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The Irish Daughters of Islam

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    The Irish Daughters of Islam

    A good read.....

    Many Western liberals believe Islam advocates `gender apartheid' against women. In fact, the religion is unfairly blamed for local cultural practices, three Irish Muslim women tell Fiona Ryan.

    The old woman's hands are open in supplication, and her words, fervent and soft, rise and fall in the unmistakable rhythm of prayer. Her face and language speak of roots in a place far from Ireland - but to the three Irish women in the next room, all in their 30s, she is a sister - not by blood, but by faith.
    Elizabeth, Suzanne and Aveen, now known as Summayah, Djimilla and Maryam, are Muslims, Irish daughters of Islam.

    The three sit next to each other, their heads covered like the old woman's. All are barefoot, because to walk in a holy place like the prayer room, a Muslim has to go without shoes. They are dressed in accordance with the Islamic rules of modesty - Summayah and Maryam wear ankle-length skirts and long-sleeved tops, while Djimilla wears a long black tunic and has a forest-green cotton scarf wrapped around her head and under her chin, blurring the outline of her face.

    Djimilla is from Sligo, and her voice is soft and measured as she says: "What I love about Islam is the sense of respect they have for the women. I have felt more of a sense of respect and dignity as a Muslim woman than I ever did as a non-Muslim woman."

    Her words stand in stark opposition to the Western liberal view of what constitutes equality between the sexes. From this perspective, Muslim women lead restricted lives, excluded from public life and confined to the roles of wife and mother. The application of the idea that "biology is destiny" has indeed led to gender apartheid in some regions, the most extreme form of which is seen in Afghanistan, where the Taliban regime is denying basic human rights to women. But the Western view that the extremes are common is patronising and prejudiced, these Muslim women argue. They point out that, in the Koran, men and women are equal before God. Mistreatment of women is rooted in local cultural practice, not in Islam. After all, the prophet Muhammad said: "The most perfect in faith, among believers, is he who is best in manner and kindest to his wife."

    Islamic teaching views women as individuals in their own right, allowing them to keep their own family names rather than taking those of their husbands. Men and women have different roles as a result of their gender, but these roles are seen as collaborative rather than equal in the Western sense. As for dress, all Muslims, men and women, are expected to dress modestly and in a dignified manner, but there is an acceptance that the female is the more beautiful gender. By covering her body, the argument goes, she is protecting herself from unwelcome male attention. Again, differences in the extent of covering are the result of local cultural traditions.

    Maryam, like Djimilla, feels that Islam accords her more dignity as a woman, and that modern permissive morality detracts from a woman's worth.

    "With promiscuity, the woman is just used and left," she says. "Marriage secures everything. Muslims don't experiment with alcohol and things that could lead to promiscuity. Loads of young girls in Dublin now are left looking after babies by themselves. In Islam, the emphasis is on the family."

    According to Summayah, head of the women's section at the Islamic Cultural Centre, there are at least 300 Irish Muslims, the majority of whom are female. Most women, like Djimilla and Maryam, embraced Islam as a result of meeting a Muslim partner. Djimilla became a Muslim after meeting her future husband, an Algerian, in a London hospital where she was working as a lab assistant and he was a chef. "He wasn't really practising his religion at the time and, to be honest, when he started talking about it first, I thought he was crazy. I had never really heard about Islam before. I was trying to convince him the Bible was the truth.

    "But over four years of marriage, he kept talking . . . I converted to Islam when I was absolutely convinced there was only one God."

    Maryam, originally from Co Offaly, got together with her Algerian husband in Dublin two years ago. They decided to do Ramadan (the Muslim period of fasting and spiritual purification) together, which had the effect of putting her on the path. She likes the moral certainties her new faith offers.

    "In Catholicism, people will go to Mass and then go to the pub on a Sunday night, whereas in Islam it's wrong to drink alcohol, and you know that," she says. "It's called the straight path. You know what is right and wrong. You know it is right to get married, you know it's wrong to have sexual partners before marriage."

    All three women come from conservative Catholic backgrounds and there is a sense that, while they have changed religion, they have not made a radical break from the moral values with which they were raised. For example, all still believe in the prohibition on pre-marital sex, the importance of the family as the fundamental unit in society and the role of wife and mother within that unit.

