Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Me, Islam, and an Interview

Note to self: Don’t go out for a walk on the nature trail when every landscaping company in the area is cutting the grass. Not fun!

This morning, I was struggling with a tricky concept in chapter one of my work in progress.  And like I always do when I get mentally stuck, I go for long walks on the trail by the creek close to my house. I tried to ignore the buzzing sounds of tractors and lawn mowers by reflecting on an incident or rather an experience I had last week.

A professor, a good friend of mine who teaches a course about Gender and Islam asked me for a favor. She was struck by how many of her students never met a Muslim woman, let alone had a sustained conversation with one. She asked if I would be open to having a student interview me as part of an assignment to write an essay about both the experience and me. I thought it a great idea, an opportunity to dispel any misconceptions that might be present in the student’s mind. I’ve always advocated putting the responsibility on the shoulders of us women to dispel stereotypes, and especially us Muslim women to shatter the dark images/concepts that are shoved onto us by people who don’t know or understand Islam. 

I believe we have a role—I have a role, a duty to speak up and defend what I believe in. I abhor complaining, and I hate waiting for someone to do something, or for an event to happen and change the status quo. I believe in trying - not necessarily succeeding - to engage as much as possible in the society I live in. So I went to the interview, armed and ready.

Of course there is no way for me to know what the student wrote about me after the two-hour conversation, and that’s not what really concerned me during my walk. What I mulled over was my own reaction to the deep questions asked of how I perceive myself as a Muslim woman. Questions concerning my views on gender roles, sexuality, spirituality, practices, motherhood, work outside the home, LBGT issues, and dress code to name a few. I promised myself to be honest with the extremely polite and intellectual student, and I was taken aback by how some of my ideas and personal beliefs affected me when I articulated them. Thoughts gain a different measure of weight when spoken, a higher elevation when explained, and they open up whole worlds when they cross aisles and are received as they were meant.

I always thought of myself a deeply spiritual person. If people want to put me in a box and stick a label on it, they would probably use Liberal Muslim. I, however, try to shy away from labels when it comes to people, and being totally honest, it was not an easy road traveled to free my mind of such biases, for I harbored plenty. I am ashamed to admit a few still linger. Halfway through the interview I noticed how defensive I became, projecting my pre-perceived notion that by simply being asked those questions, I was being attacked. That was not the case at all. I forced myself to stop and switch direction. I didn’t need to be in defensive mode, a habit so hard to get rid off in the times we live in. I didn’t need to protect my beliefs and my idea of Islam. This wonderful student simply wanted to know who I am, and what I stand for, and I owed her nothing less than complete openness. I am who I am. I seek not her approval, nor reject her scorn. I believe that was the goal of the assignment, after all.


This morning, I swiped away the grass shreds flying in my face and headed home. Like those lawn mowers on the trail, I tend to push my way through situations not paying attention to the noise and chaos my approach sometimes leaves behind. From the other side of that interview table, I saw the damage I could have caused had I not dropped my shield and opened up. I only hope the student saw me with clarity.

10 comments:

  1. Sometimes the hardest thing about living in this crazy world is finding the courage to reveal ourselves. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

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    1. Gay, I appreciate your feedback. Crazy is the right word to use these days, you're right.

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  2. That must have been an interesting conversation. I've used you as an anonymous example before when discussing Muslim women. But I've also seen the spectrum; Muslim women like you and our mutual friend M, but also women in Afghanistan who were very much an underclass. My answer is that there is no one true representation of "Muslim culture". Some cultures, like Turkey, are open and secular. Others, like Afghanistan, are totalitarian and oppressive toward women. The stereotype of oppressed Muslim women does exist, but we Americans tend to not recognize the other Muslim societies which treat women very differently than the Taliban do.

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  3. Chris, There's a distinction that often escapes most of the western world, not just Americans: The cultures of the societies that Islam prevails in have their own rules and projections, which are often more intrenched than Islam because culture is linked to the history of society over many years. The situation in Afghanistan regarding women is deplorable, and I am in no way undermining their struggles, it's just that I believe I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak up without much contrition (though some restraints are always present). Thank you for your thoughts.

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  4. Curious, what restraints would be present? And why?

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  5. As a woman, there's always the obstacle of appearance that has to be overcome to be heard and taken seriously both by other women and men.
    As a Muslim, there's a behavioral code that I choose to adhere to, and it colors speech in particular, not thoughts.
    As an American Arab, there's a society that I represent, and I am always aware of how my actions may affect others in my community. We have all seen how the misguided actions of very few project on a whole community, be it Muslims, Arabs, police officers, soldiers, or politicians (ok, maybe politicians are an exception).

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  6. So, do you feel like you're having to hold back your real thoughts about any particular subject? Maybe I'm off base, but I'm reminded a bit of the expectations that some people have of me because I'm Hispanic. Among some people there are assumptions about how I should talk, act and most importantly think. I generally disappoint those people, and some of them then consider me an "other", not like them. Is that your experience as well?

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    1. I wouldn't use the term "hold back", rather I choose when and how I present my ideas. I think I generally confuse people who have a preset idea of the kind of person I should be as a Muslim woman. And sometimes I see the hesitation in accepting me when I clearly state that I am deeply religious. But I have not encountered a situation where I was considered an "other" or rejected. It's quite the opposite, really.

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  7. It's a shame that in this day and age we find that we have to defend our religion. Good post Lilas!

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    1. Thanks, Manal. It is an exhausting situation to be in.

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