Danville or Deen-ville?
Growing up Muslim in Rural America
I stood at the door of an office building, crayons in hand, scrambling to toss my dupatta over my head. Excitedly, I crossed my right foot through the doorway to be greeted by the heartfelt hugs and salaams of the three Muslim matriarchs of our small community.
Living in rural America, Ramadan was the one time of the year our four Muslim families regularly interacted with one another. Ramadan meant being in awe of how the older girls stood for hours praying taraweh while we giggled and played footsie instead. It meant seeing our fasting mothers cook dishes for iftari potlucks while we stood first in line to break fasts we didn’t keep. It meant being empowered by our fathers to recite our favorite surahs to the entire jammah in our office-space-turned-masjid.
But as we grew older, our community became transient, with Muslim families moving in and out more often than they stayed. By the time I entered my third year of undergrad in the same small town, the last two families had moved, leaving behind an empty masjid-turned-office-space.
So, with five other Muslim students, I stood at the door of a house, keys in hand, scrambling to toss my dupatta over my head. Nervously, I crossed my right foot through the doorway to be greeted by the blank stares of the few Muslim men left in our community.
Eager to break the tension, I cheerfully greeted the imam, as if he was the same one I had known fifteen years prior. With his curt response, however, I realized his brand of Islam wasn’t like the one I had grown up practicing — it wasn’t one that always valued women in religious spaces. But I had experienced it before, and I knew I’d experience it again. So, I smiled at the fact that four of us women were given one prayer rug to share while our classmate was given one for himself. I rolled my eyes when the imam told us to rush our wudu because they were waiting on us.
But as we giggled, trying to squeeze into what little space was left for us, the imam reached his breaking point. He snatched his prayer rug from the ground, demanding the men move to their own room. I stood there, unable to figure out exactly why I couldn’t laugh off his response. I was disappointed that he had so easily dismissed Islam’s core principle of hospitality. I felt guilty that I invited women I admired into the same hostility plaguing many Muslim communities across the globe. I was angry that my reflex was to feel guilt over circumstances I couldn’t control. But I had come to the masjid to pray one last taraweh in my hometown, and no man’s discomfort could interfere with that goal.
With his curt response, however, I realized his brand of Islam wasn’t like the one I had grown up practicing — it wasn’t one that always valued women in religious spaces.
So, when the imam raised his hands to lead the last namaz of the night, I slipped into the makeshift men’s prayer room to recite behind them. And when he turned to face the room, a frown instantly appeared on his face. Locking eyes with him, I returned the same blank stare I was greeted with when I first entered the masjid.
Having since moved to a city, I’ve been exposed to a number of different brands of Islam. But consistent with so many of these experiences is the double bind many Muslim women are caught in: by protesting too publicly, our experiences are co-opted to justify anti-Muslim rhetoric, but by choosing not to protest, the same cycles of oppression persist.
So, we’re left with our own specialized forms of resistance. I may laugh too loudly. She may style her hijab. We may pray in the same room as men. These protests aren’t indicative of an oppression so invasive that Stockholm Syndrome ensues — that we find ourselves mistakenly empowered when we are actually in need of liberation. Rather, they symbolize individualized forms of empowerment rooted in Islam. Because, ultimately, we aren’t resisting Islam. We’re resisting the interpretations of Islam imposed on us. And these interpretations require a tailored response that simultaneously values Islamic traditions while subverting cultural norms.
So, our protests might not always be overt or understood by those outside our communities. But rooted in all forms of resistance is the notion that empowerment lies in the communities that define it.