Black, Female and Muslim
by Kathy Dobie
May 28, 1991, pp. 25-29
Page Number: 25-29
"Reprinted by permission of The Village Voice. Copyright (c) The Village Voice, Inc., 1991."
The Premiere Statewide Islamic Sisters' Friendship Conference. The Malcolm Shabazz mosque, 116th Street, Harlem.
"As-salaam alaikum," the sisters say each to each, signing in, paying the $3 registration fee, passing each other on the wide stairs up to the musallah where Muslims pray. It's a big, plain room, painted white, carpeted thinly in red. Arched windows let in the light. Five times a day the imam leads the prayers in Arabic. The Muslims stand, bend, kneel, bow--face flat and humble to the floor. The women - veiled, turbaned, saris trimmed in gold, cotton tunics from African cloth - fill the musallah. They pray behind the men - the Islamic way. Islam acknowledges that men are punks. They can't concentrate on the spiritual when they're looking at your behind. Take off your shoes, sister, cover your hair.
First on the program: "Quran'ic Answers to Issues Affecting Islamic Women." The women are seated in folding chairs, facing five white-robed brothers--imams from mosques in the city.
"In the summer I wear sandals," says an eager young woman. "But I wear stockings underneath--is that okay?"
"If they're opaque," a turbaned imam says. "Only your hands and face should be showing," he reminds them.
"This is a means of protection for you. We may not understand but we must respond if Allah has said it."
He goes on to tell the women that many of them are clothed improperly: kufis, turbans are for men. The metal chairs creak. "The Qur'an says that a man shouldn't dress like a woman, and a woman shouldn't dress like a man."
One sister whispers: "He's got a lot of nerve telling us what to wear when he's standing up there in a dress."
When the imams leave, a woman in a red turban stands: "I don't care what the brother says about scarf, no scarf, opaque stockings--we are beautiful, sisters!"
Then the women take over their conference.
In a small classroom downstairs, Katrina Haslip, round face framed by a short veil, formal, nervous, gives her talk on AIDS: "Many of us in this room are converts. We have a past of drug addiction, even prostitution. I'm a Muslim and I'm HIV-positive." Donna Habib's talk on teenage pregnancy pivots on her own 16-year-old daughter. A mother tells the story of her son selling crack. Aisha Muhammed, terrifying in her sweeping black robes, high-hatted veil, and her scorched passion, calls on the women to be "visible Muslims." But she's coming from a different place than the turbaned imam. Dress so we can find each other when we're "out running in this desert of America," she cries. The conference ends with an Islamic fashion show.
I call myself a triple minority--I'm black, I'm female, and I'm Muslim.
I'm an African American but I'm Muslim above all. When I see an injustice, I say 'That's un-Islamic.' I don't jump to the race thing.
I don't feel oppressed because I'm coming from a Negro woman's perspective. I would open my arms to a man who would provide for and protect me.
Like the sisters say: there's Islam, and then there's Hislam.
Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States; some 400,000 African Americans are Muslim. At the Malcolm Shabazz that day, there were first- and second-generation Muslims--converts and young women raised in the religion from birth. Many of the children hopping like birds in the hallways will be third-generation Muslim.
Many came to the religion in the '70s through Elijah Muhammad's Lost-Found Nation of Islam. When Elijah died in 1975, some followers drifted away or joined the race-based movement of Louis Farrakhan. Many more followed the lead of Elijah's son Wallace D. Muhammad (exiled by his father from the Nation) as he began to teach religious Islam--based on the Qur'an and the words of the prophet Muhammad. (Muhammad was the last prophet, Wallace reminded them, stripping his father of that status). Wallace dismantled the financial holdings of the Nation, and disband ed the Fruit of Islam, the all-male cadre that guarded mosques and the leadership--for becoming nothing more than "a hoodlum outfit...playing politics and playing revolution." Mosque #7 in Harlem was renamed for Malcolm X, who broke with Elijah and may have been killed by members of the Nation.
Whites were now welcome to join the American Islamic community.
The popular image of Islam remains Middle Eastern; the women are ghostly figures--in purdah, in men's custody, publicly silent. The African-American women I spoke to envisioned Islam differently--finding in that same picture an image of women and children protected from violence and poverty.
