Archive for May, 2012

Having the power to make your life better

In the last post, I said that a toxic combination of factors had reinforced and amplified my low self-esteem, making me unable to see for many years that I myself had the power to make my life better.

The power to make my life better. Today, I find this phrase energizing and inspiring.

What if someone had said to me when I was still living that suffocating life, “Listen, you have the power to make your life better.” Would that have changed anything?

Probably not, for several reasons. First of all, when you’re preoccupied by immediate, tangible, and serious problems, such as how the rent is going to be paid this month and what to do about that notice from the gas company demanding that you pay up immediately before they cut you off, statements like that sound pretty irrelevant. What you are focused on is survival.

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Why leaving rotten marriages is hard

Recently, I was talking to B., one of my old Muslim convert friends. We have been close friends for over twenty years now. B. asked me something-or-other, and somehow, the conversation turned to the old days. The days when we were both living very conservative Muslim lives, in an insular Muslim group that turned out to be a cult.

And B. mentioned that she remembered how my ex-husband used to always be yelling my name. That whenever he wanted me to fetch him something, or tend to something, or give him some information about something (like somebody’s phone number), he would yell for me, even if I was upstairs doing something (like, changing a baby) and he was downstairs… or even in the basement. “And you would go and do it,” B. said. “Like a slave.” Her revulsion at that memory was unmistakable.

I hardly knew what to say in response. Yeah, he used to do that. But it hadn’t seemed to me to be all that bad at the time. Annoying, definitely. Disrespectful, absolutely. A really bad example to the kids, without a doubt. But that was just how he was. That was his personality. Trying to talk to him about it had had absolutely no effect. He didn’t care at all what I thought about it, or how it affected me or the kids.

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How we were sold on patriarchal religion: reason #316

Words such as “fairness,” “justice,” “respect,” “self-respect,” “dignity,” “honor,” “compassion,” “freedom,” “natural”— and of course, “equity” and “equitable”—were radically redefined, in talks on Islam, books, pamphlets, sermons, and in teaching circles. Especially as these words relate to girls and women.

So, we were taught (and we read, and often heard) that “Islam honors women,” that Islam calls human beings to deal with others in “fairness” and “compassion,” and to uphold “justice.” That Islam protects women’s “dignity” gives women “self-respect” and teaches men to “respect” women. That Islamic law treats women “equitably.” That Islam is “the natural way.”

And who in their right mind would be opposed to things such as compassion, fairness, justice, self-respect and dignity? Who wouldn’t want to be honored and respected? Who wouldn’t be in favor of treating people equitably? Who doesn’t tend to equate “natural” (at least as in “natural foods”) with “more wholesome” or “better”?

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The impact on our kids: Internalizing those judging eyes

I was walking outside with my daughter last week in a neighborhood we used to live in, back when we lived a conservative Muslim life. It was a hot sunny day, and she was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt and tight pants. There was nobody out on the street except a few teenage boys playing basketball. They were down at the other end, and they weren’t looking at us.

“I wonder how many Muslims are looking at me right now, and saying, ‘tif!‘,” my daughter said to me.

I was immediately shocked and dismayed. What on earth had brought that on?—there was nobody near us, even! And why would she be worrying about people peering out at us through their curtains, this early in the morning?? But her intonation of the “tif!” was dead on, unfortunately. She was reproducing an expression that she had heard many times from her father, his friends, and his relatives, especially when they were discussing girls’ behavior that they strongly disapproved of.

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Those awful books and pamphlets

One thing I absolutely don’t miss after having left my conservative Muslim community: much of the reading material on Islam available in English.

Every so often, there’s a minor dust-up in the media when some non-Muslim reporter or advocacy group or curious individual runs across a book or pamphlet in an “Islamic bookstore.” Or gets a glimpse of teaching materials used in weekend “Islamic schools.” Or something of that nature.

Nowadays, I’m afraid that my response to such media attention to what some Muslims apparently read (or want their kids to read) is two-fold. First, I look the article over, and think to myself, “What? They’re only fussing about that?” And then I realize that I have become pretty much unmoved by so many ideas often found in Muslim books and pamphlets (and nowadays, on the internet) that in any other context, I would find shocking or outrageous.

Down through the years, the usual response of most Muslims that I have observed to such media dust-ups has tended to fall into three main categories: First, those who shrug and refuse to get excited about it one way or another (i.e. the majority). Second, those who go on the offensive, claiming that this is an issue of freedom of speech as well as religious freedom, and challenging the media to go after other religious groups propagating illiberal ideas instead for a change. And third, those who assert that this is an anomaly; that it isn’t representative of the literature that most Muslims in North America write or read, and that the media is blowing the issue way out of proportion.

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Dignity and invisibility

A couple of days ago, I walked into a store, looking for a plain, simple three-quarter length sleeve tunic. Something that would be light enough to wear over pants during the summer. In a neutral or quiet color, such as beige or light blue.

The salesperson asked if she could help with anything, and I said that I was looking for a tunic. She directed me to a rack with several different styles and colors. Some with bright blue patterns. Some with purple flowers. Some that were a very bright turquoise.

I shrank inwardly—I didn’t think that I’d like the way they looked on me—but tried them on anyway. Bright blue patterns didn’t suit me. Neither did purple flowers. As I had expected. I had somewhat more hope for the turquoise tunic, but when I looked at myself in the mirror, I quickly decided against it. The fit wasn’t right, but even more problematic was the color….

“That color looks great on you,” commented the salesperson.

“But you could see me from ten miles away in this!” I said, trying to sound like I was joking, but feeling really uneasy at the idea of ever wearing anything like this outside. “Do you have this in any other color?”

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A deep and narrow closet

On May 17 in 1990, the World Health Organization finally took homosexuality off their list of mental illnesses. Today, which is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), this milestone is commemorated.

As I was reading a statement issued by a number of Arab LGBTQ groups about IDAHO, I began thinking about the complex relationships that gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgendered, genderqueer, and asexual converts often have to Islam and Muslim communities. And more specifically,  the toll that conversion often tends to exact, depending on when, why, and under what circumstances people convert.

Some convert before they really realize that their sexual orientation or their gender identity (which are two very different things, BTW) are outside the heterosexual or cisgendered “norm.” This is especially likely to happen when people convert in their teens, particularly if they come from fairly sheltered or religiously conservative backgrounds.

Some converts report that they only found out after converting (sometimes, a good while after) what Islamic law has to say about certain same-sex sexual acts, or encountered Muslim homophobia or transphobia.

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