Make Me A Muslim

muslims praying in a mosgue

The other night I watched a documentary about five UK women who’d converted to Islam. A western convert myself, I was curious to hear the women’s experiences and gain some insight into what people think when they hear of westerners converting. With so much negative coverage of Muslims in the media, I wondered what kind of impression they would give of a widely misunderstood religion.

The presenter, Shanna Bukhari, a 26-year-old non-practicing Muslim and professional model, wanted to find out what made women give up their “western freedoms” for a more restrictive lifestyle; there was our first clue that this film was examining the issue from a very specific angle. In the end, it revealed more about the presenter herself than the women she interviewed.

I’m pious & I know it

All the interviewees were “hijabis”, the name given to Muslim women who wear a headscarf. Although the first (Safir, 24) admitted, “you don’t have to wear it,” we didn’t get to explore in any depth why she chose to – settling instead for the explanation that some Muslims believe you are more pious if you “cover”. She spoke about a desire to dress modestly and a sense that you didn’t need to have “everything out” yet admitted that since wearing the headscarf she got a lot of male attention, “It’s ridiculous how many men come on to me just because I’m wearing the hijab.” There was no examination of how a simple wardrobe choice could elevate your spiritual purity.

The second woman, Alana, 20, from Glasgow, told Shanna her choice of footwear was unIslamic (in Islam, “haram” means forbidden, while “halal” means permitted), “Take them un-halal boots off.” In a moment of feminine bonding she pulled a pair of high heels from the dark recesses of her closet and conspiratorially confessed that this remnant of her former life was “not part of the dress code.” She wasn’t asked about where she got her information or how this understanding was arrived at.

Shanna agreed to be “halalified”, in “muslim” dress and in response to Alana’s summation “You’re covered,” says – palms outstretched, “Yeah, but it’s not like I was naked and not covered before…it’s just…umm, I’ve got something baggy on me, I can’t see my hair, and I feel… less pretty” Alana reminds her “the whole purpose of wearing hijab is so that you’re not going out and drawing attention to yourself” and states Shanna’s dissatisfaction with her appearance as evidence that it’s working.

When “covering” is no longer a choice

Earlier in the film, Shanna accompanied Alana to the Islamic Studies evening class she attended weekly. The lecture was delayed and they waited patiently for it to begin, until Alana was informed it wouldn’t until Shanna covered her head – the pieces of the puzzle were coming together. Afterwards, the humiliated Shanna berated herself for her oversight, how it never crossed her mind that women would have to wear a hijab or the sexes would be separated. She felt bad for expecting everyone to be treated equally.

The next woman to be interviewed, Lisa, told a sorry tale of her high-school sweetheart being whisked off to Pakistan to be married with no warning or explanation. Rather than walk away, six years later she opted to become a “co-wife”, and share him with his first wife who lived “a few doors down”. After seven years of marriage and three children, she had finally converted to Islam the previous year and was considering wearing the niqab (full face covering). Her sister Kimberly frankly declared how bemused and saddened she was by the situation, as she knew Lisa wasn’t happy. To the viewer, she seemed the most clear-sighted person to speak so far.

More questions than answers

The other two converts were a western woman having difficulty finding a Muslim husband and a model/fashion designer. I won’t detail all the interviewees’ stories here; if you want to watch the film you can find it at the link below, but I was left deflated by the stories of blind acceptance. None of the representations of Islam the women gave were examined in any depth. In fact, the herd mentality seemed contagious, as the presenter ultimately decided to re-establish contact with the woman who had criticised her so strongly. It reminded me of Stockholm Syndrome when hostages come to develop a bond with their captors. Yes, it was heartening that Shanna discovered a renewed interest in her own heritage, but it was disappointing that she chose not to question the parts that made her uncomfortable, allowing them to cast a shadow instead of exposing myths.

