Boycotts, and marriage: how alike religious conservatives can be

(taking a bit of a break from blogging about female piety and female saints…)

Over at Libby Anne’s blog recently, I noticed that she has not one, but TWO posts up that really resonate with me.  On how the toll that seeing patriarchal marriage (along with scary rhetoric about how awful secular marriages supposedly are) can scare some women off marriage altogether, and about boycotts. Both quite familiar territory, unfortunately.

Seems to me that I could make something better myself. Healthier, and cheaper into the bargain. If only I’d thought to boycott patriarchal religion back in the day….
(www.wikimedia.org)

About boycotts: Yes, we were always boycotting something, too. And this was in addition to all the stuff that was forbidden anyway, because it had pig or non-zabiha animal byproducts or some kind of alcohol-related substance in it or something. Stuff that we were told at one time or another that we had to boycott:

  • Indian movies
  • Nike shoes
  • Coke
  • the film “Muhammad, Messenger of God”
  • books published by Penguin
  • and so on… my head is starting to hurt

Looking back, I can see that a lot of the boycotting we did was about drawing boundaries between us (the True Believers in a godless world, supposedly) and them (everyone else).

It isolated us, and helped to reinforce the message we were receiving in sermons and so forth that this secular, amoral society was the enemy of the believers and not to be trusted. Some of it was based on paranoia, like the whole Nike shoes debacle. We were told to boycott them because a pattern on one of their shoes supposedly spelled out the word “Allah” and was intended as an insult to Islam, not because of child-labor or sweat-shop issues or anything like that.

But at the same time, there were some boycotts that I took part in that I still think were worthwhile. Like refusing to buy South African products (in the days when apartheid was in force). But that boycott originated outside the Muslim community, and most Muslims I knew didn’t pay it any mind. So, we weren’t peer-pressured into it; it was more about taking an ethical stand.

Nowadays, I seldom pay attention to boycotts, because they trigger too many troubling memories. “Boycott this” or “pull your kids out of that” was often our knee-jerk response to everything that troubled us. Shutting the world out was the answer to almost everything. So very dysfunctional.

But taking an ethical stand is something else. I don’t want to give my money to companies that openly oppose equal civil rights for everyone, and as much as possible, I don’t.

Now, if only I’d taken such a stand against patriarchal religion back in the day…. Maybe part of all this boycotting activity was a way that we sublimated our deep unease about so much of the stuff going on inside our community. A way of projecting our fears outward.

*                                            *                                                 *

About marriage: Libby Anne quoted from a recent blog post from Lisa, a young woman who was raised in a family that followed Christian patriarchy/Quiverfull teachings. Lisa writes that recently, her friend asked her if she would like to be married to her boyfriend one day. And that she answered in the negative. When her friend asked why, she had to explain… and this is the explanation she gives:

“D is a great person – hard worker, gentle, smart, funny, sexy, understanding, awesome with kids. He’d be a great husband, and an even better Dad. I wouldn’t trade him for the world.

But I’m afraid of marriage. I’m afraid of what marriage is to me, what I have been taught marriage is. You see, I only know two extremes: The fundamentalist marriages, and the supposedly terrible secular marriages. I don’t want to be a submissive, meek wife and lose everything I dream of these days. I don’t want to go back to where I’ve been. I don’t want to waste everything I sacrificed just to end up back in the old ways. And I also don’t want one of these marriages the fundamentalists talk about: The man lazy and fat, cheating on his wife, going to swingerclubs, terrible kids. It’s all I know, and I want neither.

I realize there’s got to be more but I just can’t imagine what it would look like. I have just tasted freedom and marriage seems like a prison now.”

Libby Anne then asks her readers to “join me in helping Lisa envision some of the “more” she knows must be out there? Can you give her some idea of what an egalitarian marriage looks and feels like?”

