Age differences and differing maturity levels–more on (some) convert marriages in the ’80’s

In the last post, I mentioned that there was a significant age difference between me and the man I married.

There was even a wider difference in our levels of maturity and life experience.

I was at the tail end of my teens, and had been raised by parents who were pretty conservative in a number of ways, in a small town. In otherwords, I was quite sheltered. And since this is way before the internet, what that meant was that I didn’t have much knowledge of ways of life in other parts of my country (let alone the world), except through what I had read—in school textbooks, or in our small-town library. (Our access to TV, movies, etc was very limited, because my parents didn’t think it was good for us—and living in a small town without a movie theatre, and few channels available on TV didn’t help matters.) My parents’ marriage had been in trouble for years, and it finally ended in divorce, but they had kept us in the dark as much as possible  about their disagreements, and to my knowledge, there was no violence. I hadn’t traveled much, either, and when I had, it hadn’t exposed me to much that was very different from what I had grown up with, in terms of world-views or cultures. I had never lived on my own, or anywhere but with one or the other parent, before getting married.

The man I married couldn’t have been more different. His childhood hadn’t been sheltered at all. He had grown up very poor, in a multi-ethnic region with a high level of ethnic and sectarian tensions. He had been born into a context in which the ethnic and sectarian discrimination directed at him was openly practiced and regarded as “normal.” He spoke several languages, and understood some of a couple more. He had grown up in a polygamous home, with a significant level of domestic violence. He had been politically active against the dictatorial regime in his homeland, at great risk to himself and his family. He had been drafted and done his military service. He had then traveled abroad to study, and had lived on his own or with friends for years.

This dramatic difference between life experience, degree of maturity, and family background raised no red flags for his friends, or for the conservative Muslims we soon would be regularly interacting with. In fact, what I observed was that what raised red flags were situations in which immigrant Muslim men married North American converts who were close or the same in age. Not that this happened very much in my community, but when it did, concerns were raised about how well the marriage was going to work.

For years, I thought this sort of thing was just a matter of a few small minded folks picking holes in other people’s marriages and looking for things to gossip about. After all, isn’t the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife Khadija supposed to be an example for Muslim women?? She was 15 (!) years older than he was, and she was his employer. What could possibly be “Islamic” about being opposed to the husband and wife being close in age and life experience? But gradually, I began to notice a larger pattern. Concerns were also raised in marriages between immigrant men and convert women (or North American women who hadn’t converted) if the woman worked outside the home, or seemed “too” independent or outspoken, or even kept up close relations with her extended (non-Muslim) family. Sideways comments were made about how the wife seemed to be “controlling” the husband, or how the husband needed to be more assertive. This was the case in my then-husband’s ethnic community, as well as among conservative Muslims we knew.

I also reluctantly came to realize that there was a religious dimension to these dynamics, especially among the conservative Muslims we knew. No matter how much they idealized Khadija, as far as they were concerned, a properly functioning marriage had to have the husband as the “head of the household,” so if the wife was too close to him in age (or God forbid, older), or financially independent, or seemed to express her views “too much,” then it was assumed that he would have problems asserting his authority. And that was regarded as unacceptable.

There was no place in this way of seeing things for an egalitarian marriage relationship—if and when they came across an egalitarian marriage, it would immediately be classified as a marriage in which the wife was “dominating” the husband.

Some of the conservative Shias we knew had a saying that they credited to Imam Ali, to the effect that a man should be older, richer, and more intelligent than the woman he marries, while a woman should be younger, poorer and more religious than her husband. The reason that the man should have these characteristics, they explained, is that he has to be the head of the household, and his wife has to obey him. If she is younger and poorer (as well as less intelligent), then she will be more likely to defer to him. And if she is more religious, they explained, she will fear God too much to cheat on him.

While the conservative Sunnis we knew didn’t quote this particular saying, they certainly acted as though they believed in it. This saying described their view of a healthy marriage quite well.

Nor were such attitudes limited to recent immigrants—in fact, some of the Shia convert brothers I knew were quite familiar with this saying. I remember an iftar we attended, and afterwords, a couple of those brothers were sitting and having a chuckle about it in the convert sisters’ hearing, knowing quite well that their words and laughter would make the women less than happy. It was one of those many peacocking moments that we would witness from North American male converts (regardless of sect) over the years, that underlined for us that as women, we had converted to something significantly different than they had, simply because of the bodies we had been born into. No matter how much we didn’t want to recognize that, some brothers just felt they had to keep rubbing it in our faces….

