My Struggle with My Muslim-ness

There is a thing about being born in a devoutly religious environment that shapes your identity in your formative years. Religion is not seen as a philosophy, but as peace. Being a good “Muslim” “Christian” “Mormon” becomes associated with a spiritual sensibility. A good Muslim exudes a lightness that is comforting, enviable, but mostly blessed. I think fondly of my grandmother in this role. I ask her to pray for me, because I believe her prayers count. Her religion, faith, and belief is not imposing. It is as natural to her as being human. Starkly in contrast to this are imams and preachers: people with BIG beliefs who proclaim their positions and stances fundamentally in opposition to something else. Therefore in my mind there is a distinction between the faith of these two people — There is natural tradition that is fluid, a fish in water, simply is itself, unthinking. Then there is static tradition — awkward, unnatural, imposing — This ideology does not move, is frigid, and glitches in different environments.

I meet Muslim women from all over the world. The more similar they are to me, the more we share the struggle with integrating the heart of our faith with the patriarchal institutions at play. There is a definite spectrum on which Muslim women lie. On the one end are Muslim women who have submitted to the belief of the institutional influences around them. These women believe truly that women should stand behind men when they pray, that they should cover their hair, they should follow Sharia law. The origin of this belief stems in (1) not wanting to disrupt the status quo and end up on the wrong side of the argument (which would ultimately result in eternal damnation) (2) a practiced argument to validate their beliefs. This practiced argument has a logic subversively imbedded in it to keep their beliefs valid. For example, an argument for women praying behind men will be so that the male gaze does not wander (onto their rears) during prayer. Suggesting to this woman that the female gaze could also wander during prayer (onto the rears of men — thereby validating that women do have sexual desire) is completely blasphemous, ignored, left entirely unheard. A book ahead of its time, Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy captures this Muslim female sexual shame and repression so aptly and well, that I cannot begin to brief the subject in such short format. However, unfortunately because her analysis is stunningly real, cutting and underlying to the truth of the matter, many Muslim women reading it cannot begin to accept it, dismissing her work as pornographic. Back to the spectrum, Muslim women on this end of the spectrum revert to the institutional powers at be for authority on their behavior and place in society.

On the other end of the spectrum are women who have completely rejected the faith altogether, even turning against it in conversations with their peers, removing themselves as far away from the culture as possible to save themselves from association. However, this woman never truly escapes the culture. Being raised Muslim is something that will always plague them, always define who they are or are not, and will constantly remain a vacant reminder in their mind of a culture that is prevalent in their definition of themselves. This woman never escapes Islam, only struggles in her attempt to, and with the world turning its attention to the religion, she is only even more hyper aware of the tension between her inner selves. I know this woman well. At some point between these two poles, perhaps on a transcendental, parallel plane, there is the natural flow where women like my grandmother exist. Having lived in Pakistan her whole life, her identity was never a point of contention. She was always a good woman, always knew herself. She had a boyfriend who she married, my grandfather, and she simply was her own self, pure and simple. This isn’t the case for all Pakistani women, mind you. My paternal grandmother has a very different relationship with Islam, one more anxious and further on the spectrum towards total submission to the powers at be. But my maternal grandmother is natural, blessed.

I struggle with my relationship to Islam. I don’t pray, because I’m not truly convinced of it and that seed of doubt casts falsity on the action. Yet, I want embrace the qualities of my grandmother, a spiritual effervescence. In no longer having that religion where I found myself in my adolescence, which defines the background of my family, that has shaped the culture of our people so closely, I have lost connection to the stories which I’ve heard my entire life. Not having a proper tie to that leaves me infinitely incomplete. Therefore I struggle with finding a way to make it fit. My intellectual understanding of the politics and society in the Muslim world from my privileged, outsider’s perspective has made being Muslim feel trite, an artificial capturing of faith that is not natural in my world, but a motion of actions to grasp something that does not exist in matter or form. And how does one even begin to attempt to connect to identity in this way, when being Muslim is simply an expression of self shared by a group of people, a group of people who differ so vastly amongst themselves? Being a woman of the modern, western world and a Muslim woman is nearly an impossible bridge to gap. I’m curious to know what forms people have taken to create this relationship.