“I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me…”- Experiences of American convert to Islam Ashley Bounoura

In light of Trump’s new “career change” and the rise in Islamophobic hate crime both here in the UK and USA, Muslims here in the UK, across Europe and in the US in particular, face being potentially verbally and physically abused whilst going about their daily lives. Discourse around values, identity and belonging feed Islamophobic rhetoric. As a Muslim convert living in the UK, I’ve had no real trouble so far. I feel happy, safe and wanted here in the UK. But what about in the US?

Having met the lovely Ashley – a young American convert to Islam currently living in Algeria with her husband and founder of the blog Muslimah According to Me – I wanted to get an insight into her experiences as a convert: how did her friends and family react to her decision to become a Muslim? Was she welcomed within and outside the Muslim community? What is life like in the US for a Muslim convert? Well, here’s Ashley’s guest post talking about her experiences in both the US and UK. Enjoy!

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15181533_10211268880938203_2784240802646481146_n.jpgAs I began to seriously think about reverting to Islam, I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was scared of the reactions of my friends and family, and I knew to expect some backlash in general from the public as I went out for the first couple of times in my hijab, but I didn’t know what form any of that might take.

Looking back, in the few months after I first reverted, the reaction was far kinder than anything I had come to expect. Especially within my family, the people who are most important to me were the most supportive. My mother, sister, and grandfather all felt some apprehension at first, but as they began to see that I was the same person, and even becoming a better person because of this faith, they were quick to let me know that they supported anything that made me happy.

Within my friendship group there was a slightly more mixed reaction; I had a couple of friends from Los Angeles area that had a little bit of a difficult time stepping out of their affluent republican mindset, and unfortunately my decision to wear the hijab officiated the end of some friendships. My best friend, however, was completely supportive of me, and now even participates in World Hijab Day every year to spread awareness. Of course, I also made a couple of new friends along the way, both born Muslims and reverts [Muslim converts].

Integration into the Muslim community itself – another problem many reverts face – was easy and painless for me, in the beginning at least. I had one very good friend, who acted as a sort of all-in-one mentor, shoulder to lean on, and resource library. She always took me along to classes and lectures with her, and her friends all accepted me as I was. I joined the Muslim Students Association at my university, and the sisters there were all also very welcoming and ready to share in my journey.

However, upon moving to London (United Kingdom), I found that such accepting communities are actually quite rare to find. I had in fact been spiritually “growing up” in a metaphorical bubble. I had been excited to move out of my tiny community into something bigger, and I thought London would be a great opportunity for me to make tons of new friends. I instead found the community there to be far less open, and deeply separated into cultural cliques that had no place for a native-English speaking American university student. Because of this, I ended up being very isolated for the year I was studying there. The one good thing about moving to the diverse city of London however was the fact that the people on the street hardly gave me a second look.

Back in my university town in California, I had found myself in an odd place between the two communities. I found myself experiencing my majority cultural community in a much different way than I ever had before. Though I am always, to some degree, a novelty within the Muslim community, within the wider community, I experienced everything from micro-aggressions and confused stares, to actual violent threats (though this was by far the exception to the rule). For the most part, I got an odd look or two walking down the street, but I made it my policy to just look back and smile, and this tended to put people at ease. The broad majority of interactions I had in my university course, with my colleagues at work, and in my extra-curricular activities were positive. People were curious but kind, sceptical but supportive, and sometimes they just ignored the change completely.

The negative things I did experience mainly consisted of mildly irritating micro-aggression, usually in the form of slightly ridiculous questions. One thing I got asked a lot by random strangers was: “Where are you from?” Of course I would answer with: “California,” but they would almost always follow up with “yeah, but where are you from?” Sometimes I would just be given two choices: “Are you from Iran or Iraq?”, “Lebanon or Syria?”, “Albania or Turkey?” People seemed to have a very difficult time believing that I actually am just from California, and so are my parents, and my grandparents, and my great-grandparents (with the exception of my maternal grandfather’s parents, who are from Italy). Other times I have been asked very strange questions, but as long as there is space for a conversation I am always OK with giving an answer. Beyond the small things though, the biggest problem that I find that people had with me is not the fact that I am a Muslim, or that I “resemble the enemy,” but the fact that I am white and I choose to dress and believe as I do. Many of my most violent and aggressive encounters have stemmed from this type of animosity and the fact that, according to them, my lifestyle choices are not valid.

So, as I am preparing myself here in Algeria to begin the move back to the United States with my husband, I sometimes worry about the situation I will be returning to. I hear stories daily from my Muslim friends of attacks, mosques burning, being sworn at an intimidated in the street. I have been the recipient of not-so-cordial comments on my own blog and social media, and I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me, instead of being made to know that I am officially no longer welcome here, in the country where I spent the first 21 years of my life, because I choose to look and believe differently than those who hold the power.

