Monday, November 22, 2010

A Race-Conscious Hijabi: Prelude to a Letter on the Prophet

In KL, Malaysia, I improvise story time with my sons at a Borders.
Wouldn't it be cool to see Islamic artwork for sale at a
Borders in Atlanta?
When I made plans to attend story time at a nearby library in Atlanta last April, I didn't give much thought to the social implications, that is, that I would be socializing with other moms.  

The library was in a recently gentrified neighborhood. My first time attending, I was the only black mother there. But Yahya wasn't the only African American child. All of the other black children there were with a daycare provider.

The rest of the children were all white and with their moms, and a couple of dads. (I should note that I've been to other story times in predominantly black areas in Atlanta, and there were many children with their mothers. Also, at another story time in a mixed neighborhood, the dominant participants were black and Latina nannies with white children.)

After the story, read by an African American librarian, it was coloring time. Trying to draw Yahya's attention from the buttons on a nearby radio to the paper and crayons, I noticed the other women socializing.

This wasn't my usual crowd, and I wasn't initially outgoing, but I looked forward to the opportunity to cross lines of difference.

For me, the dominant line of difference between me and the other women was race.

Why do I have this tendency to view and assess a given context from the lens of race? That is, to note the racial makeup of a space and to imagine others seeing and relating to me a certain way from that lens?

Living with this lens as a black American woman is not the surprising thing, or at least it shouldn't be. Historian Evelyn Higginbotham describes this way of interpreting and relating to others as the  the "metalanguage of race."

Because African Americans have been profoundly shaped by a society "where racial demarcation is endemic to their sociocultural fabric and heritage--to their laws and economy, to their institutionalized structures and discourses, and to their epistemologies and everyday customs," many African Americans see race as the dominant power dynamic in social relations ("African-American Women's History and the Metalanguage of Race" 254).

Seeing through this lens as a black American hijabi is what I'm more interested in thinking about. I should be more clear.

Why wasn't I conscious of my hijab when I joined the other mothers at story time? Why didn't I imagine or care about the assumptions they might make about me as a Muslim woman? Why was I more interested in an opportunity to break racial barriers than to teach or defend Islam?

Even in a context in which Islam is regularly misrepresented and misportrayed, I am not immediately conscious of my hijab.

Perhaps the reason for my relative hijab unconsciousness--and this goes for almost any space in the U.S. regardless of race--relates to the following:

1) I've been wearing the hijab for twenty years now.

2) Since I was a girl, wearing the hijab, or scarf as I normally call it, was modeled to me by pious, strong, beautiful, intelligent women like my mother. Associating the scarf with these qualities, I learned to wear it with confidence and pride. (Though, as a teenager, I must admit there was some resistance to wearing it at first.)

3) I haven't been made to feel that the hijab negatively affects how people respond to or treat me. Rather, it's brought positive attention, at least based on that which has been communicated to me.

But this ease with wearing the hijab could all change, as many fear with the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. After all, in the days immediately following 9-11, while I did not remove my hijab, I modified it to draw less attention. Instead of wearing it draped around my neck, I wore the bun-style hijab, actually the way I wore it as a teenager--a style also worn by non-Muslim African Americans.

I didn't think about the fact that the other women at story time might especially take note of my hijab until noticing my reflection in the library window as I hurried Yahya toward the entrance.

And it wasn't until I had a conversation with one of the other mothers that I realized that my identity and presence might represent an opportunity to change perceptions of Islam.

The irony of this is that educating about Islam is a clear and obvious goal I bring to the classroom at Spelman. But in a different context, among white women whom I share the joy of motherhood, I initially imagined achieving something altogether different.

Rebecca initiated our conversation during coloring time, and if I recall correctly, my mentioning that my childhood Muslim private school was in the same area as the library opened a window to talk about Islam.