Despite it’s maddening obscurities, there were parts of the film I related to. Safir mentioned how some people saw her as a “traitor” for adopting her new faith, and spoke of her lack of connection with the binge-drinking, casual sex culture and moral void prevalent in the UK today. I’ve also been showered in spittle as someone rabidly railed, “You’re not one of THEM!” while pointing to my Asian companion. I’ve looked for something more than shallow hedonism, but I recognized that free thought allowed me to pursue that path and understood that religious dogma is its antithesis.

I had a convent education and the idea of Original Sin (that everyone must share the guilt of Adam & Eve’s mistakes) never felt right to me. I liked Islam for it’s egalitarian view that YOU are responsible for your spiritual health, no one else. Yet Muslims today seem so preoccupied with the idea of women carrying the burden of EVERYONE’S purity. When did women become the scapegoat for the entire muslim population? How do we bridge the gulf between the attitude of protection, empowerment and equality espoused by the Qur’an in 7th century Arabia and the discrimination towards women woven into Islam today? Certainly not by ignoring the issues.

Why did those girls see their new spiritual path through the inverted telescope of sacrifice? And how did the presenter come to share their view? Was it the infectious enthusiasm of a new convert? The motivating zeal of a fresh perspective? Shanna seemed motivated more by guilt than anything else – why else would she be moved to revisit the abuse she received from fellow Muslims when she was a finalist in Miss Universe?

When I converted, I considered hijab. Coming late to the party, converts put a lot of pressure on themselves to “catch up” and there’s no shortage of advice on all the ways you can become a “better Muslim”. I read what I could on the subject, from the Qur’an to hijabi’s personal accounts of their decision, but didn’t find anything that convinced me it was a requirement. That hasn’t changed in the ten years I’ve been a Muslim. Neither has the pressure from others to conform.

A pissing contest of piety

Islam is split by myriad schisms into something obscure and unrecognizable, like a shattered windscreen. People are obsessed with details and oblivious to the bigger picture. They’ve ceased trying to outdo one another in good works and instead follow the lead of Islamists in clambering on the shoulders of those they consider lesser Muslims to reach the moral high ground. Why does everyone feel the need to speak on behalf of God? Why don’t we all just speak for ourselves?

Swapping one school of thought for another isn’t necessarily a reflection of independent thinking. It can be an indicator that you’re still making the same mistakes. Near the end of the film Shanna says that, for converts, “The hijab means “I am a Muslim, accept me for who I am now.”” So it’s both a declaration AND a way of staying unnoticed? Is anyone else confused? Any similarity I felt with these women was long gone. I may be in the minority, but at least I can still hear my conscience.

Make Me A Muslim

29 Comments

  1. It’s only when I started reading your blog that I had a better understanding of the Muslim religion. Great post

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    • Thanks Piglet – programs like this present a completely insubstantial picture. It’s no wonder many people labour under misconceptions.

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  2. Dear Aisha, If you as a Muslim woman are confused, just imagine how the rest of us feel! Somehow, the clarity and “purity” of Islam and its philosophy has become, for me as an interested outsider, completely muddied by this emphasis on women as the bearer of the burden, and all the “schisms” you mention. I just don’t understand it. Just as I don’t understand Christianity any more. I am going to re-read this piece and see if I can figure out some more of the issues (is that the name of the documentary by the way?)

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    • Yes, that’s the name of the documentary. Religion is in a mess and I think it’s because everyone wants answers from the outside rather than peer into their own depths and trust their instincts. There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to the meaning of life. But if everyone realised that a lot of people stand to lose a lot of power…

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  3. Your story reminded me of the ‘interview’ I had with the family of my wife, my then-girlfriend. They are Italian and Roman Catholic. I was asked by the nosiest of her aunts, “What is your religion?” I replied, “I don’t have a religion. I consider myself to be a deeply spiritual person, but I am not at all religious.” I added I had been baptized as a protestant, and I had attended services in churches, synagogues, mosques, and cathedrals over the course of my life, and I had gotten no closer to God in any of those settings. That is why I spent most of my weekends in the mountains. Your comments made me think how religion, especially a fundamentalist religion, is more about indoctrination than enlightenment.
    I find your candid thoughts on religion quite refreshing. Thank you for sharing.

