On othering and “feeling sick”

I read a number of blogs written by women (and sometimes men) recovering from Quiverful and other similar very conservative Protestant movements or churches. As the links on this blog indicate. I can relate to a lot of the things that they write about—patriarchal family dynamics, ridiculously high levels of intrusion into people’s lives, cults of personality around self-styled leaders, destructive scripturally-based “counseling” and rotten “marital advice” dished out by such leaders, victim-blaming rhetoric, the after-effects of isolation from “the world” in favor of living in a religious bubble… and the list goes on.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Burning-cross2.jpg

When I read these blogs (and some of them are really good), I wish I wasn’t haunted by, well, some all-too-recent history that somehow won’t quite stay dead and buried. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Burning-cross2.jpg

Sometimes, the things they write about help me to think through things that happened to me. Sometimes, they make insightful suggestions about how to deal with particular issues. Sometimes, it’s just nice to know that you are not alone in dealing with the aftermath of such things.

But unfortunately sometimes, reading these blogs is more like realizing the answer to a question that been haunting me ever since I saw a memorial display with the statistics (broken down state by state) for lynchings of African-Americans in the twentieth century: Where does such visceral, violent hatred go? What happens to it, when it is finally driven more or less underground? Does it die for lack of oxygen? Or does it lie there in wait, perhaps mutating into something more socially acceptable so that it can rise again?

Posters and commenters in particular in some of these blogs (and others like them) sometimes use a sort of short-hand that expresses that certain ideas, practices and institutions are oppressive:

  • a fundamentalist, controlling Christian community is a “fundystan”
  • any oppressive, hyper-controlling church or group is a “taliban”
  • conservative Christian teachings (especially on women’s roles) are a “mental burka”
  • to question and reject said teachings is to “throw off the mental burka”
  • Hepzihah House is “Hezbollah House”
  • and so on

Basically, any media word/part of a word that is associated in one way or another with Muslims is equated with oppression, violence, cruelty, or danger, regardless of what the word means in the language(s) or community(ies) that it originally comes from.

This is a practice that is unfortunately all too common in the media, where we see words like “jihad” being used to discuss the activities of, say, conservative Christian anti-abortion activists who resort to violence. The implication is that as true Christians supposedly can’t be violent, controlling, misogynistic or abusive, such terrible things can only really come from some despised Other. Like Islam. Or Muslims.

This way of talking is now practically mainstream. It is not surprising that those recovering from spiritual abuse have picked it up and run with it. So, I generally try to ignore it, to shove back that niggling question: What is the long-term effect of these words? For my children? For my grand-children? Just how literally does anyone take those words?

In a recent post on No Longer Quivering, Cindy writes about seeing a Muslim woman with a face-veil eating with her family in a restaurant:

Sitting at a table in very close proximity to ours was a Muslim family.  We see a lot of Muslim families these days, but more so in Houston than anywhere else in Texas and Oklahoma.

We don’t have any objections to sharing the planet, state, city, neighborhood or even close quarters of a restaurant with peaceful Muslims no matter how fundamentally extreme their personal beliefs and practices.

But here, we’ve not seen too many whose women wear a Hijab that covers the entire face only leaving small openings for the eyes.  It was disconcerting as we couldn’t help but notice that for this dear woman- a mother of small children- to eat, she had to maneuver  her food under the veil to reach her mouth.

It’s difficult to imagine how one could actually enjoy the pleasantries of eating out, handicapped in such a way.

I felt sad for her.  Paul felt sick to his stomach. This is just how he reacts to such things (he’s weird like that).

No doubt, though, if one were to question her the virtue of a belief system that would require such needless display of devotion, she would fervently claim that she has chosen this life.

She would likely deny that her husband has forced her to live this way.  She would probably claim he shows honor to her, exalts her in some way by ‘requesting‘ (expecting) she commit to her faith (and to him) to this degree….

The larger point that Cindy says she’s trying to make is that all hyper-conservative, controlling religious groups ranging from the FLDS Mormons to Quiverful are horribly oppressive to women. And that the way she writes about this veiled woman is just meant to represent women’s oppression in a variety of religions, not to single out Islam in particular.

But, as several commenters on that post point out, Cindy doesn’t even know the woman. Cindy has no idea about her life, her marriage, why she covers her face, or what her husband thinks of it. She is just using that woman’s body as a prop in her post, without that woman’s consent. And in order to argue against the oppression of women, no less. The irony of this has apparently escaped her.

