Controlling Muslim Women’s Bodies

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First – a disclaimer. I am not Muslim. I am a born and bred Christian, and was ordained a minister over 25 years ago. Yet, my work as a college minister during most of that time has given me the wonderful opportunity to work with people from a wide variety of faith traditions, including Islam. One of my greatest joys in recent years has been the connection with the growing number of young Muslim women on my campus. Obviously, when things that impact my young students are in the news, I pay attention.

During the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab was front and center as the United States processed. I have since learned much more about Ibtihaj Muhammad, a New Jersey native who won the bronze in her sport.

On the Copacabana Beach, headlines were made when one member of the Egyptian beach volleyball team chose to wear a hijab. Her teammate, while also choosing the full body suit, did not cover her head. (Rules were changed 4 years ago to allow players to wear more than the tiny bikini normally seen.)

Muslim women’s bodies were once again in the news, when the mayor of Cannes banned the wearing of the so-called “burkini,” a full body swimsuit with a head covering, citing it as a symbol of religious extremism.

It seems that Muslim’s women’s bodies are not their own, but instead the battlefield for issues concerning religious diversity, extremism, terrorism, and even feminism. Is it sexist to cover one’s hair and body? When  Kim Kardasian claims that nude selfies are empowering for women, how does a Muslim woman live in the same society? (And I’ll leave it to you to decide if Kardasian tweets these pics due to body confidence or exhibitionism – or a mixture of both motivations.)

I know Muslim women who wear a hijab, and others who only wear one when they go to the mosque. I know Muslim women who wear sleeveless shirts and short dresses, and others who always have arms and legs covered. Not one of them has been forced by a male relative to do any of these things. (And yes, I am well aware that there are women who are forced to adhere to extreme dress codes – I protested the US Government backing the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1991 because of how the Taliban treated women.) My point is that there are Muslim women who choose to dress with certain standards, and people need to get over it. One of my dear Muslim students explained to me why she chose to start wearing a hijab when she was 12. “It’s a symbol that I am what’s important – not my hair or my body. People see my face, the essence of who I am.”

I was envious when I heard her explain her decision. As a child of the 80s, I have spent far too much time and money on my hair over the years. As a professional woman, I have again spent far too much time and money trying to choose appropriate, but attractive (and yes, sometimes sexy), clothing that makes the statement I want to make. And what is that statement? I’m a professional – I look younger than I am – I’m sporty – I’m fashionable – I’m desirable?

I believe it’s rare for any woman in our society – Muslim or not – to be able to separate what she truly wants in her own choice of dress or what is culturally expected. I know I can’t completely do that. I do know this – we need to find something else to worry about in this world other than Muslim women choosing certain clothing to express their faith. Let’s take on hunger, kidnapped girls in Africa, gun violence, racism, homophobia. Leave Muslim women and their bodies alone.

 

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Adoption and Being Real

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Gold Medal Winning Gymnast, Simone Biles

I’m an Olympics junkie. The tv or computer (or both) run constantly during those two weeks, anxiously awaiting the next exciting event. I’ve uncovered a love for women’s rugby during the summer, and can’t wait to catch up on curling when the winter games roll around. I’m fortunate that my daughter enjoys watching much of the games with me, although gymnastics is her favorite for the summer games. Ava was a gifted gymnast in elementary and middle school, and maintained the skills throughout years of cheerleading. We turned up the tv for the qualifying round Sunday night, ready to see Simone Biles’ domination. We cheered with her teammates and parents. Except not all the commentators saw the event the same way we did.

“Simone Biles’ grandparents…” was the usual talking point. Al Trautwig even tweeted that they were not her real parents, even though they legally adopted Biles as a very young child. They are the only parents she has ever known, legally, spiritually, and emotionally. Biles speaks about how her family came to be, and has said “It’s so normal.”

As my daughter and I sat on the couch, watching tv and the twitter feed, I told her how irritated the dismissal of adopted families made me. “I’m your real mom, and you are my real daughter.”

