Thursday, January 17, 2013

Trials of a Convert, part I

 One of the biggest problems, if not the biggest problem, that converts in the west face is not that of Islam not fitting into their previous lives. It's not even that of their families accepting or not accepting their conversion. It is one of the long standing difficulty of culture versus religion.

One of the many things that happens when you convert is that you find yourself in this phase of what I like to call “loving you to death.” You have many people coming up to you, saying “masha Allah” and “alhamdullilah” as well as the occasional “Allahu Akbar!” Sisters give new sisters hugs and kisses. Brothers give new brothers a handshake and the typical man hug. And then... And then “it” begins.

“It” is overwhelming. It is not that it's wrong, or that it's offensive, because it's not. It's that the problem lies in the lack of knowledge on both sides, which leads to head spinning and confusion by the new Muslim, and frustration from the born-Muslims that we just don't get it.

Everyone is Right

Everyone believes their way is the right way of Islam. “Follow me,” they'll tell you. The problem however, is that as soon as that person leaves, someone else comes up and says “forget what they told you, my way is the right way, so come with me.” And that goes on and on until your head spins and you don't know who or what to believe. I mean, we all say “la illaha il Allah, Muhammadur rasool Allah,” so we all must be right somehow, right? But everyone can't be right, can they? So your head spins. Who do you follow? What mosque do you attend? You're asked what mahdab you follow yet you don't even know what a mahdab is. Unfortunately, you quickly learn that admitting that can cause even more problems because now you're being told why the one the person you're speaking to is right and the others are wrong. But then you tell the next person who asks that question that you follow the mahdab your friend has introduced you to only for them to tell you that that is the wrong mahdab and you really should be following another.

And so your head begins to spin.

The “Haram!” Police

One of the hardest parts after taking shahadah is what is expected of you almost the second you've said those all important words. There are many among the vocal who expect that you will instantaneously change every aspect of your life, and the degree to which they believe you should change your life is entirely dependent on the way in which they practice Islam.

I can't speak to the pressure that's put on new brothers, of course, but the pressure put on new sisters by some can be enough to make you have second thoughts about having taken shahadah, and in fact, has lead to some “taking it back.”

Suddenly parts of your life which had seemed mundane and almost unimportant before are, to some vocal critics, “haram!”

Do you already have pets? Particularly a dog? “Haram!” they say. You have to get rid of it immediately, no matter how long you've had it or what purpose it may serve within your family.

Do you have friends of the opposite gender? “Haram!” they say. You must never speak to them again, especially without a mahram there.  And if you do, and you're seen in public with them, await the next version of the "being friends with the opposite sex" speech.

Do you celebrate your birthday, let your kids go trick or treating, give out Hallowe'en candy, visit family on their holidays, have close friends of other faiths (particularly those who are Jews), or dare to give a Valentine to your spouse? Ya Allah! “Haram, haram, haram!”

And so your head spins again. There are suddenly all these other apparent rules which you'd never heard of, rules that are far apart from what you thought Islam was. Rules governing clothing, those you knew were there. But television? Music? Your pet guinea pig? Those rules you didn't know existed and so you get this little voice in your head saying “if I knew I had to give up Survivor, disco music and Gus the Guinea Pig, well no longer eating honey garlic Chinese spare ribs, that was hard enough, but I'd have thought twice if someone had just told me Gus was haram!

You need to wear hijab

One of the first things that new sisters are expected to do is put on the headscarf. While hijab is the overall behaviour of modesty for both men and women, it has become more known as the headscarf that Muslim women wear. If you take shahadah in a masjid, or mosque, you'll be wearing one at the time, as it is something all women entering a masjid need to wear. But if you take shahadah outside of a masjid, such as at a conference, at a friend's home or anywhere else, chances are, it's something you wouldn't necessarily be wearing.

Hijab is sometimes controversial, but is supposed to be a personal and individual decision. In Surah al-Baqarah, we are told that there is no compulsion in religion, yet in some parts of the world, men have made hijab compulsory on women, even just to leave their homes. In some families, culture has prevailed so much so that fathers and brothers would rather kill their daughter or sister than to allow them the choice to not wear hijab. And that's the thing – hijab is a choice. But what is worse is that these are the only stories and angles of hijab that the mainstream media covers, giving those who do not know the difference between culture and religion the belief that hijab must be forced and a woman must die if she chooses not to.

So as a new sister, you take shahadah and then they start telling you all the different types of scarves. Their favourite place to buy scarves. Which pins to use. Yet the most important question has not been even asked. Maybe people haven't even thought to ask it. That question in “will you wear the headscarf?”

And so you stand there, you let them wrap you up, and for some the excitement is catching, but for others it can be very scary. You've not told everyone you're converting and walking down the street with a scarf on your head in July isn't necessarily how you want Great Aunt Gertrude the family gossip to find out. So you do you gracefully take the scarf off without offending someone? The space between that particular rock and hard place is extremely narrow.

