The Muslim Lifestyle in American Society
- :Carol L. Anway
Islam addresses all aspects of life including personal morality, politics, and commerce; Islam is a way of life. Very important is the concept of ummah, the community in which God's will is attainable only through a society built around Islamic principles. Much time and discussion is spent on interpreting in action the prescribed manner of living. The women learn quickly what it is they are expected to do and make decisions of how they will implement those expectations in their lives. The extreme change in dress is probably the hardest shift for the parents and relatives to accept when a daughter becomes Muslim. It seems to us such an extreme statement about what they have chosen. For some of the women themselves, choosing to dress modestly and cover themselves has been readily accepted and incorporated in their practice; for others it has been very difficult to do.
The passage from the Qur'an that prescribes the covering describes it this way: Tell the believing men to lower their gaze, and protect their private parts. That is purer for them. Verily, Allah is All-Aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze, and protect their private parts and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent and to draw their veils over their bosoms and not to display their adornment except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband's fathers, or their sons, or their husband's sons, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their wives, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And beg Allah to forgive you all, 0 believers, that you may be successful."-S24, A30-31 Various Islamic countries have traditions on how to wear the cover. The basic tradition is loose-fitting clothes (not "see through" or defining the figure) which cover all but the face and hands. In some countries the veil over the face is worn also. Some wear flowery bright colors or beads and fringe; others wear only the more serious plain colors such as white, beige, brown, green, blue, black, or soft prints. Those in the know are often able to tell what country a woman is from by the way she covers. Not all women who are Muslim cover their hair with a scarf, but most do try to dress modestly.
+Wearing hijab was easy, but people were always asking me if I had some sort of disease. They seemed to assume that I had lost my hair and I was covering up my baldness. Then after I explained about the religious reasons and significance of wearing hijab, they would say, "You mean I can never see your beautiful hair again?" It was as if my personal choice of practicing my own religion was taking away one of their pleasures or privileges and they did not approve of that They missed the point.
+I have worked out with my parents and other family members my choice to be Muslim. The main point of stress has been hijab or the Islamic dress. I think this is a constant reminder and embarrassment for them. If I were Muslim but did not cover, I think they could accept it more readily. My hope is that they will understand Islam and like it on their own, not just because of me.
+Taking on Islamic religious practices wasn't hard once I did it for a while. Wearing hijab was the one that took the most getting used to, both for me and for others around me. I lived in a very small town and I got strange looks there, and several people asked me about it. But in our larger university town, the majority of people are educated about it and see women wearing hijab around town. I started wearing hijab in winter, so it wasn't difficult until summertime. Many people wear a scarf or hat in winter, but when summer came and I was still wearing a scarf, I did stand out in a crowd. But Islam is not about blending in or "when in America, do as the Americans do." It is about standing up for what you believe and what you know is right, even if others do not, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. +It has been easy for me to take on the religious practices. I had no trouble accepting and enjoying the benefits of praying, fasting, giving up alcohol. My biggest battle is the head covering, the scarf Nobody knows this though, since I accept and submit to the covering for modesty reasons.
+Six months after shahada, I observed my first Ramadan. I had been contemplating the issue of hijab, but was too scared to take that step before. I had already begun to dress more modestly, and usually wore a scarf over my shoulders. When I visited [a Muslim] sister, she told me, "All you have to do is move that scarf from your shoulders to your head, and you'll be Islamically dressed." At first I didn't feel ready to wear hijab because I didn't feel strong enough in my faith. I understood the reason for it, agreed with it, and admired the women who did wear it. They looked so pious and noble. But I knew that if I wore it, people would ask me a lot of questions, and I didn't feel ready or strong enough to deal with that.
This changed as Ramadan approached, and on the first day of Ramadan, I woke up and went to class in hijab. Alhamdulillah, I haven't taken it off since. Something about Ramadan helped me to feel strong and proud to be a Muslim. I felt ready to answer anybody's questions.
