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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The End of Hope

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One of my favorite classes in seminary was Black Church Studies with Dr. Willie Jennings. Prof. Jennings began the class by asking us to raise our hands if we were racist. We glanced around at each other, none of us wanting to claim such a title for ourselves. I certainly felt like I didn’t qualify for that – social justice had always been an integral part of what it meant to be in my family, and I had plans to adopt transracially. Yet, Prof. Jennings continued by raising his own hand. “Everyone here is racist. We live in a racist society, and thus we cannot be removed from that foundation. We are part of it. The key is to recognize it.”

25 years later I have not forgotten these words. This summer they have seemed more poignant than ever. The stats are clear that black individuals are stopped by police at far greater rates than non-blacks. Senator Tim Scott recounts his own experience with this – an experience his white colleagues do not share. (And I shouldn’t have to write this, but of course I support our police. As Prof. Jennings pointed out, none of us can be removed from this racial foundation, and we need training and education to recognize the blinders we wear.) It has also pained me greatly to witness, and to hear first hand from my students, the dramatically increased harassment of Muslims in our country. Many others have stated this – and it is true – Islamic State is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity. When political leaders call for mass deportation or interviews of the incredible young Muslim women with whom I work, my heart breaks for them. They don’t deserve this treatment.

The idea of the United States being a “Christian nation” has been tossed around throughout the history of this country. The name of Jesus has been taken in vain to support xenophobia, misogyny, and white elitism. This country was begun with mass genocide of the natives, and then built on the backs of slaves. We can’t erase or ignore this. It’s in our blood. There are so many wonderful things about this country, but we need to acknowledge our history and the continuing repercussions in how we relate to each other. We need to follow the steps of Jesus in reaching out to others and including them in community – especially those who have been outcast, downtrodden, beaten, and discounted. If we are truly Christian, we will look for ways to include, unify, and love together.

One reason I have never forgotten Prof. Jennings’ words is because a year after his class, I heard them resounding in my ears while I stood outside the Food Bank/Mission in Asheville. I brought a donation and saw two men at the door. They both greeted me. I assumed the older white man was the volunteer, and the younger black man was there for assistance. It turned out to be the opposite. I was ashamed of myself, even though I don’t think they knew of my assumption. I stood there, a minister in the community and one who actively discussed and worked towards racial reconciliation – and yet I found once again that the original sin of racism of this society had been played out through me.

It’s been a terrible summer in many ways for our society. I hear so many young adults feeling like there is no hope. Yet, the old saying is that it is always darkest before the dawn. This racism and xenophobia have always been present. I am thankful for technology and social media which can help us recognize it – and hopefully we can take those challenging steps to be a better society.

Let this summer not be marked by fear, hatred, and despair. Let us see this time as the recognition of the work we have to do, and the beginning of a hope for tomorrow.

 

#MuslimLivesMatter

“I’m scared, Chaplain Amy.”

I couldn’t breathe for a moment as I looked at the beautiful (both inside and out) college woman before me. On Tuesday evening, three young Muslims in Chapel Hill were brutally murdered at their home. Our campus is only about an hour away from Chapel Hill, and many of our students have friends at our state’s flagship university. Our Muslim students are no exception – several of them have relatives at Carolina who knew these vibrant young adults whose lives ended so tragically. As I asked my Muslim students how they were doing, the response was the same – they’re scared.

I wanted to reassure them so very badly. I wanted to tell them that this would never happen to them. I wanted to let them know that no one would ever single them out for their faith. I wanted to tell them they would be safe. But I make it a point not to lie to my students – these wonderful women who will be the leaders of our communities and who will change the world for the better. They have all been instructed by their families for years about what to do and what not to do as Muslim women in our society so that they could be safe. They know the “rules” about how to avoid conflict or dangerous situations in a culture where most people can only associate being a Muslim with being a terrorist. But when students who have done all the right things are shot execution style in their own home, how can my students ever feel safe? How can they live without fear? What does this truly say about our society?

