After few failed attempts to connect with the Muslim community in my new city, I realized that it comes down to an inherent question of “muslimness.” “Muslimness,” defined as that which makes us look more or less Muslim, is constantly present in many converts’ minds, particularly right after conversion.
The first time I attended a Jumma’ah prayer in Ottawa, there was a shahadah being performed. The soon-to-be Muslim woman, sat there in her white jeans, short top and lose hijab (while some of the women gossiped about her clothing), waiting for the imam to call upon her. The imam, screaming from the main floor to the second (because God forbid a woman should walk among men), asked the woman to say the typical shahada words “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is its messenger.”
“The words resonated in my head as I recalled that those same words were the beginning of a bittersweet relationship with the mosque environment for me (and I am not the only one).”
Still that way, I managed to shake those thoughts out of my head, and I approached the new convert. Before performing the prayers, I had noticed that there were no “visible” converts in the mosque (some converts stick together and identify each other quite easily).
The Ottawa Muslim Association.
I reached out to the new convert with the hope of making a new friend and perhaps connecting with some Muslim women in the mosque. I introduced myself and, as I told her that I was a convert myself and expressed my desire to connect with new converts, I was pulled aside by an Arab lady in a black abaaya and hijab. “It will be better for her to learn Islam from someone who is in a position to teach it.” I stood perplex. Despite the rude intermission I decided to ask this woman about other converts, explaining that I was new to the city. The woman said “Converts are not really around. People in here don’t like them. They are all party girls.” I have never considered myself a party girl, even before Islam. I don’t really do late nights. But I realized that she was talking about something else… She was talking about “muslimness.” I found no words other than “O.k. then!” and moved on.
In my new mosque it did not matter that I actively sought to wear black abaayas and plain hijabs not to draw the attention of judgy women while in the mosque or that I was new to the city and had a big need to connect with other Muslim women… I just wasn’t as “Muslim” as the rest of them were. What is perhaps worse (I don’t know anymore), I did not LOOK Muslim enough!
If you have read my blog before you will know that I used to think that my little Albertan Muslim community was unwelcoming for women in general and converts… but I soon realized that Alberta fell short in comparison to the new mosque. “Muslimness” in here was quite important.
But I shouldn’t say it is the only place. After leaving Alberta, I noticed a few of my convert friends were struggling. I am not sure if it is a new tend, or if it has always been there, but these days a lot of born-Muslims are concerned about how Muslim converts are. A few days ago, a fellow convert married to a South Asian Muslim, expressed her discomfort at the fact that classmates question her children not only about their “weird” looks (the mother is Caucasian) but also about their “Muslimness” since their mother is a convert. Another close friend has giving up all together. The major problem for her was the hijab thing, people questioned her all the time about not wearing the hijab full-time and eventually became such an issue that some fellow Muslims (even coverts) decided to stop inviting her to social events for not complying with the standard. A fellow working convert, married to a Lebanese Muslim, has her “Muslimness” continuously questioned because she “allows” her daughter to professional perform Highlands dance.
I have always thought that these questions came from Muslims that had nothing better to do… But perhaps it is more complex than that… I don’t really know. The ironic part of all of this is that the day I joined the Jumma’ah prayer in that mosque, the imam talked about the rise of Islamophobia in the province and called us to stick together and not being afraid of showing that we are Muslims…
“After his speech, I could not help but feeling that despite Islamophobia being a very real thing, many mosques use it in their rhetoric to sweep under the rug other kinds of injustices and exclusions in our own communities.”