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.
Second, to me, a statement like that would have sounded suspiciously selfish and worldly. Make my life better? Why? And what does that even mean? What could be better than living a life in obedience to God, and bearing and raising righteous children who would go on to do the same? Focusing on me, on my life could only be self-centered and individualistic. The only time that you should do that is to “judge yourself before the Day of Judgment,” repenting of your sins and asking yourself what you could do to be a better believer.
Third, we believed that everything is under God’s control. God has the power to do anything he wills, and human beings should be concerning themselves with obeying God, being grateful to God for everything, and accepting whatever God has decreed. A statement such as “you have the power to make your life better” sounds rather odd… especially if you are female.
Looking back, I notice that while both men and women were told to obey God, be grateful to God, and accept what God has decreed (and to look for your reward in the Afterlife rather than in this world), these teachings had different ramifications depending on gender. In the case of women, they had a mutually reinforcing relationship with ideas about a woman’s proper place, the roles that are appropriate for women to play, and what a woman may fittingly aspire to. So, while there didn’t seem to be any conflict between a man being regarded as pious and God-fearing and properly accepting of God’s decree, and him taking independent action to make his life in this world happier (such as by ending a marriage he didn’t want), there often was with a woman. And being a Western woman added an additional layer, because we were especially likely to be accused to being “selfish” and insufficiently content with our lot.
To the extent that we believed that we could “make our lives better,” it was through becoming even more religious (as we understood the term). Because pleasing God in this life and salvation in the next was what mattered. And because since God controls everything, in order to deserve a better life, you need to strive harder to be a better believer—in other words, to be more patient, to engage in more rituals (such as night prayers, or extra fasts), or to push yourself to even greater heights of modesty (wearing wider and darker jilbabs, wearing thick socks even in the summer, trying to work up the gumption to wear niqab).
Looking back, I am rather appalled at what topped my list of ways to “make myself a better believer”—it was mostly about rituals and outward appearance and passivity. Helping others, trying to make the world a better place… didn’t really rate high on this list. And the focus on accepting a bad situation rather than asking how it could be changed, and on treading the hamster-wheel, chasing ever more demanding standards of ritual and modesty, simply turned me even more inward, isolating me from those outside my community and from any unfamiliar ways of approaching my situation.
Which, by the way, is one reason why converts—especially female converts—are sometimes accused by born Muslims of going from extreme to extreme: “First, she’s quoting hadiths in every other sentence and trying to wear niqab; and then she’s taking off her hijab and saying that she doesn’t think that Islamic divorce laws are fair to women! She’s going from extreme to extreme! She’s mentally unstable.” While I have encountered a few converts who did seem to me to be rather unstable, in my experience, women who respond to abuse or oppression by becoming more “religious” in such demonstrative ways are often making what they see as rational responses to their situations: Become more “pious,” and God will protect you and help you. And women who come to the conclusion that such “piety” is making their lives even more unnecessarily difficult may then begin ask critical questions about the entire mind-set….
But the mindset we had was very durable. Built to last. We had been well warned about worldly temptations, temptations to despair, the importance of withstanding life’s tests, ways to avoid the devil’s whisperings, etc. Almost nothing that anyone might say to us that was at all critical of our worldview could get through such defences.
It would take nothing short of an earthquake—aka serious difficulties and desperate situations that were of a level that we couldn’t explain them away in the usual ways—to make us realize that it wasn’t working. This was a realization that we had to come to ourselves. I don’t know if there are any short-cuts in that sort of process.