In Chilean tradition, the number five has an important meaning regarding the understanding of life. At 5, a person starts school and life in society. At 15, we celebrate the entrance into the young adulthood. At 25, it is expected you have finished college. Age 30 is a good age to get married and by age 35 you’ve probably bought your first house. At 40, it is the perfect time to make an evaluation of your life … At 65, you leave behind all duties and enjoy the rest of the path. Each one of this milestones comes with a celebration or ritual that gathers your family and/or closest friends.
A few days ago, I entered my 5th year of Islam as my spiritual path. Following the tradition, I want to make an honest assessment of my first period as a Muslim- naming the Good, the Bad and the Ugly- but also expressing my Hopes, in the sincere feeling that the best is yet to come.
I progressed in my spiritual development. I’m more aware of my role as a caliph of creation; a more lucid human about the impact of religion and spirituality in society, for better or worse. I am a more compassionate being. I have understood that compassion is about the struggle for what you believe, speaking up when you have to, and taking a stand against oppression. My faith has become an intangible fuel that pushes me to transform my environment for the common good and keep me strong in my actions towards social change for greater gender justice.
During this years, I have worked on myself, even if it was not always with the discipline I would like. But I was able to reconcile with my past pains and assume an attitude of learning. My spiritual Jihad (struggle) has been an internal one; a liberating of my inner chains. The more I know my faith, my Creator and myself, the more I love my faith, the lives of others and myself.
I have unified my feminist activism with my Muslim condition. My life story, my passion for women’s rights and my vocation for service have nurtured each other in a beautiful synergy through my Imaan (faith). Nothing is further from the concept of oxymoron than my own experience. I have broken stereotypes about Muslim Women and Islam, especially my own stereotypes about what it means to be a Muslim woman and a feminist woman with a publicly assumed spirituality in a patriarchal world.
I increased my knowledge on an intellectual level. This has been possible thanks to the generosity of many brothers and sisters who have contributed to my Islamic education with conversations, books, teaching time and a lot of patience and love. Many have challenged me with daring thoughts that have pushed me to think more, to read more, to question more. Thanks to them, my brain has become a lethal weapon against ignorance and Patriarchy.
Nobody said this road was easy. Like many Muslims, I walk between two worlds: The non-Muslims and the Ummah. In none of these worlds is my presence entirely welcome. I am still not fully accepted and understood yet.
To my family, friends and acquaintances, it is still complicated. I left my home country 10 years ago, as an agnostic, anonymous and feminist women. I returned only 18 months ago as even more committed feminist, but now Muslim woman who appears richly in Google searches. Several acquaintances have given up on the attempt to re-know me. I understand. I also have difficulty finding my current self in the woman I was. From the Umma, the situation is no better. I have already mentioned this in previous posts. It is simple and clear: I do not support the dominant narrative about what a “Good Muslim Woman” should be. And I think I never will.
Being a feminist has been difficult and painful at times. I have met with a wall of misunderstanding from other feminists towards Islamic Feminism and Muslim women. Even at the individual or human level, which turns out to be very violent. In this regard, I recall an incident in 2012 on the premises of Parliament in Argentina, in which a feminist meeting was held to discuss a bill. I was there as a journalist- with my headscarf. One of the debaters, raised her voice to say (while pointing at me with her finger) that she “does not admit veiled women in her space and that feminism should not allow it because it was oppressive”. I answered coldly, “You, madam, are entitled to your opinion. I am entitled to dismiss it.” Of course, I didn’t move an inch.
Other difficulties are practical. I’m the only Muslim woman in my city of Concepcion, Chile. There’s no Mosque or Islamic Centre here. The availability of books on Islamic issues is very limited and the most interesting work is always in English or is difficult to get because of its price. I was able to overcome these difficulties through my social networks and mastering foreign languages, but this is a real obstacle many Latin American Muslims face. These stones in my journey as a Muslim have led me to rely on my creativity and pro–activity to address them. The answer to these conflicts has led to cycles of talks, inter–religious meetings, workshops on Islam and women’s rights, Islamic feminism, CEDAW and Koran, among other topics.