And, it’s all about Cindy. And her husband, Paul. Don’t get them wrong, they’re nice folks, so they condescend to share the planet, the nation, the city, the neighborhood, even the restaurant with Muslims. But still. How they feel as white, Christian Americans, seeing a Muslim family eating in the same restaurant is really important. How Cindy pities the veiled woman, and imagines that her husband controls how she relates to her faith. How Paul feels sick to his stomach at the sight of a woman in a face-veil. How Cindy patronizingly wonders how the woman could possibly enjoy eating out.

But what makes me sick to my stomach is the memories.

Reading this sort of thing brings back all sorts of memories. From back when I wore hijab, through the twenty-five years that I wore it. Thing is, Muslim women aren’t any more unconscious of their surroundings or of people’s reactions to them then anyone else on the planet is. We knew when we were being patronized, condescended to, grudgingly tolerated, pitied, stared at (whether openly or surreptitiously) or whispered about (or spoken about in our presence, as though we were small children who couldn’t understand adult conversations).

It also makes me feel very sorry for the veiled woman. Imagine having to eat your dinner in close proximity to those who you know are reacting to you in such negative ways. And having your kids witness all that. How humiliating and depressing.

Being critical of patriarchal religions is one thing. Writing about a white man’s nausea at the sight of a veiled woman and passing this off as a statement against women’s oppression is quite another.

I don’t wear hijab any more. Nowadays, I don’t agree at all with the usual conservative Muslim arguments for why women should wear hijab, much less veil their faces. And I’m certainly not the only one, either. In the last ten years, a number of Muslim women I know have chosen to de-hijab (or in one case, de-niqab as well as de-hijab) for a variety of reasons.

But much as I oppose pro-niqab discourses and am highly critical of those who promote them, I don’t feel nauseous at the sight of a woman wearing one. Because I see niqab-wearing women as human beings first and foremost.

Being pronounced the cause of someone’s nausea is dehumanizing.

And, it’s a part of a much wider context. A context in which many people, including some journalists, feel free to use words that imply that Muslim = oppression/violence/danger.

Those words are borders, lines. Marking territory for those who belong, for the pure, in which Others (if present at all) are, well, Other. It’s that sort of thing that can help create an atmosphere that could lead to violence against those Others. Hardly something that is going to liberate all women.

And since the issue at stake is said to be the oppression of women, this post is all the more remarkable. If the veiled woman is in fact abused, then what is the likely result of encountering white folks oozing pity, condescension and so forth?  Would she feel safe approaching them for help? Is it likely to inspire her to call the abused woman’s helpline, or the police, or to go to a shelter—where you know, she might well anticipate having to deal with more white folks with similar attitudes? Really?

So, there are certain blogs that I won’t link to. And I don’t add my blog to the Spiritual Abuse Survivors Network either.

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  1. #1 by (°­­–°) on March 16, 2013 - 10:51 pm

    That is very upsetting, but I guess expected. Do you think they would be aware of this post? Maybe it should be linked there. Damn. It never ends. But what you wrote here is so moving about the experience of being on the end of those judgements. Maybe it would move them.

    • #2 by xcwn on March 16, 2013 - 11:15 pm

      I did link to it. Isn’t the link working? It is on my end.

  2. #3 by mary on March 17, 2013 - 8:57 am

    “Peaceful Muslims.” That one, used in your example, was the one that hit me between the eyes. If you’re “peaceful,” you can eat in the restaurant with the normal people, even if your niqab makes them nauseous.

    What I also find worthy of a second look is that the Muslima wearing the niqab was apparently so fervent about her need to wear it that she wouldn’t take it off even to eat. It is so awkward to eat while wearing it that it seems like too much of an ordeal to eat in a restaurant. Perhaps this is as much a source of the man’s nausea as anything else. Most niqab-wearing women I have known would take it off before eating; there is something so slave-like in trying to get through a meal while wearing it (and not getting food on it, or on oneself) that for me, I think seeing this woman would have made me angry. I can’t imagine a God who would approve of such a ridiculous thing as eating while having a big piece of cloth hanging from one’s nose down to one’s chest.

    Add to that the commonly held assumption that the woman is being forced to wear it, and the righteous indignation in those nice Christian people, mixed with condescension and pity, is quite a stew. How ironic that the niqab, meant to conceal, actually draws a crowd of onlookers as a woman, a slave to symbols of piety, makes a spectacle of herself.

