A journey through annual conventions of the Islamic Society of North America

 

imamapaloozaMany years ago (okay, in 1991), when I was not an American, and had never thought I would be an American, I was working at the International Islamic University (IIU) and I heard from a student tell of an event called the Annual Convention of ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America). This dear friend of mine was a religious misfit like myself, and her mother had hoped she would find a nice, educated, liberal, upwardly mobile professional, and religious boy at ISNA. So her mother packed her off to Chicago where she attended talks by Imam Siraj Wahhaj and Jamal Badawi (she got the two of them mixed up, and told me how Jamal Badawi was amazing! Tall and Black and amazing! Okay, in the photo below, Badawi is on the LEFT.) But she met no nice badawisirajboy – probably because she wasn’t really focused on the job. A year or so later, in 1993, I met a couple of Canadian students at the IIU, young women who were on friendly terms with ISNA leaders and who had organized major events such as the protests against the Bosnian genocide. They told me more tales of ISNA. 

It crossed my mind – how completely amazing and insane would it be if I, the niqabi from Kinnaird College, could attend ISNA. Most of the people in my social class did not quite get my religiosity. As for those who did get religion, they criticized my lack of traditional gendered behavior and my love of English literature. I was so lonely as a religious woman. I felt being at ISNA would put me in a cerebral network of love and awareness. All I’d known so far was Jamaat-Islami (whence I was now an exile, because I was no longer an Islamist) where the boys tended to be conservative, macho, and more interested in power politics than religion. Then I’d known my Chishti Sabri silsila where most of the people were – well, women. Radiant, smart, and devoted women, but, mostly, upper class. In case this escaped you, dear reader, I’m not upper class. I’m barely hanging on to middle class. More on that later. 

A few years later, in 1996, as a newly arrived graduate student, I attended ISNA in Columbus. I had no money, and was kindly accommodated in the interns’ hotel room. I felt completely out of place among these very American undergraduate women who were so comfortable with each other and with their very informal cliquishness. When I spoke (in my strongMatrimonial-20141 angular British accent, completely pure of midwestern slang) about the ISNA experience, they stared at me quietly, and then turned back uncomfortably to talking about Stuff. I felt dreadfully Pakistani, so foreign, and so disappointed that I wasn’t in heaven even though I was at ISNA. And no boy had liked me yet. 

Several ISNA’s later, I am off to Detroit for ISNA 2014

It is now 21 years since I first heard of ISNA. I still have no money, but I have friends – friends I can crash with. I did eventually find a man, by the way. I didn’t meet him at ISNA, but I met him at the cousin of ISNA (AMSS, which is now NAAIMS).

isna-hallwayNow when I attend ISNA, I am overwhelmed by the crowds of uncles, aunties, sisters, brothers. I smile indulgently as I pass through the hotel lobby where young Muslims flirt and make eyes at each other. I roll my eyes at the fanfare around the arrival of celebrities – and then I try to shove my way in so I can catch a glimpse of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. I am excited to see friends I haven’t seen in years. On my way to and from lectures and events, I see friends from all over N. America. I am connected now, and I am home. As home as possible. 

 

Check out my Meet the Author event on SUNDAY AUG 31, SESSION 12M, 11:30 AM – 12:45 PM. Room 311AB. 

Warning: scam job ads that seek to prey upon women

The internet jungle preys upon the innocent. Someone I know has been looking for a job, so I had my eyes open. I was poking around university Facebook pages when I saw a note on the Beaconhouse National University FB page that said:

“A reputable company urgently requires for HR Assistant (only Females) Fresh Graduate or Graduate students Salary Package-Rs.16000-20000 K- negotiable. Apply at nida5448@gmail.com. Subject line HR Assistant”.

It sounded off, but then I thought, maybe it’s not so strange here. I sent her the note.

She contacted them, and the ‘company’ requested a skype interview.

On skype, the man immediately started insulting and threatening her and told her she’d better do everything he said or he’d post nude pictures of her on the internet. She immediately quit skype.

