Clio Talks Back: Finding Fran

Once upon a time (in the 1950s) there were two friends in Los Angeles, California, named Lois and Fran. Both super-achievers, they were inseparable in high school, but once graduated, they attended different universities (both in California), and eventually lost touch with one another. Lois discovered feminism and became a pioneer in the new field of women’s history. She is now a history professor at the University of Southern California.

The artistic and intense Fran took a more spiritual route. With her first husband, Hans, she ultimately sought refuge in a commune called Lama in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico. Seeking spiritual peace, she left her husband, and built a new union with the founder of the Lama community (Stephen, later Nuridin). Ultimately she converted to Islam, took the name Noura, embracing a new life as a Muslim woman, wife, and mother. Fran covered herself and embarked on an adventurous but simpler lifestyle, living (after New Mexico) in Chamonix, then Mecca, and ultimately settling in Alexandria, Egypt.

How could these two young women have followed such different paths. This was the question that led Lois to decide to find Fran (Noura), and, ultimately, to write a book about their converging - and diverging - lives and ideas about religion and life. Lois’s book, Finding Fran: History and Memory in the Lives of Two Women, appeared in 1999.

In later life Lois had located Fran. The two met several times, in New Mexico and again in Egypt. Fran explained to Lois that her mother had conditioned her for domesticity, but she discovered that she needed to live her own life, to make her own choices – to escape that overpowering, albeit benevolent maternal presence. “I lived my mother’s life until I was thirty; then I wanted to live my own life,” she explained (p. 95).

Noura’s quest was fundamentally spiritual, a search for “inner freedom,” for what Lois termed “liberation thorugh surrender.” She quotes Noura as saying: “What may appear from outside Islam as a set of strictures, even a trap, a series of limitations, appears from inside to be an infinite expanding geometry, a crystalline structure of great beauty which not only insures safety and orders chaos, but allows the soul freedom to soar” (p. 193).

Noura learned to chant “La illaha illa Llah” (There is no God but God), which, in her words, “is the basis of Islam”. . . “You must acknowledge this and say, I surrender. That is what separates a Muslim from a non-Muslim, because Islam means surrender” (p. 197) She converted to Islam in 1975 in Jerusalem, the city in which the three great world - Judalism, Christianity, and Islam - converge. She was deeply moved by the traditional culture of the Muslim Palestinians, among whom she lived. And she embraced the Sufi approach to Islam.

Living in Makkah (Mecca) in Saudi Arabia for several years in the late 1970s, Noura was similarly impressed with the community of women, who came from all over the world on the ritual pilgrimage. She and her now-husband decided to establish an Islamic study center in New Mexico. This initiative never developed in the manner they had hoped. Settling in Alexandria, Egypt, where Sufism was more accepted than in Saudi Arabia, Noura and her family at last ceased their journeys.

Noura (Fran) and Lois held long conversations during their meetings in the 1990s. They debated and disagreed about women’s (and men’s) covering themselves completely, as a means of de-emphasizing sexuality. But they found common ground when evaluating the scope of women’s liberty in a society based on strict sexual segregation and parallel spheres. For example, in Islamic societies, married women could own property and establish businesses, a privilege for which wives in Western societies long campaigned before achieving it. Both Noura and Lois agreed on “equal education for women, equal access to the professions, and equal pay for equal work” (p. 213).

Noura pointed out to Lois that under Islam, “married women have the right to their own income; they can start a business with it; they can put it into the bank or buy jewelry with it; they can do anything they want with it. Women are guaranteed the right to inherit under Qur’anic law, and if the portion decreed for sons is larger than that for daughters, it’s because sons are required to care for the unmarried women of their families, and daughters aren’t required to support themselves. Under Islam, married women keep their maiden names; children alone take fathers’ names” (p. 214).

Women under Islam enjoy great authority, Noura asserted. “The power of the ‘mother’ dominates the home. Muslim children are taught to honor their mother first of all. Muslims will give their paychecks to their parents and forego marriage in order to support them; they will do anything for their mothers. When you marry, you serve your mother-in-law; as you age and your children grow up and marry, you are the one who is served. Even urban professional women regard their famiies as the center of their lives. They live with husbands or families; single men and women living alone are considered anomalous, even dangerous” (p. 214). Noura’s observations on the power of mothers are especially poignant, coming from a woman who sought to escape the powerful influence of her own mother.

As the conversations of Noura and Lois continued, they discussed many more aspects of Islam and the differences between Western cultures and Muslim cultures. “By Qur’anic prescription,” Noura pointed out, women and men are equal before Allah; no mythology exists about Eve bringing evil into the world. In contrast to Christian dogma, sexual pleasure is considered integral to marriage. In Arabic the word Allah has neither a masculine nor a feminine connotation” (p. 214).

Clio invites you to read Finding Fran. The parallel yet dissimilar lives of Lois and Fran, and their evaluations are relevant today for understanding the commonalities – and differences – of great religious traditions, and how these can inform ways of living and individual spiritual journeys.

Source: Lois W. Banner, Finding Fran: History and Memory in the Lives of Two Women (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). All quotations from the hardcover edition. A paperback edition and Kindle edition are available through Amazon books.