Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Iftar at a Malaysian Home

If you haven't noticed, my interaction with Malaysian Muslims has been limited. My third and final post on race/class and residence in KL will shed greater light on this unanticipated aspect of our Malaysian experience.

You can imagine, then, how excited I was to attend an iftar at a Malaysian's home for the first time. The brother who invited us, my husband met at a Suhaib Webb lecture in KL. He noticed my husband searching for a taxi and kindly offered him a ride home. Again he demonstrated his kindness and generosity by driving us to his home for dinner. The food and fellowship were wonderful, and I loved the backyard.

I immediately connect with the brother's wife Feezah. We share experiences about our different lives as a Muslim minority (in the US) and a Muslim majority (in Malaysia). She planted the awesome tree behind us herself. And I love her jilbab. I was initially surprised when she referred to her dress as such because it is much more fashionable than the stereotypical image of the jilbab. See Feezah's selection here.

Donning the white kufi, my husband's kind friend reminded me of the Islamic singing group Raihan. Our youth delegation representing Imam W.D. Mohammed discovered this group on my first visit to Malaysia in 1997. Their songs became a hit in the WDM community in Atlanta overnight. 

Yahya makes a new friend in the backyard garden. May they both be among the people of the Everlasting Garden.

Before iftar.

Iftar time! And they sent us home with food to savor the experience.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Pious. Intelligent. Beautiful

These are the words that come to mind when Muslim women seize the opportunity to capture and portray our diverse images and voices through our own media.

I seek to do this in my own scholarship, but not without the example and leadership of mentors like Tayyibah Taylor, editor-in-chief of the award-winning magazine Azizah.

Watch Tayyibah’s CNN interview and [re]discover the intelligence and light of a thoughtful Muslim woman, especially one radiating the blessings and benefits of Ramadan.

I had been waiting for the right moment to share this photo of a Malaysian Muslim woman bank employee. Don’t you love her uniform, both modest and chic? 

As Tayyibah notes in her interview, this is not the image we ordinarily see of Muslim women, that is, powerful, strong, happy, blessed, radiant. That’s why we have no choice but to show the world who we really are.

Mary-Frances Winters Comments on Park51 in Light of Ramadan

Memorable to me about the days after 9/11 was the way in which people of other faiths spoke out on behalf of Muslims to separate the terrorist attacks from the teachings and practices of Islam.

Today, we find a similar trend as non-Muslims speak out to support Park51. I would especially like to highlight the words of my aunt, Mary-Frances Winters, president and founder of The Winters Group, as she blogs about the debate.

I think her commentary is particularly valuable as she nicely uses her understanding of Ramadan as a non-Muslim as a way to encourage others to reconsider their opposition to the mosque. See her comments here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Like Michelle Obama" - Race and Residence in KL, Part 2

“I was going to say that you favor Michelle Obama,” the Indian stranger said with warm cheer.  She and her friend, who nodded in agreement, ate from curry dishes at a table we shared at the IKEA cafeteria. I smiled and laughed with them, accepting the compliment.     
I had come to expect this kind of encounter. After telling the friendly women that I was from the United States, they were confused about how a person looking like me could be American without recent roots elsewhere. “Like Michelle Obama,” I explained to them. And as usual, my disarming analogy brought great cheer and laughter.

Honestly, I initially thought to use the “Like Michelle Obama” line as an educational tool for people who just didn’t seem to get the idea that Americans are not all white. It was also a way to have this conversation about my origins without giving a history lesson on U.S. slavery. Instead of referring to Kunta Kinte, I could speak of Michelle Obama.

But it wasn’t until I learned a few things from my real estate agent Patricia, a Chinese Malaysian, did I realize that “ Like Michelle Obama” not only educated others but also empowered me, in this case, by increasing my chances of renting a condo of choice.

Yes, the property owners in Malaysia do discriminate based on nationality. And of course, Americans are among the most preferred renters. (We have a reputation of keeping homes well maintained.)  But of course, when Malaysians think of Americans, most think of white people. And, yes, Nigerians are undesirable renters (see earlier post). Due to all of the above, and to avoid any surprises, my agent told condo owners up front that we were black Americans. She often followed with an attempt to persuade them to consider us as renters.