According to the Qur'an, the woman has no financial obligations to her family. She should be home with her children, the women said - though all but one of them worked. Men are the protectors and breadwinners. And this message, in the Muslim community, comes from men--for mosques are filled with men the way Christian churches are filled with women. Men run most of the day-to-day operations, and are required to offer some prayers there; women can pray at home. Men's responsibilities to women are spelled out in elaborate detail in the Qur'an. "You go to a church to find Christ," one woman joked, "you go to a mosque to find a man."
Though it's obligatory, many women "cover" only for Islamic events. You can't succeed in corporate America dressed Muslim, they said. But some of the women, particularly the fierce younger ones, insist on orthodox dress. One woman's aunt tells her: "You're never gonna be successful," but the woman sees her aunt as a "corporate clone"--stressed-out and empty. Orthodox or not, all dress "modestly" and say they're treated with more respect on the street. A young newlywed said with pride: "Men don't even look."
The women have recreated themselves through religious conversion. As Muslims, they live in a bigger world where America's power to define and value them as black females is diminished. Many whites still find black Muslims threatening.
"There's a lot of ignorance because of white people being afraid of blacks in general--especially black men," says Sharanda Shabazz. "Then, black women are projected as the strong martyr type--they raise the children, they don't take no stuff. Then they see the African dress and they think--'Oh my God, here comes the terrorist!'"
I met the women during Ramadan, the month of fasting from dawn to dusk; the Burning, in Arabic. They come from Newark and Niagara Falls, Harlem and the East Village. I interviewed them in the 11th year of the AIDS epidemic--a plague of Biblical proportion in the black community.
It's a huge fight for me. I just about don't want to raise my children because of everything I'll have to shield them from, or pull out of their head.--Sarah Shah
When one of Donna Habib's 16-year-old twins came home pregnant, Donna blamed it on the public schools, peer pressure, America, herself, and her daughter. "When I was growing up, if I had sex with somebody--and I want this on the record: it wasn't at 16--it was because there was an emotional attachment. Today these kids get caught up in a moment." Donna and her husband are thinking of moving from Buffalo to an Islamic community, where their children can go to sex-segregated religious schools.
Donna's a 39-year-old public school teacher, raised Baptist--which made it easier for her to survive the switch from the Nation to El Islam. "My parents were always saying, 'God is not just for black people.'"
She has six kids--from 11 to 17 years old. "Ma, everybody's dating!" they say. "Everybody's doing everything," Donna retorts. "In America, everybody has their own mind and it's working overtime."
Premarital sex is forbidden in Islam; so is dating. Girls and boys, women and men are introduced to each through mutual acquaintances. They meet only with the intention of looking for a marriage partner, and they are always in the presence of a chaperone. So courtships are formal and short; girls are often married off young.
"I'm looking at my girls' confusion," Donna says. "They're Muslim. But they leave this door...some men take it as a notch on the belt buckle to be able to seduce a Muslim girl because she's not from the streets. She's 'pure meat'."
When her girl came home pregnant, Donna dove deep inside, sickened and angry, and examined herself. She had no doubts about refusing to put her daughters on birth control, in spite of her "own blood sister" advising it. Her daughters were peer counselors in an AIDS program, so they weren't ignorant, she says. But working full-time and not being home--that Donna wondered about.
Reading the Qur'an one day, tears fell and Donna looked up at her daughter and said, "This is not the way Allah wants things to be. There's a beautiful side to this when you have a husband, somebody there for you that cares for you." Her daughter cried.
"You've got to get a God connection," Donna told her. "Allah's the only one who can help you. Anyone can make a mistake but now go ahead and get your education and get the money so you can raise your child, raise a Muslim."
Donna thinks her daughter can do it--"She's very task-oriented. I've raised six kids, and I'm done--I'm not the one."
Thank God for her husband--"I tend to run my mouth, he's very calm. He came from a rough neighborhood--he knows a lot. The children all talk to him. Growing up, I didn't have that strong father connection."
When the boy offered to marry their pregnant daughter, Donna said to her husband--"Let him marry her--quick." But the husband met with him and told Donna, "This guy is nothing." Her husband gives money to their daughter each week to put away for the baby's birth.
