“At Your Service, My Lord, Here I Come”

Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women
Edited by Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur
Boston: Beacon Press, 2005, 209pp., $15.00 paperback

Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today
by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith and Kathleen M. Moore
New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, $25.00, hardcover

Voices of Resistance: Muslim Women on War, Faith, and Sexuality
Edited by Sarah Husain
Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2006, 284 pp., $16.95, paperback

Reviewed by Gayatri Devi

 

Ever since the September 11 attacks, Muslim women have been objects of intense ethnographic curiosity in the West—and indeed, throughout the world. Witness the fractious academic debate over Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran; British politician Jack Straw’s demand that Muslim women remove their veils for better face-to-face communication; and Amnesty International’s championship of Mukhtar Mai, the victim of a gang-rape in Pakistan, as a crusader for women’s rights—to give only a few, disparate examples. As Sarah Husain explains in her passionate introduction to Voices of Resistance, Muslim women must now take back the public discourse about Islam, offer their own voices to the world, and bring together Muslim women in North America to speak about issues that affect them locally and globally. Her book, together with Living Islam Out Loud and Muslim Women In America, reclaims Muslim women’s right to self-presentation without the intervention of observers and informants. In doing so, these texts reconceptualize and redefine some of the crucial issues of our times: faith, modernity, freedom, and war.

There are 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide, about seven million of whom live in the US. These three anthologies illustrate the diversity of Muslim women’s lives in such varied national and sociocultural contexts. The testimonies, poetry, fiction, and essays in these collections spring from the triangulated relationships among women, their faith, and the society that may either encourage or hinder their religious practice. The negotiation is by no means an easy one, as writer after writer reminds us.

For instance, Abdul-Ghafur, editor of Living Islam Out Loud and co-organizer of a historic 2005 woman-led prayer service in New York City, says,

[M]y path to God has been filled with doubts, difficulty, and ease. The more self-aware I become, the more I feel that I am aligned with God’s best plan for me . . . the Prophet Muhammad taught us that “To know yourself is to know your Lord.” And I am closer to my true self than I have ever been

 

The essays in Living Islam Out Loud are broadly divided into four parts—“Crossroads,” “Love,” “The Strongest of Faith,” and “Soul Journeys.” All speak of the journey toward God in more or less similar terms, with the greatest challenge being the decision to find a personal, inward understanding of God. This often puts the individual in direct or indirect conflict with the larger, more traditional, American Muslim community, and she must assert her right to be a practicing Muslim in the public space. In the process, women have created new communities of faith, leadership, and relationships.

Asra Nomani made headlines with her decision to worship in the main hall of her mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia—a space traditionally reserved for men, while women prayed in a small, secluded, upstairs balcony. In her essay “Being the Leader I Want to See in the World,” she describes how she found the courage to stand up to the leaders of the mosque by joining together with other liked-minded Muslim women: Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, a founder of Azizah, a progressive magazine for Muslim women; Samina Ali, the Indian-born, American novelist; Mohja Kahf, the poet; Sarah Eltantawi, media commentator on American Muslim affairs and Middle East policy; and mothers Sajida Nomani and Nabeelah Abdul-Ghafur. Chanting “At your service, my Lord, here I come,” the women entered the mosque through the front door and worshiped in its main hall.

Whether it is Aroosha Zoq Rana speaking about cultivating the artist within her or Mohja Kahf assisting a battered Muslim woman, the face of God in these testimonies is that of the compassionate and merciful incarnation, al-Rahman—a word, as Kahf explains, that comes from the Arabic root rahm, which means “womb.” Surprising, shocking, perhaps even sacrilegious to a conventional Islamic sensibility, these stories of woman-centered Islam are nevertheless inspirational.

In Muslim Women in America, Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith, and Kathleen M. Moore survey the Muslim landscape in America from its religious and cultural presence at the turn of the last century to contemporary times. The authors touch upon every conceivable aspect of Islamic cultural identity—food, clothing, veiling, prayer, dating, marriage, family, child-rearing, education, divorce, workplace, law, homosexuality, feminism. For this reason alone this book would be a valuable resource; unfortunately, the treatment of these matters is rather quick, with little analysis. For instance, in the chapter “Gender and Family,” the authors tell of a Muslim gay man who advertised for a “lesbian friend,” one whom he might even want to marry, because of pressure from his family to find a wife:

I feel like a rag doll in the middle of a tug-of-war, and for all of you who are in the same boat, you know what a difficult position this is. So if you are a lesbian Muslim in a similar situation I’d love to hear from you. Maybe we can help each other out.

The authors point out that homosexuality is “anathema to most Muslims,” but that’s as far as they go. They fail to discuss the significance of homosexuality in Islam, its consequences, or options for homosexual Muslims.

They do catalogue several of the more famous anti-Islamic discrimination cases in the US, such as those of Samar Kaukab, who was illegally frisked at the airport by the Illinois National Guard in 2001; Nashala Hearn, the Oklahoma sixth grader who won the right to wear a hijab at school; and Alima Delores Reardon, the Pennsylvania teacher who lost the right to wear hers. Indeed the ideological thrust of this volume is to demonstrate the kinds of challenges Muslim women face in the West, primarily from Western non-Muslims. While there are brief anecdotes about divorce cases or the seemingly insurmountable gender distance between Muslim men and women on issues such as personal freedom, love, and marriage, such issues are not deeply explored here. The authors maintain a calculated distance from the material, as befits a survey or reportage.

