Spotlight: Indonesian Muslim women preachers and Qur’an reciters

Having been a niqabi Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami girl, who read Maudoodi’s Purdah, for a good few years of my youth, when I first met Indonesian Muslim women at the International Islamic University, my mind was blown. Was it really possible to be a Muslim woman like these? It was the beginning of me breaking the singular mold of Muslim womanhood as I’d learned of it.

This is not to generalize about Indonesian women, but really, all the young women at the IIU were professionally active, diligent, tidy, humble, put-together, graceful, all had trained singing voices, and all recited Qur’an beautifully. All were devout (the ones who chose to attend the university) yet none of them ranted. None of them were religiously irritable. Again, not to say they are all like that.

So I am excited to watch and share this wonderful film by Syarafina Vidyadhana about Mamah Dedeh, the Badass Preaching Mom of Indonesia.

Indonesian Muslim women have a special place in my heart because of this beautiful tradition of female religious leadership as well as for the long-standing tradition of women Qur’an reciters like Maria Ulfah (Juz ‘amma is here) covered by scholars like Anna Gade and Anne Rasmussen.

So when we teach and learn about gender and Islam, I hope we break the mold and get out of the box and look toward Southeast Asia sometimes.



This is mine. Today.

I am the #1 Best Most Excellent Mother. I am an A-1 teacher and employee.

I clean up other people’s messes and take care of business. I don’t just take care of my own job. I fix the rubbish job that other people do.

I am there when needed. Whatever the state I’m in, whatever my health or energy, or other stuff on my plate, I get the job done.

I am the pinch hitter. When others screw up, I fight and scramble and fix the job. IEPs, here I come. Constant engagement and interface with the teaching staff and the medical industry. Product research. Services. Event organizing and public speaking, I’m here.

I research stuff that needs to be done for hours, I save everyone money and time. I kick ass. Allah akbar. I am the superhero fighting mediocrity, inefficiency, ignorance, and laziness. Over and over.

I get the job done, – and THEN I have to fight to push it through because there are forces in the world that do not like to see jobs completed.

I am many, not one. No wonder I am sometimes tired. I know there are many of you who are just like me.

Give yourself a trophy. Not this one. This is mine.


Professors: for your course readings

Buy the book in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, or audiobook 

Getting ready for a podcast interview about this book this morning.

Muslim American Women on Campus – the only book on Muslim American college students, an award-winning ethnographic research study, a twice-award winning book – is widely used in graduate and undergraduate courses. 

It is described as readable, accessible, fun, incisive, informative, and it generates great student discussions. I wrote the dissertation for the usual purposes that we write dissertations. But I wrote this book to make it useful and fun for a very wide readership – and for a wide variety of students and academics in various disciplines. Colleagues in Education, Higher Education, Anthropology, Sociology, Research Methods, Islamic Studies, Gender & Women’s Studies, and American Studies have used this as required reading, and I have had excellent reports on how it went.

Consider Muslim American Women on Campus for your 2019-2020 courses. I may be able to arrange a virtual Q&A with your students, and I promise not to be boring.

And if you want a preview of the book, and you’re busy, try the audiobook during your commute! Not many academic books are available as audiobooks, but this one is.


Just Cancer

In the urban institutional expanse of the hospital where I see an oncologist, I am taking a moment to recoup my emotional energy. I just saw my breast cancer specialist. She spent 3 minutes walking her fingertips over my breast and armpit area. I am full of gratitude. She is spending time on my damaged body. She is examining it for traps and hidden venom, pitfalls, lumps, tumors, ways that my body can betray me, silently and surreptitiously.

It is nothing. Just scar tissue. This time.

I am overwhelmed for some reason. Why? This is a journey I have made innumerable times now. It is June 12, 2019. My abbu’s birthday, by the way, as far as we know. The first birthday we will not celebrate, because he died in September.

It is also the tenth anniversary, plus one month, of my discovery of breast cancer the first time. May 2009, when I was completing my first year on the tenure track, and preparing to enjoy the summer and the time to enjoy health insurance checkups like ‘free’ mammograms. Hurrah.

“There’s something,” my kind, young Indian doctor back in Oklahoma had said, “but it’s probably nothing. Come back and we’ll check.” It was something. Come back, and we’ll do a biopsy. Oh, wait. That’s something. And then the phone call. I had been alone at home, and there were the words: aggressive; so sorry; surgery.

Most of this journey, despite my little family, I undertook alone. The American workplace was relatively kind to my husband, allowing him a few hours a few days here and there, but most of my journeys were alone.

Burned into my memory, that first drowsy drive back to Stillwater from Oklahoma City, alone, from a Surprise We have Chemo For You, Sooner the Better. And a kid’s birthday party in the evening, where I couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to socialize, and I emerged to vomit all over the parking space. Then the mercifully short drives to and from chemotherapy in town. The helpful offers to pick and drop my 3 year old from preschool; the helpful offers drying up, turning into an occasional impatient snide comment – rarely, but oh it hurt, how it hurt, how it still hurts, because of how alone I was.