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Credits and acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank Ashley for her time and efforts in writing this guest piece. I’d also like to wish her and her family all the very best for the future and their move back to the US.

If you’d like to find out more about Ashley and her experiences, please do visit her blog and Muslimah According to Me Facebook page. The blog is well worth a visit!

Images:

Greater than Fear (Shepard Fairey, Ridwan Adhami) (feature image) (CC), Ashley Bounoura (c)

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The 10 Biggest Misconceptions about Muslim Women

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Image source: luckyphotostream

Whenever you hear about Muslim women in the media, we’re always portrayed as oppressed, meek, silent victims. Doing a quick Google search using the words “Muslim women” just now, the suggested searches at the bottom of the page include:

do muslim women shavemuslim women rulessingle muslim womenmuslim women dress codemuslim women swimwearwhat do muslim women wear

Muslim women aren’t “victims” or “subjects”. We’re more than headscarves, burkinis, dress codes and potential wives for those looking for a spouse. We’ve got spiritual, intellectual, economic, social and sexual rights. There is a terrible wave of Islamophobic hate crime at present and there are cultural/social problems within some Muslim communities (see my prior post on gender jihad) but this isn’t what we’re about. Violations of women’s rights is unfortunately a global issue and Islamophobia is an increasing problem but these are problems – they don’t define us. They are problems just like all  other forms of racism, violence, discrimination and xenophobia. That’s not us.

Muslim women are proud, strong and free. We were given rights such as the right to inheritance centuries before women in Europe. I’ll leave all that for another post to go into greater detail. What I’d like to cover in this post is the 10 biggest misconceptions about Muslim women.

1. Muslim women dress in hijab and cover because their husbands demand so or because the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) told women to cover

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Image credit: Peter Dahlgren

Sigh. I and many other women (I’m sure!) have experienced this through misconceptions, (innocent) ignorance or by jumping to conclusions. It’s really patronising to presume that Muslim women cover their entire bodies for their husband when hijab is a choice, a decision and one act of following (one of ) God’s commands. Unfortunately there are cases of women being forced by men to cover by their fathers, husbands etc., there are oppressive laws in certain countries and in some societies there are judgmental attitudes and social pressure (all of which are wrong) but there’s also those sisters who wear it against their families’ wishes and despite the abuse and discrimination they may face within society. Following hijab in covering your body – not just your hair by the way (!) – is what Muslims believe to be a commandment from God and God alone (who is not male or female!). It’s a spiritual act, an act of modesty and an act of devotion. As Muslims, we believe that commandants are from God, compiled in the Qur’an and not from the Prophet Mohammed – who is the messenger not the Creator. It is and should always be the woman’s choice – a choice not defined by man. Please don’t assume otherwise.

2. Female converts had to convert to Islam in order to marry their Muslim spouses or they converted to Islam for their husband’s sake

Another huge stereotype! There are many many converts to Islam and most are young women. Whatever their timing, the decision to convert is (and must be) their choice. Those who convert simply to marry are not making a valid spiritual decision and those who force people to convert are breaking God’s commandment. God has given us free will and belief is personal – it has to be or it’s not real! You convert when you’re ready. Some sisters convert after witnessing the practice of their husband and learning more about the faith and some before they marry. This is their own personal spiritual choice. Out of those that convert before they marry, many of those aren’t even thinking about marriage. They’re not engaged, they’re not in love – they’re simply on their journey. Faith is personal and it’s once again really patronising to infer that women have no spiritual intelligence, needs, desires or free will. Faith is one thing. Marriage is another. Muslims believe that Allah’s plan is the greatest and therefore his timing is too!

3. Muslim men can touch unrelated women (shake hands etc.) whilst Muslim women can’t (the same goes for pre-martial sex!)

In Islam there is no sexual double standard. Pre- and extra-marital sex are forbidden as is kissing, touching etc. and everything in between. The limits between the opposite sex are the same. Whether this is always upheld is a different story but there should be no distinction between the level of contact between say a non-Muslim woman and a Muslim man and a Muslim man and a non-Muslim woman.

4. Muslim women can’t be scholars

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The general lack of female scholarship (in comparison to male figures) is a result of culture, patriarchy and socio-economic factors – not Islam. There are however numerous female Muslim scholars, translators, jurists and important advocates. Aisha (ra), the wife of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) was an early jurist and hadith transmitter. Another earlier example is Aishah bint Muhammad from Syria who was a 14th century hadith scholar. In today’s period, Laleh Bakhtiar (1938 – present) from the US, was the first American woman to translate the Qur’an into English. Her translation has been used in many mosques and universities. It has also been adopted by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan. Laleh has translated more than 30 books on Islam and the Islamic movement and is both a lecturer and published author of over 15 books in relation to Islam. For more inspirational Muslim women and their achievements see: 10 Muslim Women You Have to Knowthe Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) index and here for a list of female Muslim scholars. .