I was quite surprised and impressed with Rebecca's knowledge of Islam. She was familiar with some of the writings of a Muslim woman with anti-Islam sentiments. In that first conversation, Rebecca demonstrated a genuine desire for clarity on women's experiences in Islam. I was particularly impressed that she had started reading a copy of the Qur'an.

A few weeks later when I told Rebecca that I'd be traveling to Malaysia, she kindly offered to come to my house and watch Yahya while I packed. I liked the idea and, once again, thought in racial terms how nice it would be to break barriers and have a play date with a white family for the first time.

I failed to take Rebecca up on her offer, but fortunately the possibility of getting together outside the library gave us the opportunity to exchange emails. She also wanted me to pass along a few titles on Islam.

My new friendship with Rebecca, her questions about Islam, and the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. make me realize that I should be more conscious about how my hijab brings opportunities to dialogue about Islam, perhaps a realization more obvious to other hijabi women who may not think about race as much as I do and who might also socialize with white women more than I do.

(I am just now reminded of a section in my book in which young American Muslim women respond to a lecture by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah in which he encourages increased outreach and education on Islam to white Americans. While one African American Muslim woman rejects the notion that we should direct da'wah efforts to "suburban whites" when they are not the people most receptive to Islam (African Americans are), a Bangladeshi American Muslim woman commented that Dr. Abd-Allah's suggestions were eye-opening. She realized that she hadn't thought before to give da'wah to white people, a realization she was now ashamed of because she concluded that her not thinking about white people in these terms meant that she really didn't care about them, a sentiment most likely influenced by her "resentment of what a white government has done.")

I can relate to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf's point made in a recent blog post that American Muslims need to educate ourselves on the extent of negative information on Islam and how this misinformation is more accessible to non-Muslims than is actual dialogue and friendship with Muslims. In his words, "try and experience what a person curious about Islam and Muslims is likely to find if he or she browsed the Internet or bookstore shelves."

Rebecca has given me a greater understanding of how many of the controversies surrounding Islam that I bring up in the classroom are disproportionately emphasized in popular books and media on Islam. The difference for my students is that they can count on me to provide multiple perspectives and to explain hard issues in the appropriate historical, cultural, or political context.

In my next post, I will share my answer to one of the questions that Rebecca recently posed to me over email about a controversial event in the life of the Prophet, prayers and peace upon him. Even there, though, I couldn't help but return to the "metalanguage of race."  


  1. Niiice! I look forward to the next entry.~Love, Ayisha & Aasiya

  2. jamillah,

    i think i'm like you in that sometimes i am so comfortable within my blackness that it becomes instinct, but i feel the beauty of islam is that -- without necessary leaving it -- we can consciously step outside of that racial identity, acquiring a more holistic view, and be more a "humanist".

    just coming out of hajj season, i get flashbacks of how during the hajj, my blackness became less and less important or even apparent, and how my obedience to Allah in simply respecting, cooperating and communicating with my fellow wo/man was emphasized.

    i can imagine the prophet (saws) calling his people out of the comfort-zone of their tribal identities into the unity of The One God Allah and His amazingly-varied but equally astonishingly-similar creation: wo/man. even as the prophet (saws) called to this oneness, both in their Lord and in His creation, he had such etiquette that even the non-Muslim was, at the least, impressed with the interaction -- the best example for our interfaith interactions with others today.

    thanks for your post. thought provoking as usual.

  3. @Ayisha, I hope to get the next post out soon!

    @Kori, you are keen to point to the amazing example of our beloved Prophet as it regards to putting our racial/tribal identities in the right perspective. As you suggest, these identities should not be overlooked as they illustrate the great diversity, vastness, and beauty of God's creation. But at the same time, the unity of humanity is an even more compelling sign of God's Oneness and Greatness.

    The Prophet indeed provided a radical solution to the tribal differences challenging his new ummah in Medina when he made his followers brothers and sisters in faith. This relates to the letter I wrote to Rebecca and will post next time, namely, that the Prophet was before his time as he brought new ideas and reforms that are still relevant and needed today.