That night in summer 2009 when I was putting away food and the post-chemo meds hit me, and I wilted over the stove in the kitchen, and my 3-year old found me there. She took one look at me, asked me, Mama, are you okay? And then took my hand, and told me firmly, “Let’s go to bed, Mama” and led me to my room, and snuggled down with me. She shouldn’t have to be my parent, but how alone I was. In those hot, baking summers, miles and miles from family and friends, relying only on a man.

We hadn’t been married long – eight years seems like a lot, but we were still working out the rough edges of the relationship. We were living out in Oklahoma – no family, no friends, and an astoundingly toxic workplace. I was still bald when I got the letter that said I wasn’t going to be reappointed because of teaching issues (student evaluations: the score was skewed by one student in a class of five. See how I feel like I have to explain?) Exhausted in body and mind, I was plunged into a world of legal discussions, diversity officers who didn’t do anything, an incestuous world of faculty and administrators who ended up being a united front against the brown Muslim interloper who had the audacity of opinions, who kept publishing stuff and didn’t just hand out A’s. Most of the women in my program, including the White feminist scholar and the immigrant woman of color, shook their heads in saintly compassion at my disease and then stabbed me in the back with relish. The provost overruled their decision and I was reappointed, but they were going to hound me out, he implied; “you don’t really want to stay with a department like this, do you?” I knew I was alone.

At that time, in 2012, I was courted by the small private college, Millikin University. The mentor gave me a hefty course teaching schedule that started at 8am, with a one hour commute. Could we please start a bit later? I didn’t want to use the c word. I am a survivor, but I just started here so I can’t tell them my sob stories. The mentor snapped at me: “First do your time, then ask for accommodations.” I did my time. A year later, the Dean, a poet, in a turf war with my hiring department, handed me my termination. No reason. Cutting costs. Nobody came to my aid. People withdrew into the safety of their offices and said not a word.

There were those few months when I had one boob, and wore a prosthetic. My boob was alone. It was a relief to get the full mastectomy and not be asymmetrical. There was the time when I was still vomiting and drowsy after a partial mastectomy. Around midnight, the hospital resident told us we had to leave. Not allowed to stay overnight, he said. But I’m nauseated, I said. They handed me a paper bag, put me in a wheelchair, and carted me out to the car. An endless hour-long journey from Oklahoma City to Stillwater, in and out of consciousness, fresh from surgery. Oops, the Oklahoma University Medicine folks said afterward, too bad.

But let’s return to today. Let’s check one more checkup off the list. Symptoms, I say, the same and more. Side effects of the hormonal therapy. See the eye bags? Insomnia.

Last week, I came in for an ultrasound. I’ve been feeling what might be lumps for months now, embarrassed to tell the doctors, embarrassed for a Gah It’s Nothing visit that costs me $100. Include the day it takes me to get to the downtown parking garage, and the writing I could be doing instead of this. The lump today was nothing. Cancer is a bloody waste of time. it is a research project. It is a running around from office to office. And then the potential employer says, “Wait, you didn’t publish anything that year? Oh, cancer. But that’s too bad.”

The lump today was nothing. Until the bulging black and white images on the screen, it was Something. This could be another. This could take up the entire summer, like the summer of 2009, of 2016. Or it could be the end of summers. There’s always that possibility. You have to live with a trajectory mapped out in your head. Cancer messes up your trajectory, because your satellites have to be ready to create a new navigational path at any time. It’s tiring to be ready. All the time. And you have to be ready alone, because nobody has the bloody time or energy to do this readiness with you. It is not time-limited. The readiness is open-ended and endless. And the readiness is all. You are a vacuum, a lack of plans, an openness, in sweat pants, ratty sneakers, and eye-bags surrounded by a whole lot of planning in tailored suits and coffee cups striding to the train station.

And there’s always something. A lump. A tenderness. A twinge. Fatigue. They just throw up their hands and say Sigh. There is no clarity. Just Cancer.


My Eid prayers; or, Why men and women need to pray in the same prayer area, or No More Balconies

This is what I saw during the prayer.

We went for Eid prayers to this masjid.

The people were nice. I should be specific: some were nice to my gora husband, and then to me. But as soon as I arrived, in the space of a few seconds, at least two people insistently told us “You have to go upstairs. That’s the women’s area. THIS is the men’s area over there. You have to go upstairs.”

Calm down. I’m not trying to check out your men. I’m all set.  

My husband introduced me to a man he’d met during taraweeh. We exchanged a few courtesies in the lobby. An officious lady started saying “Salah is starting, let’s go” and grabbed my arm and steered me toward the musalla. Maybe the sister was offended by my husband, myself, and a brother speaking politely with each other.

MIXING!! Who knows what’s going to happen next, right here in the lobby! 

People: as we say to our toddlers: “Use your words, not your hands!” I told her thank you, grabbed her hand and removed it physically from my arm as a (hopefully) clear signal. Yes, dear sister: I am going to the musalla. I am here at the masjid at the time of Eid prayer precisely because I’m going to the musalla. I am not here for the suffocating heat and the crush of people in the staircase. 