"The Qur'an says the man is the provider, the protector of women and children. It says he is one notch above the woman--in physical strength only. If somebody tries to threaten my family, it's my husband who would emerge to take the bullet.
"In America, women make up a large part of the work force. In many homes, the men are not there." Her husband was unemployed when they met but Donna could see that he had a "God- consciousness, he was a praying man." He went to nursing school while she worked. "You had a man who was trying to make some strides. You have the African-American man--truly he's been broken down--trying to rise to what God says are his responsibilities. That's what's beautiful about Islam--it's a growing process. At least we have a frame of reference."
"And let me tell you something--when I stand before Allah on Judgment Day, my husband's prayers do not count for me. Now, I'm talking equal opportunity!"
I say "public schools," and Sarah Shah screams! Twenty-six years old, raised Muslim, married to a Muslim musician, and with any luck the baby pulling at her breast will be Muslim, too. They live on 140th Street and her two older children are bused to the Clara Muhammed school in Queens.
She herself attended public schools--uncovered for a few years, and learned how easy it was to get a boy's attention. "I threw on tighter jeans, opened the blouse wider." But when she got the attention, she panicked--now what? Sarah dressed Muslim again, and the boys who came to her parents' house came as friends. "I had one guy tell me, 'I know you're not gonna have sex with me, so I'll get it somewhere else.'"
At 17, Sarah was married to her first husband and was a little obsessive then, she admits. At the movies, she'd cover his eyes during the sex scenes. He'd struggle out from under: "What are you--crazy?"
Sarah laughs but when she walks down the streets with her second husband, she wants to grab every scantily dressed woman with her "meat hanging out," shove her home, make her cover. "Why should my husband look at your body? Go somewhere else!"
She wished the world would convert. She keeps her non-Muslim relatives away from her kids; wants to be a shield against "all the drugs, the homosexuality, the promiscuity." She picks movies carefully, forbids TV but still her six-year-old daughter comes running into the kitchen with handmade Freddy Krueger nails and slashes at her mother.
The princess of Malcolm Shabazz is how she hit me that first day--tiny, composed, beautiful; surrounded by women oohhing over her tiny son; standing to introduce herself as the daughter of Muslims, the mother of Muslims. Hamdu-lillah! the women called. All praises due to Allah!
Hafeezah Hasan raises her four grandchildren in the East Village. "Grandma!" The chip-toothed grandson has won the spelling contest--Hafeezah and he practiced for a week. The girl, 12 and long-legged (Hafeezah signals to me that soon the girl will grow breasts, and rolls her eyes back for all the trouble to come) is an artist. Writes and illustrates stories of shy children, though she herself is not shy. "My mother is," she tells me.
They're the children of two of Hafeezah's daughters--one killed herself when she was on angel dust; another is fighting crack addiction.
Hafeezah joined the Nation in 1975--"At that point I had lost my mother, I lost my husband--I didn't see myself going anywhere," Hafeezah says. She had eight kids, and she was struck by the Islamic emphasis on marriage and men's duty to family. She's 58 years old--some blue under the eyes, diabetic. She wears a nose ring, rose bandana, a T-shirt long enough to cover the hips. She doesn't go crazy with the covering up, she says, because she's an American Muslim and because, at 58, men aren't looking anymore.
Most of the people she grew up with are dead, Hafeezah says. Or looking old. Her first husband, whom she loved deeply, died from a long addiction to alcohol--they found him kneeling in bed, face pressed to the covers. That hurt and impressed Hafeezah-- like he was praying. There were only five people at the funeral-- that, too, impressed her. Can you imagine? Living a whole life and only five? she asks. Mother, sister, wife, ex-wife, daughter.
Islam gave her a voice, Hafeezah says--a public voice. "There was a time, I never would've let you come in the door," she says to me. "I wouldn't have spoken to you. I didn't think anybody should know my private feelings. You being Caucasian, and me being black--that inhibited me. I asked God to take this stigma about speech away from me. Since I've become Muslim, I've learned to be open. I feel I'm just as good as anybody else. We're all related whether we want to admit it or not."