    • #4 by xcwn on March 17, 2013 - 7:19 pm

      Mary—Yeah, its a complicated situation. As I said, I don’t agree with wearing niqab. And even of those conservative North American Muslims who theoretically approve of it, there’s no shortage of them (leaders, as well as average people) who think that wearing it is very unwise for women who don’t live in places where such clothing is considered “normal” and won’t attract attention.

      But that’s not the main point here. No matter how unwise it may be to wear niqab in Texas (and to try to eat while wearing one—though apparently it’s possible to do that without spilling food, with practice…), the post I am commenting on writes about this woman in a condescending, objectifying way, while claiming that the concern is actually to combat the oppression of women by patriarchal religions in general. Thing is, you don’t combat women’s oppression by objectifying or patronizing them.

      As for the reference to nausea—unfortunately for some people, it’s not a long step from stating or implying that a particular type of people are disgusting or nauseating, and being violent toward them (or worse). That’s at the root of the so-called “gay panic” defense, as well as violence towards trans people.

      As someone who is queer, I can say that being in the presence of someone who finds you frankly disgusting is unbelievably scary—especially if it’s a situation in which there is no reason why things might not get out of hand. So that type of “makes me sick” rhetoric is really irresponsible, as well as dehumanizing. A responsible person who really wants to oppose the abuse of women wouldn’t spread that sort of rhetoric around further than it already is.

      And being patronized, talked down to, or pitied doesn’t help women get out of abusive situations. If that veiled woman is being abused by her husband, she is probably already quite accustomed to being treated as “less-than” in various ways. Women in abusive marriages often cope by rationalizing it—deciding that they somehow deserve it.

      Throughout the years of my abusive marriage to a Muslim man, all the condescension I received from various sources or the grief I got because of the way I dressed didn’t make me think of leaving. It was once I went back to school, and started meeting people who treated me with genuine respect and acceptance. Then, I began to see that there are other ways to live, and to be able to imagine myself having a better life.

  3. #5 by mary on March 17, 2013 - 9:37 pm

    Having lived in Houston and worn the hijab there, I’m frankly amazed that any woman would venture out wearing niqab. The sight of her must have been so bizarre that it would have been almost impossible for most people not to stare. What I picked up from your quote is that common belief on the part of non-Muslims that a woman wearing niqab must be an extremist. Or married to one, which of course would be the source of the pity they felt for her as they watched her eat.

    It shows what kind of courage fundamentalist Islam demands of female followers, and how much it removes them from mainstream life. Even here in the middle east where I live, I am aware of the isolation of niqab-wearing women and I cannot help but wonder how they handle this. But to be in Texas wearing niqab is beyond courageous; I would have to assume this woman never ventures out of her house unless she is with her husband. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be safe. I had my share of unpleasant experiences in Houston as a woman wearing hijab; no way would i wear niqab.

    Having said that, I will just mention the impression I get from women who wear niqab, and that is, that they have no identity. They go out in public as ghost-like figures with no personal presence. I cannot imagine that this is a form of piety or modesty because the woman herself has chosen not to be present in any discernible form. I think this may be the reason so many non-Muslims are so uncomfortable when they see a woman in niqab.

    • #6 by Vicky on March 20, 2013 - 7:26 pm

      Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a society in which the majority of women wore niqab (Saudi Arabia), or perhaps it’s because of the neurological impairments that I have (I struggle to recognise faces. to the point where my own parents carry a sign with my name on when meeting me at the airport), but I have never felt that a niqabi woman was erasing herself or that she had no personal presence. As a kid, I was educated alongside students with all types of disabilities, including children who were blind and who had never seen anyone’s face. I know I’m in a minority, but I don’t treat faces as central to identity. For me all the niqab does is remind me of how much I can’t know about a person, and this is a useful reminder.

      There’s a book, ‘From My Sisters’ Lips’, by a British-Zimbabwean convert to Islam. It’s a deeply problematic book in many respects (it tries to rationalise some misogynistic ideas and practices) but there is one scene in there that really stands out as positive. The author broke her toe when she was practising kick-boxing, and had to go to the hospital. She realised that she might seem strange to the doctor – ‘a bouncy woman, covered from head to toe in black, chatting about how she had injured herself while kick-boxing’ – and she asked the doctor whether it was strange. The doctor replied, “In this job, you learn not to assume anything about people.”