The strongest chapter in this volume is “Muslim Women in the Crucible,” which provides some astounding facts about the transnational interpretation of Islamic domestic laws pertaining to women., marriage, and divorce. For instance, the authors list several different legal interpretations of the practice of mahr—the price paid by the husband for right of intercourse with the wife under the Islamic marriage contract—in the event of divorce. (In most cases, American courts have honored the mahr unless it leaves the woman financially worse off than she would be under state divorce laws.) Each case is fascinating because of the complex interplay between Islamic law and the international rule of comity, which says that American courts must accept the procedural rulings of foreign courts unless they contravene US public policy.

Audre Lorde’s injunction to “take our words to bed with you / dream upon them” informs the poetry, fiction, artwork, and essays in Voices of Resistance. These voices are rich, varied, and urgent, as in conversations among friends. I had to sample them in small doses.

Jawahara Saidullah, in her autobiographical essay “War Stories,” uses the metaphor of telling war stories with complete awareness of the artifice and irony of the image:

War is what lives within me. On one side I am Indian, American, female. On the other I am a lapsed Muslim, but a Muslim nonetheless. That is an immutable fact I cannot escape even if I wanted to. War remains the constant backdrop of my life I try to navigate past virtual minefields and feel simultaneously lucky and guilty that I am not the target of real bombs and night raids. I live with the fact that I live in a country that inspires fear and hatred among my fellow Muslims around the world.

Indeed, several poems and stories in this collection speak of the burden upon Muslim women of real wars, particularly those decimating Palestine, Iraq, South Asia, and Afghanistan. In “God Gave Me Two Children,” poet and activist Bushra Rehman writes in the voice of a mother, Reem al Reyashi, who became a suicide bomber:

God gave me two children and I loved them so much.
Only God knew how much I loved them. . .
. . . .
But now, I can’t wait anymore.
I’m going to see my Lord.
I wrap my heavy wings around my body.
Taped to my skin, they itch.
I am no angel and won’t be until the fuse is lit.

The poem ends with a vision of the mother reunited with her dead children in a horrifying conflagration of death:

When I close my eyes, I see my children.
There is one in each eye like an explosion of stars.
When I open them, I see Gibreel descending,
his wings glinting light off the bombs.

This poem or Shadi Eskandani’s short story “The Letter,” about the suicide note of a woman suicide bomber, give a poignant and seductive but troubling gendered subjectivity to the phenomenon of suicide bombing in Middle-Eastern wars. On the one hand, such texts challenge the sexist, stereotypical, superstitious explanations circulating in the Western media about suicide bombing and the promise of virgins-in-paradise to male martyrs. Suicide bombing is not a metaphysical experiment; it is a war strategy. On the other hand, both Al Reyashi and Eskandani seem to promote a self-destructive nationalism as the only viable solution to the forced eviction of Palestinians from their homeland:

My studies were going well until they closed the university down for a few days as punishment for last week’s suicide attacks . . . . Some of us feel strongly about this second intifada; this is the time. My role as a woman in the struggle has become clear to me. I have thought about different ways to resist, like writing or teaching or working for some aid organizations. But I know now the only way to resist a state of violence is through violence only. Armed struggle is what this intifada is about. We fight their state terrorism by resisting with our blood. By resisting with our bodies. Flesh and blood is resistance.

In contrast, some resistance is tongue in cheek, as in Eskandani’s “Silent Protest,” about eight Arab Canadian women who show their support for the Palestinian cause by holding signs that read “Muslim Women Against the Israeli Occupation” in peaceful protest. The story’s title is ironic; the protest is anything but silent, as the women discuss fashion and hairdos as well as the bulldozing of the home of a Palestinian friend in the West Bank. They tell the police checking them out, “Thanks for dropping by. This week we are discussing hairstyles, but you should definitely come by next week. We’ll be talking about manicures and pedicures.” Their political agency is presented as a part of their usual, womanly and life concerns.

Subversive humor also informs the interesting artwork of Amitis Motevalli and Salma Arastu. Arastu’s simple painting “How to Solve a Problem” depicts a group of seven women standing in a circle. Even though their faces are featureless and their bodies covered, we see the closeness and attentiveness shared by the women. We are our own best allies, the painting seems to say. In Motevalli’s “Through Me the Prophet Speaks,” we see an individual of indeterminate gender—bare male torso decorated with female ornaments, blonde hair circling a veiled face. Islam gives permission to visualize divinity in either gender or as a fluid gender.

The legacy and significance of this volume of resistance writing lies in its scope: Muslim women from across the world speaking on a variety of issues that affect their lives. Mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, lovers, and friends speak to each other and to readers about the men, women, and countries they love and mourn. Such self-presentations are crucial in these times, as images and stories of Muslim women in Afghanistan and Iraq are used as excuses for war and for giving war-begotten business to international corporations and foreign governments.

 

Gayatri Devi is an assistant professor of English at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. where she teaches world literature.

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