Saturday, August 30, 2014

How my husband makes it easier to be a scholar and homeschooler

“More than anything, Jamillah wants to play a role in the growth of Islam in America and the positive growth of the African American community, beginning first with raising a Muslim family of her own.”

These were the words published in my yearbook at W. D. Mohammed High School next to my senior picture.

SubhanAllah, these lofty aspirations led to an ambitious pursuit, a doctorate in religion (the study of Islam) at Duke University with a focus in Islam in America, race, and African American Muslims. My family came second, though, not first.  I married at 29, after completing my first year teaching at Spelman College. I had my first child at 32. Pregnant with my first, I finished my first manuscript. 2008 was Obama’s year, Yahya’s and my first book's, American Muslim Women.

Spelman College was great for my career and family. I didn’t go to work with Yahya until he was eleven months, and I received a paycheck during my time off. When I was pregnant with my second child, Lut, I taught and diligently prepared documents for tenure. I received the call from the president of the college when Lut was a newborn.

Leaving work

With tenure in hand, I resigned from Spelman in 2011 to stay at home with my two sons.

Various ideals and realities in my life led me to stay at home, but the influence that stands out most is the Qur'anic statement that men are the supporters of women. I never struggled with this verse but still worked to make meaning out of this divine statement and was influenced by scholars like Amina Wadud whose books I read in graduate school.

In a context in which too many men are not assuming their responsibilities to take care of their families and women are more than capable, I read the statement as a reminder to men, not a restriction upon women. I also concluded that the reminder to men implied that women were more likely to successfully carry multiple loads, i.e., mothering and working.

In other words, I thought, perhaps the Qur'an is giving women a break. So I decided to take one since my husband could manage without my working and because I was the one working the same as a man, pumping milk and/or pregnant with a child, dropping and picking up my child from daycare, and cooking meals. Yes, my considerate husband was washing bottles and doing all the other things that men do.

The decision to leave Spelman was tough. In all honesty, the greatest fear was the thought of my husband losing his job. The Qur’anic verses stating that God is the best of providers ultimately empowered me to overcome my fears.

Other factors made me confident about my choice. My husband is a man of taqwa, good character--May God increase him--and I could depend on him, after my reliance upon God.

Also, I had just signed a contract with NYU Press to co-author a second book, Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam. The book would be the first of its kind, focusing on women's experiences in the Nation of Islam, and would ensure that I remained active and relevant within academia. This gave me the confidence to know that if I did want to return to work, I would find a job.

Office hours

And here is where I must pause to express gratitude to my husband. When Dawn-Marie Gibson, the co-author of Women of the Nation asked me to write the book with her, I initially declined because I knew from my first book the enormous amount of dedication and work that it required.

Also, I was exploring the possibility of homeschooling my children. The appeal of homeschooling constantly grew as I met homeschoolers and learned their philosophies. I was ready to give my all to my children, so at first I declined the offer to write the book.

And then my husband uttered the words that changed my life forever: "I think you should do it, Baby." 

I responded with a "you don't know what we're getting into" attitude. I conveyed to him the amount of energy and time writing a book would require of me. Alhamdulillah, he heard and rose to the occasion.

He instituted office hours! And not the kind with students but the kind without children. Initially, my office hours were twice during the week in the evening. Those nights he would put the kids to bed. I had longer hours during the day on Sunday. Depending on my work demand, my office hours increase or decrease. I had tons more the months of intense writing for my new book.

Moving across the street from my mother

The second smart thing that my husband did was buy me a house across the street from my mother. My aunt also lives there. Both of these women play a vital role in making my life easier. At least twice a week I don't cook dinner because we simply go across the street to share one of my mother's nutritious, delicious meals. My aunt is super generous as well, and because she is not working, she's almost always there to watch the boys when I need a break or have an appointment. She watched the baby this year when I traveled to speak at Harvard and Yale.

Hiring a part-time nanny

We can't afford a nanny or even a part-time one on a regular basis, but we did commit to spending money on a part-time nanny in the weeks after Zayn was born while I still had deadlines for the book. I encourage women to budget for a part-time nanny, cleaner, or cook even if it's just once or twice a year.

Opening our home to my husband's family

When my husband asked if his brother and family could live with us for the first year of his brother's MBA program at Emory University, I said yes because my in-laws are not crazy or dramatic and because I knew how much it would mean to my husband who goes out of his way to accommodate others.

In other words, my husband's generous spirit rubbed off on me, and it was one of the best things I ever did. My sister-in-law prepared meals half the time, she watched my three year old when I was writing the book, and she drove my five year old to school. We enrolled Yahya in school that year since I was pregnant and writing a book. (If you hadn't already surmised, I'm not trying to be a superwoman.)