You will dislike me for saying this: The under-representation of Latina Southern Muslim Women (LSMW) in spaces for Islamic Feminists or Muslim women hurts. It seems Islamic Feminism still belongs only to those in the first world or living in the MENA region.
When someone appears speaking to issues concerning Latina Muslims, it is usually a white woman or Latina woman living in the first world whose reality cannot compare to my reality, and that of other Latina Muslims living in South America. They cannot speak with experience about all the difficulties of being Muslim in places with no inclusive mosques or alternatives discourses about Islam, and dealing with a strong hegemonic Patriarchy. No LSMW is speaking up in spaces that want to be inclusive and descriptive of the reality of “Muslim Women”. Our stories are untold.
Research led by Professor Francirosy Campos in Brazil shows that for every 10 new converts to Islam in that country, 9 are women; Islam is becoming a gender issue in our continent. The sole occasion I’ve seen LSMW mentioned in those spaces was in Muslimah Media Watch to smash, invalidate and illegitimize a project called “Memes Feministas Islamicos” (Islamic Feminists Memes) that aims to mock and call out Patriarchy in Islam, denouncing discrimination and gender violence in religious spaces as well.
Global communication globalizes invisibility even in those spaces that aim to offer a diverse representation of Muslim women. Could we be more supportive of each other and go beyond our comfort zones in the building of Sorority? Is this too radical and annoying ? Will I deserve a ban? An unfollow?
However, by far the worst thing I’ve experienced is harassment by dogmatic misogynists and bigots who justify their actions by claiming they act in defense of Islam. The cruelty of some episodes affected my peace and sometimes my feeling of safety. Never before have I felt exposed to such hatred.
Thanks to my bullies, every time you abused me, I have become stronger and fiercer. After each attack, insult, threat and sending to hell from you, “Legitimate Defenders of Allah”, I am more aware of the need to kick your misogyny out of Islam. In recent times, people have begun to describe me as a “Warrior.” The strength and determination I have gained would not have been possible without your collaboration.
My personal hope is to continue to grow intellectually and spiritually and to open doors to inclusive social interactions based more on people and less on stereotypes. I could see this hope blossom a little bit the last week. For the first time, a public university in Chile, University of Valparaíso, opened its doors to a Muslim woman coming from the world of activism, to talk on Islamic feminism and struggle for women rights in Islam. My collective hopes are with a small group of people, from different backgrounds and a lot of energy and commitment to social justice. We are forming an organization focused on inter-religious dialogue and the promotion of a more inclusive Islam, in tune with the problems of Chilean society at spiritual as well as, social, political and economic levels.
The name of our organization is Imaan (Faith). We are starting with little money, but a lot of faith. Our belief is that Islam can be a transformative engine of social change for the dignity of human beings and the release from their material and spiritual oppression. We aim to promote interpretations that reflect the principles of inclusion, mercy, compassion and justice contained in the Koran.
Five years are few in number, but contain my many hours spent in learning, solidarity, reflection, doubt and hope. They mean a lot of shared moments with people who nurtured me with knowledge. They represent countless words thrown into the air for you to collect and transform. I think back to the day of my Shahada. Three things I brought with me that night that I still hold today: my faith in God, my untamed spiritually and my challenging feminism.
I wondered that day- What I would find in this way? What would be my contribution? How far would I go? These are still open questions and I like it so.
Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Writer, Mentor and Community Educator in Capacity Building for Grass Roots Female Leaders and Advocates. A Muslim Feminist who is an Independent Researcher of Gender and Islam in Latin America on Feminist Hermeneutics, Muslim Women Representations, Queer Identities and Movement Building. She blogs in Spanish at Mezquita de Mujeres, a site dedicated to explore the links between Gender, Religion and Feminism as well to Women from the Global South as Change Makers in their communities.