      What angered me most about that NLQ piece were the assumptions. I have a Muslim friend who is active in the LGBTQ community. She’s niqabi. She gets up and speaks about her experiences as a bisexual in her niqab. She isn’t married, and she has partners, so she isn’t following mainstream Islamic teaching in many areas of her life – yet she covers her face. I know another Muslim woman who talks about her niqab through a radical feminist lens, as a rejection of beauty norms. She sees it as similar to other women going skinhead and deciding not to shave. Of course these two women are by no means typical. But the point for me is that we can never really know why someone is doing what they are, let alone a complete stranger in a restaurant.

  4. #7 by Vicky on March 18, 2013 - 10:31 am

    “We don’t have any objections to sharing the planet, state, city, neighborhood or even close quarters of a restaurant with peaceful Muslims no matter how fundamentally extreme their personal beliefs and practices.”

    This was the bit that really got me. Good tolerant people would share the city, and really enlightened people might be prepared to coexist in the same neighbourhood, but Cindy really goes all out in her graciousness and is actually prepared to sit near Muslims (the right sort of Muslim, that is) EVEN IN CLOSE QUARTERS OF A RESTAURANT.

    Good grief. My immediate reaction on seeing that was, “Well, that’s very white of her. It’s a wonder she can do that and not be put off her food.”

    • #8 by charmedshiva on March 20, 2013 - 3:42 am

      Have you been around Middle Eastern families who are secular but from a Muslim background, or who are ex-Muslims? Many of them have the same exact attitude about conservative Muslims, especially those wearing extra conservative clothing and behaving socially conservative. It’s not a “white” thing.
      Sit around some secular Iranian-American tables for dinner. You’ll sometimes notice a trend in Islam and Muslim bashing, even though they all come from a Muslim background.
      I hate to seem offensive, but I sympathize with the feelings of these people. When you have that huge of a discrepancy with another’s behavior and rules, especially if you have had to suffer the unwanted conservatism and know about controversial topics in Islamic doctrine/history, and if you see covering your entire body except a sliver for the eyes as extreme – which in all honesty, how much more extreme than that does conservative clothing get? – then why wouldn’t you talk that way about the people you observe?

      • #9 by xcwn on March 25, 2013 - 11:55 pm

        Charmedshiva—lol. Your comment sure brings back some grim memories. The behavior of such people was one factor that tended to drive us converts into the arms of the conservatives, frankly… good grief.

      • #10 by shepardmary57 on March 26, 2013 - 8:46 am

        And of course we go back to the issue of men’s attitudes toward the hijab and niqab. In the west, both are seen as extreme clothing. While living in Houston, I walked into a library one morning and the clerk practically shouted, “Wow, I’ve never seen one of YOU come in here before!” My hijab was quite a new thing for her. She turned out to be a very nice woman, by the way. But in social media and in Muslim circles, what always gets me are the men and how the are either telling us to cover up or take it off, depending on who they are. Most annoying on Facebook are the Muslims who post cute little photos of little girls in hijab. I see it as a form of child abuse, taking away a girl’s choice to wear it, and its inappropriateness on a small child smacks of prudishness. Second to that are the men who tell us we are more beautiful in the hijab; there is just something about that which has always bothered me, possibly the message that the hijab is supposed to protect me from men looking at me and judging my appearance.

        I have a male friend here who spent his career working with Europeans, and although he is an Egyptian and a non-practicing Muslim, he has rejected so much of his culture and religion, and he cannot stand either the hijab or the niqab. He says both are backward and ignorant, and that he knew many good Christians who kept their religion private; he went on to criticize the very public spectacle that is Islam, including the 5 daily prayers, the beards, the hijab and niqab, the social segregation by sex, and the unwillingness of many Muslims to mingle with the kufar. I must admit, he has a point.

  5. #11 by Vyckie D. Garrison (@NoQuivering) on March 19, 2013 - 2:38 am

    Sober Second Look (sorry, I searched for your name, but do not see it posted anywhere, so I’m not sure how to address you),

    When I first read Cindy’s post, I did not even consider the perspective of the Muslim woman she referred to, which I admit, was a huge, inexcusable mistake. I don’t think Cindy really thought much about it either. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to focus on the issues which are central to our own experience and perspective – so thank you for adding your perspective and pointing out the disconnect.