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    • Thanks for sharing your anecdote. Seems to me the more fervently people believe in something, the less objective they can be. When people ask what religion/nationality/age/hat size you are it’s usually so they can attach a label and file you away in the correct mental drawer – there are no shortcuts to truly knowing someone, even via religion, as I think most muslims/christians/hindus/jews etc. demonstrate admirably on a day-to-day basis.

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  4. As a non-believer, I don’t profess to have the answers to the questions asked by people tired of our materialistic world and looking for spiritual fulfilment. What I do know is that the major religions are run by men and for men and often reflect deep rooted cultural traditions dressed up as piety. The chequered history of women’s rights in most societies is littered with tragedy and much of the trouble has emanated from the church, the temple, the mosque and the synagogue. I have read that there is no requirement for Muslim women to be covered, only that they should dress modestly. This might (and does) work in London but this is not the cultural reality of women in Afghanistan (or indeed in rural Turkey, a country I know a little about). I’ve never really understood why this obligation doesn’t apply equally to men. Safir, (one of the subjects of the documentary) may have no connection with the ‘…moral void prevalent in the UK today,’ but that rather depends on the yardstick she uses. There’s an implied arrogance in this statement that assumes only people of faith can live a good life. This is not my daily experience. I prefer a secular society where people are free to follow or not to follow a faith as they choose and where that choice is protected by law and by common consent. It’s not perfect by any means but it’s the best we’ve got.

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    • Two things sprang to mind as I read your comment Jack; firstly, I always wondered why the men got off so lightly too – seems a little too convenient doesn’t it? And secondly, your point about the yardstick used to measure quality of life. I had a muslim friend in the UK who yearned to live in a muslim country, thinking life would be easier with greater access to halal food, shared values, muslim cameraderie during Eid and Ramadan etc. Her brother felt the same and took his family to live in Egypt – right before the Egyptian people rejected their crushing regime and started the Arab Spring…

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      • Ironic really. It’s a man’s world! ;-)

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        • Aye, and not a thinking man, at that!

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  5. Hi Aisha,
    Another deep and meaningful post. Thank-you for such insightful comments that spur discussion. I would love to see a documentary that shows the similarities between religions rather than the differences. When I lived in Dubai and visited the only Mosque that allowed non-Muslim visitors the biggest message I got was that we’re really not so different. The translation of the prayer was almost exactly the same as what I recited in the Catholic church every Sunday my whole childhood and into my teens. Like ‘Global Explorer’ I have become a little disillusioned with organized religion with wars that are fought in its name and ‘leaders’ who are found to be corrupt and immoral. I would rather follow my own heart (as you say) and believe in a ‘higher purpose’, pray where I stand when the mood or necessity arises and basically try to be a good person.

    Reply
    • I don’t know about “deep & meaningful’ but as far as the rest’s concerned: hear, hear! There’s nothing more I could add :-)

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  6. Brilliant piece with some good points made.
    Living in a predominantly Muslim area of London and with many Muslim friends, I often notice the negative way this religion is portrait in the popular media, its shocking. For people who live in parts of the UK where there is no Muslims this often forms their view.

    As for the hijab I’m not convinced either. Not knowing a huge deal about the origins of it etc I can’t make a huge judgement but personally I don’t think god would want someone to cover their beauty. And if the reason is so that men don’t get ‘tempted’ well then it’s the man who has the issues!

    What’s interesting is that all the woman who are covered in this area were born here and rather than become more westernised (which you might think would happen) the opposite is more true.

    The only issue about where I live is there is a lack of integration and ghettos have formed which can never be a good thing.

    Reply
    • I totally agree with your concern that that the negative and ill-informed image of Islam in the media is negatively influencing those who have no contact with muslims. Unfortunately this film has probably contributed to this.

      Like you, I don’t understand why the entity responsible for creating men and women would expect women to hide themselves – the fact that so much thought and energy is expended on discussion of whether women should wear a piece of cloth on their head eclipses vastly more important issues.

