Monday, December 7, 2009
Book: The Face Behind the Veil
My latest non-fiction read has been The Face Behind the Veil by Donna Gehrke-White. It's a collection of 2 - 6 page stories of American Muslim women. There's a total of 50 stories, and I think that the author did an excellent job of getting a fairly broad cross-section of women. She breaks the book up into five sections, The New Traditionalists, The Blenders, The Converts, The Persecuted, and The Changers.
In the first section, The New Traditionalists, the women are usually second-generation Muslims in America, people whose families immigrated. Many times, they're the first women in their families to wear hijab. One of the women tells the story of how the murder of her uncle (he was a cab driver and the crime was unrelated to religion) prompted her to take the 'plunge' as it were to wear her hijab. It was something she had wanted to do for a while, but the painful hammering home of the fact that life could end at any moment gave her the strength to go ahead.
In The Blenders, the women are those who do not wear any form of hijab, for one reason or another. Most don't believe that it is required. They say that the veil was only for the wives of Mohammed, and so long as they dress modestly, the don't believe in the hijab (in the sense of head covering). A few don't wear it because they are afraid of how they will be treated, of harassment and loosing their jobs.
In The Converts, there are, of course, the stories of American women who choose Islam for one reason or another. Two of them, one a black woman, and one of Asian descent, became attracted to Islam because they saw it as inclusive, and anti-racist.
The Persecuted, of course, are the stories of women who have had to flee their homelands and seek refuge in America. Most from political strife, but one or two from abusive husbands. The one I remember best (or worst), is a woman with three children who fled Afghanistan (under the Taliban) after her husband was shot in the store he ran in town. Other townspeople dragged his body home. There was no reason, no explanation. She still, years later, has no idea why her husband was murdered. Or the Afghan woman whose husband and oldest son were 'arrested' for unknown reasons. She fled the country with her remaining children, making it, eventually, to the US, where she has forged a life for them and is (thankfully) awaiting her husband and son to join her. For some reason, why, she doesn't know, they lived.
The Changers are women who are working to change (duh) the way Muslim women are treated, within their own faith. They all agree that the problems are cultural - that the degradation and abuse of women is not a part of Islam, but something that has become so entrenched, that many people wrongly treat it as though it is. They're working to change the conditions of the women's sections of mosques. Some of them have prayed side by side with Muslim men, some work as judges, social workers, politicians. They're working to prove that their hijab, their faith, doesn't keep them from doing what they want.
So. The stories range from heart rending (I'm thinking of a women whose husband gained custody of their children, after abusing her and them, and has taken them to Egypt. An American judge thought he was 'better suited' to care for them.) to happy and uplifting. I think the authors point, her idea, was to show that they're 'just like us'. Their lives are neither wholly horrific or shiny and perfect. They have their ups, their downs, trials and joys. But in the end, they're just women of faith, struggling through the world.
Just like us.