Mosques have never been safe spaces for me as a woman, as the daughter of gay men, as someone with mental illness, and as the daughter of someone with physical illness. They’re not ‘safe’ because, at any point, my existence may be put into question and my humanity diminished.
This has been proven time and time again when sermons [khutbas] or lectures directly or indirectly promote sexism, racism, ableism or homophobia. Men have been physically imposing, forcing me out of main prayer spaces they reserve for men. I have received endless push back when claiming my Islamic rights as a woman.
I have written about problematic gender segregation and gender attitudes within the Muslim community experienced as a woman. As I am body-able, cis and straight, I find it difficult to express exactly the injustices that may affect those who identify as disabled, black, trans* or gay. I can sympathize and share their stories, but these are not my stories and they are entitled to their own voices.
I say “problematic” because many times these attitudes and behaviours stem from ignorance (sometimes willful ignorance, mind you). The problem with navigating problematic muslim spaces is that, while they are concerning for women, they can be completely inaccessible for people living with disability and outright dangerous for black and LGBT Muslims, so problematic attitudes and behaviours go unquestioned and unaddressed by an audience often unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the issues faced by black, LGBT or disabled Muslims.
It’s uncomfortable to point out the way in which privileged members of our community reinforce “-isms”. Islam dictates an etiquette of pointing out mistakes of other believers and while addressing some things privately can certainly affect change in some, when sermons and lectures are issued publicly, it is concerning to always keep reactions private.
This was recently my issue at a local brunch and lecture for converts and new residents. Always the inseparable pair, Eren Cervantes-Altamirano (blogger at Identity Crisis and co-host of HOT n’ LOUD: The Muslim Podcast) and I chose to participate to this event as a means of networking with other converts and connecting with members of a new mosque. As we walked in, the atmosphere was awkward, the non-segregated group of mostly white women, and their spouses and children, was tense with shyness.
We exchanged few ‘salaams‘, gathered some food, and ate our brunch, keeping mostly to ourselves. I quietly made fun of Eren’s awkwardness in hijab, and we discussed love and relationships. I excused myself momentarily to use the restroom and upon my return was shocked to see a sister saying “I left Christianity after [a tragedy] as no one could tell me why God would do this to me”. I took my place and Eren indicated that the lecturer had explained that her topic would be “Why it’s wrong to say ‘Why me?'”
Disclaimer: Eren and I have had our fair share of troubles and challenges over the last few years and questioning God and questioning our faith has been an important part of the process. Either through dealing with grief or mental illness, we were told times and times again that the simple act of questioning amounted to sin. In my case, this only served to push me further and further away from community, from faith, and from God.
Dealing with tragedy is not linear or necessarily rational. I have come to learn that questioning God, being angry with Him, and being disappointed in Him, was a part of my faith and my relationship with The Divine. It is similar to how I love and respect my parents but get frustrated, sometimes unjustly, about their behaviours. Similarly, I do not always comprehend God’s plans for me, and that often lead to frustration and anger. That is not to say that I do not love or respect God, but rather that I am going through the coping process.
The lecture continued in a similar fashion, pointing out that those who question their faith are in fact not true believers, pointing out that frustration is equivalent to ungratefulness, and that anger is counter to submission. The lecturer failed to see the hypocrisy of her own experience: questioning Christianity was the work of God, but questioning Islam was the work of Satan because “Islam was the Right Path”.
I was annoyed, to say the least. These attitudes of equating questioning to disbelief has led many believers away from community and God. They feel cheated because they are led to believe that God is rigid and requires thoughtless submission rather than being a Compassionate and Merciful God that willed humans to think critically about His blessings.
It’s when talking about God’s blessings that the lecturer truly crossed a line. In an attempt to elevate us, she instructed us to look down upon those who were physically disabled. She described the journeys of two disabled men: one born without arms or legs, the other paralysed from the neck down. We were told to look to the disabled to uplift our spirits. This kind of speech in social justice terms is known as “disability porn“.
The truth is that the physical challenges of an individual may not compare to the mental or emotional challenges of another. Comparing ourselves in such a way creates a false parallel where we view the issues we face as unimportant. Iit also requires that we continue to see those living with physical and mental disabilities as disempowered bodies rather than full human beings with their own stories, their own voices, and their own challenges and privileges.
“Why me?” is only the beginning of a conversation to address valid individual concerns that may apply to a much broader segment of our community than we first realize. When we, as a community, discourage our members from voicing “Why me?”, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to hear “Me too”, “us too” and “we all”. We are turned away from the very foundation required to answer valid concerns, and to establish ourselves in faith and in society.
Needless to say, such a lecture not only disappointed me but disgusted me. As good Muslims, we resolved to email the organizers following the event.
Immediately following the lecture, attendees were prompted to introduce ourselves. To my dismay, attendees began to add to their introduction words of praise for the lecturer ranging from “well done” to “your lecture was so inspiring” and “I often think of the poor whenever I have complaints about my life”. Praising the lecture became the thing to do along with the introduction. Could I do this? Could I praise a lecture that I morally disagreed with? Could I stand by while a room of body-able white Muslims praised an ableist and classist lecture?
I have done it! I have sat in the past through lectures in the Catholic Church, in interfaith gatherings, in mosques and Islamic centre, in universities and at work where I morally and ethically disagreed with speakers spewing one kind of “-ism” or another. I’ve at times kept my mouth shut, at others I’ve addressed the appropriate individual privately, but yet there are times when the audience is prompted for comments and questions, and that’s when I have taken this opportunity to address problematic attitudes and statements. This was one of those times. I gathered my strength and pointed that I respectfully disagreed with the way in which the lecture had been framed as it was mired with ableism, and that the audience’s agreement with lecture would definitely make me rethink any further interaction with this particular group.
Eren followed in my steps and iterated that the lecture was sadly disempowering to Muslims living with mental and physical disability. As the remainder of attendees completed their introductions, there was a genuine effort made to counter our negative comments and comfort the lecturer that she had not made any faux pas. After the introductions, we decided to leave: there was no reasons for us to stay in an environment that where it was clear that our concerns were no one else’s.
As we put on our shoes in the mosque lobby, we were intercepted by the lecturer. I was hopeful that this would lead to a genuine discussion about the concerns we’d raised. All hopes were quickly crushed when we were criticized for making the comments in the first place.
We began to express our discomfort with disability porn: hijacking the stories of disabled individuals by body-able person to de-legitimize individual concerns and issues. We were quickly dismissed and told that perhaps we believed we would be better suited to tell these stories or perhaps if it came from a bearded man. As allies and feminists, the idea was laughable: we believe stories of living with disability belong to those who experienced them. As we retorted that we were feminists and our complaints had NOTHING to do with her gender or beard,we were quickly told that feminism was our problem, that feminism was “a whole other level of problematic” but that, as she wanted “a home in Jannah [heaven]”, she was done talking to us.
We left the mosque angry that our concerns were completely dismissed, that our intersectional identities, and those of fellow Muslims would not be regarded as important. We vowed to contact the sister by email with resources on how to avoid “disability porn”, and addressing emotional and spiritual crisis without shaming those who ask “Why me?”.
There is a number of ways in which our societies, our communities, and our Ummah fail to empower those who are physically disabled, neuro-atypical or mentally ill. I hope to shed some light on some of those concerns over time but, for now, all I can do is rant about this particular disappointment, and hope others can learn from our experience.