Friday, 3 May 2013

Muslim women: converts for marriage or life?

Katherine Russell's marriage to Tamerlan Tsarnaev was tragic, but it shouldn't be used to attack other white Muslim converts.

Yvonne Ridley, an English convert to Islam

"Did you convert because of your husband?" the Postal worker quietly asked Elizabeth [name changed] as her Pakistani-American husband was standing nearby. Momentarily reflecting on the many late nights she spent rigorously studying Islam and the nearly crippling emotional turmoil she went through after revealing her decision to convert to her staunchly Irish, Roman Catholic family (all before she even met her husband), Elizabeth said simply: "Trust me. There are much easier ways to get married than converting to Islam."

This was not the first time Elizabeth's faith would be questioned and concern for her well being expressed because of her marriage to a Pakistani-American. In a series of strange circumstances, just prior to giving a lecture at a university, Elizabeth was punched in the face and robbed while exiting the London Underground. Despite explaining why her face was bruised, concerned colleagues quietly asked if everything 'was all right at home'. The underlying suspicion was that someone 'at home' - namely, the brown husband who had presumably 'forced' her to convert - was probably abusing her.

Based on some of the reactions Elizabeth has faced since converting to Islam, I am not surprised with the intense scrutiny of Katherine Russell, the wife of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Since news emerged that Russell converted to Islam and even dons the Muslim headscarf, much ink has been spilt analysing Russell’s motivations in converting. Many believe she was brainwashed and bullied. The Daily Mail reports one school friend saying: "She was this all-American girl who was ­brainwashed by her husband. Nobody understands what happened to her."

Perhaps this narrative of brainwashing is true. Details of their life together have not been fully fleshed out. Yet, rather than seeing this as an exceptionally tragic case, many commentators have suggested that this abuse and brainwashing is simply a part of the Muslim female experience. When a woman takes up Islam, she gives up her freedoms.

Tamara Rodney, a Muslim convert who has worked extensively with female converts in the United States stated in an email: "Islam is misconstrued as a religion that denigrates women and strips them of their rights and freedoms. People often wonder why I would choose a faith that limits me as a woman." Yet, paradoxically, it is exactly the Islamic vision of a woman's place that attracts many to the faith. Professor Kecia Ali, a convert and Professor at Boston University stated in an interview with American Public Media: "I found the core of Islam to be so convincingly egalitarian that the rest seemed to be in some sense just details."

Yet, many maintain Muslim female conversion is invariably tied to brainwashing done by the Muslim male. This comes as no surprise as this is yet another example of the way Muslim female agency has been erased from the picture. Rigorous, intellectual study of the faith is simply not the way Muslim women convert. As American journalist Omar Sacirbey recently observed in a piece published in the Washington Post: "The perception from others [is] that they are incapable of making their own choice in a decision that involved substantial spiritual wrestling."

In addition to assumptions about Muslim female agency, another unexplored aspect of this fascination with Katherine Russell is her whiteness. While converts come from all races and backgrounds, the media seems to find something particularly fascinating about white, female conversion, as opposed to black/brown, female conversion. What could explain this difference?

History, perhaps.

In 1864, two white supremacists in the US wrote a pamphlet entitled: "Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races", in which they predicted that emancipation of slaves would result in the widespread rape of white women by innately savage black men. These caricatures of the 'black brute' were meant to perpetuate fear and outrage. Whites would have to protect their women from the black man. This was not exceptionally controversial pamphlet. Rather, it expressed a general sentiment within the South regarding the danger of free black males when they came in contact with passive white femininity. 

Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, according to the front cover of The Week Magazine
Based on some of the comments made regarding Katherine Russell, I cannot help but see the parallels between caricatures of the 'black brute' and the 'vulnerable, white woman' in the post-Reconstruction era and caricatures of dark Muslim men and their white Muslim wives. Interestingly, although Tamerlan is the very definition of Caucasian, media reports have described him as 'dark-skinned' and have emphasised his Chechen ethnicity, while a US magazine even went so far as to darken their skin tone in cartoons on their front cover. There appears to be an underlying need, to use a variation of the famous literary theorist Gayatri Spivak's infamous phrase, to save white woman from the brown/black man. Of course, in their concern for the life of Katherine Russell and other female converts, once again, Muslim women have not been allowed to speak for themselves. As one commentator in the Huffington Post succinctly explained a woman’s place in Islam: "Under Islam, women are not to question men's actions. In fact it is as if women only exist to have babies." @newreligionEU

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