It’s all about control

Several weeks ago, one of my daughters had a school field trip that involved visiting a Hindu temple, a Christian church, and a mosque. A class project on world religions.

Actually, stop judging and body-shaming. My body is not an obscenity. If you don't like what I'm wearing, how about you try lowering your gaze??

Actually, stop judging and body-shaming. The female body is not an obscenity. If you don’t like what someone is wearing, how about lowering your gaze??

Along with the permission forms sent home for parents to sign came a letter from the teacher explaining the type of behavior and dress that would be required of the students. Much of it was very reasonable, reminding the students that these are places of worship, so they needed to behave respectfully. But the girls were also told that they needed to wear long, loose pants (preferably sweatpants) and headscarves when they were at the mosque.

I paused, reading this letter. The field trip was going to take place in the afternoon, in the middle of the week. They would not be attending Friday Prayers, or any congregational prayer. They were not going to pray, either—they were there to see the building, and to hear the imam explain a bit about Islam and the community and the kinds of rituals and activities that would normally take place in a mosque.

In other words, what on earth would be the reason for requiring a bunch of mostly non-Muslim teenage girls to wear headscarves?? Or even to worry about what they might or might not be wearing on their legs??

My daughter wasn’t bothered by this, however. Because she took it for granted that somehow, a girl entering a mosque with uncovered hair or limbs profanes the mosque. And she was proud that at least she knew better than to even think of doing that, unlike some of the non-Muslim girls in her class, who didn’t seem to understand that you have to really watch what you wear to the mosque.

I pointed out to her that when I had first visited that same mosque in the early ’80′s, I saw women wearing short-sleeved, tight, scoop-necked shalwar kameez entering that mosque with transparent dupattas loosely draped over part of their heads and not concealing much of their hair, in order to attend Friday Prayers. They entered through the main door, along with everyone else. Then, they went up to the women’s balcony, put on the large white cotton prayer khimars that were kept there for all those women who did not come to the mosque dressed “suitably” for prayer, prayed, and left at the end of the service.

Nobody shouted at them to cover their hair. Nobody stopped them at the door. Nobody scolded them for daring to enter the mosque dressed like that. Nobody told them not to come back again unless they were going to wear “proper hijab.” Nobody handed them a pamphlet telling them how they ought to be dressing. Nobody told them that they were a fitna to the brothers, either.

Somehow, in the last couple of decades, there has been a sea-change, I told my daughter. Nowadays, a lot of people seem to think that even young girls have to be covered from head to toe in the mosque, forget a grown woman. But this is very recent. It didn’t used to be this way.

But I could tell that she could hardly believe it. And I can’t blame her, because I remember my reaction the first time I saw some old pictures from mosques from Detroit in the 1950′s. The Ladies’ Auxiliary (that had raised a lot of the money to build the mosque) stood proudly out in the parking lot, along with the male board members… and everyone in the picture was dressed like a typical 1950′s American. The men were all in dress shirts and pants, and the women were all wearing short-sleeved summer dresses. There wasn’t a single headscarf in sight. I remember staring at those pictures and wondering, how could that be?? Try entering any mosque parking lot nowadays dressed like that, and see how far you get. Or better yet, try joining any of the women’s committees. Just lol.

Somehow, being a Muslim woman today has come to mean buying into the notion that female bodies are obscene.

What does it do to girls to be raised with such an idea? What does it do to their mothers to inculcate such notions in their daughters??

But then, I suppose that I should be grateful that that letter hadn’t also said that menstruating girls wouldn’t be allowed to enter the mosque.

Years ago, I remember when promoting body-policing of women in my local mosques was being touted as… liberating. (And yeah, I fell for it.) Because some mosques actually banned women from entering altogether, and others required that women stay out of sight of the men—in the basement, or behind curtains, or behind tall, high barriers. Not only during prayers, but even at events such as when a speaker came. So, the idea that women had to be taught what exactly to wear, and how exactly to behave, and that sisters ought to enforce these standards on other sisters was held out as an improvement. Because if only women would dress and behave “properly,” then they too would be able to attend mosques and be in the same room as the speaker. It was our fault for being so undisciplined, supposedly.

But that wasn’t what generally ended up happening, by and large. While some mosques that had formerly banned women altogether began allowing them to pray in classrooms and so forth (which was an improvement of sorts…), it seemed that the more that women wore “correct” hijab to the mosque, the more mosques put in barriers (or built higher, thicker barriers) to segregate the women and make them invisible and inaudible to the men.

It’s been a journey, coming out from behind the barrier. At first, I believed that I had to prefer praying behind a barrier, on the balcony, or in the basement, because a good Muslim woman should always seek to conceal herself as much as possible from men’s gaze (and what could possibly be more sexy than a woman covered head to toe at prayer?? lol). I never heard any born Muslim woman objecting to it, so I figured that none of them had a problem with it. Until I found out that this wasn’t true—it was that talking about it was so taboo. Once the ice was broken, and I realized that lots and lots of women found the ways that we were being treated in mosques objectionable, then I could begin to be honest about what I was really feeling, and what the effects of being treated as a distraction or a walking obscenity were.

