After conversion, I slowly transitioned to another phase in my thinking about the issues involved in representation and responsibility:
Negotiating. I am sitting on the bus, on my way to a doctor’s appointment, and minding my own business. An old, white man sits down next to me. I’m not really paying attention. So, I am startled when he asks me, “How do you justify the way Islamic law limits women’s access to divorce?”
I am wearing hijab, so that makes me a walking billboard for Islam, apparently. Complete strangers feel that they can come up to me and say anything—and this is in a large North American city, where strangers don’t usually talk to one another. I am not entirely sure where this man’s question is coming from, so to speak. He has an accent, but I can’t place it. Why is he asking me this?
But rather than ask him why, I respond by saying something to the effect that Islam wants to keep divorce rates low—while in today’s North American society, divorce rates and broken families are increasing.
As soon as I had given this canned conservative Muslim response, I felt sick to my stomach. First of all, I knew it was a weak answer. I had given him an opening to ridicule Islam as a sexist religion. Second, I felt that I had somehow betrayed myself as a woman.
But much to my surprise, he nodded, and conceded, “At least you can give a rational answer.” I felt a bit better—apparently, I hadn’t let Team Islam down—but still a bit sick. Did that really pass for a rational answer??? Fortunately, the bus reached my stop, and I was able to get off before he or anyone else could ask any more questions.
* * * * * * *
I had joined a Muslim student group, and took my turn manning [?!] the “daw’a table,” handing out pamphlets on Islam to other students and occasionally managing to sell one of the books. I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the content of many of the pamphlets and books we handed out, especially as they related to gender issues. This was the ’80’s, and in my community, the “mainstream” view was that all women’s highest (and therefore, all-consuming) role was to be a wife and mother. Women were not supposed to be politically active (except in the view of a minority of conservatives, who were mostly Shia and were supporters of the Iranian revolution). Women were not supposed to have leadership roles over men. A woman had to have her husband’s permission to work. Women had to obey their husbands. Husbands could strike disobedient wives with toothbrushes. Polygamy was a humane response to human needs. And so forth. These were “mainstream” Sunni views, and the books and pamphlets expressed them fairly directly.
I was trying to reconcile myself to these ideas. I knew the canned responses. Sometimes I almost managed to convince myself that these ideas didn’t violate women’s dignity. Over and over again, I did the math:
God is just. By definition. Therefore, God wouldn’t command anything that is unjust. So, these ideas cannot be unjust, because God commands them. Therefore, the problem is my perception, not these ideas. The problem must be my perception….
I asked questions about these things to Muslim men who were regarded as knowledgeable by various Muslim communities. A couple seemed to sympathize, but could not provide more than feel-good answers that did not entirely convince me, much as I tried to anaesthetize my nagging inner voice’s doubts. Perhaps the answers were only known to God. Surely I should just turn my efforts towards being the best Muslim that I could be, and stop trying to find rational answers to my questions.
Finally, I asked M., a convert sister that I looked up to, how she herself would handle the problem of distributing literature on Islam that she had serious reservations about. M. was very politicized, a strong supporter of the Iranian revolution, and so pious that she wore a black chador whenever she went out, even though she lived in middle America. She seemed to have found a way to accept many of the conservative ideas about women’s roles, while at the same time not being swallowed whole by them. She was very religious, she was a mother and a paragon of proper Muslim modesty, but no one could call her passive or unintelligent.
Her answer was that she would tuck a note into the book, referring the reader to other sources that would provide a more nuanced perspective on the issue in question.
When she said that, my heart sank. I could not think of any book or pamphlet that I had ever read on Islam and women that really contained what I could in all conscience consider a nuanced perspective. Sure, some writers expressed more liberal views on some questions than others would, but still… the overall perspectives would sound pretty paternalistic at best to any non-Muslim who read them. I tried to tell myself that what was bothering me was simply an issue of da’wa. That none of it bothered me personally.
It couldn’t bother me, after all, or that would mean that I was rebelling against God. That I would go to Hell.
As a student, I read Arab and Iranian secular feminist writers. They were scathing about the ideas of men like Jamal Badawi, and often dismissed educated, lower-middle- and middle-class women in their countries of origin who had donned the hijab and embraced this model of obedient domesticity. Reading women like Nawaal Saadawi was painful indeed. They seemed so, well… angry. Especially some of the Iranians. Their fiery words seemed to leap off the page, and accuse me of being a fool, or betraying other women. Secular Muslim women that I encountered had little or no use for converts, especially not those who wore hijab. Some were openly hostile or dismissive; others were condescending.
Reading such books, meeting such people was like ripping open a wound that had somehow refused to heal. I dealt with the discomfort by deciding that since the picture they presented of Islam and Muslims was so upsetting, that it was not valid. Didn’t they realize that they were playing into the hands of the “enemies of Islam”? Didn’t they understand that they were just confirming all the prejudices that most westerners have about Muslims?? Could all the abuses they talked about really, really be happening? If so—and it was almost too much to believe, sometimes—then surely they were exaggerating. Someone was paying them to say such things. Or, they were motivated by an irrational hatred of Islam. Or, they were talking about pre-Islamic cultural practices that had somehow gotten mixed up with Islam in their countries, but really had nothing to do with “True Islam.”
I became very sensitive to how Muslim women are portrayed in the media, and longed to see representations of hijab-wearing Muslim women who were just normal, intelligent and productive members of society. But this was the ’80’s and early ’90’s, so tough luck there—where women in hijab made the news at all, they were usually either portrayed as helpless victims of male Muslim savagery, or they were presented as unintelligent fanatics.
* * * * * * *
My inner turmoil quietened down (temporarily, it turned out) once I turned my attention away from the questions that bothered me to adjusting my own perceptions. Maybe part of the problem was that I was looking at these issues from a white, know-it-all perspective? I had after all been raised in a racist society, and I knew that sometimes my default responses to things did certainly express such a perspective. I was often made aware of this when Muslims called me on it. I knew conservative Muslim women (both immigrant and convert) who seemed quite content with patriarchal marriage, staying home and bearing large numbers of children, early marriage, polygamy, and so forth. Who was I to say that any of these things are oppressive? Sure, some women clearly weren’t happy, and some were being abused… but best not think too hard about that. After all, no human community will ever be entirely perfect.
Perhaps there was some kind of divine wisdom in all this apparent unfairness that I was not spiritually advanced enough to perceive?
Sublimation. I ended up in a Muslim cult. Seeking spiritual growth became my answer. For myself, because this rendered all these questions irrelevant. You don’t question what God decrees. Your highest goal is to do God’s will, whatever that is. You can’t love God without being fully submitted to his will, no matter what his will for you is. There’s a higher wisdom here which feminists can’t understand because their worldviews aren’t centred on seeking God. The Cult taught me and others like me that the problem was with our perceptions, after all. As modern, western women who had received a secular education, we had imbibed an ungodly set of values. Our salvation would be to follow the teachings of Islam, as they were conveyed to us by our leaders. And rather than getting drawn into endless worldly discussions about justice or oppression or worrying about the ways that we were being represented in the kafir media, we needed to focus on raising our children to be good Muslims, by sheltering them from the unbelieving world and establishing a strong community of true believers.
But after a while, things began to fall apart.