+Covering was a very gradual change. I went from jeans to skirts and long sleeve shirts or blazers. Then I decided I would wear the scarf and long clothes or coat after I had my first child. It was very hard to cope with the looks and questions about the way I dressed (i.e., long sleeves and jackets in the summertime) while I was working. That's why I waited to fully cover. Once I did start fully covering I was very uncomfortable and felt so different from everyone else that I almost took it of as if to prove to everyone (even those I didn't know) that I was still the same person as before. But I kept it on and eventually got used to it. Now I get mad at people who stare at me or make fun of me, but that only makes me want to wear it more. I've been covering for three years.
Featured throughout an entire issue of Islamic Sisters International (January 1994) was the topic, "Hijab-Definition and Discrimination."' Many of the women described the discrimination that occurred in the workplace when interviewing for jobs. Some had difficulty dealing with the jeers and name-calling experienced in various public places. One stated that she feels the non-Muslim women are more offended by the head cover than the non-Muslim men. In these articles the women encouraged coveying as very necessary and in some cases the word "obligation" was used.
The editor of the magazine encouraged all sisters to actively participate to end discrimination from unfair business practices to exclude, deny, or otherwise hide those sisters who cover, and work for the rights they are guaranteed while living in the United States or Canada. A date was set and the sisters were encouraged to wear halal Islamic clothing to their places of work or regular activities, to write or call their senator, to call or write local and national news to protest unfair misrepresentation, and to arrange peaceful picket lines in appropriate places. The women wearing hijab express not only what a meaningful experience it is for them but also the frustration they sometimes have. Many women converts are choosing to wear the cover in this Western setting, are establishing Muslim homes, and are concerned that the rights extended to them as women in the Islamic faith are actualized in their lives. Some of their stories in regard to these areas are included here.
The best Islamic right by far is the hijab. I have a right to be looked at as a moral woman, not a piece of meat to be gawked at. People look at my eyes when talking to me. I am treated like a lady as a general rule. There are always those who jump at a chance to condemn. I would be more encouraged to go into the work force if it weren't for those few people ignorant of Islam. +We live in a very strong and close-knit Muslim community. I graduated magna cum laude last year with a degree in child development. I have had several jobs, from secretary to preschool teacher, with no problems about my hijab. I'm active in the community and still do volunteer work. +Due to hijab, there are a lot of prejudices out there. I definitely can't hold a very public "meeting people" job.
+The only obstacles that have been placed in my way as a Muslim woman have not been from Muslims or Islam, but from the society in which we live. One often feels like a fish swimming upstream in America, like constantly explaining hijab. I have been denied jobs because of my hijab and have been otherwise openly discriminated against. Nonetheless, I am truly grateful for hijab. It is liberating in a sense that pro-ERA women will never know. I feel honored to represent Islam in such a powerful way as to be recognized as Muslim whenever I venture out.
+My perception of being a woman has changed. I no longer find freedom in tight pants and miniskirts, but through hijab and modesty. I no longer believe men and women have to be the same to be equal and that there are roles each are better suited for. At the same time, we all (men and women) have our own unique, individual talents and need to have the opportunity to nourish them. 4 I wish non-Muslims understood that hijab is only a small part of being a Muslim woman. It is too bad that the majority tend to "judge the book (or woman) by the cover(ing)"-meaning they measure Islam by a style of dress. In a society which claims to envision a "freer" means of life for women, the American male attitude toward women actually puts women way down by promoting the sex-symbol image. Hijab removes the possibilities for men to "ogle" and demands they view women as people rather than objects.
Only one woman in the survey indicated that she wears the veil, covering everything but the eyes. At present she lives in a Muslim country, but did veil in the United States prior to moving.
+I cover from head to toe-gloves, socks, the whole package. I wear a hair cover under a cloak, and I wear a veil. I anticipated so many problems, yet I can hardly believe how easy it has been. I even veiled for 3 1/2 years in the United States with no trouble. So many people learned about Islam because they were curious about the veil. It is a bit hot, but when the temperature gets over 100 degrees everything is hot to wear! I greatly prefer this dress to anything. Especially people who understand the reason for the veil and dress have been supportive and respectful. I get special treatment everywhere I go here and in the States. Old Muslim ladies will do anything for me. I get great seats on planes, people let me in front of them in lines, and sometimes merchants here in this country will give me free gifts or free service.