And it was scary, because, well, where was this going to stop? We could object to women being made to pray in the basement, because obviously there was no basement in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. But we were told that we had no grounds to object to being made to pray in the back rows, even though we couldn’t see or hear properly. Because ultimately, we were a distraction and an occasion for fitna [insert appropriate hadiths here]. And of course a woman couldn’t ever lead men in prayer (except possibly in some very rare situations maybe, that were never, ever going to happen in our mosque), because that would cause men to lust after her and therefore be degrading to her. (Why it is that men have the power to instantly degrade any girl or woman at all by lusting after her is never, ever explained.)

When the woman-led prayer movement began, and then the pray-ins, I was cautiously hopeful, but also wondered where it would all end. I hoped that it would change things, but realized that it probably wouldn’t. Because I was coming to realize just how difficult and convoluted all this stuff is about women’s bodies and sexuality and ideas of what makes things sacred. Hard to sort through even if you are committed to being fully honest, but pretty much impossible if all you’re willing to do is to spin apologetic rationales for what you already believe you have to agree with. And to get the powers-that-be to critically examine their ideas about women’s bodies—those same folks who have now devoted years of their lives to telling women how to dress and promoting gender segregation and so on, and calling it “liberation.” Not going to happen.

How would the movement survive? Would it sell out, in order to try to meet the conservatives half-way and try to keep a conversation about women in the mosque going? And even if it established its own prayer spaces, what was to keep it from becoming a sort of “we’ll let women lead sometimes, but otherwise it will all be pretty much the same” kind of thing?

So, I was delighted to read this blog post, “Creating Space: Mosques Affirming All Bodies, Minds, and Hearts.” This is a vision of what mosques can be, that is based on tawhid. And it is amazing.

Reading through this post, I was particularly struck by the stated policy on people’s clothing:

Our dress code asks that we clothe ourselves in accordance with the nobility of the soul. There can be no policing of bodies. No declarations that nail polish, the lack of head scarf, or a t-shirt with a musician’s image on it are threatening a person’s relationship with God. This is easy to accept when a person wears unrevealing clothing. But if someone comes in wearing very low cut jeans and a thong that shows when they bend over, then it’s a bit harder.  Even for us. But everyone must accept that the individual determines their body’s relationship with God. And the effect of their dress on others? Anyone who does not feel comfortable praying behind them, should not pray behind them. We try to help people understand that their gaze is their responsibility. [the emphasis here is mine]

Just… wow.

Imagine that—a Muslim space where women’s bodies aren’t held hostage to men’s desires or comfort levels. A Muslim space where piety isn’t about controlling others’ behavior under the guise of “giving nasiha” or “upholding the sunna.”

Because it was really all about control. All of it was, I realized. All the concern about what women wear, even if they’re out in the parking lot. All the fussing about what a group of non-Muslim schoolgirls will wear, even though virtually nobody is going to see them. It’s all about control, boundary marking of “our” sacred space, making sure that “our” rules are supreme and everyone must bend to them, emphasizing that mosques exist in order to meet the needs of men first and foremost and that this is the way God wants it… and that women’s bodies are inherently a problem to be dealt with, covered, silenced and hidden away. What a powerful way to control girls and women—to inculcate the idea that our bodies are intrinsically problematic and more distant from all that is holy than men’s are.

Reversing so many years of this kind of conditioning is no easy or straightforward matter. But the establishment of such prayer spaces holds up a vision that things can indeed be otherwise than what we were taught that they have to be. And for me, that’s what matters. Because I don’t think that the majority of mosques or Muslim communities in North America will change much, at least not in my life time. My focus is on recovery, as well as showing my kids that there are in fact other options.

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  1. #1 by Laury Silvers on January 1, 2014 - 11:21 pm

    I kind of hoped when I wrote that blog that some people in more typical mosques would find ways to adopt shades of the elements I expressed there. I don’t know about the broader impact of people who run spaces like us, goodness we are marginal! But I do remember in 2005 when PMUNA met and discussed woman-led prayer, we thought we were working for something only our grandchildren would see. We didn’t have to wait that long even though we are only in the very beginning. I like to dream, but I also think it is wise to be realistic about the gains we are making and the people we are reaching. After all, who likes to give up control!?

    • #2 by xcwn on January 1, 2014 - 11:44 pm

      Thank you for commenting! Yes, I suppose I should be more optimistic, given all the change that I have already lived to see. But yeah, that’s the thing—nobody on earth likes to give up control.

      It’s clear enough that a significant number of people like the way that the mosques are run, or they wouldn’t attend them and contribute money to them. Perhaps all the exclusionary stuff makes them feel secure, as though they can be sure that they are in the pure, holy, saved community. I know that was how it used to make us feel, in The Cult. And the powers-that-be have been working overtime for years now telling people that the way they do it is the way that it must be done, so they aren’t about to backtrack now.

