Editor’s Note: Written by Ashley Franklin. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
When it comes to social settings, I am master of none and disaster of all. I could be wearing a t-shirt with “Social like a Boss!” blazoned across it, and I would still be a social catastrophe. I have never been good at making friends. When I think of the friends I currently have, I think all of our relationships started haphazardly. We often cliqued in our awkwardness in some random situation. The spark that united us certainly wasn’t the result of me being a social butterfly.
But being the new convert of the masjid made me feel like a superstar. Moments after I took the shahada, the profession of faith, saying the words “La ilaha illallah, Muhammadur rasulullah,” the women of the masjid showered me with hugs and cheek kisses. They initiated conversations with me. They cooked me food. They gave me hijabs. They praised me for my ability to make it through my first Ramadan successfully. After all, going without food or drink from roughly sun-up to just before sundown is no small feat. They invited me to come sit with them at community gatherings. I was finally a regular social butterfly with little-to-no effort of my own. It was blissful! Well, it was blissful for about two months.
The popularity wore off, and I was left being awkward again. I felt it the most during those same food-filled gatherings that I’d once found delightful. I’d had to resort back to the dreadful, “Do you mind if I sit here?” It sucked. The degree of my discomfort resulted in my dwindling masjid attendance, regardless of what was going on.
Unlike before, this time, I had a plan.
After my first Muslim friend moved away, I did get to know a few more women at the masjid. I wasn’t exactly a regular attendee, and neither were they, so that didn’t make things any easier. Women aren’t required to go to the masjid, and I spent a lot of time of my early convert days being pregnant and breastfeeding. Yes, the masjid I went to did have an additional room where women could go with small children and view what was happening in the main part of the masjid via TV. Yes, I did have and used a breastfeeding cover. However, I did not have the desire to put a bunch of clothes on to sit in a side room and feed my kid under a blanket. So when I did muster up the strength and energy to go to the masjid, I wanted it to be worthwhile and for more than an hour.
I decided I may have a better chance in a group setting that had food. Unlike before, this time, I had a plan. Aside from realizing that awkward silences can be disguised with chewing, I had the ultimate distraction and lifeline. I had the baby. With a baby, I could also pretend to be grossly in tune with his needs and not a bit worried if no one was talking to me. Also, I went early. I got there early enough to grab a plate and a spot at one of the few tables on the women’s side. I purposefully sat in the middle of an empty table. That’s how I owned the table.
“As salaamu alaikum, sister. Is anyone sitting here?”
“No, have a seat!” said the social butterfly.
“Sister, may I sit here?”
“Of course you can!” I said, waving in the direction of an available seat.
“Mashallah, the baby is doing well!”
“Yes; please have a seat, sister!” I was socializing like a boss again.
For some converts, figuring out how to navigate the social spaces and functions with other Muslims can be a bit exhausting.
Unfortunately, this plan wasn’t exactly fool-proof. Sometimes I was late. Sometimes the baby was in a mood. Sometimes there were too many people and not enough tables. When I couldn’t orchestrate the perfect sitting situation, I was often fortunate enough to sit among women who were equally awkward. They sometimes made little eye contact. They sometimes spent the majority of the time on their phones. A few also went full beast mode into the mommy zone. Oddly enough, sitting among my awkward equals was a bit comforting. It was certainly a lot less stressful than pretending to be perfectly poised and popular.
For some converts, figuring out how to navigate the social spaces and functions with other Muslims can be a bit exhausting. For one, you know someone is going to say something in Arabic and you’re likely not going to have a clue as to what they’re talking about. What do you do? Do you fake it so that person doesn’t feel awkward? Do you fess up to being clueless and run the risk of the person giving you a pitying look because you don’t know something so basic? It’s a bit much. But, for me, the most confounding thing was the sheer amount of touching. After converting, I would like there to be a survey form that you use to identify yourself as a hugger, hand-shaker, or cheek-kisser. “None of the above but perhaps a slight head nod” would be a great option as well. When greeting a fellow Muslimah, I never know what to do! Here are just a few of the options I’ve come across:
1. The double-cheek kiss. This one is nearly self-explanatory. Confusion sets in regarding whether or not your cheeks should touch, if you actually kiss the person’s cheek, or if you just get extremely close to them and kiss the air.
2. The triple-cheek kiss. This one is confusing because it’s so sneaky. It has all the same problems as the double-cheek kiss and you never know when the double-cheek kiss is going to sneak into the triple.
3. The double-clutch handshake sandwich. I’m not sure if this is a power move or what. You go in for a handshake and the person grabs your hand, balls it into a fist, and then vigorously shakes it between both of theirs.
4. The squashed hand-hug barrier. You go in for a handshake, and SURPRISE, you’re being hugged. The hand between you and the other person makes it less awkward, right? No, not really.
Some days I held my baby close only to avoid the awkwardness of the whole thing. Now I have two kids, and they’re both too old to be used as shields. They roam around freely, unaware that they’ve left me exposed.
Maybe one day I’ll get better at being more of a social butterfly and less antisocial. Maybe I just need to be more comfortable in my own skin. Until I figure all of this out, I’m fine with being the masjid’s wallflower.