I’ve been going on a lot of hijab-related rants over the past month and some change. A lot of it has to do with the frustration I’ve experienced in my first year of being a Muslim convert. I find that while many of my non-Muslim friends are curious and want to engage with this newly assumed identity of mine, a lot of times its framed extremely problematic ways. I’ve struggled to establish with people what is acceptable to me and what is unacceptable to me in an attempt to understand what being a modest, hijab wearing Muslim woman means to me. A lot of posts I’ve written on tumblr are not only to share how i feel, but really work out the boundary lines for myself and see them before my eyes. It helps me know and actualize what i want and how to make it happen for myself.
At the same time one of the biggest flaws I find in conversations around hijab wearing Muslim women is the utter lack of diversity and intersectionality when it comes to whose voices take center stage. A lot of times when i am regaled by non-Muslims about their experiences and interactions with the Muslim world, its from a framework not culturally relevant to my own. My experiences as a blackamerican Muslim woman are oftentimes inappropriately compared to other Muslim women who don’t necessarily share the same positionality as me.
I find its really difficult for non-Muslims to understand that all Muslim woman’s experiences are equal in validity in truth, but not necessarily similar in the ways one would automatically think.
The desire to truly understand the marginilization of Muslim women sometimes clouds the ability of non-Muslims to understand the complexities of multi-fasceted identity. In an eagerness to understand and quickly assume the role of ally, non-Muslims have a tendency to treat us homogeniously, spreading a threadbare understanding of “the collective experience” far and wide, with little regard as to how this is effectively an act of silencing and marginilization.
So this break i spent a lot of time thinking about who are the visible Muslim women to the non-Muslim eye, specifically if you enter an independent bookstore and wanted to find titles on the intersection of women/gender studies, Islam, and feminist discourse who would you see. what are they talking about, what do they identify as problems and what do they proposing as solutions.
I perused a shit ton of independent bookstores, because the books on Islam in mainstream bookstores requires another post on how capitalism, academia and islamophobia are intertwined.
I found two things.
First, I found a lot of books written by white western feminists with very loose connections to Islam. Memoirs of women who had travelled to the middle east in search of this “mysterious world”. *cue the orientalist tropes where the middle east is pathologized as some sort of enigma to the western imagination worthy of discovery,documentation, and ‘liberation’*
Second, I found a few books written by Muslim women; from the anthologies where Muslim women speak their truth to the more critical academic discourses on Islamic feminism.
What i didn’t see were books by Muslim women who were african diasporic, Latino, far east asian, indigenous/first nations/Native American, European/white. I saw books which err on the side of what i call trickle down islamic feminism, wherein Islamic feminism has been narrowly associated with the struggle of Arab and occasionally women of Desi descent to the exclusion of all other intersectional identities.
This is not a new problem for me, to be frank. Its this sort of narrow pathology that puts a distinct face to Islamic feminism which makes finding books on the subject of Muslim women from diverse identities a serious chore, and ongoing dialogues/discourses severely limited. Oftentimes when i want to understand more about the intersections of Islam and black women’s identity, I am automatically referred to Amina Wadud and nobody else. While i deeply respect Amina Wadud and have had the privilege of meeting her, i know her work isn’t specific to African American Muslim women.
Which is why i felt so grateful when i stumbled upon the scholarship of Carolyn Moxley Rouse and her book Engaged Surrender: African American Women in Islam.
Why i like this book:
- Her work covers a good variety of African American Sunni women and their families, which allows you to understand how the spectrum falls in this Los Angeles sampling.
- She spends a good time talking about how African American women located themselves in the Nation of Islam and then came to Sunni Islam. This is important for two reasons. A lot of times i hear non-black Muslims (and even some black muslims) frame their understanding of the nation of Islam and black Islamic nationalism in extreme amounts of anti-black racism. oftentimes this is a reflection of a lack of understanding around what the nation of islam is and its role in african american communities. additionally, conversations of black Islamic nationalism privilege the experiences of men far too often. Its rare to understand how black women experienced the nation of Islam and what made them switch to Sunni Islam.
- My favorite part: With each interview subject she spends a great deal trying to detail the framework of African American Muslim communities. How the overarching beliefs and norms of Islam as a larger religion play themselves out in specific geographic locations and ethnic identities.
- She deals with the intersection oppressions African American Muslim women face that are oftentimes left out of larger conversations: poverty, the prison industrial complex/law enforcement bodies, food deserts, racism, anti-blackness in the larger Muslim community.
While this book is a little over ten years old, its good for understand the unique struggle that is being an African American Muslim woman in the United States. You will walk away with an understanding of how each interview subject constructs and lives our their identity as African American Muslim woman.
It’d be really interesting to see this updated in the wake of 9/11, discussing the multiple pathologies black bodies already have of being considered “threats to the established social order/white supremacy/the state” before 9/11, and how those pathologies have worsened the oppression of african american Muslims since 9/11.
But one can only dream………..
Anyways, I’m posting this not only so that people can understand what is being left out of larger conversations, but to bring visibility to the scholarship that attempts to highlight the unique struggle of African American Muslims.
I have a couple more books similar to this, and as i go through them i plan to post about them in more detail in the future.
With any luck, these posts (i guess you can call it a series) in conjuction with my personal posts, will help give people an idea of what constitutes the necessary groundwork to really have a conversation with me on what it means to be an African American Muslim woman. While i could totally write several educational posts on the subjects touched on in this book and beyond, I’m also a firm believer in people taking their curiosities to the streets (of google or amazon or your local library) so we can have a better conversation.
Happy reading and exploring!