Dawah is the word used in place of the Christian terms "witnessing" or "evangelism." The scarf is often an opportunity for a woman to tell about Islam because she is more apt to be questioned than a man. As one woman wrote, "You can see us coming a mile away but [an observer] can't really tell if a man is a Muslim or not."
oI have learned and am still learning to put into practice what is allowed and forbidden. It was difficult to get used to covering, but now I am proud to be a Muslim and I find dawah, at the proper times, is my passageway. I just have to ignore the prejudices or use them as even more of a reason to put my beliefs into practice.
In addition to dress, acceptable social behaviors are encouraged that reflect the Islamic culture as interpreted by tradition in various Muslim countries and influenced by family and personal preferences. In general, modesty in behavior as well as in dress is important between men and women. Men and women should be modest in their conversations with one another, being cautious to avoid flirtations and personal innuendoes. Men and women who are not related according to the previous Qur'anic passage attempt to avoid being alone with one another. When they become Muslim, many of the women choose to stay home rather than be employed, especially if they have children. Others are still in the work force or attending universities. Each woman has to gain a "sense" of how she will present herself as a Muslim woman in her situation.
+One of the major changes I made was to be careful how I talked to men. I needed to do it more maturely-not talk about personal things. I cannot greet my male friends as I used to or even stop for an impromptu talk. My husband's co-workers and friends are off-limits for even a chat by the car while I'm waiting for him to come out of work.
+The religious practices are not hard, but some of the Western ideas are hard to break and can pull you from religious duties. For example, a Muslim should not be rude, but polite and firm in belief. I find it hard to be a good Muslim when I want to tell people (who are rude) to get lost. Also Western TV can be contradictory to Islamic values. This is the hardest for me. +During my first Ramadan, we gathered together and the shaikh [elder or spiritual leader] would give talks. These talks were so pure and meaningful that they stood in stark contrast to the ugliness I found happening among the people. And this is a reality I find limiting our Islamic practice: How come it is so difficult for people to really practice and live up to the model of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)? Maybe I have to realize that Americans' morals have already so much deteriorated. It is possible I need to thank my parents for such a solid and basic upbringing, where corruption and jealousy, anger and hatred, impatience and other human ugliness weren't present.
+When I became Muslim, I had guidelines to express the beliefs I already had. Yet these changes were tough. It was hard to excuse myself from class or work to pray. When my clothing changed (covering my hair) I lost a lot of friends. I also had to explain to male friends that it was no longer appropriate for me to see them. I've also been shunned by a lot of relatives who tell my family I'll burn in hell! I became cleaner and quieter the further I went into the religion. I became highly disciplined. I had not intended to marry before I was Muslim, yet I quickly became a wife, then a mother! Islam has provided a framework that has allowed me to express the beliefs I already had such as modesty, kindness, love. It also led me to happiness through marriage and the births of two children. Before Islam, I had no desire to have my own family since I hated kids! No matter how bad things get, I have something I can hang on to. Never do I feel alone or desperate because I know Allah is close, and I know he is testing me to make me stronger. The sisterhood and brotherhood of Muslims has been a comfort to me in hard times.
The role of the women in the home is of utmost importance in Islam, and the emphasis on the rearing of children and the care of the home is taken very seriously by Muslim women. Often the children are home schooled by the mothers. Some of the parents of Muslim women converts are upset when their daughters choose to stay home. They are afraid it might be an indication of the woman not having an opportunity to reach her Rill potential. This concern is especially strong. if the patents have paid for their daughter's education.