My in-laws moved out after a year, but we continue to assist each other in the spirit of family and community. My brother-in-law takes the boys to the park, and my sister-in-law continues to cook delicious meals.

Why my husband gets it

One of my husband's favorite pastimes is reading books on relationships. He has learned that partnerships work when two people are fulfilled, because the more fulfilled we are, the more able we are to give to others.

Before we started office hours, I would research or write and the children and their toys were all over the house. My husband envisioned a better way. He suggested that I separate my time with the children and my time writing. Office hours would ensure that I would give my all to my children within a limited period. Then, at the appropriate time, I could devote myself to the work that truly left me fulfilled, writing about Islam, race, gender, and, in the future, education.

My husband, sons, mother, aunt, and sister attended
 the discussion and signing of both books in July.

This quote from a piece by a homeschooling parent speaks to the great service my husband has done for me, beginning with his convincing me to write my second book:

    "How many parents give up on their dreams? Trade them away for homework and recitals and multiplication drills? It's a convenient way to let go of your dreams - to convince yourself that your child needs so much from you, requires so much of your time and attention, that you have no time for your own self, your own needs."

More importantly, my husband realizes that the more fulfilled I am, the more engaged I am in our relationship, and the more I have to give to him. Don't we expect something from those with whom we create a partnership? The secret to getting what we want is making sure that our partner is fulfilled.

My husband understands that he is not the key to my fulfillment--that is ultimately my responsibility via my personal pursuits--but he does feel responsible to help facilitate what I find fulfilling, and for that I am grateful and fulfilled.

Friday, August 8, 2014

"Mothers to society": African American Muslim women professionals prioritize motherhood

When I was invited by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University to contribute an essay on the topic of "Women, Religion and Family" that challenged usual modes of thinking and generated new questions, I immediately thought to write about professional Muslim women leaders in the Warith Deen Mohammed (WDM) community who promote traditional gender roles during the first years of motherhood.

Dr. Sandra El-Amin
Dr. Sandra El-Amin came to mind first. When I interviewed her for my book Women of the Nation, she expressed undeniably feminist views and at the same time passionately called women to commit to the role of nurturing their young over working outside the home.

I was thrilled when interviewing Dr. El-Amin because she provided further evidence to support a conclusion that I had come to since writing a term paper for feminist scholar Paula Giddings in a course on black feminism: that subscribing to traditional gender roles was a feminist act for many African American Muslim women.  This finding, I believe, helps to broaden the way we understand feminism.

As I explain in my blog post "Imam Mohammed a Feminist?", African American Muslim women's feminism is guided by their understanding of Qur'an and Sunnah. Women in the WDM community are greatly influenced by Imam W. D. Mohammed; however, they offer their own interpretations based on their everyday realities as black women.

Interestingly, I find women's promotion of motherhood often surpassing Imam Mohammed's. As I noted in my last post, he did not tell women to stay at home. In a 1979 interview he stated,

     "Women are to be allowed to excel in academic pursuits. If women are given freedom to excel in academic pursuits, how can we tell them to stay home? What is all this education for? You can’t keep [women] at home to nurse babies."

Since the original posting of my essay "Mother's to Society" in May 2014, Sandra El-Amin earned her doctorate in counseling, and her daughter, Fatima El-Amin, was named a full judge for Dekalb Juvenile Court.

"Mothers to Society": African American Muslim Women Prioritize Motherhood and Believe in Women's Work and Leadership, originally published here by Georgetown University's Berkley Center.

Sandra El-Amin is a self-declared Muslim feminist. Unlike most American Muslim women, she holds the radical position that women should be allowed to be imams (leaders) of mixed-gender prayers. Sandra graduated from Smith College in the 1970s, joined the Nation of Islam, married and became a mother, followed Imam W. D. Mohammed into Sunni Islam, worked as an English teacher at the Mohammed Schools in Atlanta and later as the principal and then director for twenty years. After resigning from the Mohammed Schools after a divorce from the mosque imam, Sandra came out as a feminist and started the organization Sacred Diva. Her feminist profile makes the following comments by Sandra all the more provocative: “A woman can pursue any career she likes; she can be a Supreme Court justice. But if she has a family, the society can’t afford for her to neglect that kind of primary responsibility. So, I feel like if you are blessed to be a mother, you need to be a mother, and that takes precedence over anything else. At the same time, I don’t think there is anything that a woman cannot do.”
Sandra’s comments push us to revisit the dominant narrative that you cannot both claim feminism and ascribe to traditional gender roles. Sandra’s feminism cannot be denied. She is clearly an independent thinker who consciously protests gender norms in her Muslim community, particularly the traditions of women’s sitting behind men in the mosque and men’s exclusive right to lead the prayer. She states, “After 30 years of being Muslim, I’ve discovered that there are things about Islam in the way it’s interpreted and preached by men that take away from its pure concept. . . .I don’t understand why women have to sit in the back or sit behind a wall or curtain. . . .I think that a woman is equipped and knowledgeable enough to lead the prayer and in many instances know and understand the religion better than any man.”