Pakistani friends: please warn your students and young women not to fall into such traps and not to be intimidated by anyone.  I have found the same ad posted on a variety of job-related FB pages. It is truly criminal because they know people are desperately seeking jobs.

‘Just right’ British gender: J.K. Rowling and Enid Blyton

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My bedtime reading these days is ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.’ A few weeks ago, I was (re)reading ‘Last Term at Malory Towers.’

For those of you who do not live in a time warp, the latter is by an extremely prolific British author, Enid Blyton, who published between the 1920s and the 1960s. If you have read Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St. Clare’s series, Harry Potter’s dorm stories with their focus on school discHp4gf_029Durmstrangipline, food, and social relations will ring familiar. When I was growing up in Pakistan, Enid Blyton’s books were all the rage. I consumed them hungrily (though my English teacher cautioned us that they were not particularly well-written).

Anyway, in ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,’ we meet the visiting foreign students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang. Beauxbatons students are hyperfeminized (in the film, all vila) while the Durmstrang kids are hypermasculine, gruff, and dark (I mean, Malfoy almost went there). Beauxbatons is, of course French, while Durmstrang is somehow Northern European.

The British students at Hogwarts, however, possess a ‘just right’ gender quotient. Sensible nerdy Hermione and tough hex-queen Ginny sniff at the feminine wiles of Fleur Delacour. Ron and Harry are uncomfortably weirded out by Victor Krumm’s “grumpy” good looks and lack of humor. The Hogwarts / British students are perfectly balanced in the middle. The men have eyebrows that are not terribly noticeable and the women are not excessively attractive. Just right.

Enid Blyton, mostly writing in the 1930s-1950s, uses American and French characters as foils to the perfect British balance of third-year-at-malory-towers
gendered culture. The American Zerelda Brass (Third Year at Malory Towers) is obsessed with her appearance, wears (gasp) makeup, hates sports, dislikes getting sweaty and muddy in the lacrosse field, and looks forward to a career as a famous film actress. The English girls, with their rough and ready ways, their forthright (um, rude?) manners, and their sensible, tomboyish ways are shocked and amused by their American friend. Zerelda means well, but she gets into a lot of trouble until she learns to become “sensible.” The unscrupulous, funny, mischievous French students (Claudine, for example, in St Clare’s) must also learn English and sports (and that “English sense of honour”).

Gwendoline Lacey, though English, is considerably wealthier than the other Malory Towers girls: her task is to become a good deal more sensible and middle class, less attached to her notions of femininity (braid your hair! get in the pool! stop worrying about your skin!), and eventually, to face the fact that she will be employed as a (gasp) secretary or something.Harry-Potter-and-the-Order-Of-The-Phoenix-rupert-grint-17184344-1920-800

Rowling’s writing is way, way, way better than Blyton’s but both writers position British / English gender as being just right, moderate, neither too feminine nor too masculine, in contrast to their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Rule, Brittannia, in gender moderation.

Trick mother’s day question

2014-05-08-happymothersdayOn this ONE day of breakfast in bed, flowers from low-wage moms in Colombia, and mother’s day discounts at various stores, answer me this question:

Which would you rather have: a) overwhelmingly positive associations in the public imagination as the universal symbol of sacrifice and love, TV commercials about diapers, peanut butter, laundry detergent, and Pine-Sol centered around motherhood, and flowers once a year? Or would you prefer b) actual things like more maternity leave, childcare, vacation time, and a shorter and more flexible work week?

And yes, it’s a binary because clearly we can’t have them all …

Transitioning to a new parenting job

This year, Raihana’s spring break did not coordinate with mine. I spent my spring break freezing my rear end off in Toronto at the Comparative and International Education Society conference. One week after my break had ended, her primary school began its break. I was scrambling from teaching in Decatur to a highly dissatisfied almost-8 year old. She pronounced the beginnings of her spring break boring, and demanded my companionship.