Age differences between convert women and their husbands (whether immigrant or convert) could vary quite a bit, but in most of those that I remember, the man was not more than 10 years older. However, I did meet a woman in her early twenties married to a man who was in his forties at least. Sister T. was a soft-spoken convert from a pretty sheltered background, who had converted to Islam through him. He was an immigrant, already with a fair amount of grey hair. Both of them had careers, but he made way more than she did, and she had clearly bought into the entire “ideal Muslimah” package.

When I asked her about her job and what it was like, she made it clear that for her, it was just something that she was doing at the moment. She was a wife, and she wanted to be a mother, she said—and then, she would stop working, because being a wife and mother is the role a Muslim woman should play. When I suggested that a woman could be a wife and a mother and also work, she rejected this idea emphatically, and went on to say that even though she is working at the moment, it is wrong “Islamically” for a working woman to derive a sense of identity from the job she does.

This sounded rather extreme even to me at that time, and I silently wondered where she was getting this from.

My unease deepened when it was time to eat, and she served the food. Her husband proudly pointed out that every dish she had prepared was from his homeland. He spoke to her—and about her—in this almost proprietary way, as if she was… not his daughter, exactly. Maybe an orphan girl he had adopted??

After dinner, her husband then put her through her paces—I don’t know what else to call it—for the benefit of my husband and myself.

“Assalam alaykum, Sister T.,” he said to her, in this sort of voice that some people use when talking to an elementary-school child.

“Wa-alaykum salaam,” she answered, as if she had done this before and knew where this was going.

Then he asked her to recite Surat al-Ikhlas. She slowly recited it, and he praised her, much as you would do a small child who has just recited the alphabet correctly. He then asked her to recite the Fatiha, and she did so. He praised her again.

It was just so embarrassing to witness. I was really disturbed, but wasn’t sure why. She was a lot younger than he was, wasn’t he? So, maybe that was why he was interacting with her in this infantilizing way? And she didn’t seem to mind it, so who was I to say that there was anything wrong with it? My then-husband found no problem with it, nor did the folks at the mosque, at least not as far as I knew.

I thought it was weird, and didn’t like Sister T. much anyway, so I avoided her as much as possible, but didn’t say anything about what I thought of their marital dynamics to anyone. She and her husband moved away, and I lost track of them years ago. But now and again, I remember her, and wonder how she is. I hope that she is happy.

Anyway. That marriage in particular, and the (much less dramatic) differences in age and maturity in most convert marriages I was aware of in the ’80’s generally was one of those many things that niggle away at my brain. There’s something there that I really didn’t understand. I mean, what would the attraction be in such marriages? Why marry a woman who was young enough to be your daughter, and on top of that, treat her like a kid? And why would men like my ex marry girls who they knew from the get-go were fairly immature?? And how could the community think that this would work out well, in North America in the late 20th century??? So, I mentally filed in away under the “stuff that happened that I know there was more to it but I don’t know what” category.

Until the other day, when I was reading the comments after Angela Collins Telles’ article on hijab at altmuslimah.com.  When I read the comment by Michelle Denise, it finally clicked.

Michelle writes: “When I was on the path to converting, a married Muslim man from my community ‘took me under his wing’ and tried to guide my conversion experience. He used to lecture me about how I should dress, etc. He was a Salafist, and his wife wore full hijab, and ALL THAT was exactly how it was ‘supposed to be’, with no room for argument. He’d steer me away from this or that interpretation and try to tell me EVERYTHING about how my Islam was supposed to look. And then one day he took me shopping. Bought me a sundress. 😛 He had all kinds of complicated reasons why ‘we’re all weak,’ etc., and how basically it is ok to be sexual and cheat on your wife as long as you observed the proper forms and frowned on the behavior in public….”

Power.

Power is a turn-on for a lot of men. The power to mold a young woman, to shape her, to become her de facto religious authority, to have her looking up to you for answers, believing that you are relaying to her what God wants, thinking (if you play your cards right) that your smile at her is God’s smile at her, and your displeasure at anything she says or does or thinks is God’s displeasure…  how very erotically satisfying. Whether or not you actually end up bedding her.

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