In my research of women who in 1975 made the transition from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam under the guidance of Imam W. D. Mohammed, Sandra’s sentiments about the critical role of motherhood were echoed by other women. Jessica Muhammad was the first woman to serve on her mosque’s board in 2002. She also likes the idea of women imams, but she too believes in traditional gender roles: “My primary role was to nurture and protect my babies, so I wasn’t on a job. . . .I would go to work [occasionally] but still we knew that who was responsible for paying bills was Dad. . . .I still feel that if a mother goes out to work, she needs to figure out how she’s going to be the greatest influence on her children.”
Jessica Muhammad

Women like Sandra support traditional gender roles not only because they made most sense to them when they were raising their children but also because they share concerns about the ways in which the loss of traditional roles impacts society today. Sandra, for example, states, “I feel that some of our problems in society have developed from women having to put so much into earning an income [because a husband is not providing] that she doesn’t have the energy or even the spirit sometimes to give what is her primary role to the family and the husband.” Safiyyah Shahid, another former principal and director of Mohammed Schools, states, “Because everybody’s trying to get that dollar, . . .what happens is more and more the focus is taken off of the children because then somebody else begins to take care of the children. The daycare takes care of the children whereas [before] the women themselves were taking care of children or their friends [were].”

In more concrete terms, these women promote women staying at home during their children’s early years and developing their careers in ways that do not jeopardize essential time spent with their children. Because of this position, Sandra is aware that many will challenge her self description as a feminist, which is why she offers her own definition: “a feminist is one who loves, nurtures, exalts and respects the feminine nature, gifts, and personality.” In this way she both prioritizes motherhood and believes that society does not thrive when women are held back from nurturing their own talents.

It is significant that these comments come from professional women with great influence in their faith community. However, they are not surprising in light of the gender ideology of Imam Mohammed. Imam Mohammed coined the term “mothers to society” to resist the Nation of Islam’s narrow focus on women as domestics and to expand their roles in society while at the same time highlighting and honoring women’s unique contribution as mothers. He taught that the capacity to mother within women, including those without children, offered a vital element to building a wholesome society.

Imam Mohammed’s guidance influenced his women followers but also have the everyday realities of women’s lives. Sandra, for example, is not beholden to all of the imam’s views--for example, his belief that only men should be imams--but she agrees with his emphasis on motherhood. Black feminists and womanists[1] teach us that African American women find liberating faith interpretations that speak to their everyday struggles of race, class, and gender. Within this scholarly framework, anthropologist Carolyn Rouse and I have argued that for pragmatic reasons, African American Muslim women embrace a gender ideology that idealizes their role as mothers. Historically, African American women had to work alongside men. During the time of slavery women were expected to work the fields even while they were pregnant and breastfeeding. After slavery, African American women worked as domestics and nannies in white homes. From this historical perspective, African American Muslim women embrace traditional gender roles because, ideally, they free them from the work--primarily menial tasks done for white employers--that had always been required of them.

The perspectives of Sandra, Safiyyah, and Jessica prove that African American Sunni women continue to find the idea of traditional gender roles favorable. I highlight “idea” because many African American Muslim women work even while raising small children. Womanist scholars have argued that dismantling traditional genders has never been a central goal for black women, as it has been for white women, because of black women’s history of work. African American Muslim women feel comfortable emphasizing their role as mothers within an African American cultural framework that does not either limit their right to work or teach that women are incapable of any form of work. Hearing Muslim women’s voices about children losing out when motherhood is not prioritized, we discover that their celebration of traditional roles is not foremost an issue of women’s rights but children’s rights. At the same time, the Qur’anic statement (4:34) that men are the ones who support women reinforces African American women’s faith in traditional gender roles. This divine statement highlighting men’s role as providers is liberating for many women due to the cultural understanding of African American women’s wide capacity, and sometimes over capacity.