    "Growing up a Catholic and being a Muslim weren't that dissimilar," agrees Djimilla. "I drank occasionally, but I wasn't one for the pubs every weekend, so giving up alcohol wasn't a problem. Before becoming a Muslim, I would have gone out in skirts and tops, but they would have been modest; I would never have gone out in anything revealing. I was always aware of covering up. That was always in me, so that wasn't a big change."

    "Good Sligo woman!" Summayah interjects, and Djimilla smiles. "It's the result of the way I was brought up; my father was very strict," she says. "I wouldn't have had the life that a young teenager has now. Having loved Jesus as a Catholic, the main issue for me in becoming a Muslim was His position in the faith. After that, the rest was a piece of cake."

    Maryam nods in agreement. "I know people in cities find it hard to imagine but, in some places down the country, people are still brought up very traditionally. We were never allowed go to discos, there was no going out like that. I would have stayed at home doing my homework," she says.

    Summayah says her Dublin childhood wasn't as strict as that of "either of my two sisters", but it was still Catholic and a good preparation for Islamic life. "We didn't go out to certain places, didn't visit pubs, there was no drink in the house. Both my parents were Pioneers," she says. "It was a large family, and I think, looking back, I was more reserved than my sisters at home, although in comparison to today they would have been considered very reserved."

    Unlike Djimilla and Maryam, it was a teenage spiritual quest rather than meeting a man that led Summayah to Islam. "I was searching," she says. "I heard such negative views of Islam that I wanted to know if all of this was true or not. As a Muslim now, I believe it was my faith calling me. "I went to Harrington Street. The mosque on the South Circular Road wasn't even there at the time. I was very nervous and was expecting to see these guys praying with swords because that is what I was told Muslims did. I expected them to throw me out, but they were really nice and that first impression has lasted to this day."

    She kept going back to hear more, and eventually met the Libyan man she would marry when she was 19. When the time came to introduce him to her family (in 1980), she was nervous. "I didn't know much about politics," she says. "I was aware of the Lebanon, and Irish soldiers being out there . . . On his initial meeting with my parents, my mother must have been a nervous wreck because she asked: `What are all you guys doing in Lebanon?' " Summayah says with a laugh that her husband thought he was being blamed for the whole Lebanese conflict. "My family's reaction was contrary to what I was expecting. I was expecting a very negative reaction, [but] my brothers and sisters were happy because I was happy. One of my brothers was unsure because he had been to the Arab world and had come across some negative events there. He wasn't negative to my husband, but he was worried about me."

    Summayah says her husband-to-be understood her family's concerns, so he suggested she visit his family in Libya before deciding to marry. The visit confirmed for her that she was making the right decision.

    "I think it was meeting all of them and the welcome I received that I really knew I could adapt to any situation, because there was a strong family," she says.

    The couple returned to Ireland in 1990. Back in Sligo, Djimilla's family accepted her husband, but they had worries, fearing a Not Without My Daughter scenario. In that film, Sally Field plays an American woman who is married to a Muslim and goes to live in his country. The marriage breaks up, and she is told that she can leave but that her daughter must remain.

    "The main issue was children, the kids," Djimilla recalls. "I always got `if your marriage broke up and he took the kids, you would never see them again', or `if you were living in a Muslim country, they wouldn't let you back out'. That was their main worry."

    Both Djimilla and Summayah are mothers. Djimilla has two daughters and a son; Summayah has four daughters and a son. Asked if they have any worries about their children growing up in Ireland, not only as members of a minority religion but also being of North African origin, they both say no.

    "You have to bring them up to be strong-natured because of how fast this world is going, and to go out there and not to be affected. There will always be comments," says Summayah. "But I do not think Irish people are racist. They are broad-minded when they let themselves be."

    Occasionally, the women do get told to get back to their own country by people in the street, who assume they must be foreigners. Do they get upset? The answer is a shoulder shrug and a smile. No words, no condemnation.

    Outside the prayer room it is quiet, the old woman is gone and the younger three chat as they put on their shoes and go back to their daily lives as Irish Muslims.

    that was a good read GFQ
    ive read similar stories about Irish reverts...
    thanx for sharing

    ~^~DrEaMs are answers to questions we haven't yet learned how to ask.~^~ DS


      I found this an excellent article - thanks so much.