Friday, September 30, 2011

Being visibly Muslim.

I love visiting my Moroccan-Dutch girlfriends -- we always end up discussing Islam and the societies we grew up in: Dutch, Moroccan, Malay. Recently one of them met a Dutch (without qualifiers it means you know, white Dutch) girl at the mosque who had just converted after eight years of presaging dreams and converted after studying a few months in Indonesia.

Two days ago another friend also told me about meeting a close friend who converted just a few weeks ago. Being one of the few Muslim women she knew, she wanted to put us in touch, which I enthusiastically accepted of course. Subhanallah..

With all the negative propaganda about Islam in The Netherlands, many people think that Dutch values are completely opposite to Islamic ones, when both actually have much in common and are anyway, always in a state of flux.

For example, in contemporary Dutch society, cohabitation is seen as an important stage in courtship. More important than marriage sometimes. Somehow marriage is seen as restrictive, and not to mention loaded with all kinds of religious (read: Christian) values which modern Dutch people prefer to distance themselves from.

This was not the case just a generation ago, when couples still got married before living together. But today marriage is more for the legal benefits (for example, your spouse can share your health insurance) than for anything else. After living together for five years or so, friends and family start to pester you about getting married, and eventually you cave in and have a big, fun, party.

They claim to be liberal, individualistic and pro-choice, but sometimes it seems like it's only acceptable when people make certain kinds of choices. For example, you can be spiritual and pick and choose from any kind of religious tradition (keeping stone or plaster Buddha heads in the house is really popular here), but converting to Islam? No way. (Although arguably no one's converting because Islam is the most fashionable religion today. Haha.)

I'll have to be a little reflexive on this point though, because Muslims also think this way. We claim to be accepting of all humanity, but we always look at class/education level, race, migrant status, and appearance. For example, to be seen as Muslim women, you have to wear a headscarf and be able to read Arabic. What if you don't want to cover your hair for whatever reason, and like to wear short sleeves and nail polish? Then you're not such a good Muslim woman, sorry!

I wore a headscarf publicly on and off, and more constantly for four years. In university, I was sometimes the only headscarf-wearing Muslim girl in class, and wow did I feel visible. I felt like everyone expected me to automatically defend any attacks on Islam or Malays when actually, I didn't really care. Once a classmate got apologetic in advance because she was about to show a video of a lawyer criticising Malays for their high divorce rates (I had to assuage her by explaining that I agreed with the lawyer).

On the other hands, I became totally invisible when I was with a group of Muslim friends. At that point in time I had involved myself in several volunteer activities that required me to be in a mosque or religious school regularly, and it was easier to visibly fit in an Islamic and Muslim-dominated environment with a headscarf.

I'm sure some people feel it's great to be visibly Muslim and be given the chance to explain to others. But for me, it was not great to be assumed to be a certain kind of Muslim based on how I dress. And now that I dont cover my hair I'm taken to be not interested in Islam, to not know anything about Islam, to have suddenly adopted a sinful lifestyle, etc. It sucked when people assumed that about my core identity, but it doesn't bother me now.

And so I can understand why converts wish to be invisibly Muslim. Some do choose the visible route with headscarves and beards, but some choose to keep the same appearance. For them, all that matters is that they know their heart has changed.

Islam is not exactly the most popular religion right now (understatement!), and having to just constantly explain can be exhausting, especially when you need all that energy into just bolstering your daily practices and acts of worship.

Do you feel so visibly and invisibly Muslim at times? 


orange streaks said...

I used to have that sort of narrow mentality - an adult Muslim woman who didn't wear the headscarf probably doesn't know how important it is, or knows but doesn't care enough to wear it. In other words, 'not very Islamic'. My Muslim friends who didn't wear the headscarf, though, was justified in my mind as 'not ready yet' to wear or their parents did not emphasise it enough, hence they do not wear. (As a teenager I actually envied them because they had a choice, whereas I had to wear it since I was 11 because my parents insisted. I've since grown into it and it's a core part of my public identity that I'd feel bare with it off. It also helped that long sleeves and layering became a fashion norm towards our late teens so it's easier now to find decent looking age-appropriate clothes)

But then, I grew up and began to see how religiousity / spirituality can't be determined by a piece of cloth. I had Muslim friends in university who didn't cover, but could always be seen praying at the campus musollah. Some who covered, though, I can say I hardly see going to the musollah. There are others who treat it like a fashion statement and go all out to look like the fashionable hijab chick, while at the same time portraying a too-liberal lifestyle, that I feel the main point of covering, which is modesty, is a little lost. And then I found out, via your link, that there are feminist Muslim women who believe there is no concrete evidence in the Quran that specifically makes it wajib for a woman to cover, so that's another point of view. I'm glad I met so many different people who helped hack away my prejudices.

orange streaks said...

Anyway perhaps I'm not as well-travelled as you are, so I don't get that feeling of being visibly Muslim and expected to answer for Malay / Muslim issues. (Or it could be I give out either a nonchalant or no-nonsense vibe that people don't bother asking / don't dare to.) I'm also known to be mostly absorbed in my own thoughts (dreaming away, probably), unobservant and oblivious to others when I'm out in public, so I don't get that self-conscious feeling of looking so obviously Muslim.

Sya said...

Thanks for sharing! :D

Actually the context I described above was in university, so I suppose it's a matter of how Malay-dominated one's school or course of study is.

It's so great to hear someone else's thoughts on this, and I'm sure (I hope so, anyway) that there are many people who may have had the same thought processes as you. Alhamdulillah!


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