Black feminists and womanists scholars would normally pause at and likely protest acceptance of traditional gender roles, but I argue that this discourse on gender roles marks a key place to include Muslim women in the womanist tradition. Their everyday voices evoke Alice Walker’s description of womanist as “committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.” The position of an African American Muslim feminist like Sandra encompasses children and elevates faith. Jessica states that her position goes deeper than nurturing her babies. It’s also about nurturing her soul: “It’s also about taking the risk” to depend on your husband’s income and embodying “the faith that things will work in your favor. You have to make room for God to show up, for grace to show up.”

_______________________________________________________ [1] Coined by Alice Walker, womanist generally refers to a black feminist. The distinction is necessary to highlight and correct the ways in which historically white feminists have not taken into account the race struggles of African American women.

This posting is part of a collection addressing the nexus of women, religion, and the family. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Berkley Center or WFDD. The goal of the entire collection is to generate discussion around these important topics.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Did she call Imam W. D. Mohammed a feminist?

I don't call Imam W. D. Mohammed a feminist in my new book, but I did say to an audience at my mosque in Atlanta that when I studied Imam W. D. Mohammed's writings on women, I was stunned by the extent to which they sounded, "dare I say it," feminist.

Imam W. D. Mohammed would not have claimed the label--gender equality was not his guiding principle--but empowering and elevating women was central to his work in transitioning the "Black Muslims" from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam. He certainly took on the fight for gender justice and it was at the center, not the periphery, of his work. In a 1977 issue of the Bilalian News, Imam Mohammed stated,

               "Women's lib' is not an accident. It is a divine thing but women have to rise above the 'lib' to understand that we want more than just lip. We want mothers who have mothers' hearts. We want to hear some hearts, some mother sentiments."

In light of other statements by Imam Mohammed on gender and women, which I explore extensively in the book, I interpret the imam here as encouraging women to base their demand for rights and opportunities not on popular notions of women's liberation but on their own experiences as mothers or potential mothers.

As I argue in the book, in no way was he reducing women's experiences to motherhood or encouraging women to stay at home. The increase in women's work and education outside the home was a hallmark of the transition and the imam's leadership.

Instead, Imam Mohammed was saying that the physiological capacity to carry and nurture a human being (a mind) is a honorable commitment and undertaking unique to women. He focused on mothering to correct religious interpretations, especially those of the Bible, that vilified women and this capacity. The capacity to mother, even for women who have not had the experience, offers an immense contribution to the intellectual and moral character of a society.  

To the mosque audience, I did not attempt to provide an extensive analysis of Imam Mohammed's feminist consciousness but invited them to read the book. A question from the audience, however, reminded me that many do not feel comfortable using the word feminism in sacred space, let alone associating it with Imam W. D. Mohammed. I understand the sentiment given the tendency to see feminism in very limited ways. Indeed popular notions of feminism present a critique of religion, and Islam in particular, as inherently oppressive to women.

It is for this reason that I like the modifier "Islamic" to designate a form of feminist thought and practice derived within an Islamic framework. As I state in my interview "Islamic Women, Islamic Feminism,"

          "Muslim women do not have to look beyond their faith tradition to acquire gender consciousness and to fight against gender injustices.  The Qur'an and the precedent of the Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him, inspire and inform their feminist practice. This, however, does not mean that other forms of feminism do not influence Muslim women's feminism. Rather, feminisms intersect to influence Muslim women's [consciousness] and activism." 

In my writings, I also use womanist, or black feminist, thought to frame my discussion of Islamic feminism. Because mainstream white feminism did not account for the experiences of African American women who faced multiple forms of discrimination, particularly racism, which affected an entire group of people, not only women, black feminists understood feminism as the pursuit for the rights of women, men, and children.

Similarly, I see Islamic feminism as gender justice thought and work that also accounts for children and men, linking their struggles to the fight for women's rights. Imam Mohammed once stated,

          "I'm trying to promote women's lib and at the same time save society."

I interpret this statement as a clear indication of a feminist consciousness that accounts for the advancement of an entire community. Imam Mohammed's comments on women were almost always tied to consideration of the whole society, community and family.  

In a coming post, I present women's voices in relation to Imam Mohammed's gender thought. Drawing upon their everyday experiences as mothers, many women in his community honored and emphasized motherhood beyond the imam's teachings. They developed gender consciousness and activism on their own terms.

Indeed, African American Muslim women have answered Imam Mohammed's call when he said, "We want to hear some hearts, some mother sentiments." Women answered the call to carve out their own ideas, not based on society's standards, not even based on Imam Mohammed's standards, but the divine light in the hearts of women.