We settled in our places – my husband downstairs in the men’s musalla, and my daughter and I upstairs in the balcony. The dream of a family mosque remains in the future. Or elsewhere.

It’s ok, I told myself. Nice mosque. Nice community. Pray the prayer. Be a good example for your daughter. Roll with the punches.

Once the prayer started, the confusion began.

It’s important to know what the imam is doing. For Eid prayers, most of us do not rehearse Eid prayers during the year. Those of us who aren’t really diligent and meticulous forget the 7-takbeers in each rak’ah issue. Eid prayers, as you know, brings together a diverse congregation, many of whom do not normally attend congregational prayer. 

You could see that the balcony was longer than it was wide, so only the first row of women could see the imam and the congregation. I’m sure this was not deliberate. That is not the point. We should learn from the results of these architectural and structural decisions. Mosque after mosque is constructed and structured in such a way that women are left out in the cold.

Even I, who have been praying Eid prayers for decades, forget the 7 takbeers sometimes. Having others to follow and learn from is the whole point of congregational prayer and congregational practice.

But the imam was for men. We could not see him.

In the second rak’ah, the Allah Akbars started racking up, and there was disarray all over the ranks in the women’s musalla. Some are already in prostration. Some are in ruku’. Some are standing and doing takbeers like they ought to. My daughter next to me is down in sujud. I touch her arm to signal her to stand. As I do so, I realize that the standing-takbeers are over, and in the confusion, I too lost track of the count.

Over the bodies of a few prostrating women in the row before me, I can now – for the first time – see a glimpse of the congregation downstairs, and they are in prostration.

So I quickly go down. I’m annoyed and rattled.

Instead of praying, I’m shouting in my head, this is why we should pray in one prayer area.

It’s okay, folks, nothing will happen with men and women in the same area. We will all learn, in fact, from existing in the same and behaving in a moral fashion. And if something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, and this is the world Allah created with sexual instincts and biology, and we are navigating that by Allah’s will. 

Once the prayer ends, I try to calm myself, and remind my daughter to listen to the Eid sermon silently.

But the khateeb is mumbling. The only thing worse than a shouting khateeb is a mumbling khateeb.

The mike is ineffective. We cannot hear him. We hear snatches of And Allah says in the Quran [Arabic Arabic Arabic] [English English English mumble mumble].

It is pointless. I give up and take selfies with my daughter. I help out the young mom who is struggling to keep her toddler from escaping. It is a better use of time than trying to be silent for the imam.

Officious Lady is standing in the back glowering her disapproval.

And the Eid prayer is over.


Still an immigrant Eid

Erna Dolmazova Celebration Of Loneliness 

Eid depresses me as an immigrant.

The Moon Wars – this phenomenon of two or three different Eid days because some people must wait to see the moon with the naked eye, and others accept the more reliable astronomical calculation – exacerbate our isolation. Today, for instance: we hurried to go to Eid namaz at our nearby mosque, only to find it shuttered. It turned out that they were celebrating Eid by the moonsighting method. The moonsighters were up late-late last night, waiting for moonsighting reports.

An email was sent at 1am to confirm that Eid prayer was not to be held today.

Yes, we missed that 1am email. Hence the ludicrous display of a small family, including a child, dressed in their Eid finery, knocking desolately at a quiet, empty mosque.

Most of the people we typically hang out with are celebrating Eid tomorrow. The others are celebrating with their parents and in-laws in the exurbs.

My spouse took a day off today. Then we discovered that the one Eid get-together we had planned was moved to Wednesday. Now my spouse is spending the day working at home to compensate for that additional day he has to take off. So festive.

Being isolated for Eid, having to scrounge and scavenge for time with my family, – these are all just ways for me to focus to a fine stabbing point how much Eid generally depresses me as an immigrant. And I’ve got a family. Imagine how much worse it could be, and how much worse it is for so many.

This is also the first Eid with abbu not in this world. My world back in the homeland has changed, and is threatening complete change.

Having an Eid prayer where we can see people, feel real, yes this is a celebration, look at all those people celebrating – having places to go, are all ways for me to bury those feelings.

Too often, I am left with no ways to bury my ambivalence. 

So much have we moved around (for work, not by choice) that every bit of community has to be hard-earned by effort and travel, waiting for it to bear fruit in natural camaraderie. At which point, I suspect, we will have to move again.

Every little obstacle is another way to kill the vibe. Even the very hard voice on the automated call from Chicago Public Schools telling me your child has an unexcused absence from school today threatens to kill the Eid vibe.

I’m irritable. I’m struggling, cooking desserts and lamb chops on my own, to clean the house and make it Eid-worthy (no, no special Eid decorations; getting the dishes done was our achievement) and to plan things to do.

Ultimately I am tired and frustrated because it is not fun. It is too hard. My body is tired. My heart is weary. I am sleep deprived from Ramzan. And now my family are annoyed by my irritability. So now I am truly alone. Eid Mubarak. May God forgive us, and some day may we all be granted the Home which abides.

So today this poem I wrote in 2005 is 14 years old, and still relevant.