Born in the U.S.A : A New American Islam Proves Devotion and Women’s Liberation Do Mix
By Miriam Udel Lambert
This article is reprinted from The American Prospect
Ilham Hameedduddin, in a loose robe and head scarf, is often mistaken for a foreigner. Although her mother is Indian and her father Arab Indian, Hameedduddin was raised in the United States, attended public schools, and is working toward a BA at Middlesex College in New Jersey. Nevertheless, she says, “Neighbors are surprised I can speak English without an accent. They assume I’m fresh off the boat and I just haven’t assimilated yet.”
Actually, Hameedduddin doesn’t plan to assimilate, at least not as far as her religion is concerned. As a proud American and devout Muslim, she is part of a new, “indigenous” American Muslim generation. Until now, this country’s Muslim community has included several subgroups: immigrants from Arab countries and the Indian subcontinent, along with American converts of European or African-American descent. Since immigration restrictions were eased in the late 1960s, many Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims have come to the States, building a network of mosques and Islamic schools in major metropolitan centers such as Philadelphia and Los Angeles, as well as enclaves in smaller cities like Dearborn, Michigan, and Syracuse, New York, and in smaller towns throughout the country. These developments dovetailed with the growth of the Black Muslim movement, an African-American nationalist religious group founded in Detroit in 1930. (Today a splinter group called Nation of Islam and led by Louis Farrakhan remains distinct, but the majority of African-American Muslims belong to mainstream Islam.)
Now, according to Georgetown Islamic scholar Yvonne Haddad, the children of these disparate immigrants and converts are in college and graduate school. They are intermarrying with one another, engaging each other socially and religiously, and generally fusing their ranks into a single Islamic community. By virtue of the American context in which this community is emerging—with its emphasis on pluralism and acceptance of difference—it offers women a more public role as workers, activists, and decision makers than most other Islamic societies. Therefore, a new kind of American Islam is being created in which women can be at once devout and publicly active.
The first indication of the openness of American Islam is the way Muslims from different points on the religious and cultural spectrum describe women’s religious and communal activities. No matter how religiously liberal or conservative, and regardless of background, all emphasize that Muslim women are engaging in as vast an array of careers and causes as other American women. According to Cynthia Sulaiman, who converted at age 28 after 10 years of deliberation and who now runs the Muslim Homeschooling Resources Network out of her home, “We run just like any other religious community. We have mothers who are strictly stay-at-home and very conservative, women who are doctors and scientists, and women who publish magazines for other women. It all depends on what individual women feel they can contribute.” She points out that while her community includes many female teachers and health care workers, such professions have been traditional fields for women generally.
There are several factors contributing to this new notion of a devout, but liberated, Muslim woman. First, as Muslims of many ethnicities learn to coexist, they have to learn to be open-minded about each other. And people have applied that new tolerance to women as well. Although mosques are sometimes segregated de facto by their location in certain neighborhoods or on college campuses, many serve ethnically, racially, and socioeconomically mixed communities. This is especially true of smaller communities, as Sakina Abdul-Malik points out. While she grew up in Philadelphia in a predominantly African-American mosque, her mosque in Syracuse includes Yemeni, Palestinian, and Malaysian families along with American converts.
In marriage, too, there is much mixing among different Muslims in the United States. Many American-born women are married to Pakistani and Bangladeshi men. According to Haddad, there is a growing rate of intermarriage between Arabs and Pakistanis and between Pakistani men and Bangladeshi women. Meanwhile, all of these families are living in America, rearing children who absorb at least some of the American ethos. The movement toward inter-Muslim integration in this country, with its prospects for a more public role for women, seems inexorable. “There is a fear of the unknown on the part of parents who believe the more you have someone like you, the happier the marriage is,” concedes Haddad. “They absolutely want their children to marry someone from the same country and social class, but the kids aren’t paying attention.”
A second indicator that American Islam offers new options to women is that young women have taken on a very visible, vocal role as political activists—something that is less common in many Muslim countries. During this election year in Hameedduddin’s community, teenage girls manned a booth outside her local mosque during Friday prayers, urging congregation members to register to vote. During the recent Israeli-Palestinian tensions, women and girls handed out brochures, helped organize protests, and served as spokespeople to the media and non-Muslims. Hameedduddin attributes this activism to the younger generation’s greater facility with the English language. Some women choose lesser public engagement, but even they are careful to note that their choice is individual and shouldn’t be binding for all Muslim women.