Reading Lisa’s post, I recognize that feeling very well—though from the perspective of someone who was in a patriarchal, highly dysfunctional marriage that ended up being abusive, for over two decades. And I married in my teens. Meaning, I have not had any other relationships of any sort. Only that awful marriage. For some reason, people seem to expect that I will find another relationship, and seem surprised that I haven’t. My work schedule and the kids’ needs keep me too busy for that, of course… but the other reason that I rarely admit to is that I can’t envision any kind of relationship—not even platonic dating, much less marriage—that I would want to get into. It seems to me like it would end up with me going right back down into the abusive quicksand that I just came out of… or that it would just be another, secular kind of abuse. Nothing to look forward to in either case. A waste of all the efforts that I have put into trying to rebuild my life.

Growing up, I didn’t see many relationships or marriages that I would have ever wanted to be in. Certainly not up close. Let’s just say that I don’t want to be with anyone who spends all their time at work and ignores me, or goes out drinking with their friends or off on long hunting trips and ignores me, or who cheats, or who stays “for the sake of the kids” but clearly wishes that they didn’t feel obligated to.

And once I became a Muslim… then marriage (there were no permissible relationships other than marriage) became a highly regulated undertaking, in which everyone has a highly gendered role to play. We were taught that especially for women, playing the role of wife “correctly” would make the difference between going to hell or going to paradise. God wouldn’t hear the prayers of a disobedient wife (we read) and the houris would taunt her, saying that soon enough the man that she was not giving his due would be coming to them (it’s a hadith). In other words, being a “bad” wife was a sin of cosmic proportions.

The guilt that these sorts of teachings inculcates is really hard to deal with, I find. And oddly enough, not because we just took them at face value, and became model submissive wives. Looking back, I remember the ways that I and my convert friends used to try to “bargain with” these kinds of teachings—a sort of “this far and no farther” kind of thing. We’d say that we believed that wives have to be obedient, but we’d delimit what such “obedience” meant for us as much as possible. We were aware of differences of opinion among scholars about the scope of a wife’s obedience, and made use of such ambiguities to the best of our abilities.

But still. In the background was the guilt. The fear. What if God didn’t look indulgently on our “bargaining” attempts? We would have to answer some day before God for every word, every act, even every thought. Every time I had sighed when my husband yelled at me to come and do whatever-stupid-thing he couldn’t be bothered to do himself, every time I had complained to my best friend about the way my husband was acting, every time I had refused to sleep with him, every time I had even thought angry or resentful thoughts… I would have to account for. The majority of people in hell were women (we read), because women complain too much and aren’t sufficiently grateful to their husbands. Would I be among them?

At the same time, we didn’t envy women outside our insular, conservative community, and we certainly didn’t think that their marriages (or relationships) could be any better than ours. In fact, we were convinced of the opposite: non-Muslim, or non-practicing Muslim women, unlike us, would have to worry about their  husbands going out drinking, or gambling away their pay-checks, or visiting strip clubs. Or cheating on them, and infecting them with diseases. And so many marriages end in divorce. A non-religious husband (we assumed) will quickly tire of the same woman, especially after she has a couple of kids and is no longer as physically attractive. Only a religious man (we thought) will appreciate his wife for her good character and sincerity and hard work, and remain loyal to her.

(boy, was I wrong about not having to worry about religious husbands cheating or any of the rest… but anyway)

Getting divorced was a great relief for a number of reasons, and one of them was this cosmic weight off my mind and conscience. The first question God would ask me on the Day of Judgment would no longer be whether I fulfilled my husband’s “rights” over me (aka whether I had been obedient). Less to feel guilty and fearful about, and also, a greater feeling of self-respect. I’ll be judged as a human being, not as an adjunct to someone else.

The idea of marriage for me is poisoned, basically. I can’t help but associate it entering this sort of  guilt-ridden existence in which your spouse has “rights over you” that you must fulfill, and that you always worry at the back of your mind that you aren’t quite doing that properly. I also never, ever want to give anyone that amount of power to manipulate me again—not any community, and not any individual.

“Well” (I ask myself) “how does this make any sense? Surely marriage can be whatever you want to make it? And it would have to be something different from what you experienced before anyway, given that you wouldn’t be marrying either a conservative Muslim or a man? Isn’t there something in between the extremes of Muslim patriarchal marriage, and the not-very-appealing marriages that you saw growing up? And who says you have to get married, anyway? There are all kinds of relationship possibilities out there.”

