It’s A Different World…

Disclaimer: The following post is about my experiences and what I witnessed. It is certainly not intended to be a reflection on all of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. For the Muslims that may read this and get offended: if the shoe doesn’t fit your masjid or your specific community, there’s no reason to get your draws in a bunch.

Converting to Sunni Islam and entering the Ummah led to serious culture shock for me. I wanted to believe that the Ummah was different and special. Unfortunately my experiences locally made this hard to believe. Often I found myself comparing my experiences as a Muslim to those I had as a non-Muslim. I felt incredibly guilty for such thoughts but I could not help myself. I would see things that completely offended my sensibilities and just seemed wrong. I would say astagfirullah for my thoughts, but that didn’t keep the thoughts from recurring.

Seeing the way that women and children were treated at community events raised my hackles. I will share an incident which illustrates this. In the summer I attended a Muslim picnic. I was very excited about this event, as it would be a great way to meet other Muslims. The picnic was held on Saturday and it was extremely hot that day. When we arrived, all was well. I was having a great time-until the barbecue started. The men were in charge of grilling the meat-no issue with that. What annoyed me was watching as tray after tray of meat was distributed to teenage boys and men, while the women and children received nothing! I stood patiently in line with my hungry child, sweating in 90 degree weather, hoping to get at least one drumstick for my child. I didn’t even care if I got anything at that point; I just wanted my daughter to be able to eat! Two hours later- after a sister had gone off on the people cooking and distributing the food-I was finally given a plate for my child. Each time I watched the men rush the food and leave nothing for the women and children, however, I was filled with disgust. What kind of men act like this, I asked myself. As stated in previous blogs, I was raised in the Baptist church dominated by Southern folks. NONE of the men-in my church or those we fellow-shipped with-ever behaved in such a manner. Women and children were always given priority. Eating before women would have been considered extremely rude, unmanly and demonstrated a lack of chivalry(which was highly valued among Southerners). I realize, of course, that this was the culture I was raised in and not everyone has the same experience. But seeing men eat first and always get the best pickings, while women and kids always ate last and got the leftovers was something that I never got used to. In discussions with other apostates and even some practicing Muslims, I have learned I’m not the only one that has made this observation.

Then there was the segregation of the sexes. At first I was actually okay with it. I didn’t have an overwhelming desire to be in the midst of men. I fell into they hype of believing that it was possible to be “separate but equal”. Like the racial segregationists’ of yesterday, the defenders of gender separation claim that equal accommodations are provided. But it’s complete bullshit. Please excuse my language but there’s really no other way to put it. Whether it was the woman’s space in the masjid or the separation at a lecture, I always got the short end of the stick. In the masjid I attended, the woman’s area had a few old Qurans and dawah pamphlets(which were mostly in random languages like German). We had no ventilation and frequently sweltered in the heat. So you can imagine how I felt when my husband bragged to me about how spacious and cool the man’s area was. He described the layout and decor in detail. He also bragged about the extensive library of brand new books and pamphlets that were available to the men. Learning about the library raised my ire. I’m an avid reader and would have loved to take advantage of an opportunity to expand my Islamic knowledge. But alas, checking out that library was off-limits to me.

Community events also required an adjustment. My first(and last) Eid Al-Fitr was frustrating. It wasn’t that the accommodations were unequal. Everyone had to pray on the same spare floor of the convention center. However the men(naturally) were seated in front of the women. Soon after we prayed the two rakats of the Eid prayer, the khutbah began. The men remained seated, quietly in the same neat rows they had prayed in, and listened attentively. The women, however, got up and began flitting around to gossip amongst each other. From the little I could glean over their chattering, the imam was discussing a subject near and dear to my heart: racism and division within the Ummah. Unfortunately I could not hear much else, as the sisters made no attempt to talk discreetly or whisper. No, they carried on full conversations, talking and joking at regular volume. I noticed this was a trend that seemed to take place at most events. People-and usually the women I am very sad to say-would rudely chat while others had the floor and were addressing the crowd. Again, I found myself comparing this to my experiences in church. Simply put, in church they were not “having that”. You simply could not talk-even if you were whispering-while someone was addressing the crowd. You REALLY couldn’t talk during a sermon or lecture. Chatty people would be given one warning to shut their mouths. If they continued to talk after that, an usher would march down the aisle and escort them to the lobby, where they would stay until they could keep quiet. No one was allowed to keep other people from listening to what was being said. I found myself wishing for one of two things to happen:

1)To sit with the men, simply so I could have the same opportunity to listen or learn;

2)For Muslims take a page from the Church and incorporate ushers to deal with rude people who made it impossible to listen.

Of course, there was no way any of that would happen. I attended one last lecture in September and then gave up. It was a complete waste to me. Sitting with the women, I’d barely be able to hear the speaker. If food was being served I’d eat last. I decided to simply stay home and watch lectures on YouTube or buy DVDs online.

Last was the way that children behaved. Again, my family is from the South, so culturally I was used to a certain level of decorum. As a child I could not show out and act a fool anywhere, but I really could not do it in church! Anyone who has grown up in the Black Church or a Southern congregation knows exactly what I am talking about. It starts with the eyes. If you are misbehaving, someone-your mother, an aunty, your grandma-is going to give you the look. The look means calm down or I am going to take you to the bathroom and deal with you. If you disregard the look and continue to act up, you will be taken to the bathroom where you will get a firm talking to or a spanking, depending on the severity of your misbehaving. But the rules were clear: there was no tolerance for bad children.

With this background the behavior that children were able to get away with completely amazed me. Kids running all around, talking loudly and yelling, fighting, throwing things, just acting like complete savages! And the parents wouldn’t say, let alone do anything about it. At a community movie event that took place monthly this was always a problem. I felt much empathy for the sister who ran the event, because she’d end up being the one to try to deal with the unruly children and plead with their parents to control them. The same thing happened at certain masjids as well, with the imam having to plead with parents to get their children under control so we could make salat.

These experiences showed me that the world I’d entered was quite different from the world I’d come from. And contrary to the hype, it wasn’t superior in every aspect.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

4 thoughts on “It’s A Different World…

  1. wow. your experience sounds just like mine.

    A couple of years ago when I used to go to our local masjid, I decided that I would work hard to bring down the black curtain dividing the men and women; this meant that the women could only hear the sheikh speak. But after a few months I realised that the women liked it that way, bcz then they could chat and gossip all they liked. I was actually confronted by to other women who told be to back off, because they liked the separation because then they could sit as they liked without feeling like they were being watched.

    Fast forward to 2010, and they started building a new masjid in another area. The men now have this large space, with a book case etc. But they have built the women a square room with sliding doors that you can see out of but cannot see into. I spoke to one of the men once about this, stating that it looked kind of like a cage. He told me, “If you knew your Islam you would know that women and men cannot sit together”. I told him, “If you knew your Islam you would know that at the time of the Prophet, men and women worshipped TOGETHER.”

    He simply shook his head and walked away from me. That was the last time I entered the masjid. And I have promised myself that when I do need to go because of family or funeral khutbahs, I will sit with the men and if they want to throw me out … well they can.

    I can’t believe that this is even an issue these days!

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