June’s FEATURED AUTHOR: Jennifer Zobair’s Portrait of a Muslim Feminist…

This month’s Featured Author Jennifer Zobair is a Muslim and a feminist, and today she shares a few words with us on perception, religion, and hope.

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This Is What a Muslim Feminist Looks Like (Really)

Years ago, I worked as an attorney for a large robotics company. Prior to starting, all employees were required to undergo drug testing. I found myself sitting across from a young, male registrar at the designated hospital as he ran through the perfunctory questions—date of birth, address, next of kin. When he got to religion, I said, “Islam.” He looked up at my big, blond hair and tailored black suit and muttered, “Wasn’t expecting that.”

At least he was honest.

Despite the prevalent negative stereotypes of Muslim women, the number of female converts to Islam continues to rise. These conversions occur for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, a woman converts for marriage, or because she learns about the faith from a Muslim friend, or because she engages the Qur’an in meaningful ways in a classroom setting. Sometimes it is borne of weariness and frustration with a culture that prefers young women look like Barbies and participate in an alcohol-fueled hookup culture. Syrian-born poet Mohja Kahf captures the sentiment underlying this last point brilliantly in a three-line poem, “Hijab Scenes # 2,” where a woman complains that Muslim dress is too restrictive while hobbling about in three-inch heels and nylons.

In my case, I had a beloved friend in college who was a practicing Muslim from Kuwait. She quietly observed her religion, praying five times a day, fasting, performing large and small acts of kindness. No person is all good, but if anyone ever came close, it was her.

The next Muslim I met would eventually become my husband. We both have law degrees from Georgetown, love the ocean, and support progressive politicians and causes. In some ways, our biggest difference was that he’d chosen to practice Corporate Tax, the one class in law school I loathed enough to earn a C.

Before we got married, we talked about religion. My husband, though not particularly practicing, was more committed to his faith than I—or maybe just less questioning of it. This might be because he is of Pakistani descent and a minority in this country, and Islam has more to do with his culture and identity than my Catholicism ever did with mine. I’d been grappling with feminist theology for years, writing papers in college with titles like “Catholic Feminism: Oxymoron?” and commiserating with nuns who refused to attend church under John Paul II. At a wedding once when someone read the story about Adam’s rib, my entire family turned to look at me, afraid I might not hold my peace. In what is no doubt my own failing, during all of this I never fully grasped the Trinity. A religion where Jesus was still a prophet but not “God” was, in some ways, a natural progression for me. A religion where there is no Original Sin imputed to Eve, and where God speaks directly and specifically to the believing men and women in its scripture was also appealing. It will surprise many non-Muslims— and quite a few Muslims—to learn that Islam has a fairly feminist spirit.

I know this, and still I cannot pretend that it doesn’t hurt to see American women who convert referred to as “normal Americans” before they converted. Often, we are seen as being under the thumb of some radical Muslim man we’ve foolishly decided to marry. There is “otherizing” that goes on here, bound up with the fear and suspicion of Muslim men in a post 9/11 world, with the clear implication that something is wrong with women who convert to Islam, that we are less American.

That we have lost our minds.

My reaction is a palpable sting, arising no doubt out of defensiveness: I am a normal American. I have a law degree. I am a feminist.

I want to tattoo it on my forehead.

Certainly, there are Muslim women who are oppressed. But I think the image of Muslim women has been very limited in America. It tends to be a woman in need of rescue—often from Islam—despite Gallup poll research showing that Muslim American women tend to be more educated than the average American woman, and have more income parity with their male counterparts, even at the highest levels, than any other group of women.

This overwhelming narrative of the “oppressed Muslim woman” is difficult to overcome, and in reality is perhaps only overcome when people meet individual Muslim women. I also think there is a great deal of conservative, anti-feminist (here, I would even say anti-woman) scholarship out there on the part of some Muslims. Such interpretations are countered by the work of some really thoughtful and brilliant women and men—people like Asma Barlas, Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, Omid Safi, and Khaled Abou El Fadl—who use the Qur’an itself to disprove the idea that Islam promotes the subjugation of women. Whether these teachings are always reflected in practice in the Muslim community is a separate issue.

I am hopeful that there will come a day when it doesn’t surprise so many people to learn that I am a Muslim and a feminist. For now, there is much work to be done surrounding the image of Muslim women in this country, and I hope my novel is part of that process.

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As I read this, I wonder which is more “offensive” in this country: being a Muslim, or a feminist? The current political environment is disdains both, and the loud-mouthed talking heads are happy to take potshots at both – without, of course, knowing what they’re talking about. I am hopeful that culture improves perception, and so I thank you for writing. Books like Painted Hands, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner getting on the big screen, these are things that show people as people, not a religion or a gender or a label. And when you start to see people as just people, then you start (slowly, for sure!) treating them as people.

Thank you for coming by this month, Jennifer! I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit as much as I’ve enjoyed having you here, and reading your posts! Come back soon! 🙂

6 comments

  1. Everything Jennifer Zobair writes is characterized by reason and conviction, and this essay is no exception. Someday I’ll say “I knew her when.”

    Good choice of author, Drey.

  2. Drey, it has been an honor to be here, truly. Thank you for the opportunity, and for all of your kind words!

    Steve, what a touching comment! Thank you, my friend.

  3. Spot on Steve. I’ll count myself among the fortunate to be able to say the same thing (even if it’s just been in passing).

    I feel similarly fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet another talented, strong woman who converted to Islam while I was in school. As my dad always told me (as a “know-it-all teenager), there are many benefits to a college education which can’t easily be quantified.

    With so much fear and misunderstanding stemming from the relative unknown – and it’s cousin: misinformation – I’m happy to read and share essays like this and books like Painted Hands with my friends, family, and anyone else who will listen. Thank you Drey, and thank YOU Jennifer.

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