Asma Gull Hasan, 31, is a lawyer in San Francisco, an author, and a speaker. She's also a self-described "Muslim Feminist Cowgirl" who grew up in Colorado and went to prep school on the East Coast. The daughter of Pakistani immigrants and born in Chicago, she considers herself an all-American girl. Hasan, who writes often for Beliefnet, discusses her book, "Why I Am a Muslim."
Why do you call yourself a feminist?
Muhammad was a feminist. He stood for equal rights for women. To many people, feminist means something negative. And so when I am called a feminist, they think that's derogatory--but by feminism, I mean equal rights for men and women.
When I was at the Islamic Society of North America convention last year selling my first book, there were a lot of women who wanted to buy the book. Many of them wore the head cover, and it wasn't an issue to them that I don't. But there were also young, traditional men and some older traditional men--they were a minority for sure--but they would come up and say, "Why aren't you wearing a cover? And how can you expect me to buy a book when there's a picture of you on the front and you're not wearing a cover?" And I would say, "Look, you don't have to buy the book." Meanwhile, a rumor got spread around that on a certain page of my book I wrote that the head cover is not required. So throughout the convention, young men would come up in groups of two or three and pick up the book and go right to this one page. Don't they have something better to do then to be skulking around the ISNA bazaar and gossiping to each other, "Oh my God. That author says the hijab is not required"?
Are most Muslim women covered in America?
No. Most Muslim women are not covered. I was doing an interview about hijab and the head scarf on CNN once, and they said that about 10 percent of Muslim women in America wear the head cover. I have no idea where they got that number. But based on what I've seen, I would say that statistic is pretty accurate.
But when you go to an event like ISNA, there's a lot of peer pressure to wear the head cover, because literally every woman is wearing the head cover. Probably out of all the women wearing the head cover there, less than half actually wear it every day. But it's an unspoken thing among Muslim women that when you're going to an Islamic event, you cover your head because everyone else there is going to be covered, and the men are going to expect you to be covered.
Now certainly in a mosque, when you're praying, both men and women are supposed to cover their hair. Men are supposed to wear a prayer cap and women are supposed to wear a scarf, so in the mosque I cover my hair, no question about that. But I don't think in daily life it's required.
It's more of an Arab custom. But there are South Asian women (like me) who do wear it. And South Asia's had phases back and forth, wearing it, not wearing it. Here in America, the young women who wear it, say, in college, feel that it's their way of protest. Some of them feel that it's a feminist thing. It's their way of protesting judgment based on their appearance--which I really respect. If I were to wear it, it would be for that reason.
Why do you so firmly believe Muslim women don't have to wear hijab?
I don't feel the Qur'an is asking us to. I think the Qur'an asks us to be modest in our appearance, and I think you can be modest wearing regular clothes, Western clothes. I think this is pretty modest [looking down at her shirt and jeans]. But I think it's also stylish.
One could argue you're wearing tight jeans.
I don't think they're that tight. I have tighter. [Laughs.] Modesty comes from within. I have been to ISNA conventions where all the women except me and my sister are wearing the head cover, but we're the only ones wearing loose clothes. All the ones wearing the head cover in our age group are wearing tight pants and showing cleavage in their blouses.
Do you flirt?
Actually, I do. But I think my way of flirting is how I relate to people, and of course I stay within reasonable boundaries. In the end, the Qur'an says Allah is the final judge and I'm responsible for everything I do. And I feel that the choices I've made are good ones.
What do Muslim women care about?
I was at an event at the Islamic Center of Southern California and there were two high school-age girls buying my book. I remember them because one of them was listening to an iPod, but she'd taken the headphones out. The music coming out of the headphones was "Milkshake," which is a hip-hop song. I thought it was so funny that here's this young Muslim girl and she's got "Milkshake" coming out of her iPod, and she said to me, "It's so great to see a Muslim woman. Every time we come to the mosque, it's always a lecture and it's always some old guy."
Other Muslim women were saying they have nothing to give their daughters that's positive about Islam to read. Or nothing to take to school to show their teachers. When I was writing this book and listening to my own iPod, I heard "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper, which was a big hit when I was young. And I thought, you know, as Muslims we never get to have fun anymore. It's all serious. It's all business.
Since 9/11 it's always talking about what the Administration is doing to us, what this law is doing to us, what this Islamic country is doing to us, what we're not doing for ourselves. We never get a chance to talk about what is really cool about being Muslim. I was lucky enough to grow up before 9/11. There were still misunderstandings and stereotypes about Islam, but there wasn't this seminal event in American life. I grew up at a time when people just said, "I don't know anything about your religion." They didn't say, "All I know about your religion is 9/11." And I was simply the kid who didn't have to go to Mass on Sundays and who got to sit out religion class.
I think the number one issue for Muslim women, for my generation, in their 20s and even 30s, is how do we find a suitable Muslim mate. Some Muslim women have chaperones and they meet over the phone and email. They don't do American-style dating where there's premarital sex. But that's limited to conservative, traditional Muslims.
The majority of Muslim women who don't wear the head cover are perplexed because while they're not free to date because they grew up in a culture and a religion that didn't encourage or allow dating, they don't really feel obligated to have their parents arrange their marriage. And in some cases, like my parents, they don't necessarily feel comfortable arranging my marriage. They don't want to tell me what to do.
Even where my parents are from, even in Pakistan, it's changed. There are fewer arranged marriages. There's lot of dating, especially among the elite and educated classes. And so I guess you can't ever go home again.