The whole world is so stupid, they're behind in knowledge, religion, and In Life--PERIOD. In my world, which is far away from me, my number one knowledge is God, but I just can't find my world and I'm trapped in a world that is TOTALLY LOST when it comes to living. I'm trying to get myself together because I'm crying and writing at the same time but my biggest problem is Trying To Separate myself from the people in this LOST world....--Sameerah's journal
A street in Newark. Living houses next to dead ones--boards nailed across their eyes. Cement stairs lead up to Door Bell Not Working. No glass in the screen door. Lock broken. Inside, darkness. "Sameerah! Somebody's here for you!"
The eyes adjust and there's a metal bookshelf and photos of children (disappeared now into adulthood), and a powerfully handsome man (Sameerah's father before he left when she was 13), and a framed photograph of tiny Elijah Muhammad and his taller son Wallace (before his father exiled him from the Nation), and Sameerah's mother--white helmeted, white gowned, a serene and glowing Sister of the Nation in uniform (before Elijah's death). All preserved in dust.
Sameerah, Khalil, Rasheeda, and Muhammad (their names have been changed) live here with their mother--a health-care worker on the night shift at a home for the disabled. Curtains hang from the dining-room entrance; a small boy struggles out of them. Rasheeda's son--she and he live in the curtained-off dining room. "It's so dreary," Sameerah apologizes, and brings me upstairs to her "palace," as her friends call it. "I live like a bachelor in my mother's house," Sameerah says. Eats, sleeps, prays, studies in her room. Her hair's covered with a black, tassled veil; checked pants, long-sleeved blouse, loafers. Perfectly orthodox in dress--even her ears and neck covered.
Her parents were converts to the Nation and Sameerah attended Muhammed University until she was eight. Then her mother put her into public schools and Sameerah began to "uncover" bit by bit, feeling naked at first. When I ask her about those uncovered years she gives them to me in chronological order, chapter by chapter, each bearing the title of a boy's name. Fourteen--Darryl--kissing. Seventeen--Michael--an abortion: "I didn't know it was a sin then!" All Sameerah thought was: "I'm not going on welfare!" (Michael had a baby with another girl--that hurt.) Thomas paid too much attention to Sameerah's girlfriend, so she dated David. Louis was Christian--and told her: "Why don't you cover again? Why don't you go back to your religion?" Louis was messing around, so Sameerah did the same. "All this dating and breaking up and the lifestyle was leading up to a climax and I didn't even know it," Sameerah says. She recorded all the confusion in her journal, sometimes waking with a start in the middle of the night, with the feeling that she was dying.
One day a girlfriend told her that AIDS was invented to kill black people. Sameerah went home scared and grabbed her Qur'an and read that Allah would destroy a nation of people because they did not believe--expelling babies from the womb, extinguishing the sun. "You shall see mankind reeling like drunkards." She shook and cried. "That was the end of it." She told her boyfriend: "You cannot save my soul." (He's in jail now--maybe he can straighten himself out there, she says.)
Prayers, five times a day, were hard at first and then-- whoosh--came the peace. "Man, I felt so good," she says. "That's what I was searching for. These men...I say, 'Honey, you better get out of my face' because life is not about men. I know some women who worship men but you cannot hold on to an orgasm. The good you do, the bad--that's what matters. It's about knowing your purpose and following through. Don't let the world devour you because it sure will. I know--I've been out there in this world. I don't love it that much. In fact, I don't love it at all."
When night falls and Sameerah breaks fast, we head out for pizza. The streets are full--all the young travel in groups-- girls screaming laughter, boys shouting shit back. We hit a hilltop and suddenly there's a giant sky--ink-black clouds flying west. Beautiful, I say and Sameerah laughs at me--"It's spooky." Spooky because it's another sign that the world is nearing an end --weather changes and men wearing women's clothes. And spooky because (I realize with a shock) Sameerah hasn't been out in the night in a long time. Muslim women are supposed to be in by sunset, she says. "It's for our own protection," Sameerah tells me--because the world is violent toward women, because the Jinn, demonic and angelic spirits, are abroad at night. (Her aunt walked out of the house into the night and disappeared forever. She had been driven half-crazy by trying to raise kids in a bad marriage and deepening poverty. Doctors gave her drugs, and a bill. Her depression deepened and she stepped out. They found her body in the Passaic River.)