 

On Monday, I realized that the slightest endeavor at thinking a work-related thought to its conclusion would be impossible alongside the nonstop high-energy demands of my daughter. My parental ethic, by and large, means that I am uncomfortable allowing TV and computer games to babysit Raihana. I know that she would be happy to read, play Minecraft, or watch Ruby Gloom for several hours, but that would be too easy. When was this job ever easy?

 

So I put aside all my work and decided that the most I would do this week was answer work emails and do short tasks. “Mama,” Raihana said, “Abbu has gone to work, and you’re not going to Decatur, so I have you all to myself!” I felt that I was quite successful in being a loving and fun parent though, by Wednesday, I felt like my brain was being suctioned out of my skull. I was a dedicated parent, and I was not allowing work to turn me into a second-rate mom.

 

Teachers claim my daughter struggles with transitions. Well, on Saturday, I found quite intimidating the prospect of transitioning to writing / class prep from a nonstop parenting-fest. I felt like I was trying to put the brakes on while driving on an icy highway, or rev the engine up to high speed immediately on a cold morning.

 

When Svend took over, and I brushed Raihana’s hair before heading out to resume writing, I felt that I could afford a moment of self-congratulation. “Did we have a good spring break together?” I asked Raihana,
Pausing between shrieks and demands to stop brushing her hair, Raihana snapped, “I had a horrible spring break.”

 

I stopped between brush strokes, shocked at her sincerity and surprised at how hurt I was, “What do you mean?”
“I wanted to be by myself,” she went on, “and you were always breathing down my neck! And now spring break is over and I have no time to myself!”
Until now, my main struggle has been reassuring Raihana that I was present for her, that I wouldn’t neglect her, and that she was my priority. “But you love your work,” she has accused me. “Why don’t you spend time with me, Mama?” So I have tried, and tried. Suddenly, after pushing and shoving, after making me adjust and re-adjust my attitude to life, work, and parenting, I feel like she is changing game plans on me. One day, I’m complaining about the daily grind of parenting, the wrenching struggle to show up and do a good job at work while my heart is with my daughter who is disappointed that I’m a no-show at some school event. The next day, I feel like I am getting summarily laid off. One moment, I’m dealing with the daily grind, the next moment I’m sitting in a recliner with a beer gut watching home shopping ads. One moment, I’m preening myself over my lengthy scholarly resume and the next moment, I’m in the Apocalypse and wishing I’d spent some time learning to hunt rabbits and construct shelters.

 

Is my 8-year old turning 13 already? Her childlike exuberance suddenly shifts and I see flashes of a pre-teen, like some strange transmissions on a television screen, like flashes of demon in a child in some poltergeist movie. Time to prepare myself for a new child, when I’d never figured out the first one.

Grief and hope: on bad news from the homeland

Today, I am grieving. I am exhausted with the flow of bad news from home.

Sometimes it feels like things are going from bad to worse. But today, just today, I refuse to let my heart be clogged with despair. Instead, I share with you a song from Junaid Jamshed’s solo career.

Yes, I’m familiar with Junaid Jamshed’s career. This is the land where a rock star can also be a global fashion entrepreneur and a religious leader. We want a land of many colors and possible futures. We refuse the monochromatic colors of small minded people who close their eyes to reality. We embrace today and we dance to the music of yesterday all the way into the future. We will submit to the embracing passion of the Merciful, to the Unity of Being, and the unity of creation – not to divisions, disunity, hatred, hierarchies. We open doors and welcome today. We will change the future, no matter how dark the present may seem. Prepare yourselves for change, because change is inevitable. We will make it so.  

Remember the dream that your gaze brought to mine
see that that dream is never shattered
And the traveler who returns after so many years
take care that he is not turned back sorrowful

The color in your cheeks today
is new to your face this spring
The wine in your voice
is new to your song this spring

Let our hearts come together for just a spell
and we will find a way somehow
The dust of sorrowful memories will be washed by the rain
And the miles between us will shrink and fall away

Remember the dream that your gaze brought to mine
see that that dream is never shattered
And the traveler who returns after so many years
take care that he is not turned back sorrowful