I’m a lifelong North Carolinian. Sometimes I’m proud of that, and sometimes I feel like I need to apologize. As the entire world discusses my home state, I know that this is where Rev. Franklin Graham also lives – a man who continually has labeled Islam as an evil religion and spouts “facts” about Islam which are completely false. I know that far too many people in my state (and in my country) do not know the basics of Islam – do not know that it is an Abrahamic faith with the same roots as Christianity and Judaism – do not know that the Christian Bible has far, far more texts about the use of violence than the Qu’ran.

Anti-Muslim hate crimes are five times more likely to happen now than before 9/11. I also remember talking to students on that day and in the days after – trying to reassure them when they felt unsafe and were scared. I remember all of us thinking about the good that could come out of that terrible event – that we could find ways to live in community and truly respect others, no matter how different we might all be.

No one will ever truly know why this man committed these terrible murders. People will blame it on mental illness or a parking issue or some other excuse. People will ignore the ways he acted towards these obviously Muslim young people and his comments on social media. But the fact remains that we live in a society where a Muslim individual can never feel truly safe. We live in a society where Muslim children are taught from an early age how to be careful of people who are ignorant about their faith or who willfully misunderstand and mischaracterize it. We live in a society where people, including people with power like Rupert Murdoch, choose to demonize an entire religion and all its adherents.

Muslim Lives Matter. All lives matter. The spark of the Divine is in each and every individual we will ever meet. As a society, we need to step away from the fear, the hate speech, the deepening of dividing lines. When we lessen the value of another, we are downgrading our own value. All lives matter. Let us act like it, and let us speak out when others ignore this basic facet of what it means to be in a just society.

Defending One’s Faith

interfaith 6I am a minister. I am called to live as a minister, but I am also a teacher. As a college chaplain, I work with people through crises, plan worship services, support a variety of spiritual life activities and also teach religion courses each semester. Yes, I am a busy person. And I love my job.

When teaching about religion, each semester one phrase comes out of my mouth on multiple occasions. “Every religion has a great deal of diversity.” I tend to focus on women’s studies and religion, and we explore how different religions treat women and allow them to function within that particular faith. It is impossible to say that any particular religion has one attitude towards women. It depends on culture, geographical location, age, race, social status, and so many other things. Just ask any Buddhist feminist. People assume that Buddhism is all about peace and equality, but there are Buddhist women in some parts of the world who have not found that to be case. Does that mean that all Buddhists are patriarchal misogynists? Certainly not.

I have been called on to defend my faith on occasion. “How can you be part of a religion that thinks God is a man?” I always respond that even though there are some sects of Christianity who believe this, the majority of Christians believe God is above gender. “How can you be part of a religion that has oppressed people throughout the centuries?” Yes, there are some awful things that have been done in the name of Christianity (the Crusades and genocide of Native Americans come to mind immediately), but there are many Christians who do not believe their faith is inherently violent or encourages violence. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” is one of my favorite phrases (Matthew 5:9).

Despite these occasions, I live in a country where the majority of individuals are Christians, and “defending one’s faith” is not a commonplace occurrence for me. Most people understand my job and role in life, and fortunately for me, most people tend to think well of ministers (despite some high profile cases that could make one think otherwise). I wish people of other faiths were given the same benefit of a doubt. I have worked with the Interfaith community for many years, especially since 9/11. Since that time, I have witnessed countless Muslims defend their faith. This issue has increased in recent weeks, with the rise of ISIS, an organization which obviously does not understand the fundamentals of Islam. How many times do Islamic scholars and leaders have to speak out to ears that refuse to listen? How many times do they have to defend their faith?

One of the things I like best about Jesus (who is considered a great prophet in Islam) is that cultural and religious boundaries didn’t bother him. He saw the light of God in others, no matter how different from himself they might be. He reached out in love, extending the hand of community and understanding. How much better would this world be if people cared more about looking for the light of God in others, and reaching out with respect, than they did about defending their own understandings or fighting for attention and ratings?

Let’s stop calling on people to defend their faith. Let’s instead try to live in community, building bridges which help us learn about other faiths. I know the more I do that, the more my own personal faith deepens.