If you grew up Muslim, hijab is a normal part of your life, male or female. But if you convert, it can be a very divisive issue between yourself and your non Muslim family and friends. This is an issue which isn't truly understood by those whose families have always been, or who have been for a generation or two, Muslim. As Muslims, we must be patient with our new sisters. We mustn't pressure them to put on the scarf when they are not ready. To do so leads to resentment, hurt feelings and negativity to the piece of cloth that we have the choice to wear, but also towards the sisters who, while they have the right intention, are making life more complicated for the new Muslimah.   There are families who have disowned their children for converting to Islam.  There are others that could deal with it as long as they didn't have to see it, but to have it thrown in their face in the form of the scarf, that is the straw that broke the proverbial camels' back and when their child is told they are no longer part of their family for becoming Muslim, but most of all, for wearing hijab.  

/end of part one.

Monday, December 24, 2012

What the niqaab brings out in Canadians

This past weekend I attended "Reviving the Islamic Spirit," a major Islamic conference held in Toronto, Ontario, but attended by participants from all over the world.  One of the things I saw there that I had rarely seen before was sisters wearing the niqaab, or the Islamic face veil.  Now, wearing the face veil is not fard (compulsary), but it is something that you can receive extra reward for, if you are wearing it for the sake of Allah.  Some societies have made it compulsary - Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance - but in reality, it is not, but it is something that many sisters do in the west because they choose to emulate the Prophet Muhammad's (sallallahu alayhi wa salaam) wives.

In and amongst this, at the end of last week, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a woman who is/was testifying against her uncle and cousin for sexually assaulting her two decades ago must take off the veil because otherwise it denies the two men a fair trial.  Honestly, as a few lawyers said on a radio program on Friday afternoon, there are many people who can look you straight in the eye, lie through their teeth and you don't know the difference, because many times, the face does not give away whether or not they are lying on many occassions.

But here is what I have learned on this over the past few years of paying attention.

1) The media cannot be bothered to actually talk to a Muslim woman, let alone talk to a Muslim woman who wears the veil.  They make judgments and write articles and make assumptions about us (Muslim women) but actually bother to talk to us.  And if there's a Muslim woman on staff, they don't seem to bother in using her to write the article.  Maybe they figure she'd be too biased. But then, very nearly every one of the people they use to write them now are extremely biased the other way.  Barbara Kay in The National has proven this, yet again.  And, as always, they find Muslim "experts" to tell them that the niqaab is cultural, not religious, when in fact it is religious, but just not a compulsary part of Islam, as the prayers, giving charity, fasting, belief in tawheed and making hajj if possible are.

2) Canadians are just as bigoted as Americans, even though they'd deny it until they're blue in the face.  Unfortunately, all you have to do is look at the comments after an article on Muslims on the websites for The National, The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and I'm guessing any other Canadian publication.  And those Muslims that do post back are attacked for defending their faith.  Yet we're the ones accused of doing the attacking.  Is it any wonder that many of us look at the general public with fear and trepidation?  We've seen the comments that have been made about us.  How do we know that you're not one of "those" Canadians?  You know, the ones that can be polite and kind to your face, but behind your back are making rude, nasty, racist, bigoted comments.  I have seen Canadians comment on these articles that they want the government to ban the face veil and make it illegal in Canada.  Well, quite frankly, I'd like to make it illegal to walk around in tight fitting, revealing clothes because I don't want to see that much of anyone's body.  Oh but wait - I'd be accused of trying to shove my religion down someone's throat.  Yet the reverse, where people try to take my religion away from me, is apparently okay, so that's where we get into the bigoted and hypocritical.

3) Many of the sisters that I have met that choose (yes, choose) to wear niqaab are told to "go back to their own country" but that creates an issue.  Why?  Because many of these sisters are born and raised Canadian. They choose to start wearing the face veil to emulate the Prophet's (sallallahu alayhi wa salaam) wives, not because they're from another country or trying to be part of another culture.  There are Arabs, Malaysians, Pakistanis, Indonesians, as well as Canadians, Americans, Brits, Australians and other born and raised westerners who have chosen to wear the niqaab.  So when those that can't see past this simple piece of cloth yell at these women to go back to their own country, when they're in their own country, where would you like these women to go?

We have, so far, been fortunate to have a government that knows that banning a religious piece of clothing would make them look just as bad as the governments that force the woman to wear them, not allowing the woman to make the choice.  The Canadians that yell for it to be banned, the Canadians that yell for the women that choose to wear it to go back to their own country (even when they are in their own country), they are just as bad as the fundamentalists that we moderate Muslims fight against only in the opposite direction, the direction of removal of religion instead of becoming a fundamentalist of the religion.

Canadians need to wake up and realize one very important thing - if they are going to call for the removal of another Canadian's rights as guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they need to remember that someday, someone will come along and yell and scream for the removal of a right they hold sacred, or restrictions put on their lives in ways that is done in other parts of the world, and just as no one, it seems, is willing to stand up for the woman who are wearing the face veil by choice, and are harming no one in doing so.