Reading through the comments on Libby Anne’s blog, I can hardly believe that so many people are writing in and describing such lovely relationships. Nowadays, I know a few people who are in marriages that are wonderful to behold (Muslims, but not conservative).

But still. Thing is, after years of living in a really awful marriage, surrounded by a community that firmly believed that every woman must get married, and if anything made space for rotten marriages like mine due to the emphasis on men’s supposedly god-given entitlements… you do tend to develop some really bad relationship habits. And they become engrained. Such as:

  • Fear of being completely honest about how you think and feel, even to yourself, much less to your significant other. Because you have a role you have to fill, that you will be held responsible for. Not only by God and the community, but you yourself will feel like a failure if you can’t fit the mold.
  • Fear of abandonment. That if your significant other realizes how much you fall short of the ideal, they will leave you. Which will be unbearably humiliating, because the community gossips will minutely pick apart your marriage and itemize all your faults. And you will have failed at “half your deen” (aka marriage). So, better to present yourself as your significant other wants to see you, to the extent possible. And keep anything they don’t like, even if it’s really important to you, out of their sight.
  • Fear that your significant other will do harm to you. That they will use the power they have over you to hurt you.
  • Serious communication problems. But then, there’s not much to communicate about if the people involved are afraid to be honest, and are primarily focused on playing roles rather than interacting with another human being.
  • A “quid pro quo” attitude—these are your rights that I have to give you, and these are mine, that I hope you will give me. At least, if you don’t, then I’ll start cutting corners on my fulfillment of your rights. But since as a woman I have much less power in the relationship, I’ll do that…
  • …in a passive-aggressive way. Problems in the relationship are never dealt with in an open, above-board way. That would entail honesty and communication… which is seriously lacking. It would mean risking admitting that those roles just aren’t working out very well—which is way too much like questioning God. As well as putting your own gender identity into question, which would be way too threatening.
  • Chronic complaining becomes the bond above bonds. Not with your significant other, of course, but with your close friends. Significant Other talks to their friends all the time about what’s bothering them, decisions they’re trying to make, how frustrated they are with you… and you do the same with your close friends. Your bond with your close friends is much stronger than your bond to Significant Other—and the same is true for them. A lot of what makes those bonds to friends so strong is the complaining: you complain to them about your significant other, they complain about their significant others, and everyone feels that at least they’re not alone in the world. No problems ever get solved, of course, but people get a chance to temporarily vent their frustrations.

These types of patterns are very hard to break. It will certainly take a lot of work.

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  1. #1 by Saliha on August 3, 2012 - 6:35 pm

    I have a few books that I think you might find really helpful, but I’d rather not post them in the comments section. Is there a way I can get them to you privately? My email address is dsalihad@gmail.com. Or if you’d be more comfortable, I can leave them in the comments section and you can just not “approve” them, but you’ll still be able to see. Let me know.

    • #2 by xcwn on August 5, 2012 - 3:59 pm

      Saliha—Please post the titles of the books in the comments section. That way, anyone working through these kinds of issues can see them. That would be great.

  2. #3 by Ify Okoye on August 4, 2012 - 4:18 pm

    Personally, I’ve found this fear of being completely honest about your thoughts and emotions with your partner or potential future partner very common. It’s very hard to build a solid foundation for a relationship built on dishonesty and lack of openness. Our relationships are about so much more than the standard rights and obligations trope.

  3. #4 by Z on August 5, 2012 - 6:56 pm

    Yes, I also never married due to what I learned at home about what marriage was and what I would have to do as a married person, and sacrifice for the sake of being one.

    I can see egalitarian relationships but have trouble thinking the words egalitarian and marriage in the same breath, as I associate marriage primarily with slavery and death. I also have not seen many marriages I would want to be in.

    Great point about communication and role playing. The reason it is so hard to visit our parents is that we forget they only want us to play roles, and that actual communication is very upsetting for them to see, or to have tried on them.

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