“I know. Some people are just stupid.” Ava shrugged it off, but I’m still irritated. Just like Biles, a family being formed by adoption is normal for my daughter. Yet, I’ve spent 18 years explaining that I love my child who was adopted just like I love my child to whom I gave birth. I’ve spent 18 years explaining that I am Ava’s “real” mom, just not her birth mom. I’ve spent 18 years explaining that we are like any other mother and daughter, even though we are of different races and came together in a less than common manner.

As a person of faith, I believe adoption is the highest form of parenting. The New Testament (Romans 8) proclaims that we are all adopted by God – loved and cared for as God’s own child. And even when we have birth children, we have to “adopt” that baby – promising to love and care for that child. We know of too many parents who don’t “adopt” their birth children, instead offering neglect or intentional abuse.

My daughter summed it up nicely, “Some people are just stupid.” And some people are just mean. Al Trautwig doubled-down before he finally apologized. I don’t know if he has learned anything from this. I don’t know if non-adoptive adults will stop making insulting statements to adoptive families. (“Do you love her like you do your own child?” “How much did you pay for her?” “I guess kids who are adopted have all sorts of problems.”)

It is more challenging being part of an adoptive family – the challenge comes from others who don’t understand what it is truly to love someone for her own sake, regardless of how she came into your life. The challenge comes from a lack of Christian charity and compassion, and the desire to make everyone over in their own likeness.

As God has adopted us, so adoption is the highest form of parenting. I’ve adopted both my kids – birth and adopted, alike. I hope Al Trautwig and others like him will realize families formed by are adoption are real and normal. Otherwise, it’s just plain stupid.

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

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The Delaware Memorial Bridge over the Delaware River

“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” This telling phrase from Blanche DuBois, as embodied by Vivien Leigh, suddenly popped into my head in the middle of a dark night. My tired accent was probably close to the Southern Belle’s as I explained my lack of cash to a perhaps equally tired attendant in a toll booth on the New Jersey Turnpike. I had been awake for close to 24 hours on my journey home from a lovely and thought-provoking 10 days in Scotland and England. Unfortunately, the last leg of my flight had been cancelled, along with numerous other flights, and it well looked as if it would be two more days before I could walk through my own door. I decided an 9 hour drive would be preferable to a couple days spent in the Newark Airport, waiting to see if I made the standby cut. Rental car steering wheel in hand, I turned onto the Turnpike at 1am, guided by the gps on my cell phone. I had never driven I-95 north of Maryland, but I figured I was capable since I had just been navigating foreign countries. I hurtled into the night, feeling pretty good about my resourcefulness. I blasted the air conditioning and radio, continuing my burst of confidence, until I realized I was singing along with Carrie Underwood “Before he sleeps” instead of the correct words. (The man was a cheater, not sleep-deprived.) The first toll-booth added a couple more holes in the armor of assurance I wore. With only credit cards and British pounds, I counted myself quite lucky the attendant took pity on me and let me use a card to pay at a cash-only booth. I managed to find the $4 fee for the next booth in the various pockets of my backpack, but wasn’t quite sure how I would manage the subsequent stops.

A handful of other cars zoomed around me, but the night was dark and quiet. At least it was until a huge monstrosity loomed before me. “Holy s*%#!” erupted from my mouth, a phrase I do not believe I have ever uttered in my life. (In all honestly, it would be uttered a few more times before I arrived home the following afternoon.) In the shadows, an enormous monolith reached to the heavens, and I couldn’t see a sign anywhere that told me what the heck was going on. I quickly found myself careening over a massive bridge, quite terrified.  (pictured above – but imagine it was really, really dark;  you’re sleep-deprived; and you have an irrational fear of really high bridges) The bridge phobia can be blamed on my family, who decided to have an outing when I was a teen to see the campy horror movie, Happy Birthday to Me. While my family laughed, I was horrified at the lobotomy which took place when a car failed to make a drawbridge.

