In my early years, I always looked forward to Mosque Sunday school in South Florida. It was a way to eat halal KFC and play with my friends. However, something always felt strange to me about it. I grew up with a brother and was always used to being around boys, but as soon as I got to Sunday school, I had to pretend like I did not know any of the boys. Heck, the younger boys had to come over to the women’s section so that the moms could tell them to call their sons or husbands to go home. Why were little boys allowed to come to the women’s section, but I (little girl at the time) am not allowed to go to the men’s section to talk to my father? Why did I need some sort of “masculine permit”?
I did not question it much as a child, but I began to question the demeanor of mosque youth activities when I moved from Florida to Texas. My brother and I did not attend Islamic school the first couple of years we were in Texas, but when moving to Ft. Worth during my 7th grade year my mom decided it was time for us to start attending again. I was 13 at the time and my brother 16. It was also a way for us, according to my mom, to mostly hang out with other Desi Muslim kids and stay busy outside of just school.
I cannot speak for every experience my brother had, but the first day he was introduced to the class (we were new kids and most of the kids at Islamic Sunday School already knew each other quite well) the imam pointed out his hair in front of the entire class. My brother was very confused. The imam apparently said having a fade was haraam. My brother felt dumbfounded. Huh? Our parents never told us any of this. They just cared that the haircut looked clean, but understood our desire for being somewhat fashionable. Why was a fade in one’s hair haraam? The imam’s answer: that’s not how the Prophet’s hair was. Wow. Well, if we all wanted to live like the Prophet we might as well never use deodorant either.
Then, there was the prayer sheets. Seriously. Our teachers made us fill out prayer sheets to show how many times a day we were praying. I did not pray some of the prayers on some days (you know, 2 times rather than 5), but I thought, well, I should be honest, right? Wrong. My Qura’an reading teacher (our time was divided between Qura’an reading and Islamic history) asked me why I did not pray certain prayers in front of the entire class. My answer at 13 years old: I did not feel well or was just tired or I just forgot. Her response: There is never an excuse. Even if I was sick apparently I could conduct my prayers sitting down or “with my eyes”. At 13, I really did not know what that meant because my vision of prayer was being able to go through the ritual motions (and I now realize, that was the wrong idea). I thought to myself, what if I prayed in my dreams? Does that count?
Did I mention the one time the imam had everybody from Islamic school sit down at the main lobby to talk about how haraam Pokemon cards were? No, I am not kidding. His rationale: they waste time and stray us off the right path. I suppose anything fun in nature does so with that logic. Guess you cannot take your kids to Chuck E. Cheese’s either, Imam. At that point, I started thinking, “Wow, God is starting to sound much scarier than I thought. I thought we say bismillah before everything to remember how merciful and kind He is.”
After all of this, Islamic school began to feel like a drag. I never looked forward to going, except to see a few people I befriended. In my efforts to try to fit in to the Islamic school culture and make more friends, I decided to go on the youth camping trip. “Ugh” is what describes it because those three days went by painfully slow.
Nevertheless, one thing always stands out in my mind about that trip: it was the first time I heard the word hijaab (commonly the word used for headscarf though its true meaning goes beyond that) thrown around. All of a sudden, these women and men were telling me I needed to wear long sleeves and a scarf while exploring the great outdoors. What? My mother never wore a scarf on her head, unless it was at mosque or for prayer. She never told me I had to wear one and although I was not allowed sleeveless, I was allowed to wear short sleeves all the time. It never occurred to me that there was a problem with my arms or hair showing. This was not the “Islam” I knew, and I was not too sure if it was the Islam I wanted to know.
I went to three more Islamic youth camps through high school in Dallas (to remain more involved with my religion, as my parents thought). The first two years I was complacent, thinking to myself, well, maybe the society is right, and that I would eventually put on a headscarf when I was ready.
That obviously did not last too long.
In my third and final year of camp I decided not to care what any counselors told me about my dress because I knew that there was no explicit prescription in the Qura’an for a headscarf, but just an open-ended statement about modesty (and yes, I know about that questionable Hadith too, but I will not go into it here). I already hated the fact that I was forced to wear a headscarf (which I always intentionally wore loosely), but now this? Kudos to the women who wore it out of habit from home or who chose to wear it, but that did not make it right to force it upon all of us – and – it did not make anybody any more or any less Muslim. Whatever happened to “There’s no compulsion in religion?”