Sameerah will stay in her mother's house until she gets married. She puts herself through college with her office job, but cannot afford an apartment. Money aside, she says, it's the right way, the Muslim way. "It's best to stay in the house where there's a man for protection."
One Muslim man has asked to meet her. Sameerah's uncle is supposed to introduce them and play chaperone, but her uncle's fallen off the job. Sameerah prayed and decided herself to wait until after Ramadan, because she wants to concentrate right now very deeply on her prayers, the Qur'an, and something coalescing inside that she can't even name.
An aunt scolds her: You'll go crazy spending all that time in your room! "She doesn't understand that some people get peace inside by being alone," Sameerah says. She's been celibate for a year. Still scared her past might "catch up" on her. She's tested negative for AIDS, "but I don't trust no doctor neither."
Her father called one night to apologize. Sameerah told him: "Don't worry about us, Dad. What happened is between you and your creator." She's not angry, she says. Her father has given her a lot. He's a musician, and at one time Sameerah wanted to be a dancer. She laughs at that now--"I used to be a planner and plan 10 years down the line, but it never went the way I wanted. That right there showed me I wasn't in control. Now, when I think of the future, my mind just stops." Pressed, she admits that she'd like to learn Arabic and Spanish and maybe become a translator (she's studying "office systems technology" at the community college); or start a Muslim-run business in Newark.
She reads, she writes notes to herself--"I refuse to serve other than Allah!"--hangs them up in her eight-by-10-foot "palace" with blue walls, frilly girls' curtains, her prayer rug, and her father's instruments.
They let an eight-year-old girl lead the call to prayer that year. "They didn't know females weren't supposed to lead," Cheri Yasin says. "We're not supposed to because if you have a pretty voice, a sexy voice, a man may lust after it." But it was when she led the call to prayer that Cheri became Muslim in her heart.
The next year, her mother pulled her from the mosque school and put her in public school. Father left the family and mother left the religion. Cheri describes her transition to public school: "It tore me up inside. I'm a recovered anorexic. I was messed up until I met this person at 18." He was her "first male": first one she loved, first and only sex, first and only man she wanted to marry and make children with--and she gave him up when she became Muslim.
She was teaching aerobics straight out of high school, a self-described bag of bones putting other admiring women through their paces. Her thinking took a desperate turn: "This is it? We're born, we live, we die--that's all?" Most of us are too literal, Cheri says--"a calling" and people think Allah hissed in her ear: Cheri! Cherrr-iiii!! "The beauty of us is when we're looking for a solution, and we run across something, we know if this is it or not," Cheri says.
She decided to enlist. "I took the vow to the Army" is how she puts it. "I wanted to submit to something." Cheri found herself looking down at an eight-page contract and up at a female sergeant. "I didn't feel any peace; it was a total battlefield inside."
"This ain't it." (She hadn't meant to say it aloud.)
"I can't do this."
"You can't? Why?"
"That's when it hit me," Cheri says. "You know how when you're hungry you have an urge for something but you don't know what it is?" She was sitting there in her miniskirt and tube top and heels and--"Because I'm a Muslim," Cheri said, and the sergeant said, "You're a what?"
At first, Cheri thought she could have Islam and her boyfriend, too. "I knew fornicating was wrong. I didn't convert right away. I was trying to change inside. I got to the point where I wouldn't want him to touch me--'God is watching,' I'd tell him."
Girlfriends thought she was crazy--"You got a man you want to marry, a man you love!" Mother said follow your heart, but Cheri said: "I've seen so many people cheating on each other, and so many girls pregnant--why? Because in their hearts they felt they loved that person." No, Cheri thought, there are more important things in life than love. So she said good-bye, sorry; she cried. "You can't save me from what I need to be saved from."
In the dark, in the middle of the night, she'd wake up, heart pounding, and write and write. Fall back into sleep. Read her writings to her mother. Her mother would look at her funny: "Where'd you get that from? I didn't teach you that." Cheri got scared--"Everytime I touched the pen, I snatched my hand back. I even tried changing pens."