      When people move to a new country they often choose one of two paths – they either reach outwards, trying new experiences and learning about the new culture, or they turn inward and identify with their own culture more strongly than before. Each group tends to criticize the other.
      Those who were born here might be pressured by parents/community OR be seeking to establish their identity which, in their eyes, differs not only from that of their parents, but also from the culture they were born into. Certainly, a film like this doesn’t offer any alternatives; it’s only regurgitated the same old Islamist/Fascist propaganda.

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  7. I also wanted to say that I think that Muslims in my area have a stronger sense of family and perhaps even community than their counterparts, and the area feels safer than other areas. Little if any drunken type behaviour

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    • A strong sense of community is admirable but what those outside it often cannot see is the restrictive nature of it and the pressure on individuals to conform. Just like anywhere else, in muslim communities appearance is everything, piety and good manners mask gossip and backstabbing behind closed doors. Human failings are evident in adherents of all religions.
      It’s a commonly held view that alcohol is forbidden in Islam so drinking in public is anathema to muslims and definite grounds for being shunned by the community.

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  8. I found the documentary interesting but that it focused mostly on the covering up of women and the differences between the sexes rather than the teachings of the Koran. I was left no better off in my understanding of the Koran and Islam than before :( When I get a minute I need to have a proper read of your past posts :)

    Reply
    • That was exactly my feeling. Not ALL converts adopt hijab – I’m a case in point, so already we’re dealing with a very precise sample, not a broad cross-section at all. The film opened with a leading question, “What makes these women give up their freedoms?” I haven’t found Islam remarkably restrictive; separation of the sexes, hijab/niqab, multiple wives – these are all ideas imposed by men. It’s very strange how some people actually CHOOSE to be oppressed.
      I think this film only added to the misunderstandings surrounding Islam – God knows most of the women interviewed were propagators of that misunderstanding rather than genuinely informative. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, I look forward to having you back :-)

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  9. The only thing I do not like is the niqab, I believe it is demeaning to women, but that is my opinion.

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    • In my opinion the whole issue of women “covering” is a complete waste of time. Action is a better indicator of character than appearance – “Don’t judge a book…” and all that.

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      • “Action is a better indicator of character than appearance” – Very well put.

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  10. I’m interested to watch the movie, but disappointed that yet again our media picks one facet of Islam and covers it half-heartedly. Sometimes I feel the West has become obsessed with the hijab! In the UAE, I see Muslim women in everything from burqas to bikinis, and these choices are affected by a mixture of cultural traditions, marital desires, and personal beliefs. Your heading “pissing contest of piety,” made me laugh as I was reminded of a recent work conversation where a local co-worker informed my friend that the Lebanese family she had just married into are “not good Muslims like us” because they don’t cover. Actually, many do, but does that make them stronger believers? I’m certainly not qualified to answer that one ;)

    Growing up in a strict Christian upbringing, I shared your same frustration that many around me had “ceased trying to outdo others in good works” and preferred instead to base their focus on perceived transgressions of others. I’ve found so many appealing things in your other posts on Islam. Perhaps we can hope for some balanced, enlightening and impactful documentaries in the future.

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    • Thanks for such an interesting comment! If only more people shared your feeling of being unqualified to pass judgement on the strength of other’s beliefs. It sometimes feels like ALL religion is just a contest. I heard something that stood out the other day on the radio – someone was commenting that so much of spirituality is about the Self – self-development, self-improvement, etc. Perhaps if we tried to do more “good works” for those around us instead of primping our own egos we might be better off.
      I join you in hoping for better quality doco’s in the future – let me know if you find any :-)

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    • Aisha, what you said about religion being a kind of egocentric contest for many is SO true in Jamaica, especially among the evangelical Christians. They are busy telling you all about how they talk to God; you have to hear their life experience in detail. Me, me, me! I endured this for half an hour in my French class the other night and had to strongly resist the temptation to walk out! If it happens again, I will! I was there to improve my French! I respect others’ beliefs BUT… And the thing is, these Christians are never interested in any kind of dialogue. In fact, they never even ask you about your own beliefs. If you don’t think like them, then forget it! (I see this doc is coming up on BBC World television – saw it advertised and will try to catch it!) PS As a non-believer I think I probably do more “good works” than many of these Christians who are always trying to convert me…

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      • Your comment made me laugh – nothing bores the hell out of me more than religious self-aggrandizement!