5. Muslim husbands are permitted to hit their wives

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Image credit: Hibr

Muslim men – despite what extremists say – are not permitted to hit their wives. The Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) did not hit his wives and taught men to respect, love and cherish their wives. Verse 4:34 of the Qu’ran is misused and mistranslated and thus used by some to justify violence against one’s wife :

The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them.

Translation: Talal Itani

Laleh Bakhtiar in her translation: “The Sublime Quran” (2007) translated the Arabic word daraba as “go away” instead of “beat” or “hit” – meaning the final commandment when in conflict with your spouse is to not actually have contact! Given the fact that the verse takes increasingly separatist stages: to first advise, then not share the marital bed until this last stage, this makes far more sense! As pointed out earlier, her translation of the Qur’an is used in various mosques and universities and was adopted by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan.

6. Muslim women are not (really) allowed in the mosque or community sphere 

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Image credit: Georgie Pauwels

This is simply a cultural issue. Women are not obliged to go to the mosque for Friday prayers – unlike men – as they may be busy looking after their children, looking after the house, perhaps not praying (time of the month!) etc. Women should never be stopped from going to a mosque. The authentic hadith (Al-Buhkhari) states the words of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) as following: “Do not stop women servants of God from the mosques of God.” See the WISE list of female Muslim spiritual and religious leaders for more on information on Muslim women in this area.

7. Muslim women are all a bit “meek and mild”

I think my message is becoming clear! Modesty is an important virtue in Islam but that doesn’t mean we have to hide away. There are many, many inspirational Muslim women figures – lawyers, writers, lecturers, translators, scholars, artists, political leaders, athletes and many more. Once again, check out the WISE index for a list of 100 extraordinary Muslim women!

8. Muslim women have no sexual rights

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Image credit: Nur Alia Mazalan

Both men and women in Islam have a right to sexual satisfaction. Islamic teachings – especially early on – talked openly about such issues including the need for foreplay with your wife. As previously explained, modesty and shyness are virtues but cultural habits have once again “got in the way” in relation to sexual education and attitudes. See for example this hadith in which the Prophet advised Abdullah bin Amr bin Al-As (who fasted all day and spent all night praying) to fast some days and to not fast on others and to likewise sometimes pray at night and other nights sleep – as to not act in excess: “Your body has a right over you, your eyes have a right over you and your wife has a right over you.” (Bukhari, Vol.7, No. 127). Muslims of course cannot be intimate with their spouse when fasting and any sexual act requires you to shower afterwards – especially in order to later perform prayers. Therefore a husband who is fasting every day (until sunset) and praying after sunset all night is not only being harsh on himself but is not allowing for sexual intimacy to take place, when his wife has the right to sexual pleasure.

9. Muslim women must/should be financially dependent on their husbands

Muslim women have the right to work if they want to as long as the children and other duties etc. are not neglected as the man is the (main) breadwinner (remember men can’t have children!). Obviously in today’s economy many women also work out of necessity. Muslim women are endowed with financial autonomy in relation to their earnings. The husband has no (automatic) right to her earnings – they can only be given with permission (which counts as charity). The husband, regardless of her earnings or lack of, must always provide for his wife and family – even if she is a multi millionaire!

10. Choosing one’s spouse is down to the men – the groom, the bride’s father, brother, uncles etc.

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Image credit: Azlan DuPree

Regardless of cultural or family behaviour, beliefs or tradition, in Islam marriage is between two consenting adults – be it a “love marriage” or arranged marriage (not forced for those who equate the two as being the same!). Firstly, women cannot and should not be forced to marry anyone – any such “marriage” would be invalid. Secondly, some couples chose their spouse, others ask their family and community to find a spouse for them. Each to their own! A Muslim woman has every right to ask her family, local imam etc. to help her find a spouse. If she falls in love, her potential husband may go to her father and ask for her hand. In the same way, if an unfamiliar brother wishes to marry a sister, he may approach her family who can ask their daughter what they make of him! Perhaps her father or brother know a nice brother they think is suitable and so they approach her to ask her thoughts but in no way is it a requirement that her family pick a husband for her. This works for some, for others things happen differently. Again – each to their own! The crucial point is that the marriage must be consensual. The woman’s family cannot give her hand against her will. Forced marriage is illegal, immoral and invalid. It is essentially a non-marriage involving forbidden sexual activity, immoral conduct and sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse. The Prophet Mohammad’s first wife Khadijah proposed the idea of marriage and they had a long happy marriage. Now me personally I’m a bit “traditional” and think it’s nicer for the men to ask/get the ball rolling but that’s not a rule! Modesty, respect and upright honest behaviour is the key.

So, I hope that’s cleared up some misconceptions around the so often mystified Muslim women! We’re human, we’re here, we have a voice, we have freedom, we have spiritual needs and we have opinions. We’re very normal! 🙂

Salam!

Credits:

Feature image: dzoro