    As a result of your post and the comments on Cindy’s post at NLQ, we are rethinking some firmly entrenched assumptions. As Christian fundamentalists, we were constantly warned that unless we were vigilant, America would be overrun by Muslims and we would all be forced to wear burkas and never leave the house unless accompanied by a man to protect us. Even though we know now that our old way of thinking was fear-based and false, obviously, we still have some relearning to do.

    I talked to Cindy this evening and she is working on a new post to address the ways in which you have challenged her thinking.

    That you see things differently should not be a reason not to join the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network – actually, it may be one of the best reasons to join us – because open dialogue is really our best hope for better understanding.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Vyckie @ No Longer Quivering

    • #12 by xcwn on March 19, 2013 - 3:06 am

      Vyckie—Thank you for your comment, and explanation. I appreciate what you have done and are doing at No Longer Quivering. Women recovering from patriarchal religions have a lot of issue in common, and I hope that we can be supportive of one another.

  6. #13 by charmedshiva on March 20, 2013 - 3:30 am

    I’ll be really honest – I feel quite nauseous seeing women wear niqab, as well as really conservative chadors or burqas. That’s me, a person who has been a practicing Muslim for years. There are even shaykhs against the niqab, who talk about it very derogatorily. That doesn’t mean they feel nauseous when seeing one, but I do and to me that’s not dehumanizing. It’s just that I realize the common context and connotation niqab comes in, and more importantly that I feel sick about the unnecessary limitations women and men impose on women. That’s what makes me feel sick. In that sense, I honestly sympathize somewhat with that woman who wrote ‘patronizingly’ about the niqabi, even though I understand that she made some leaps and unfair assumptions.
    Nowadays pretty much anything Islam-related makes me feel nauseous.

    • #14 by xcwn on March 26, 2013 - 12:02 am

      Charmedshiva—Yes, some shaikhs are very dismissive (or worse) towards women who wear the niqab. I wonder if they think that this will lead the women in question to rethink their dedication to the niqab? It doesn’t seem likely. In some cases, they don’t seem to really care about the niqab-wearing women per se—what they’re really objecting to is Salafi influence on what they see as “their” rightful turf. They are using the women as pawns in a man’s game. Oh well, what else is new.

      Your comment also indirectly raises the question of how people recovering from trauma or who have PTSD sometimes deal with niqabs, burqas, chadors, etc. That’s a really complex topic. Thanks to the political uses and abuses of Islam in the twentieth century (and continuing til today), there is an increasing number of Muslims who find “Islamic” symbols triggering, or worse. I haven’t seen any scholar who seems to have taken that problem seriously, but whether they do or not, it’s not likely to go away.

  7. #16 by anonymous on March 26, 2013 - 8:22 pm

    how should i interact with a woman in a niqab? i’m a 26 year old white female who has left her fundamental quiverful family and helped a few others “escape” and learn to live on their own. currently i try to look them straight in the face and smile. i often catch myself staring, because in many ways i remember what it was like to be very different from everyone else, but then i feel badly because i also remember how awful it was to know so many eyes were on you so judgingly.

    i want to be an approachable, real person to anyone who is hurting or in need of a friend. how can i do this without being offensive and condescending?

    • #17 by xcwn on March 29, 2013 - 4:36 pm

      anonymous—Treat a woman in niqab as you would any other human being, given the situation. So, if you are a clerk in a store, and you normally smile and say “hi” to customers, do the same—no more, and no less—to a customer in niqab. And so on. People can sense acceptance.

  8. #18 by Cindy Foster on April 24, 2013 - 1:40 am

    xcwn,

    It has bothered me for days that I have not finished a follow-up post promptly. I do not have the opportunity nor the mental/emotional energy to write as often as I’d like, so I wanted to stop by and let you know that I have been working on it!

    Also, I want to validate Vyckie’s previous comments:

    “Unfortunately, we have a tendency to focus on the issues which are central to our own experience and perspective”,

    AND

    “As Christian fundamentalists, we were constantly warned that unless we were vigilant, America would be overrun by Muslims and we would all be forced to wear burkas and never leave the house unless accompanied by a man to protect us.”

    Her perceptions are very accurate in my case.

    I have read and re-read my post as well as yours to first, gain better understanding of your perspective and secondly, to dig deep enough into my own perceptions to see what needs fixing and what merely needs to be better communicated.

    I appreciate you bringing these concerns to public attention, otherwise, how else will we understand?

    I intend and look forward to reading more of your writing.

    Cindy Foster

  1. A Sober Second Look writes about Islamophobia

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