Expressing an attitude typical of many American Muslims, Hameedduddin is deeply respectful of her co-religionists abroad. “In Islamic countries,” she points out, “women are much more active among themselves. The ‘behind-the-scenes’ roles are not lesser roles. Lately, there have been a lot of demonstrations, with women doing a lot of work behind the scenes.” If American Muslim women play a more visible role, she argues, it is in the service of achieving their goals effectively: “It’s true that women and especially the American youth are much more aggressive in their approach. We’ve learned new ways to make our voices heard, be active in the community, and draw positive attention to our community. American Muslim women are more assertive than Arab ones because that is simply how American society is set up.”
As women become more vocal—more American—they are not straying from their religion, however. Instead, women have brought American activism to their religion. Both scholars and practitioners of the religion are impressed with the enthusiasm that converts often exhibit upon joining the community. Haddad, who has studied American Muslims extensively, notes that female converts take a lot of initiative in establishing religious schools because they are eager for their children to receive a proper Islamic education. Furthermore, they tend to serve as liaisons with non-Muslims because, “they feel themselves to be ambassadors to the larger American society.”
Furthermore, novices may insert vigor into their religious communities. Hameedduddin contrasts those who are born into Islam and “take it for granted” with a young woman who converted a year and a half ago and is very good at organizing events in the mosque. “I think she has brought energy from outside the religion,” Hameedduddin notes. “People like her are more grateful they found [Islam].”
Sulaiman sees the high-profile contributions of converts as a function of practical know-how in dealing with American institutions and systems rather than as a manifestation of religious passion. Most of the organizing work in her community in eastern Massachusetts is done by converts like herself, says Sulaiman, but this is only natural. “I’m in my native country,” she points out, “and I don’t expect immigrants to know what to do in my country. It would be really presumptuous to walk into a country and say, ‘Okay, you have to do this and this.’” Abdul-Malik, an African-American woman who grew up Muslim in Philadelphia, echoes her close friend Sulaiman: “Women from overseas are often homebound, into doing things just with their families. Those born on this coast are used to doing things in a community.”
There are plenty of converts to do that organizing. Muslim Web sites teem with first-person accounts of “Why I Became Muslim.” Many of the authors are female, as women are among the fastest-growing segments of the Muslim community, according to Ibrahim Hooper of the Council for American-Islamic Relations. Therefore, it is women who are helping speed the path to the new American type of Islam.
Though American Muslim women are comfortable with their roles, many non-Muslim women are mystified by Islam’s appeal. They know that Islam permits polygamy (a controversial practice, though) and, as it is interpreted in several countries, grossly limits women’s educational and career choices as well as their freedom of movement and dress.
However, these restrictions are only part of the picture, and a secondary part for the Western women who are choosing the religion. In her cogent analysis, Women and Gender in Islam, Egyptian-born scholar Laila Ahmed argues that in matters concerning women there is a dichotomy between the practice of Islam as codified by the legal tradition and the egalitarian vision portrayed by the Qur’an. She writes, “The unmistakable presence of an ethical egalitarianism explains why Muslim women frequently insist, often inexplicably to non-Muslims, that Islam is not sexist. They hear and read in its sacred text, justly and legitimately, a different message from that heard by the makers and enforcers of orthodox, androcentric Islam.” When interpreted directly from the text—rather than when observed in its most restrictive application—Islam may be understood as egalitarian.
While many Western women consider certain Muslim practices oppressive, others interpret them liberating. Some women, for example, argue that embracing Muslim norms of modesty releases them from the sexual current underlying many everyday interactions. “Islam offers an alternative to a sexually charged and sexually exploitative society,” Hooper asserts. “Islam allows women to disengage from an environment that values them only for their sexuality and physical appearance and seeks to eliminate sexuality from non-sexual relationships. If a woman goes to the butcher shop, she doesn’t need to look pretty to get meat.”
As Muslims negotiate their relationship with American culture—and with Muslims of other ethnicities in the United States—a window has opened for a renegotiated role for women. Taking advantage of that opportunity, women may seek the most egalitarian interpretation of the Qur’an while preserving the traditions they find meaningful. This new role for women may strengthen both women’s options and American Islam itself.
Miriam Udel Lambert
This article is available on The American Prospect website.