Islam and me

by Guest Blogger // 1 June 2012, 15:05

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Guest blogger Claire writes about her relationship with Islam as the non-Muslim partner of a Muslim man.

In Britain today, feminism is as varied as society itself. As members of a multicultural society, it isn't enough for us to only consider the issues we find on our own doorstep. Through our personal experiences we meet so many different kinds of people and my story is just one that demonstrates how feminism can go hand in hand with other ideals in our society.

My name is Claire and I am engaged to a Muslim man called Usama. Let's not pretend for a moment that our society is entirely accepting, that there are no issues for a white, middle-class girl from suburbia bringing home someone other than a solicitor, or Nigel from accounts. When you say that you're a feminist dating a Muslim, some people are physically taken aback. "But don't they make women cover up?", "Are you going to give up your views?", and my personal favourite "Don't you like having human rights?" are the sort of candid questions I am confronted with on an almost daily basis.

Are these questions justified? I've made no plans to convert and so I don't pretend to have an Islamic perspective myself. I am a (non-Islamic) feminist, and I have learnt a lot. Some of you reading this will already have your opinions on religion, and I'm not waging an attack on those who oppose religion, but I do ask you to have an open mind. Only through a real encounter with Islam did I start to think about what its lessons really mean and how, in my experience, it sometimes clashes with and sometimes complements my feminist ideals. I'd like to tell you, as frankly as I can, how the two supposedly contradictory lifestyles of a feminist and a Muslim actually work pretty well together. So well, in fact, that we're getting married next year.

First things first, why am I getting married?! Before I met Usama, I wasn't even sure if I wanted to get married at all. Through experiences of my own and those around me, I had a very negative view of the whole thing. Isn't marriage the greatest trap for women? My education thus far has taught me that marriage is the means through which oppressive patriarchies are sustained, and yet there I was, sitting in a kitchen, being asked by Usama's mother, whom I had just met, if - actually no, scrap that, when - I was going to marry her son. It was difficult to word, to this well-meaning stranger, my view that I wasn't sure if I believed in the institution of marriage. What changed my mind about the whole marriage thing wasn't my wish to avoid upsetting Usama's Mum, but actually checking out the Islamic marriage contract. Did you know that Islam invented the pre-nup? - because I didn't! Thanks to Usama's religion, I will be entitled to financial security in a contract that can be both legally binding in the UK and upheld by Islamic law in any country. With a number of my friends getting married with no prenuptial agreement in place at all, I was starting to feel like I was already in a better situation than a lot of the women around me. Usama's Mum is now my good friend and greatest ally. Once, when Usama told me to "shut up" as a joke over Skype, I could hear her telling him to have more respect for women and that was no way to talk to me, even if it was a joke - Go Mrs R!

If anything, marrying a Muslim will make me a better feminist. I no longer hold the same Eurocentric views I once did, I've let go of the clichés I used to take as gospel and opened my eyes to the realities of life for British Muslims. Wearing the hijab or dressing modestly (no low necklines and leaving miniskirts to models) can, for some women, act as a way of empowering them, and I've seen its benefits first hand. When I wear a top that goes up to my neckline, as I do when I'm around Usama's family (or to be honest most of the time - I wear hoodies a lot!), I feel like I'm actually being listened to and enjoy engaging in debates about religion and feminism with his family, without the feeling that someone is staring at my tits - which was the case in a lot of other situations. It reminded me of Simone de Beauvoir's concept of female freedom lying in a woman's ability to be removed from her physical attributes. Maybe there is something in it, after all.

Being welcomed into a Muslim family has exposed me to lot of rude questions and Taliban jokes, but it's also allowed me to see things from a fresh perspective. My fiancé is the most open minded and kind person I've ever met, so maybe after reading this, rather than making a snap judgement about a Muslim man in the street, rather than assuming (as some do) that his wife is at home in the cupboard under the stairs like in the film Four Lions, you'll wonder how he might defy stereotypes. Among other things, perhaps he's part of an inter-racial couple like mine. I'm not saying it's all smooth sailing, but we take each day and each issue as it comes, working them out as a mutually respectful Muslim-Feminist couple.

Image shows a palette of many different colours. Shared by etaKate under a Creative Commons license.

Comments From You

Lisa Whelan // Posted 01 June 2012 at 16:44

This is a really eye-opening post. I think a lot more women could stand to read it, as anti-islamism (islamism?) is an attitude I find to be concerningly common.