By the time I navigated what I later realized was the Delaware Memorial Bridge, I needed a break. I found myself at a Comfort Inn just north of Baltimore a little after 3. The night clerk checked me in, providing some basic necessities I lacked. I slept like a rock until 7:30am, when my body decided it was really Sunday afternoon and time to be awake. I went to check out, hair still wet from my shower, and asked the desk clerk how many more tolls were ahead of me, hoping I could come up with a solution to my lack of US cash on a Sunday morning. I rattled on about my adventures since returning to the States, and she marveled that I was able to use a credit card at a toll booth. “I have something in the back that can help,” she added and disappeared through a door. She returned in a moment, holding out a $10 bill. “You only have 2 more booths, and this will cover it.” I protested, but she insisted. (Yes, customer service knows about this stellar employee.)

I made it home safely 7 hours later. I don’t know if it was stress, exhaustion, or just the elongated vowels and blondish hair – but numerous perfect strangers were graciously kind and generous.

And isn’t that what life should be all about? The Hebrew Scriptures have a large focus on Hospitality. In a day and age where life was dangerous and often scary, any decent person would welcome the stranger, providing shelter, food, and protection. It shames me that so many in our bountiful country speak out of fear, not wanting to be in community with those who are perceived as different. We can expect our loved ones to care for us, but it’s the strangers who need our love the most. Thank goodness for that dependence. It’s what makes us truly human, and brings out the best in each one of us.

The Lucky One

 

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Ava and I at the baby shower my church gave soon after bringing her home.

19 years ago today, a tiny little girl was born in Southern China. She was possibly premature, and circumstances were challenging at best. The mother was unable to keep her, even though I imagine she loved that baby as much as any of us do when we hold a newborn. She loved her enough to make certain she found a home until a couple from America could arrive to bring her to a new home. 9 months after that difficult day of birth, those new parents arrived to find an infant wearing a Hello Kitty bib and obviously well-loved by her caregivers. Baby Ava looked at her new parents with a puzzled face, trying to figure out this odd-looking couple. She received the devoted attention of her big brother, new grandparents, and many well-wishers with casual grace in the weeks that followed. She couldn’t have been loved more.

As do many mothers, I recall the early days with my babies with great fondness and moist eyes. I had waited so long for this little girl to arrive in my life, and the days were more joyful than I could have imagined. So many others – friends and strangers – seemed happy for us as well. Yet, one sentence kept being repeated. “She is such a lucky little girl.” Even in China, people would approach us with the only English they knew, which was “Lucky girl.” I never wanted to receive such words about my daughter. Sometime in 8th grade, I realized I wanted to adopt, especially trans-racially. That was back when I was toying with going to the far reaches of Africa and translating the Bible for my life’s work. That desire faded within a year, but the idea of adopting children did not. I knew there were countless children who needed homes, and I didn’t particularly feel the need to have birth children. (And I know there are many women who feel this biological need, and I certainly do not wish to downplay that. I’m just made differently.) It never felt to me like I was doing a child a favor – I just thought of this as the way I wanted to arrange my family. My teenage musings had me surrounded by 4 or 5 children, all adopted from around the world. I can’t tell you the envy I felt for Angelina Jolie when she began to live out my dream.

I always knew I was the lucky one – not my baby girl. God had gifted me with the most incredible child – not perfect; no child is – but just perfect for our family. When people wanted to compliment me on the decision to adopt, I always responding by telling them I was truly the lucky one. Both my children are such complete gifts, the best things in my life. I offer untold thanks for them each and every day.

Every family is centered around the concept of hospitality. We welcome new persons into our inner circle, whether by choice or by blood. We choose to offer the most intimate part of ourselves, the good and the bad, the strong and the weak. We support them in the difficult days, and let them comfort us when our tough times come around. Ava and I have comforted each other when the tears came, and laughed far more often than that.

She is a gift, and on her birth day each year, I give thanks to the petite Chinese woman who offered this precious child for our family.