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.
Being treated with disrespect—in private, in front of the kids, and in front of other adults. Being summoned to do things he could usually have done himself, had he wanted to. Being put down and ridiculed. Or even more often, being ignored and treated with disdain. I look back and wonder how on earth I put up with that for so many years. Why, after years of trying to make things better by doing things to please him, that he said he wanted, only to have it make no difference, that I would stay in that relationship. Especially after I had repeatedly tried to get him to come with me to marriage counseling, and he had flatly rejected the very idea every time.
At best, his attitude had “I’m just not that into you” written all over it; in the end, it clearly became “I don’t give a flipping &!% about you–and even the kids take second or third place to me doing whatever the hell it is I want to do with my life.” But even when the situation (and some particular actions of his that put us in danger and risked our losing the roof over our heads) was clearly taking a toll on the kids, I still stayed in the marriage. In the end, it was only when the situation had deteriorated to the point that I recognized that the kids were being harmed AND that I realized that I had an alternative, did I finally leave.
Clearly, I should have left him way before things came to that. But why didn’t I?
There was a whole tangled bunch of reasons.
First, I myself strongly disapproved of divorce. Partly because I equated it with failure. Failure of the parties to the marriage to be mature, to compromise, to make it work. Partly because growing up, I had imbibed the common view that children do much better with two parents, and I had also experienced many of the difficulties and social judgment that came with having divorced parents in small town North America in the ’70’s. I wanted my kids to have an “intact” family.
Second, I didn’t actually think that what was going on was all that bad—until it did indeed become very obviously bad, but then, I thought that I deserved it. I could recognize that some women had really bad, even abusive marriages. “Abuse” was what Sister J. was going through—her husband was going out drinking, coming home and beating her for no reason. Everyone could agree that what her husband was doing was strictly forbidden in Islam (especially the drinking part), and that he needed to clean up his act by fearing God, obeying Islamic teachings, and treating his wife kindly.
But that wasn’t me, I thought. My ex hardly ever laid a hand on me. Only twice that I can recall. And he used to remind me that I was fortunate that he had deigned to marry me, because who else would have had the patience that he had with me? Who else would have wanted to marry a woman who wasn’t properly feminine, because her skills at cooking and house-cleaning and serving her husband and his guests were less than stellar? A woman who wasn’t beautiful, who wasn’t attractive or even particularly intelligent or interesting? And wasn’t I lucky that such a God-fearing, morally-upright and good-looking man such as himself had married someone of so little worth as I?
Third, because both my ex’s ethnic community and the conservative Muslim communities that I was involved in or associated with had a very ambiguous attitude to marital problems. While on one hand, everyone acknowledged that the Prophet had said things such as “The best of you (men) is he who is best to his wife,” the reality was that most of the weight for making the marriage actually work was put on women rather than men.
A wife was supposed to please and be pleasing to her husband, and if she only tried hard enough, then she should be able to win his affections and loyalty. If her husband was indifferent to her, bored or annoyed with her, or (heaven forbid) angry with her, then the fault was assumed to be hers, unless there was strong evidence to the contrary. She wasn’t being a good wife. She wasn’t playing her God-given role properly. She needed to work harder at understanding what makes her husband tick, and ensuring that she delivered it. Because on the Day of Judgment (we were told) the first question a woman will be asked is whether she gave her husband his rights. Being a good wife was often presented as a key religious obligation, right up there with prayer, fasting, giving charity and performing the Hajj.
When marriage is discussed in terms such as this, then wives are far more likely to blame themselves when things are going wrong. Especially if they are converts. Because for born Muslim women, this woman-blaming discourse on marriage is often offset to some extent by ideas of what is customary and “reasonable” (in a given ethnic community), as well as pressure from the wife’s family on the husband to behave “reasonably.” For converts, even these relatively flimsy protections are usually absent. And for converts from “the West” in particular, there is often the added pressure to put up with things that born Muslim women would rarely accept. Because supposedly, to be a “Western woman” is to be individualistic, selfish, and materialistic, so you need to go the second mile in order to demonstrate to yourself and everyone else that you aren’t. And because as a convert, you are doing things “by the book,” so if your husband points to a given hadith or opinion of a scholar and wants you to carry out this particular ruling, you have no leg to stand on. Or so you might think.
Fourth, marriage was understood (in both my ex’s ethnic community, and in the conservative Muslim communities I was associated with) as the most important thing in a woman’s life. Getting married, and then staying married. There was little place for divorced women; they were seen as pitiable, and were often socially marginalized. They were typically expected to remarry if at all possible, but their chances of remarriage were seen as poor, especially if they had children, and/or were no longer in their early twenties.