      But at the same time, these gender-equal and inclusive mosques do up the ante for the conservatives. Now they can’t say that “it’s always been done this way” or “all mosques everywhere do it this way” or “no other way will work.” The sky hasn’t fallen, either, like they prophesied that it pretty much would. :-)

      I suspect that in the short run, they will take refuge in word-games, the way they usually do. They will continue to argue that gender segregation and the silencing of women and the body-policing is somehow really “gender-equal” and “inclusive.” And that will be convincing to those who want a fig-leaf for their choices, or who have been led to believe that there are no other options.

  2. #3 by threekidsandi on January 2, 2014 - 2:07 am

    That sounds like a lovely vision.

  3. #4 by nmr on January 2, 2014 - 5:03 pm

    I think sometimes you have to take the Moses approach when it comes to change: wait for the old generation to die off. But this is no guarantee that change will happen, there are plenty of uberorthodox in the wings, just waiting for their chance to seize control.

    That being said, in North America, with the USA history of racism, the idea of “separate but equal” just doesn’t fly here. We ALL know what that degenerates to. Sure, they can back up their discrimination with plenty of hadith, but the de-segregators have a few tools on their side plus the uncomfortable “blocking entry to the house of God”- and don’t you think God will be displeased with you?- guilt potential.

    The whole process involves changing hearts and mindsets, this takes time, sometimes a generation. Many Chinese women had their feet bound for centuries, but once the Chinese population found foot-binding dishonorable (parents who refused to bind their daughters’ feet, men who refused to marry bound-feet women), the whole practice disappeared in ONE generation. Once you can change people’s hearts, things can happen very quickly.

    In the meantime, dream your vision. Dream how you would like your masjid to be. What kind of programs would you like offered there? Who do you want to meet? What do you wish to learn?. Ida Byron King, Countess of Lovelace was mathematically designing computer programs (she defined the word ‘operations’) even though the machine never existed in her lifetime. A masjid that is just a building will eventually stay empty. To fill that masjid with great souls requires imagination and vision.

    North American Muslims, being a small minority, do not have many options. They cannot ‘shop’ for churches, the way many American Christians do. At this point, most mosques are bastions of conservatism and traditionalism, but it need not always be this way.

    • #5 by xcwn on January 3, 2014 - 12:53 am

      I wish it were true that “separate but equal” doesn’t fly here, but that’s not what I’ve seen. What I’ve seen is people playing with words—arguing that “equity” is better than “equality,” so treating women differently in the masjid isn’t really “inequality,” it just reflects the different but equitably roles that men and women are supposed to play. And so on… endless word games. The name of the game seems to be re-branding. Just call a problem something else, and it magically goes away. Or something.

      • #6 by nmr on January 3, 2014 - 1:27 pm

        The word I’ve heard a lot is “complementary”, i.e. “men and women’s roles are complementary because of their biology”, which then leads some feminist writers to say “let’s grow babies in the bio-vats and free women from the imprisonment of their bodies!”.

        But the real point is, to start to examine and question what makes up “biological difference” versus what constitutes socially determined gender differences makes the gatekeepers very uncomfortable because it undermines their assumption of ‘complementarity’ which they need to maintain in order to legitimize their control.

      • #7 by xcwn on January 4, 2014 - 1:59 am

        The “complementarity” rhetoric is apologetic bafflegab meant to make women (and men) feel better about inequality and unfairness. And it is a cultural construction that owes more to Victorian middle-class ideals and certain men’s insecurities in a rapidly changing world than anything else.

  4. #8 by ejay on January 7, 2014 - 2:43 am

    Hi (or should I say salam?) xcwn! I have been reading your blog ever since someone linked me to it a few weeks ago, and I have to say that though I was never apart of a Muslim cult, I was raised in a very conservative Muslim community so a lot of what you’ve written reminds me so much of my childhood! I love your writing. I really do. And while I patiently wait for your updates, I’ve just been burning through your old blog posts. There are a few things that you’ve written about that I would love to write about (in my own blog) and I was just wondering if I could get your permission to quote you? I would give you credit (of course) and link it back to your blog. :)

    • #9 by xcwn on January 7, 2014 - 3:27 am

      Thanks for your kind words about my writing. If you want to link to anything, go ahead. But please do not reblog or copy anything.

      • #10 by ejay on January 7, 2014 - 1:18 pm

        I just want to make sure that I have your permission to quote you? You said don’t copy anything, but yeah, just want to make sure I’m not misunderstanding. Am I only allowed to link you or may I quote you as well? (haha, sorry if this is a dumb question! Just want to be clear.)

      • #11 by xcwn on January 8, 2014 - 12:35 am

        Yes, you can quote brief amounts if you like. Not, it’s not a dumb question, don’t worry about that.

  1. Religious Modesty and Pornography: Two Sides of the Same Coin | Rethinking Islam

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