If I were to go out on a date with a Muslim man, and we would date for a couple months, that would almost give me a bad reputation in the South Asian community and the larger Muslim community. There's only a certain amount of finding a spouse that you could do that's within the parameters. It's very difficult for us to figure out how we go about this.
Younger Muslim women who are in high school and the tweens and the teens are having a difficult time also, but it's more related to how they dress. Their style icons are Hilary Duff and Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. If you're a 12-year-old girl and you want to wear a shirt that shows your midriff, whether you're Muslim or not, your parents are going to have an issue with that. But if you're Muslim, they're not only going to have an issue with your dressing like that, but they'll also have an issue as Muslims. Because as we talked about, Muslims need to dress modestly--and it's such a change from the culture the Muslim parents grew up in.
Did you face those fashion issues at that age?
No, because we didn't have Hilary Duff wearing a tank top that stops above her belly button. You could easily as a young Muslim girl be wearing jeans and a T-shirt and fit right in with the crowd. But now there's a certain amount of skin you have to show. You have to wear high heels. You have to wear satiny pants with drawstring lace up the side.
I'm interested in your thoughts on Sufism, because that aspect of Islam is often the gateway for so many converts to Islam. In the book, you tell the story of encountering a Sufi sheikh.
I had studied Sufism in college and I also had some family members who were Sufi, in particular an uncle of my mom's was a very well-known Sufi in Pakistan. He would lock himself in a room and stay in there meditating all day, and people would come from all over Pakistan and India to see him because they thought if he blessed him, maybe something they wanted would happen for them. So I had been familiar with Sufism.
So here I am sitting next to this person who's dressed funny and is incredibly calm, and it almost made me nervous because every attempt to prompt him into chatting didn't work. But then, once I started to accept that this guy wasn't going to talk about the weather, his calm started to have an effect on me and I started to give in to it. It was almost like he was putting out his own force field. When I stopped fighting it, I started feeling some of his calm.
Then he gave his talk, and when he was speaking he had so much energy. If he didn't have the podium in front of him he would have flown over it into the audience. Later on, a young Muslim woman who was in the audience was asking me questions. Her questions were not unfair, but she was basically yelling at me. The Sufi sheikh was sitting next to me and this woman was just berating me. Nothing I could say was letting her get some resolution. Finally the Sufi looked up at her and said, "You've told her your opinion. You're welcome to write your own book. And that should be the end of it."
Afterward, I reread a lot of what I had read about Sufism in college, and I saw it in a new perspective. This Sufi sheikh embodied several Sufi principles, including not letting your emotions control you. The Sufi philosophy is, "Don't give in to those emotions because it will hurt you in a spiritual way--and you need to be spiritually open because you want to be able to experience things."
Sufis believe that the Prophet Muhammad was spiritually open, that he had an open heart. He was always an optimist. And that's how he was able to receive the revelation of the Qur'an. Had he been negative and closed, he wouldn't have heard the revelations. I think Sufi principles come down to a "go with the flow" philosophy.
Would you call yourself primarily a Sufi?
I say that I am a Sunni Muslim and I have a lot of Sufi beliefs. I don't say that I am a Sufi Muslim because it's a loaded term in the community.
I imagine you'd be attacked by your own community on that issue and the fact that you call Islam the "total woman's religion." Which issue--Sufism or feminism--makes traditionalist Muslims maddest?
I asked my sister for her opinion about the book, and she said, "Why don't you take the Sufism part out? People are going to be critical of that." Even people who are moderate Muslims sometimes have issues with Sufis, because Sufis go to shrines, the graves of former famous Sufis, and pray. They feel that when they're praying at the shrines and praying to a person they consider a saint, they're not making that person into a god, but that they're praying to the divinity in that person. They believe that person became a Sufi saint because they were able to strip away all the layers of baggage that humans put on ourselves, and get in touch with their inner divinity, reaching a sort of reunion with God. But to non-Sufi Muslims, that's blasphemy because the Qur'an says there's no God but God, and God has no partners. Even moderate Muslims who otherwise don't have a problem with a lot of things find Sufi Muslims strange.
Could you recount the story of how you came to be born in Chicago after your family's long history in Asia?
My ancestors, who were descendants of Ghengis Khan, moved off the silk route into what is now South Asia--actually Afghanistan--and then at a certain point, one branch of the family moved to Pakistan and stopped talking to the Afghan branch. On my mom's side, we're Mongolians. All the descendants of Ghengis Khan have a blue spot on their lower back or just above their bottom when they're born. Including me. That ties me into a history and culture--it's a way of identifying that this baby belongs to us.
My mom and dad were married in an arranged marriage in Pakistan in the early 70s and had my sister about a year after the wedding. By then, my father had already moved to the United States. He was a neurologist, and at the time there were not enough neurologists in the United States. So he was actually invited to immigrate. And so we ended up moving to Chicago, where he did his residency. I was born in 1974 in Chicago.
What is the main reason you're a Muslim? You list a number of them in your book.
I would say the most important is because I was born Muslim. At first I thought, well, you can't say that--you can't say the reason you're Muslim is because you were born Muslim, but the Qur'an says we're all born Muslim. I don't mean that we are all born Sunni Muslim. I mean we're all born with the ability to do right and the ability to do wrong and to know the difference and choose between them.
I wanted to say that actually being born Muslim and born into a Muslim family is important, because even if I converted to another religion there would still be parts of me that are Muslim. As a Muslim you grow up learning about Islamic history and the great Islamic warriors. Every Muslim child learns about the scientific achievements that Muslims have been behind. Paper wasn't created by Muslims, but the technology of paper was created by Muslims. And the number zero was invented by Arabs.