And a woman asking for divorce was particularly frowned upon. Here she was breaking up the family, ruining her life and the lives of her kids. She had better have a really, really, really good reason for seeking a divorce, or (as the hadith says) the very fragrance of the garden (of paradise) would be forbidden to her. But what would be a good enough reason?? No matter how terrible her marriage might be, there would always be someone laying on the guilt, who would suggest that she should stay and “be patient.” The legal difficulties of a woman seeking divorce in Islamic law are a whole other issue (which would be another post).
Fifth, as converts in the ’80’s, who married in our teens and had lived as conservative Muslims for years, we had given up a great deal, which made any idea of leaving bad marriages a difficult one to entertain, either psychologically or practically.
The more you sacrifice for something, the more of a personal investment you have in it, and the less you are willing to set it aside even when it isn’t working.
By putting on hijab and adopting a very conservative lifestyle, we quickly became alienated from the wider society in a number of ways. “Going back” in any sense became more and more difficult to envision, especially when we met with anti-Muslim prejudice. We didn’t want to face the smug nods, the “I told you so’s.” We didn’t want to confirm the stereotypes about Muslim marriages that non-Muslims often had. We were determined to make it work, to prove those stereotypes wrong.
And by marrying young, putting on hijab, and focusing on having children and being “ideal wives and mothers,” we often put ourselves in the position of having few or no marketable skills. Some convert sisters I knew did work, but typically at low-paying or part-time jobs that were intended to supplement their husband’s income, that didn’t allow them to save (much less support themselves if they had to) and didn’t have much opportunity for advancement. Some did volunteer work, or very low-paid work for Islamic schools or other organization, which was not designed to provide financial independence, or likely to lead to employment elsewhere.
Going out into the working world and really making a go of it was usually not seen as a good thing, and we were not at all encouraged to aspire to doing that. Working full-time, much less having a career (gasp!) was thought too likely to involve unIslamic compromises with the secular world. What about your husband and your kids? Who would take care of the home? How would your kids be cared for? (Putting kids in daycare was typically seen as neglectful, as well as harmful to their Muslim identity.) How would you get a job in hijab? (In the ’80’s where I was living, that was in fact quite difficult.) How could you manage a job interview, when women were not supposed to shake men’s hands? How could you avoid socializing with male colleagues, or going to the office Christmas party, or joining your work-mates at the pub for Happy Hour and not come across as some sort of fanatic? What if you succumbed to the temptation to take off your hijab, and blend in socially at work?? We saw that as pretty much the same thing as losing your faith (and therefore, your chance at salvation).
All in all, the very idea of getting a divorce, much less making any kind of life after it, seemed about on the level of thinking about taking a day-trip to Pluto. Practically speaking, it would be extremely difficult. And even after going through all the difficulties that would be involved, what would be the foreseeable result? A broken home, the stigma of being a divorcee, social marginalization, losing your kids or being a single mother, either welfare or a very poorly-paying job (aka dire poverty), being seen as a charity-case, being alone for the rest of your life…. What would be the point? Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Better be patient, and grateful for whatever God has seen fit to give you. Because of course if you were a better person, God would have given you a better marriage. It’s all your fault. You are in this situation because you don’t deserve any better.
Looking back, I can see that a lot of these fears, which I saw as the “natural” and practically “inevitable” results of divorce were in fact socially constructed and maintained. The threat of social stigma, the guilt-tripping, the practical barriers to employment and economic self-sufficiency, the notion that divorced women are “used” and can expect to either have to “settle” for a marriage that might be worse than the one you exited, or be alone for ever… none of this was necessary or inevitable. These attitudes and practices were intended to keep wives in their place. Most of the burden of “building strong Muslim families” was laid on our shoulders.
And looking back, I can see how I was locked into black-and-white modes of thinking. All or nothing. No room for compromise or shades of grey.
And I couldn’t see a way out of the mess that I had gotten myself into. I had very low self-esteem, and little self-confidence—my ex’s constant put-downs and disrespect, reinforced by conservative Muslim attitudes that foster guilt and constant self-doubt for wives, and further confirmed by the scorn and prejudice that I tended to encounter in the wider society was a toxic combination that eroded any sense that I had the power to make my life better.
I can remember a few convert sisters who did have the sense to realize that their marriages were going nowhere, and got divorced. They managed to keep their kids, and build new lives for themselves. One got remarried, and seemed to be happy last time I saw her. Looking back, I can see that they must have gone through quite a lot of sh*t at the time, and afterwards. I do remember some people being quite judgmental toward them. I now realize that they were brave, and had more healthy priorities than I did. I wish that I had had the sense to be more supportive of them at the time.