Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Troubling the Waters of Gender Discourse in Islam

Muslim Sisters around the world are challenging the prevailing gender stereotypes of Muslims and non-Muslims. By assuming roles that traditionally have been relegated to Muslim males, Muslimas or Muslim women defy the myth of the submissive Muslim woman. They come veiled and unveiled, bringing different cultural traditions and Islamic tradition, practicing their religion they reimagine not only themselves but even imaging Allah as the feminine:

"I wanted to talk about the Allah that I knew and loved intensely, but one that few Muslims met at the mosque. The Allah who calls Herself "the light of the heavens and the earth" and tells us that when we call upon Him, "I am near"." Imama Nakia - AKA Nakia Jackson

Not Without My Maybelline: The Advent of Imama Nakia

After attending and speaking at an event at Brandeis University featuring Asra Nomani talking about her latest, Standing Alone in Mecca, the conversation turned to continuing the efforts that had begun on March 18th with Dr. Wadud. Asra, being the action-oriented woman she is, secured a spot for a Jumu’ah prayer that Friday. We were talking about who to invite and other logistics, letting me know that this was for real, that we were going to have the kind of Jumu’ah that we’ve been waiting to attend for years. But the panic that I was barely stifling was due to an older fear.

I knew that I’d gotten myself into trouble when I realized that I had agreed to be khateeba. Sure, I’d just given a four-minute speech an hour before, but what did I know about giving a khutbah? I was familiar with the format, but had never memorized the standard phrases and du’a that were essential to an authentic khutbah. On the ride home, I went into panic, calling my dad to bring myself down from the adrenaline high I was on. I told him about the weirdness of that day- the police escorts, the metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dog, trying to pray while flashbulbs went off in front of me. He was glad that I was protected... I was more worried about making a fool of myself.

I wanted to make sure that the khutbah fit into the standard format, so I looked up the fiqh of the Jumu’ah khutbah . I quickly abandoned hope of memorizing the formulaic opening and du’a, so I had everything printed out for me to fall back on, especially if I blanked out, which I tend to do while under performance anxiety, and this was stage fright squared.

Picking a topic was the area where I got the most help, but needed the least. I knew exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted to deliver a khutbah that had what many were waiting to hear, and some, like me, had given up hope in hearing from the minbar. I wanted to talk about the Allah that I knew and loved intensely, but one that few Muslims met at the mosque. The Allah who calls Herself "the light of the heavens and the earth" and tells us that when we call upon Him, "I am near".

I chose du’a for forgiveness and support, not so much for any sins real or imagined, but to lift the burden of guilt that so many Muslims bear for not dressing, thinking, speaking, smelling just like the Prophet (SAWS). If the Forgiving can forgive us for being ourselves, perhaps we can find a way to do the same.

I turned in at three in the morning, my khutbah nearly done, I had one question left- what to wear? I knew that no choice of attire would endear me to naysayers, but the wrong choice would give them extra ammunition. I went for something somewhat conservative-a grey jilbab with pearl buttons, and a silver scarf. After agonizing over the makeup issue for more than an hour, I decided to go natural- natural, for me, that is. The demure makeup look that I chose may not have passed conservative muster, but I refused to make history without my Maybelline. Qaradawi might condemn me to hell, but he couldn’t deny that I looked good.

I was on the train later that morning, reviewing my khutbah, streamlining the speech. The khutbah is supposed to be brief, according to the Sunnah, but somehow, I’ve never listened to a khutbah that was less that forty minutes. I had planned for no more than ten, telling my dad I was going for some "Old Time Religion". I got a call from Asra, and had a few nightmares of what she was going to tell me in the few seconds before she announced that a local cable news station and a member of the Turkish press would be filming the service and interviewing us. Great for the performance anxiety I was experiencing. I’d count myself lucky if I didn’t dissolve into a Porky Pig- like stutter.

I arrived at the site Asra reserved, and was told that we couldn’t use the site if it was going to be filmed, citing security concerns. After a bit of going back and forth, we decided on a site by the Charles river, one popular with local fowl. I staked out a relatively clean spot , gave interviews, and waited for our muezzin to show up. He’s the guitarist and backup singer of the mostly Muslim punk rock group the Kominas, although the rest of the group couldn’t make it. He finally arrived two hours after our intended starting time, bringing tales of adventure with a nice but completely hapless cab driver. After giving a last interview, we were ready to begin. He called the adhan, I gave salaams and sat down, told him to call the adhan again. After some confusion, it went as smoothly as any Jumu’ah I’ve ever attended- only much nicer.

I told no tales of hellfire , made no calls for anyone’s death, and frightened no one. I could have done better, but I’ve heard worse. I had to read most of what I had prepared out of nervousness. I ignored the cameras during the service, and didn’t blank out during the salah, Alhamdulillah. Afterwards, we had to pose in "prayer mode" for the cameras, bringing me back to surreality. We went to lunch and crashed , and my sermon on the parable of light in the Qur’an got a few compliments. I’m just glad that no one fell asleep. I asked a few people in and around Boston what the khutbah they listened to was about, and the answers that they gave told me that I did exactly what was needed: no khutbah that I inquired about contained the light, beauty, mercy and love that I strove to fill my khutbah with. Our Fridays have been filled with darkness for too long. It’s time to return to the light of Allah.

Nakia Jackson is a musician and budding young troublemaker living in the Boston area. She enjoys alte musik, belly dancing, and scaring men

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