The thing that bothered me about headscarf was not physical lack of comfort or the concern with what others think, or even the heavily Arabized vision of Islam it represents. It was the fact that my religious identity was being defined FOR me by a piece of cloth over my head and by one interpretation of what constitutes modesty. I loved how these people would patronize those of us who have made the fully informed decision NOT to wear it and made it seem like we were just cheap, unchaste heathens obsessed with “disobeying God”, thereby, not saving ourselves from hellfire.
Even to say that you did not believe hijaab was necessary was complete blasphemy. Heck, go on Google and just type in “Why I don’t wear a hijab”, and most of the results you will see are silly tactics of making women who choose not to wear it seem like they are simply making excuses and are not strong in their faith (and not to mention making them sound like materialistic bimboes). Sorry, sister (disclaimer: it is common for men and women to address each other at mosque as “brother and sister”). I know you “care” about my trip into Heaven, but leave it between God and I. Additionally, just type in Muslim women on Google, and go to images. How many non-scarfed women do you see? Maybe one or two, but my point is that this blatantly screams out how a majority of Muslim women are not represented properly. They deserve just the same rights as women wearing hijab to represent Islam, but instead I see only scarved women as the hard and fast image of female Muslim identity.
Anyway, during my senior year of high school my mother tried to convince me to go to Muslim youth camp. My only reaction was: No F**** Way. I was sick of it and became polarized from all of it. I just wanted to finish my senior year and get to college. I could not stand the narrow-minded thoughts of the mainstream Muslim community and its institutions any longer. When I look at it now, so many examples flood into my mind:
- The stupid curtain that divided men and women when they prayed at mosque
- The mosque Nazi’s in the sisters section judging constantly. One of these Nazis once said to me: “You have some bangs showing from outside your scarf. You should cover them, otherwise your prayers will not count.”
- A Desi Muslim girl in college (while I affirmed that I do not see wearing a headscarf as necessary in Islam): “Even though I do not wear hijaab, I know what I am doing is wrong. At least I acknowledge that. You are changing the RELIGION for your own convenience.”
- And the most absurd one, women not being able to participate in skits for “Muslim entertainment segments”
All of these situations were attempts of the community to remain stagnant in their backwards views of women’s roles. This was obvious when I questioned one of the older women about why girls could not participate in the skits, for example. Her answer: it is a way to draw attention to themselves.
Really? Because from where I was standing it is just another way to keep women out of the public sphere (virtually invisible) and place the burden of modesty upon their shoulders. WOMEN would draw attention. WOMEN would attract the men. WOMEN would cause the man to do haraam things. But wait, I thought the Qura’an told MEN to “lower their gaze”. If this was stated, then isn’t it fair to make the assumption that Islam is telling men that they are in complete CONTROL over their OWN actions? I suppose that is something we should conveniently forget. In the end, the worst part about it was that it is not only men, but also women who vehemently enforce these narrow standards for modesty.
So, why this burden upon women? Modesty has nothing to do with being completely invisible or hidden. It is about how one presents himself OR herself and those principles are based upon context. What may be modest in America may not be modest in Pakistan. What may be modest in Pakistan may not be modest in Saudi Arabia. Whether or not people agree with this logic is not the point. The point is: Why are alternative views or different interpretations never allowed in any bigger discussions or debates?
My hunch: the community is more obsessive about showing Muslim identity through superficial appearances rather than trying to make a tolerant space for alternative views. This obsession essentially fuels the “You are or are not a ‘true’ Muslim” statements.
There was a point Isfahan made in her post about religious evolution in Hindu identity that I can relate to about Muslim identity. Muslims are scared that evolution equates to trying to change the Qura’an itself, but my understanding of the Qura’an has always been flexible. The Qura’an allows for evolution through its many gray areas and broad statements, but somehow, the mainstream Muslim community insists upon making Islam obsolete. It is precisely this reason that I still feel hesitant about participating in bigger Islamic institutions. I understand the beauty of community and oneness, but oneness does not mean people cannot disagree or do things differently. Isfahan felt much of her religious identity was being depicted by non-Hindus. I would say mine was more so from other Muslims, including those who claimed that enjoying South Asian heritage was not compatible with Islam because it was “too Hindu” (that is a post for another day).
I will not end this post as a Debbie Downer because there is hope. I see it with many moderate Muslims trying to make their voices heard as a part of the representation of Muslims and Islam. I see it through Muslim feminists who have said: “No longer will I let only men interpret the Qura’an and tell me what my religion is all about.” It is these brave people who will help pave the way for women’s rights in South Asian countries (in which a great portion of Muslims live), religious evolution, and eventually, more inclusion of alternative views within the Muslim community rather than utter dismissal.