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I’m a Feminist Convert to Islam: This Is What I’ve Learned

Four months ago I got engaged. One week later I packed up everything I owned and moved back to my American hometown. And now it is March, and I’m in the Middle East.

This was always going to be something of a transition year for me; I just finished an MA in London, and now I have to sort out where I go from here, whether it be a PhD or a job. What’s more, I have to figure out how those plans fit in with my other half, who’s gainfully employed and at least relatively settled. Now add to that the fact that I am planning a wedding God-knows-where, with a fiancé who is three time zones behind me and three thousand miles away, and you have the makings of a complicated situation, logistically and emotionally.

One additional complicating factor, one I didn’t really expect and I know Amin didn’t expect, is my increasingly vocal assertiveness about gender. I would call it feminism, but it’s so lukewarm I honestly feel weird calling it that. I guess I could best describe it as a rude (and, let’s be honest, pretty bitter) awakening to the fact that the gender-equality assumptions I grew up with in a WASPy liberal American suburb are not, in fact, universal. Surprise!

I converted to Islam roughly a year ago. Whatever you do or do not know about this religion, you certainly must be aware that the status of Muslim women is hotly contested. Muslim women themselves, along with Muslim communities, are struggling with what it means to be a woman and Muslim, what it means to be empowered and faithful, and what it means to be self-sufficient and, yes, equal. I bring this up not to debate the merits of Islam, or Islam’s position on women—obviously those debates are too big to do justice to here. Rather, for the first time in my life, I am consciously aware that some think it is relevant that I am female. And not in a good way, or in a way that reflects what I believe my religion teaches. It is an uncomfortable experience, and it has made me hypersensitive to any hint of unfairness.

Okay, oversensitive.

One day, walking to the mosque, we passed the imam, who called out a friendly greeting from across the street. I was immediately furious that he had said hello to Amin, but not to me. I raged, I ranted. Was he uncomfortable speaking to a woman? Did he think my modesty would be offended? As it turns out, he had said hello to both of us. Oops.

Unfortunately, wedding planning is not improving the situation. Lots of the traditions Amin and I find meaningful have patriarchal overtones, and these days I find them hard to overlook. Do I wear a white dress? Will my father walk me down the aisle? Am I taking Amin’s name or keeping my own (read: my father’s)? On the Pakistani side, will my father sign my marriage contract for me? Will Amin pay a dowry? I can’t blame Amin for sometimes feeling like he’s tiptoeing through a minefield.

This is not to say there aren’t real issues Amin and I are working through (and I guarantee this will continue to be a fount of intercultural and religious drama). However, I suspect most of my discomfort stems from novelty. When you are raised in a culture, it is much easier to overlook its flaws as anachronistic quirks or works-in-progress. But now, I’m operating in a brand new culture. And I am not yet totally comfortable in the new roles I am playing: as Muslim, as wife-to-be, as future-spouse-of-Pakistani. My insecurity makes me even more sensitive.

The worst part is that there is one area where this increasingly strident feminist is still relying on the men in her life: money.

I cannot tell you how much it galls me to write this. I am a twenty-first century woman, and I certainly do not expect my husband to bring home the bacon (or a religiously acceptable substitute). Nevertheless, the fact remains that at the moment, I have almost no money saved, despite my three years of work, and I have racked up thousands of dollars of student loan debt. Meanwhile, my fiancé has a relatively stable job in a relatively lucrative industry and already has a mortgage, a car, and other traditional life markers.

Enter man number two: my dad… who, bless his heart, is willing to help me out with student loan payments while I figure out the next step. And my parents are equally generously willing to pitch in to help with paying for a wedding. But golly, I’m twenty-seven, surely I shouldn’t have to rely on my parents any more, right? Right?

I don’t know if you guys noticed, but weddings are expensive! It is an enormous blessing to have people in my life who can afford to help me out, because otherwise Amin and I would probably be getting married in a box at the airport rather than with hundreds of our family and friends. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling like I am letting down Team Woman by letting my man do the earning. And frankly, the idea that I’m being passed on from my father to my future husband like some risky mortgage is downright embarrassing. (Amin read this and laughed. He agrees that I am not the greatest investment at the moment.)

Many have noted that wedding planning somehow manages to make unexpected and sometimes ridiculous things seem earth-shatteringly significant. For me, it’s not the chair covers or the food or the music, or even the ceremony (although there’s time yet, so stay tuned). For me at the moment, it’s The Patriarchy (which, as obsessions go, is pretty legit). Unfortunately, The Patriarchy will still be there tomorrow, and probably the day after, and I’m not willing to postpone the wedding until women achieve full equality with men, whatever that means. In the meantime, I’m trying not to take it out on Amin, who is certainly not to blame for my insecurities, and is weathering this crash course in gender relations with his typical rational fair-mindedness. After all, he did not choose to be born male, and I happen to be rather fond of him in spite of it.

Photo: Meg for A Practical Wedding

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