One afternoon she was walking around Newark in a daze--maybe Mom's right, I'm bugging out--when her pounding heart jerked her awake. She was standing in front of the Islamic bookstore. Terrified, she walked in and the brother who ran the place paid her no mind--dressed bold as she was in jeans and uncovered ponytail. Her eyes tore into the shelves...nothing. She started to leave and a feeling, not a voice: turn back around. She did and saw the Qur'an open on a shelf. She climbed the shelves to grab it down. "Yo! You're gonna fall!" said the brother. "I gotta get that book! I gotta read that book!" Okay, o-kay, but if you kill yourself, you can't read it.
She read on the bus home, at night, on lunch break. One afternoon Cheri read a passage in the Qur'an that she herself had written at night. "I almost dropped it. Twilight zone. I panicked." She called her grandmother right then and there, weeping onto her business suit, office workers gaping. Her grandmother's Christian and when Cheri told her about the passage, her grandmother said: "Don't you believe God answers the questions you have in due time, when you're ready for the answers?" Uh-huh. "So what's the problem?" A week later, Cheri took her public vow to Allah. That was a year ago. Cheri's 22 and in college, studying psychology, planning to open her own practice, and studying African-American history. For all of the women I spoke to, the act of conversion became an act of remembering and then fashioning their own life stories. Conversion gave them an epiphany; and their past took on a driven, prophetic quality.
In Morocco, I saw this expanse of ocean. It all came back to me. I felt all this anguish and foreboding. This coastline must've been the last version of my ancestors before they snatched them up. I started having visions again in Africa.--Sunni Rumsey Ahmed
She's best known as Sunny Rumsey--AIDS activist, community organizer, public speaker. At Malcolm Shabazz, they call her Sunni Rumsey Ahmed--one of the organizers of the Islamic Womens' Friendship Conference. The imam told her she couldn't have a name like Sunny and promptly renamed her "Sunni," as in the Islamic sect. Ahmed is her Egyptian husband's name. She began life in Jamaica, Queens, as Cheryl, but Cheryl is dead. "Cheryl died in school because Cheryl could not survive in the U.S.A. Sunny's strong, Sunny would go the 10 yards, Sunny has no illusions."
Ask Sunni how she became Muslim and she begins the story with her childhood visions--the jet-black face in the window staring at her with red-tinted eyes. With the dreams of her childhood--riding over the world in a company of souls on winged horses. With her Caribbean household, her parents' international set of friends, her Polish nanny, her intellectual stimulation in Jewish high schools. Her parents were Episcopalian but the child was spiritual.
That is where she came from--she went to college to become a veterinarian. Her mother didn't want Cheryl to go down South (she had visions, too--of her daughter swinging from a tree) so she sent her to upstate New York. There, in 1969, Cheryl, soft, alive, visionary Cheryl, "smacked up against stone-cold racism for the first time." Professors preached the intellectual superiority of whites, townsmen howled "whore" at her and her black friends. And being light-skinned, Cheryl was pressured to pass. She switched her major to education and during her student teaching, the locals complained about "a coon" instructing their children. In 1971, Sunny arrived back in New York City "radically changed; every essence of me shattered--I was like dynamite, three seconds from blowing."
Her education began in earnest then. "I knew if I was going to survive I had to understand the world of Western culture, white culture. I keep going further and further back in history and I start hearing 'Egypt.' I'm not Christian at this point--I'm not quite anything. My religion was understanding what the f--- I'm in."
When Sunny was 22, she and her aunt traveled through southern Spain with a busload of white folks. On the Costa del Sol, the two women were given rooms facing the Mediterranean, while the whites got dingy rooms in the back. At dinner, they were ushered in ahead of the whites and their plates heaped with food. Sunny was terrified--surely punishment would follow. Her aunt was thinking--how can we pay for this? "Differential treatment for a Negro child is revolutionary," Sunny says.
A Spanish man brought her to the Festival of the Madonnas. They were carried aloft in gold cages, studded with jewels. And they were all black. "I'm waiting for the white Madonnas to show up. Fifty Madonnas f---ing later, I've got a headache that just won't wait!" Sunny asked her friend what was going on and he replied, almost gently: "Why wouldn't She be black? Jesus was born in Africa." Sunny was reeling. From there they flew to Morocco, Sunny thinking Casablanca, the movie; and the immigration officer welcomed her home. Her visions, which had faded in her adolescence, returned.
