My changing perceptions of Islam

Since arriving in Palestine just under a month ago, I have begun to develop my understanding of Islam more deeply and have been considering my own relationship with religion as a result.

I am indebted considerably to my flatmate, who as a practising Muslim has been a brilliantly well-informed source of information about her faith, and many of the things I will write about here have been learnt through her. Aside from my Grandma, she is one of the only people I have ever spoken to – from any religious background – who has a deep and nuanced understanding of her religion, answering all the questions I’ve thrown at her with a measured and open-mind. Neither blindly following nor “brainwashed”, she seems to benefit from using Islam as a world-view, a way of understanding wider issues that she may come across in her life.

This post is not intended to be a deeply-informed perspective on Islam – it would take years of studying to do so – but more some general musings which have affected me personally, in order to counteract some of the very dominant views currently held in Western countries which I had not realised I had unwittingly bought into.

Just before I came away, I went shopping on Oxford Street to buy some slightly more “modest” clothing than my usual attire. I went into Primark in Oxford Street to pick up a few things, and was shopping alongside women wearing the niqab – their faces fully covered and some with mesh over their eyes, with long gloves on so that no part of their skin was exposed.

I remember standing there and feeling so sad for these women, who at that time appeared to me to be trapped in a dark and repressive world. It has been suggested that 90% of our communication is non-verbal, and therefore any of the bodily expression that comes naturally to us as human beings seemed to be repressed for these women, cutting them off from the “normality” of lived experience.

My flatmate explained to me that many women in the UK who wear the niqab are converts to Islam, in addition to a growing number of young women who wear the niqab in spite of what their parents and husbands want. Rejecting the now acceptable consumption of female bodies wherever you turn, she told me how many women are wearing the niqab as a rejection of the way that women are viewed and consumed in our society. I’m not just talking about pornography here, a quick flick onto MTV will serve just as well – try watching with the sound off to get the full understanding of what I mean.

Many Niqabi women choose to wear the face covering as a way of being respected and heard for the way they think and not the way they look. This is why (ironically) the niqab is actually more popular in Western, secular countries as opposed to many Muslim countries – the former being more obsessed with narrow ideas of beauty and requiring women to look and behave in a very particular way. I have seen perhaps only two or three women wearing the full veil since arriving in Palestine.

Nevertheless, this has not changed my view on the limiting of life experience for women who wear the niqab – if it is worn for “feminist” reasons then this is a painful indictment of our current society where women feel that they have to take this extreme measure in order to be recognised as a human, not as a body.

What I was shocked to realise in myself, however, is that I had unwittingly confined my own perception of Muslim women in general to my feelings towards the women I saw on Oxford Street. Coming from the perspective of a white, middle-class “liberated” woman, it is only since coming to Palestine that I’ve really questioned what I now recognise as a fairly restrictive view of Muslim women in general.

The very fact that I had an attitude towards Muslim women “in general” at once began to ring alarm bells for me as I began to recognise the complexity of Islam and the many choices that it presents for those who follow its teachings. I have met people who fast – but do not pray, who pray – but do not cover, who drink – but always fast etc. This is of course in addition to the many strands of Islam – Shia, Sunni, Sufism etc – all of which have different customs and beliefs that define their particular branch of Islam.

With regard to whether women decide to wear the hijab or not, I have often thought of Islam as a fairly patriarchal, sexist religion because it is the women who cover. I thought that women had to cover because they were the “heathen temptresses” who would lure men away from worship, when in fact the Qu’arn does suggest that women can cover, but the passage which immediately precedes this says that men should “lower their eyes” also. The onus is on both parties to be respectful of the opposite sex.

My flatmate has pointed out that many women decide to wear the hijab as it is a sign of identity, a pride in belonging to a group that has an inherent set of benevolent values and beliefs. One of the pillars of Islam is directly linked to helping and protecting others around you, and from my personal experience this seems to be regularly enacted amongst communities here in Palestine. Whilst I am sure this says as much about Palestinians as anything else, there is no denying that the values which Islam inculcates match this warmth, generosity and openness of spirit.

More than anything, I have met so many strong and intelligent Muslim women whose faith gives them a positive identity from which they can draw guidance as to how they live their lives as good people. It is at once a very personal religion, whilst also being one that is grounded in society and relationships with those around you. Whilst Buddhism seems to be the “on trend” religion to adopt currently, there seems to me to be an isolation to Buddhism that is at odds with my own personal view of people as social beings. In light of this, it speaks volumes about the courage of Lauren Booth’s conversion to Islam, a not easy choice in Western societies dominated by Islamaphobia.

In addition to the rise of “terrorism” in the 21st century, many people look to countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia to justify their views on Islam as a religion. However, I’m sure I don’t need to point out to many people who read this blog that the terrible repression of women in these countries has deviated significantly from the origins of Islam. Instead these practises are based on cultural (very different from religious) customs that have been injected into these societies.

It is not that I am on the verge of converting to Islam, but learning more about what seems to me to be a very beautiful religion has made me question exactly where my own values have come from. I have never been a spiritual person – I attended Sunday school as a child and whilst I liked the stories that we were taught, it never really resonated for me personally. The values and beliefs that I follow have been inculcated by my parents from a young age, but are further grounded and solidified in my interactions with people in all parts of my daily life. I have rejected the natural career trajectory that my social and economic background perhaps dictates, instead trying to find meaning and purpose in my life through other channels. Whether I can be an affective agent of change whilst in Palestine remains to be seen, but the reasons that have brought me here are very similar to the other girls I am working with, wherever we have taken our inspiration from.

Religion dominates the political narrative here in Palestine, and this is something that I have slowly been trying to get my head around having come here with a Marxist world-view. I have begun to view my Marxism as something of a secular faith – a belief in the revolutionary potential of the working classes – and so it has been fascinating comparing and contrasting this with Islam.

However, the way that religion is used politically here – to often devastating consequences – seems to be at odds with the core values that underpin both Islam and Judaism. Just as Communism was warped in such a way that it became a destructive force in the 20th century, religion has always been manipulated in order to justify some of the worst actions that take place in our society. In a free and democratic society I believe that everybody has a right to practise any religion they choose, but the world would be a better place if only the benevolently peaceful values that underpin these religions were translated to the political arena.

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3 thoughts on “My changing perceptions of Islam

  1. Nice article Holly, good to see a more rational perspective on Islam. Its a shame people don’t share this open mindedness by default. Militant atheism is just as worrisome as radical religion.

  2. The piece is certainly thought provoking. I hadn’t imagined for one moment that these Islamic clothing traditions were somehow liberating from a female perspective. As you say, we believe much of what we read and so are conditioned to think in a quite narrow way at times. However, my own conditioning comes to the surface when I read that you have ‘rejected the natural career trajectory’. Does that mean you are not getting a job when you come back?!!

    Only joking, am very proud of what you are doing in Palestine. You should try to expose your blog to as wide an audience as possible. It would make more people stop and think. This is always a good thing.

    Dad XXXX

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