One condo owner told Patricia, “I don’t want any Africans, even if they were migrants to the States first.” Patricia struggled to explain to her that our case was different, that not even our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents migrated from Africa. “So, Jamillah, I told her what you told me. ‘She’s like Michelle Obama.’”

According to Patricia, the owner was overcome with laughter. Apparently she thought it quite “clever” of me to liken myself to the First Lady. I hope that her laughter was also an acknowledgement of her initial ignorance.

After sharing this story with my husband, he remarked, “This begs the question, ‘When do we become just American?’”

My thoughts raced to a memory of a second-generation Egyptian American student at Duke who posed this question to me in class after I kept referring to the children of Muslim immigrants as Arab American, Pakistani American, etc.

I now realize that I didn’t take his question to heart or validate the set of experiences that motivated it. Instead I defended my choice of terms based on my experiences and studies as a black Muslim woman graduate student.

Using the modifier African or black before American has been important to me for many reasons including the way in which it brings attention to the fact that race continues to matter in the United States. In particular, this practice resists notions of America as a colorblind society where racial and ethnic identifiers have no place. To promote the idea that we are “just American” is to conceal the race and class disparities persisting in our society.

In my book I highlight the ways in which immigrants of color downplay structural racism against African Americans and ascribe to ideologies such as color blindness as part of the process of trying to be white. For this reason, I have looked critically at their appeals to be seen as “just American.”  

However, the recurring question about origins—“Where are you really from?”—that I encounter abroad has made me better understand why the children of immigrants in the U.S. find it crucial to call themselves American without referring to their sub-ethnic identities. Because of the discrimination that they have encountered because they do not “look” American, they must assert their American identity, even if at times it means to momentarily drop other ethnic identifiers.

Intellectually I understood this and raised related points in my book. But now I really get their perspective. Certainly I’ve encountered the question about origins before during visits to other places abroad, and even in the U.S. due to my hijab, but I took the question as a sign of ignorance that I could easily brush off suffering no harm or injury.

Now living in a foreign country, it is different because it is the first time I have been denied specific privileges based on others' perceptions of my national origins. In other words, I live in a context in which Americans are granted certain privileges but I am sometimes denied them simply because I don’t look like others’ image of an American and because my ancestors are from Africa.

And is not this what distinguishes racism from prejudice? Racism is the removal of rights and privileges based on people’s prejudices. Not until I experienced racism on account of national origins could I truly identify with my student’s question, “When do we become just American?”

Regarding the condo owner who discriminated against my family, the irony of her remark is that God has placed a family in the White House whose members are both the descendants of enslaved Africans and of a relatively recent African migrant to the United States.

The unimaginable hardship of our ancestors who survived the Middle Passage was not in vain. Their great-great-great grandchildren deserve the full rights and privileges of American citizenship. "Like Michelle Obama" is one way that I claim mine.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Good Hair in Malaysia (A failed attempt to microblog)

I’ve returned to my blog after having been in the trenches writing a grant proposal, setting up and attending play dates, fighting the subsequent colds, and even saving my son’s life after he fell facedown into a fountain.  (That was a bit scary.)

I am in the process of gathering my thoughts for my next post Race and Residence in KL, Part 2. I’m excited about it because I’ve had an aha moment about race and ethnicity in the United States.

When I talk to my husband about the coming post, he teases, “Don’t make it too long."  I am incapable of microblogging, he concludes. “You have to write a report.” 

I take his light taunt with an ounce of pride.  “That’s because I’m an academic.” To prove him wrong, I’m sending this shorter post in the meantime.  

The photo is that of a woman I met at the bank today. When she sat next to me, you know I had to say something. “I like your hair!” But my wide eyes and smile must have said, “How in the world did you get braids?”  “I’m married to a Nigerian,” she answered. “Is this your first time having them?” “No, my tenth time.”

I will refrain from any analysis and allow you to draw your own conclusions about the amazing era in which we live, as people, ideas and practices crisscross the globe.

By the way, she is half Malay and half Chinese. Noticing her natural Asian hair under the weave, I couldn’t help but think of the part in Chris Rock’s Good Hair when he tries to sell black hair (as opposed to Indian or Asian hair). A Korean shop owner responds saying that no one wants to look like Africa. 

My Malaysian acquaintance is likely to differ. And that’s why hers is my pic of the week.