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  11. I love these posts! My husband, who was raised Muslim, is so turned off by all religions because of what he sees as great inequalities between the treatment of men and women. I am never able to get unbiased answers from him to my questions on Islam. It’s been wonderful having his mother, a devout and strong Muslim woman, with us because in her I see so many positives aspects her faith brings her.

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    • Thanks for your comment Diana; I’m intrigued as to how your husband balances his mother’s strong grip of the positives of Islam for women against his disillusionment with the religious gender inequalities so evident in everyday life? However frustrating it may be, he’s lucky to have such a role model.

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  12. i totally agree regarding the video on how its not really focused on islam, rather than how islam affects those ladies..

    anywys..regarding to cover up and being modest..this is my own version of interpretation with a little bit of logic..(i am a little bit like shanna in the vidoe..born muslim, not really practising, only following, but Alhamdulillah started learning and reverted a few years back ^_^ )

    we believe in a Creator and our conscience tells us that there is a higher power. (thats why even in the most remote places in the world, there exist a believe system be it animisma, paganisma, or even helenistic)..

    Islam recognised this “search” for truth and higher power, have challenge us humans to use our logic and thinking (but unbiased to time/culture/era/tradition etc) to see that the entity,the creator of all things exist through messenger and scripture

    our purpose of creation in none other than to submit to the Almighty Creator whilst living in these world He bestowed upon us,living in joy, hardship, happiness, pain and all sort of things mixed up together in a grand test..to see how we utilize our free will in our commitment towards our faith..for a reward of eternal after life..

    going back to a lot of question raised about why women have to cover up and not being equal…bring back to our purpose and (what always being left out) accountability..

    as human..we all have same purpose and equality…
    but as man and women, they are different, thus equality must be viewed fairly..
    this is scientifically proven further with our (men and women) biological/physiological design..

    man are biologically design stronger as his role towards his companion/spouse as a provider/protector/defender etc..that why the broad shoulder, bigger muscles etc
    whilst women are design as care giver/nurturer/ bearer of offspring etc..thats why more poised beauty and softness etc

    but in this modern world, as we all know nature has taken the back seat..even though we promote green environment. healthy environment, wehave missed out the grandest creation in the environment, that is us..humans

    what has become a priority nowadays are material and earning..although it is recognized by Islam to gain wealth and respect..but as our Creator has priorities..that our purpose is to worship Him..so, as long as what we want (or actually our nafs wants)
    we must remember that it is a grand test of faith. and try to priorities our Creators purpose before ours when ever we found contradicting issues

    women are blessed with a gift of beauty and poised..every healthy women would have a figure that will attract men (even sometime other women)..as in every gift has its own responsibility, so does the gift of beauty, poised and feminine..that is what hijab is protecting..

    as what person whom being given the gift of strength and (perhaps) wealth…let say he flaunt his wealth and attracted a lot of ladies on his way..it would be the same as when a pretty lady is flaunting her beauty and figure..

    thats why islam promotes wasatiyyah (the roughest translation would be moderation)

    it is stated in quran how to modestly cover up..

    another perspective

    how a beautiful person enjoys the attention of on lookers but does not like to be touched, or a wealthy person does not like others to take his posession

    hijab (which also meanz covering)..not only covers but also protects the persons beauty or wealth…at least to a certain degree

    beautiful can have all sort of meaning (just like christina aguilera song) :P
    but as those who have found the creator and aware that it is contradicting to our creator..perhaps we, the creation should retake a look at how our definition have run away from our creator

    just my two cent ^_^

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  13. Forgive me, if the people of the book are accepted to be married with ..so why should they convert or what is the different to be with a convert one or a christian who beleive in one God..and recognise MUHAMMED (pbuh) as a messanger …???

    Reply

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