Sunday, May 07, 2006

A Glimpse of Islamic Women in Small-Town America

My students are visiting unfamiliar religious services as part of our American religion course. Several have been to a small-town mosque, tucked away in an unmarked building amidst an office park on the edge of town. One woman attended Friday prayers on the women's side of this mosque. Afterwards, the Muslim women generously talked with her about their lives and experience of the faith in America. I was particularly struck by two sociologically interesting snippets reported by Jessica Woodworth.

After the service ended, the women gathered around us, talked to us about Islam, and answered any questions we had. The imam [a man, heard through the intercom], they said, was a doctor and usually left quickly after the prayers ended. In fact, three of the six women there were physicians but currently choose to be stay-at-home mothers instead. They feel that their families are financially stable enough to make that decision, and they value family life more than earning more money.

Most Muslims in Kentucky are immigrants and their children. These immigrants are admitted for their professional skills, especially in medicine, and perform a valuable service in underserved areas, such as Eastern Kentucky.

The United States will reap a great harvest for generations to come from this wave of smart, educated, disciplined Muslim families.

The Muslim women wanted to explain to the Centre College women their distinctive customs.

Foremost, they explained why they chose to wear a hijab. The woman whose husband is Pakistani and who accepted Islam several years ago, said that the hijab is worn for modesty. … All of the women were dressed modestly. … The two Indian-looking women wore beautiful clothing from overseas. Two other women with “ethnic” backgrounds wore pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a large headscarf that covered their hair and upper body. One woman wore jeans and a full-length dress and hijab; the woman still accepting Islam wore long-sleeved nursing scrubs and also put on a homemade skirt and hijab before the prayers began. For these women, it is hard to find clothing modest enough in America. The one woman who initially greeted us said she is almost six feet tall and has much trouble finding clothes in which she feels comfortable. She said she drove to Michigan once to pick up some clothes she ordered and otherwise she often depends on the two older Indian women to find her clothes from abroad.

I appreciate the emphasis on modesty, especially as a father, and commend the Islamic community for holding up that issue for everyone. A hijab is more covering than I think my daughters need, but in the great religious ecology of America, it is good to have a group of women who choose that discipline in dress for themselves. In other countries we might believe that men, backed by the religious police, impose these standards. This group of doctors, on the other hand, clearly choose their dress themselves.

I also enjoy the detail of how foreign customs get indigenized and made natural to Americans. The dress over the jeans is wonderful; the homemade skirt pulled on over nursing scrubs is touching. Islam is here to stay in small-town America.

[I thank Jessica for these details, which I would not have been able to collect myself.]


caliibre said...

Choice it may be, however it is driven by indoctrination...

Those that insist on enforcing women’s dress codes which, in the most conservative examples, force women to go about in what could be viewed as ‘sacks’ with eye holes cut in them are not, in my view, protecting the honour of women. Rather they are dishonouring themselves by demonstrating that they don’t have the strength of character, sincerity of spirit or personal will to control their own basest instincts. The emotional (EQ) and spiritual (SQ) quotients of intelligence seem to be lacking in many. IQ is a ‘fluke’ and is not enough; the other two quotients are essential in large amounts to overcome issues of personal stupidity. Am I being kind or is it that many of these so called protectors of women suffer from plain old ‘dumbness’ borne of a cultural indoctrination that looks to the past and pleads for the return of the ‘dark ages’!

Gruntled said...

The students in this case did not talk to the men of the mosque about women's modesty, so I don't know what they would say. The converts among this group of women, though, were attracted to the Islamic way of life in part because of the modesty of dress. And I gather that this group of doctors and nurses did not seem to the students to be stupid.

Anonymous said...

A late-to-the-party comment on standards of modesty and cultural priorities: I live in St. Paul, where there is a fairly visible Somali community, and thought I had become used to seeing women in enveloping head coverings. However, a few years ago I participated in an ESL tutoring program & did my observation at a class held for the spouses of foreign graduate students at the University of Minnesota. One of the students was a Saudi Arabian woman who was completely veiled; not even her eyes were exposed. The experience of talking to her was completely unnerving. This was somewhat due to political/religious prejudice, but more to the absolute barrier it created to reading her facial cues. Without seeing her reactions, it was impossible for me, who was and am so culturally dependent on them for communication, to form any idea of who she was. I remember I had an intense, childish desire to go lift the thing up and find out if there was a person under there.
Now what I experienced could be the reaction of a Western woman, but visual cues are important in all societies. How does effective communication & projection of personality happen when modesty is so defined so that the face is not allowed to be seen at all?

Gruntled said...

A few years ago, when the Taliban were still in power in Afghanistan, we had a travelling display about how terrible things were there. Included was a woman in full burka. I, and most other people, looked, lamented, and walked on -- and only then realized that not only was there a real woman under there, she was one of my colleagues! Very disturbing.