She came back to America with a picture of herself in a global context--"not as a Negro woman in this oppressive society but as a part of the majority, one of the people of color on this planet." The Islamic conversion came much later, in her late thirties. "I asked myself what religion is best going to prepare my child to survive this place? No question--Islam. I saw it as a proud religion for people of color. I saw it around the world and I thought: 'Good! My son won't have to live here. Where's he gonna go? Africa.' When I saw him being Christian, I saw him going to Europe--why go to the belly of the beast?"
Sunny always thought of her child-to-be as a son (she never had any children) and always thought of "Muslim men as men," she says. A painting of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X hangs in Sunny's dining room/office, but when she thinks of Martin she sees women drenched and pummeled with water from firehoses, and when she thinks of Malcolm, she thinks of the men fighting and the women safe at home. She knew what kind of man she wanted her son to be.
"I didn't ask to be a Christian in the first damn place. Islam is my way of saying the hell with America. Those African Americans who converted were saying 'No matter how much you tried to suppress us, caricature us--we picked a religion that tells Judeo-Christian WASP America: Kiss my ass! I don't give a damn if you don't like my religion, because...Who Are You?'"
Sunny reads the Qur'an and finds it liberating to women. "The Prophet says: 'You want to run around with these women, you marry them. You should not put a woman in the position of prostitution, or of working all day to raise her children alone.'" The covering feels like a cocoon, Sunny says--and is Madonna better? Walking around in her bra? Sunny herself covers when it's appropriate; uncovers when it's not. Flying around the country on speaking engagements, she dresses "modestly," but Sunny's not gonna have people examining her headdress or alarmed by her African robes--not when she's talking about women and children dying of AIDS. Nor is Sunni going to let herself be broadcast veiled and holding up a condom. As a Muslim woman, she sees herself as "coming out of the Benazir Bhutto school." And Sunny laughs.
Fifteen: Her dress was short, her hair uncovered. A sister wrapped a galai around her head and Katrina Haslip felt like an African princess. Sixteen: Arrested for grand larceny (snatching purses) and jailed in Bedford Hills--one of a handful of teenage girls; mothered by the other inmates, helped with her homework, told that she was at a crossroads and had to choose. She converted to Islam in jail. Eighteen: Released from captivity. Went into purdah, a Muslim marriage, and an apartment in an orthodox Sunni community in East New York. Five years later: "One day I woke up and I left."
"I was in my early twenties and I looked back and felt I missed something--the youth I had suppressed. That's what we're seeing in our community--a lot of young people leaving for good or going on rampages of drugs and sex because they're so suppressed."
Twenty-two: Lonely. Uncovered. But she didn't belong. She started sniffing and then shooting up coke. Began to rob and work the streets. But the Islamic roots remained. She'd atone by giving some of the stolen money to charity. She couldn't sleep if she didn't mail the wallets back to the owners. "There's no such thing as a nice thief, Katrina!" her friends would wail. "And Ramadan would come and I would fast and I wouldn't go on the avenue to pick people's pockets until after sunset!"
Then she stopped. She wanted to go back to Islam but first she wanted to prepare herself. Didn't want to go back "garbed-up and wicked" like the Muslims she'd always criticized--pounds of veil and the heart of a rattlesnake. Before she had a chance, Katrina was arrested on outstanding grand larceny charges and given five-and-a-half to 11 years. She was 25.
Women were dying in Bedford Hills of AIDS. "They were isolated and abused. I knew very little about AIDS but I knew it was inhumane to treat human beings this way. The call of Islam is helping humanity--so I responded, even with my own fear and ignorance."
Now she feels like Allah was preparing her for her own diagnosis. She got attached to a woman with AIDS--"I was so moved by the things that came out of her mouth. She was so perceptive, so wise, and she was illiterate." The disease took on a human face, a face she loved. Katrina had only decided to be tested as an example to the women who were afraid. She tested positive. "I don't know how I would've responded if I was outside, and not in captivity."
The prison imam wanted Katrina to keep her diagnosis to herself. She was garbed--visibly Muslim--and she was the Islamic Coordinator. "I resolved to myself that when I got out, I was going to speak to the Islamic community. It was my priority. Leave Bedford, and speak to the Muslims." She did; anxious and with the faintest glow of tears in her eyes, on Saturday at the Islamic Sisters' Conference at the Malcolm Shabazz.