Raya, typical Muslim activist?
What do the words Islamic blogger bring to mind? Young extremists hacking away on old computers. Youth from poor backgrounds who have turned to Islam after secular dreams failed? Maybe you already know better.
Raya Shokatfard is a 63-year old female blogger for Islamonline.com and lived most of her life in the United States. She came to speak with us at Professor Sullivan’s flat and because of popular demand, spent the majority of the time sharing intimate details of her personal life. Ask some journalistic questions, Carlene chided us an hour or so into the conversation. It was little use–Raya’s story had us hooked.
A native of Iran, Raya’s family migrated to California in 1969 when she was 20 years old. A mini-skirt wearing model who owned a clothing store, drove a Rolls Royce and spent her time at a beach house, religion and modesty, so central to Islam were far from her mind.
At some point, these luxuries grew old. “I have everything but I’m really empty,” she remembers realizing.
Through Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity (she practiced as a Christian seven years) she traveled, still at a loss for what she sought. Then she read the Koran. “It was so plain, so clear. I felt I did find God here,” she told us.
Divorced with two children Shokatfard retreated to the mountains of northern California to home school her children in Islam and lead a more peaceful life. As her understanding of Islam deepened so did her desire to share and combat misconceptions about the religion.
Raya spent 16 years speaking in schools, churches and wherever she was welcomed about Islam. At the same time she operated as a highly successful real-estate agent.
Around September 11th she married a “strict” Egyptian husband with two other wives. He asked her to give up her real estate business–which she said was earning her $30,000-40,000 per month. “When you say you believe don’t you think Allah will test you?” she said of the financial sacrifice.
She also adapted the niqab (face veil) in addition to the hijab (headscarf) and abaya (full-length dress) she already wore. She continued giving lectures in rooms where men and women sat separately–she removed her niqab only facing women. She said she wanted to learn from her husband, who was under Allah. Women are vessels under their husbands, she told us. “Everything he asked me, I did,” she said of her second husband. “He was a very knowledgeable sheikh.
When she could not reach her husband to gain permission, she missed her own lectures.
After September 11th she wanted to do something more. I wanted to expand my audience, she told us.
She came to American University in Cairo and earned her Masters in Communication and Media. During this time she divorced her Egyptian husband–something common in Islam. After graduating in 2007 she was hired by Islamonline.com, the most widely read English Islamic publication. Today accepts a promotion to the position of chief editor
How are you guys grappling with all this? Carlene asked us mid-way through. I think we can talk freely here, she said. Raya has children who grew up in the United States. She spent her life there.
We did not hold back. We asked Raya about polygamy and feminism, her multiple divorces and relationships with her children.
“No matter what I did I was the smartest in everything. I became proud,” she told us. “I had the body of a woman but a mind of a man. When I really looked at characteristics of a believing woman, that is not me.” She described Saudi Arabian women who isolated and insulated themselves from the outside world.
What you’re saying is woman shouldn’t work? Isn’t that a privilege of the elite? I questioned her.
She held firm. It’s not women’s natural role. Their characters suffer. Raya considers her own activism different–not a financial enterprise she is doing the work of Allah.
After the session ended Stephanie Daly and I asked her questions for an article we’re writing about dating (stay tuned!).
Steph wanted a picture with her. Come in, come in, she encouraged me.