    Some scholars have said that the ummah of Muhammad extends to all of humanity since he was sent as a mercy to the world. This means that I should certainly focus on the ways in which Rebecca is my sister in humanity beyond both our racial and religious identities. And to say this out loud (I feel like I'm in an interveiw with Oprah) is very healing. And God says that in the Qur'an is a healing and a mercy.

  4. I understood what she has written about above in a far less conscious way when I first moved to NYC in the late '90's. I was a young Muslim African American stay at home mom, so very new to the big city life, and I was especially new to the type of Race Consciousness that is inherent to Manhattan/NYC, but not limited to this area by any means. So after my son Belal (around 3 at the time) received a scholarship for the day programs at the Lexington YMCA, I was already familiar with what I would be "up against" socially in terms of finding my place amongst the moms and/or nannies in that circle of exclusivity. I had already been the "only" black amongst stay at home moms, or the only mom amongst nannies, of which even the nannies had a very exclusive vibe to them, like, "I babysit the baby of a United Nation diplomat" etc. I had already been the only Muslim, over and over again, so I was pretty familiar with what conversation I preferred to have, or not have. The uneasy and forced conversation about ANYTHING in order to quelch the silence that the race barrier had evolved in the dynamic of play groups I had noted, was a convo I did NOT want to have. Instead, I hoped and anticipated based on experience that given the other participants knew I was Muslim, it kind of automatically gave me a buffer. Something to soften the race effect. I noticed that if I had on my scarf in the "bun" style, wrapped up and in a more African American style of headscarf wrapping, I did not have any questions posed to me about my wrap. No "Are you Muslim" or "Is that religious", in the way that the "hijab" style scarf allowed. And at the end of the day for me, I would rather have "Are you Muslim" or small conversation about faith and questions about Islam, than the "lets talk about absolutely ANYTHING in order to not pay attention to the obvious" convo's. I would wrap my hair and cheeks up every morning, hoping to be able to hurdle over the racial social barrier, into a less painful social barrier, that being religion. And with some luck, luck in quotes, ofcourse I don't believe in luck ,but with some luck, maybe just maybe, the Jewish moms or nannies who I long held an appreciation for and respect from, maybe they would be there, and maybe the racial barrier would be overshadowed by my faith, as it had been with the Jewish mom's and nannies pretty often before. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But almost 12 years later, I would love to be in that situation again. I have learned so much about crossing the boundaries of race, and not feeling the need to OVERLOOK my African American-ness, or have others overlook it, as if my Black heritage itself were the issue. No, the issue lies more in self love and acceptance, education and focusing on the fantastic traditions that lie inside of us all. I am really unable to sum all this up, but, all that to say, the challenge of race starts inside of our own perceptions. Its as big as we see it, and as small as we see it. And the more we emphasize how utterly and completely OKAY we are, just as we are, with every historical fact not ever having to be forgotten, only understood...the more this happens, the more Rebeccas and Jamillahs we'll have, Zaimah's and Elana's we'll have. Willing to come as we are, anticipating not uncomfortability, but, similarity that we never knew we could have. Without needing a hijab to distract, or Islam as an ice breaker. I think I'll have that chance again one day.

    thanks for this Jamillah... took me back.

  5. And thank you, Zaimah. I am grateful that my post allowed this opportunity to reflect and write on the profound ways in which race and faith (and gender, i.e., the headscarf) intersect in our lives, and how we are constantly evolving.

    I am at a place in my life where I especially appreciate your comment, "the challenge of race starts inside of our own perceptions. Its as big as we see it, and as small as we see it. And the more we emphasize how utterly and completely OKAY we are, just as we are, with every historical fact not ever having to be forgotten, only understood..."

    It nicely reminds of the Qur'anic statement, "We have created you into races and tribes so that you should get to know one another/understand one another" (49:13).

  6. yes it certainly does. I'm thrilled to subscribe to this! Alhamdulillah.