Alexandra // Posted 01 June 2012 at 16:56

I think this is a really good post, but I'd like to make a comment re: modest dress, mainly that 'modesty' and the concept of how much/little skin you're allowed to show before it loses that label is a cultural (and therefore in many countries a patriarchal) thing. I'm pleased that the dress code favoured by this particular religion makes some of those who follow either/both feel empowered. I also believe true empowerment will come when women can wear whatever they like without it impacting on how they are perceived, i.e. when physical attributes do not matter regardless of the wrapping.

Emma // Posted 01 June 2012 at 17:19

I really enjoyed this, I hadn't heard of this particular mixed marriage before, though my Muslim friend converted to Christianity to marry. People have very cliched ideas and its always good to challenge them.
I've always found different religions fascinating and living in Leicester where there is such a diverse mix of cultures and colours has only reinforced this interest and moral belief that we can all get on actually.
I tell people a story about when I first moved here from a small town in Wales, where while there wasn't much racism there wasn't many people to be racist about. Anyway, there were women in burkas and hijabs and we've all heard how oppressed they are supposed to be. Except as I walked down the street first I saw a muslim couple (her in the burka) chatting like me and my partner, he was pushing the pram and she was obviously bossing him as to the next shop they should visit. A few weeks later I passed several teenage girls in headscarfs, one of whom said to the other 'oh well he's a right little sh*t isn't he, move on love'...very oppressed.
It varies of course and there is oppression in Muslim marriages, as there is in British ones, and some Muslim countries have horribly oppresive laws against women but that is not the fault of Islam, it is the fault of the bullies who misuse it.

Laurel // Posted 01 June 2012 at 17:53

This is a good post, though I don't like the insinuation that it is covering up which protects you from male attention to the breasts rather than to do with the politeness and self-control of on-lookers. If someone is paying more attention to your body then what you are saying then that's very much their problem.

That said, there are some days I feel like hiding under a burqa or something where nobody can see me apart from those who will talk to me!

Yakoub Islam // Posted 02 June 2012 at 11:20

I'm a Muslim male convert, married to a lapsed Catholic of no fixed religion. I think the important thing I want to say to feminists about Islam is this: general and indeed some academic perspectives often misrepresent "Islam" in a very fundamental way, and some of those discourses have even been absorbed by some Muslims themselves.

These falsehoods include (1) Islam is monolithic; (2) Muslims are defined by their faith -- Islam is their "way of life"; (3) Islam is defined by the Shariah and/or sacred texts: (4) Muslims are "other" - fundamentally different from non-Muslims.

Most of the people who go out and spend year researching Muslim communities all over the world -- anthropologist, be they Muslim or non-Muslim, tend to blow a huge raspberry at the above presumptions. Even in Britain you get the whole range of piety, represented in different ethnic groups and centred around different expressions of Islam - Barelwi, Tablighi, Deobandi, Salafi, convert-Sufi, Shi'a, Ahmaddiya, Alawi, liberal, etc.

Oh, and horrid Muslim anarchists like me.

Gender discrimination IS universal. Feminists of all faiths and none should, IMHO, seek to unite with people of all faiths and ethnicities and fight for gender justice the world over, but with due regard to an observation made by anthropologist Saba Mahmood: "...any social and political transformation is always a function of local, contingent, and emplaced struggles whose blueprint cannot be worked out or predicted in advance. And when such an agenda of reform is imposed from above or outside, it is typically a violent imposition whose results are likely to be far worse than anything it seeks to displace."

Wasalaam...

khanum // Posted 02 June 2012 at 15:14

I agree with a lot of what Yakoub said above.

I liked this piece, but I wish it was longer. The author doesn't even really talk about why she wanted to get married, besides her mother in law asking her...and then this gets folded into the 'feminist pre-nup.'

One problem with the piece--towards the end, when she says, and I'm paraphrasing--"Oh, when you see a Muslim walking down the street don't assume he locks up his wife...he could be the husband of a nice white middle class woman like myself"...as if somehow white middle class wives of Muslims are the best way to rehabilitate or make palatable Islam. What if he's got a bad-ass hijabi wife, who isn't at home, but at her job?

It was a bit unsettling for me to read that the push to "defy stereotypes" about Muslim men was implicitly connected to whiteness and middle class-ness. In addition, there was a Europe/Islam binary that got set up in the piece, as if to suggest that "Muslims" somehow aren't or cannot be "European", or that these two poles are incompatible. Ditto feminism and Islam. Not all Muslim women who are feminists necessarily identify with a specifically Islamic feminism. Some do, but, as Yakoub said above, "Islam" is not a monolith.

Overall it's the start of a good discussion.

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