Sister, Sister: Do We Know What Sisterhood Means?

One of the things that stroke me the most when I became a Muslim was the whole “sister, sister” thing. I remember reading M. Asad’s Qur’anic translation of surah 8:1, which reads:

“Hey will ask thee about the spoils of war. Say: “All spoils of war belong to God and the Apostle.” Remain, then, conscious of God, and keep alive the bonds of brotherhood among yourselves, and pay heed unto God and His Apostle, if you are [truly] believers!”

“Brotherhood” and “Sisterhood,” for lack of better words, are commonly used terms. However, in the context of faith they tend to be quite loaded. Since these words are often used in connection with the “ummah,” which in itself has multiple meanings and has caused controversy, they tend to be associated with terms like jihad and Shariah as attested by media coverage on recent events particularly in Egypt.

However, as someone who has never been involved in war contexts and has no physical or emotional connection to an Islamic state, I found it rather strange that women in my community would insist on the “sister” calling. Do not get me wrong, I enjoy mingling with women in my community, and I devote great part of my time to engaging with my mosque and community members. Yet, until this day I wonder what grants the title “sister”? Is it an automatic title for someone who“shares” your religion? Or does it make us feel “more Muslim”? Does it describe us?

Today you can find quizzes that tell you what kind of “sister” are you and guides on how to treat your fellow “sisters,” but few people actually stops to explore the “sister” relationship.

In fact, as converts the “sister” thing is something we hear a lot! Whether it is to tell us “sister, you must wear hijab” or “sister, are you married?” or simply “mashallah you chose the “right” path sister”… Still that way, I have enough fingers to count my true-dear sisters in Islam… isn’t that ironic?

                    “Subhiyyi at Teta’s House,” by H. ZUGHAIB -via  We the People 2011

In my experience dealing with my medium-size community in Canada, I have found that most of the time, the term “sister” is an empty one in today’s Western world. We call each other “sister, sister” without building an actual sisterly relationship. Last week, while in a converts’ potluck, I realized that many converts have experiences that confirm the lack of bonding in our communities.  Although religiously we are called to keep the sisterhood alive and true to itself, we could count with few fingers how many women have truly displayed “sisterly behavior.”

In the past few weeks, I actually experienced this lack of support.  I have been helping a fellow Muslim in need, but the women that had called her “sister, sister” and had pledged their support suddenly disappeared at the first signs of inconvenience. Are these sisters? Or is sisterhood only a politically correct term in mosques?

The plain and empty “sister” calling bothers me… I see it as a way to get around getting to know me… as a homogenizing term that assumes that I am like everyone else or that you and I are the same… It gets rid of individuality and, in today’s world, it releases people from their responsibility of being “good” to fellow community members. Even men in mosques use it: “sister, you are provoking the brothers…” Well…. really?

After exploring this question with fellow “sisters,” I have reached the conclusion that the title is not worth anything without the relationship and the sisterly bonds. Not because we attend the same mosque or call ourselves Muslims we are sisters… it requires much more. Being a “sister” calls for a commitment to a relationship that transcends labels and personal practices. It entails actual caring.

The sister-to-sister relationship has little to do with belonging to the same “ummah.” Instead, it calls for empathy, responsibility, affection and sincerity… Unfortunately, this is something that many of us are not accustomed to provide or even receive.