When I discuss my journey into Sunni Islam, with people, they’re often confused with how quickly I adopted and defended hijab. Why go all out like that? They ask. Didn’t you ever meet Muslim women who didn’t wear hijab? Of course I encountered Muslimahs that didn’t observe hijab. However that’s not the point. Hijab was never about a simple piece of cloth on my head. It was about faith but even more than that it was about identity. For Western women who convert to Islam, questions of culture and identity can quickly become a minefield. In this post I’m going to share an experience I had that really made me think about these questions.
It was close, but I managed to make it to the masjid on time. Since it was the Fourth of July, our Sunday halaqa had been moved to noon instead of our usual evening meeting time. Though I enjoyed every halaqa, attending this one was of special importance for me. A number of the sisters at the halaqa were new converts, so the subject of marriage was on everyone’s mind. As a result our teacher,who we’ll refer to as Camille, decided to devote that week’s halaqa to the subject.
Now I must give this sister credit: I respect the way that she broached the subject. Unlike most Muslim women I’d encountered up to that point,Camille was not part of the “hurry up and marry” crew. She didn’t pressure new converts to marry and she didn’t make an attempt to get all up in one’s personal life. Nor did she pretend that marriage in Islam was the ultimate answer. That day Camille led us in a very sober and frank discussion about our position as female converts and the challenges that we’d face in getting married. We’d have to worry about unscrupulous men seeking to exploit us for immigration. And aside from immigration fraud wasn’t an issue, there were still the cultural differences to worry about. “I’m going to be honest with you”,Camille said at one point,”As American converts, you are going to be viewed as ‘used goods’ by some born-Muslim men and their families. Even if you’ve never been married there’s an assumption that you’ve been very sexually active before converting. You and the brother may get along and he individually may treat you well, but his family may perceive you as being ‘loose’ simply because you are a convert”.
When Camille finished her statement, it was eerily silent for a moment. You could have heard a pin drop. The faces of some sisters in the circle became flushed with anger. One finally spoke up.
“But WHY would they think that?”,Christine shrieked petulantly,”That’s not fair and it’s not right to make that kind of assumption about us simply because we were not born into Islam!”
“I know”, Camille sighed,”It’s not right. But I just want to be honest with you all so that you know these attitudes exist and that you may be confronted with them at some point”.
We continued our discussion on marriage and more issues were raised. But Camille’s blunt words and the disappointment on Christine’s face are what I remember the most from that day. Christine, like all of us, was indignant at the fact that one’s nationality and family upbringing alone were enough for some of our brothers and sisters in Islam to assume we’d been whores prior to taking the shahada.
It was like dealing with the Madonna/Whore dichotomy on steroids. Women born into and reared in Muslim were automatically deemed good, pious and pure. Women born into and reared into non-Muslim families(even if said families were among the ‘People of the Book) were assumed to be bad, rebellious and promiscuous. As a Western convert, the question of who and what you are becomes quite muddled. You are supposed to be a member of the Ummah. Yet the idea that you are somehow deficient never fully goes away. How can it, when you’re constantly being berated in some way and reminded that you were not born Muslim? The person that you were pre-Islam is frequently maligned. If you’re American, your nation is cast as the chief persecutor of the Ummah. If you converted from Christianity, your former coreligionists, friends and family are viewed as misguided at best and idol worshipers at worst.
Given the negativity that female converts encounter and the identity crisis they subsequently go through, is it really any surprise that they tend to become overzealous? While some may behave this way out of a sincere desire to please their god, I personally believe that, for others, there is much more to it. We want to fit in and loathe being outsiders. So some of us try too hard to “be down”. We make it our mission to become “Muslim only”. After all, if we became “truly” Muslim and erased the vestiges of our Western identity, perhaps the Ummah would no longer view us as “used goods”, as inferior versions of born muslimahs