After marrying a Muslim (or even after becoming acquaintanced with a Muslim), a woman learns quickly not to serve pork or anything that contains pork products to a Muslim. Often by the time the women convert, they have decided to eat only "halal" meats and foods. Halal means "slaughtered according to Islamic law." This takes a lot of dedication on the part of the couple because halal meats are not readily available unless they live in a heavily populated Muslim community, and the meats are usually more expensive. The women often learn to cook many of the foods that their husbands appreciate from their own heritage.
oTo follow the Qur'anic injunction of eating only Muslim slaughtered-approved meats was easy. I knew the Bible prohibited eating pork and wondered why Christians did not follow that law. Eating meat that my husband slaughtered according to Islamic law gave me a sense of pride that he was following God's ordinance and that God was pleased with us. We shared our meat with other Muslims, and I was glad that we had the opportunity to help them obey God's law.
+A point of stress in visiting my family is our commitment to eating only Muslim slaughtered halal meats. We are reluctant to eat anything, so we bring our own food. Even though we explained the Islamic method of slaughter, they were uncomfortable with us bringing our own food. They thought this was another rejection, as if their food was not good enough for us or was unclean. However, when they come to visit in our home, they eat whatever I cook, and we seem to have a much happier and less stressful time.
These are just a few of the many changes women converts make as they develop and grow in their faith journey as a Muslim. They seem to help and support each other through the initial journey. Although the basic Islamic precepts are shared by all Muslim sects, there are some differences in how people choose to fit these practices into their daily lives. The extent to which they choose to follow and interpret these precepts differs from person to person and culture to culture.
+Living in Egypt and Saudi Arabia has influenced me greatly, and has resulted in my really knowing that the manifestation of Islam varies from place to place, but the most important thing is the way we personally live out the religion and to make sure we always approach it with good intentions.
Muslims feel it is important to do the "right thing" as far as they can determine what that is. They view the religion of Islam as a comprehensive system dealing with every facet of life including the life of the individual, the society, and the government. The women have turned to many sources of information in order to better understand the system of beliefs they have chosen to represent. The women do not seem to have followed blindly, but they have spent time learning and seeking out answers in order to practice more knowledgeably.
+I learned to live as a Muslim both through books and the help of other Muslims. Good books describe the things that can and can't be eaten, how one should dress, the things one should not have in one's house, etc. A new Muslim has to get this information through books and other Muslims because it takes a lot of time to learn all of it from the Qur'an and hadis. I did study the Qur'an and hadis; I didn't just take things blindly. If someone told me something, sometimes I wanted to look it up to see for myself if I would make that same conclusion after reading about it.
oMy Saudi friend was the one who taught me how to live as a Muslim. She showed me how to pray, how to make wudu (cleansing or ablution), and how to socialize with other Muslims. She answered every Islamic question I had, from marriage and children to hadith and fiqh (science of Islamic law). I obtained (through the Saudi embassy) an English-Arabic version of the Holy Qur'an as well as books on a variety of Islamic subjects. Islam as a lifestyle was easy for me to adopt because my previous lifestyle was not very extravagant. The Arabic language was probably the most difficult thing for me. Praying, fasting, wearing hijab, etc., all came easy for me.
+I really did not have to learn to live as a Muslim because I already had the lifestyle of a Muslim. I dressed morally, I did not eat pork, I did not drink, and I tried to do right by my fellow human beings. To be quite honest, no one had to help me to be a Muslim. I learned on my own. The only things I had to change were my holidays and worship day. This was quite easy for me because when I converted to Islam it was a way of life for me. In fact, I enjoy the fact that Islam makes it simple to be a practicing Muslim.
+I learned to live as a Muslim from other Muslims. I was blessed to meet two very knowledgeable couples who taught both my husband and me the things that every Muslim needs to know. Although many things. in Islam are not complicated, living in a non-Islamic society makes them seem as such. I also feel that it depends on what area of the country one lives. In most of the larger cities, especially in the North, there are large Muslim communities. This makes it a bit easier to find items such as halal meats. Also the non-Muslims are familiar with Muslim dims and some Islamic practices; therefore, they seem to be more tolerant and less awestruck by our presence. I find that having close ties with other Muslim families makes it easier to deal with the difficulties.
Adapted from: "Daughters Of Another Path (Experience of American Women Choosing Islam)" by: "Carol L. Anway"
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