lectures. When I first joined the mosque, we had an outstanding lady that would lecture on topics relevant to women in the mosque. She was an orthodox Muslim, but she was not going to get caught in the simplicity of “being Islamic.” She was a strong leader and a woman who brought forward questions that were sometimes uncomfortable; however, most of us left the lectures feeling that we had learned something or that we had an opinion on a certain issue, at least. Sadly, this lady had to move on (the good ones always do), and she ended up teaching in a very prestigious institution. However, things went downhill in my mosque after she left.
Something I have noticed in North America is that mosques will, often times, bring someone unqualified to deliver a lecture. As long as he (mostly) has a beard and dresses “Islamically” he is in… the same with the ladies; hijabs and abaayas work miracles. While I am not implying that people should not have access to the podium (because I believe everyone should have a chance), I do think that we should choose the right person for the right lecture. However, gender biases and mosque politics (and example here) often contribute to the selection of a new lecturer.
The second lecturer we got in my mosque was a younger lady who had an obsession with saying that a “woman’s nature” was such and such… She would spend hours saying that a woman’s nature is (and should be) to be quiet, shy, modest, pious, good-tempered, sweet, etc… Yes, some agreed, but some others were confused about the message. The lecturer dedicated important lecture time to dismiss any questions by telling us “that is (or is not) ladylike.”
Eventually, when the women showed that they were displeased with the new lady (after such a great lecturer), the mosque’s solution was to bring up the mosque’s Imam/Sheikh. Being an older gentleman, I highly doubt that the sheikh was ready to deal with a group of more than 30 women on a weekly basis. He was nervous about answering questions on divorce, family and gender violence, women’s health, etc. I don’t blame him! These are topics that tend to be sensitive across gender lines or that are simply brushed off.
On the other hand, he was all up for telling women to wear their hijabs and participate in the mosque events by cooking and cleaning. His idea of participation was not only quite gendered but also very antiquate. Whereas some women were not surprised, many converts and Western-born Muslims were not impressed. However, being a sheikh, no one dared to challenge his lack of sensitivity in this field. But again, it was difficult to blame the women… after all no one wanted to go through the awkward moment of telling the sheikh that he was doing a poor job in answering questions about breasts, periods and pregnancies, among others.
After few lectures, I was concerned with the content and skeptical about spending such an amount of time “learning” things I did not agree with, so I thought it was perhaps time to try Juma’a. But that was another challenge. The common mentality that just because a woman (in some people’s opinion) is not required to attend Friday prayer she should not go, was an issue because the men would be discontent with the surprising amount of women attending (sometimes over 200). Thus, the imam, several times, kindly suggested to the sisters to “stay and pray at home” and “spend the afternoon with the little ones.” This did not only discourage me (especially after an hour bus ride), but also seemed foolish to send home a bunch of very motivated Muslim women. Despite the fact that some Muslims agree that it is not mandatory for women to attend, I doubt that earlier Muslim leaders caring for women’s place in society would have shut down women’s initiative to participate in the community.
In addition, the khutba was rarely better than that. My mosque has a very active dawah committee. This committee is in charge of “promoting Islam”, and they often encourage others to bring friends and family for the sake of “understanding.” Converts (or reverts as they are often called), are usually called to the stand and deliver khutba regardless of their qualifications. The majority of these converts also happen to be men. The long beards and the white robes work every time!
The word “understanding” is often quite loaded in my community. “Understanding” does not mean that we, as Muslims, will see your (Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc.) point of view… it often means that you must see ours. Coming from a very varied religious background, I often felt ashamed when a convert was in the stand speaking of interfaith “understanding”. They did not only make emotional and visceral claims (such as “Christians are misled and we should bring them back”) but they will also be a source of hate rather than understanding. The words “sin” “Christian” “Jewish” “killer” and “betrayal” were often in the same sentence. I would just look around and see few Christians or believers from other religions, being confused by such an attack.
As a convert I felt hurt… not because I do not believe in Islam, but because I believe that Islam is a path to promote friendship and positive interactions. While religious groups often behave in the same way (i.e. fundamentalist Christian groups, Zionist Jewish, conservative Sikh groups…), I initially saw my mosque as a place where people made an effort to understand across religious lines. However, as many things, my community in a tiny-industrial-in-the-middle-of-nowhere Albertan city plays along political and cultural divides and calls it “religion.”