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.

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.

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  1. #1 by Saliha on May 31, 2012 - 5:05 pm

    Reading your blog posts is like having a great conversation with a new friend. You know the kind when the two of you are really on the same vibe and there’s lots of excited, “Exactly!” and “I know, right?” “That’s EXACTLY what I’ve been thinking” and a few high fives. This post covers so much of what I’ve been thinking just over the last 24 hours or so, about the ways that patriarchy uses religion to keep women locked in cognitive dissonance. Patriarchy is very good at using religion to keep us feeling like we’ve transgressed sacred boundaries for even daring to THINK there might be better ways to live.

    There is a proof-texted counter for every reasonable argument, if there is no hadith or verse of Qur’an to be used and/or twisted to keep women locked in misery, then they tell you it’s “was was” of shaytan or associating with the wrong people who are leading you astray.

  2. #2 by Saliha on May 31, 2012 - 5:18 pm

    I am convinced that “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.” is precisely what these dictates are supposed to do. The word “dunya” and synonymous phrases are spat out like bitter venom in many communities. A man pursuing ways to improve his lot is hard-working, and an admirable provider for his family. A woman doing the same is “westoxicated” “dunya centered” and her chastity is suspect. This is especially true of many converts who feel that the only way to gain legitimacy is to out Muslim those raised as Muslims, so, as you’ve pointed out, they go to extremes that many women raised in the faith reject.

    These practices are meant to keep women from her rightful place as equal architects of families, communities and societies that exist and thrive only because of her efforts. Patriarchal readings of religion dehumanize women by rendering us little more than beasts of burden. The way that a lot of Muslim fiqh is constructed, that means being a beast of sexual and reproductive burden. In other patriarchal interpretations it includes sexual and reproductive burden (a quiver full of burden), but also makes hard-labor and inordinate amounts of self-sacrifice a burden. And what if it kills you? Why then you’ll die a martyr!

    • #3 by xcwn on May 31, 2012 - 10:33 pm

      Saliha, thank you so much for your insightful comments.
      “Patriarchy is very good at using religion to keep us feeling like we’ve transgressed sacred boundaries for even daring to THINK there might be better ways to live.” Oh yes, absolutely. We became our own thought-police.

      “There is a proof-texted counter for every reasonable argument, if there is no hadith or verse of Qur’an to be used and/or twisted to keep women locked in misery, then they tell you it’s “was was” of shaytan or associating with the wrong people who are leading you astray.” Yup, they have a ready answer for everything. A woman hesitantly voices a doubt or qualified objection, and before you know it, several quranic verses/hadiths/legal rulings/views of some (male) scholar are hurtling her way like heat-seeking missiles.

      And yeah, if it kills you, you’ll die a martyr. Good grief.

      BTW, I really love your blog.

    • #4 by Freedom2Be on June 1, 2012 - 7:34 pm

      And then there is the use of religion, or the demented twisting of it, as a method of control to keep a beast of burden mentally enslaved so that one can continue to benefit from free labour.

      • #5 by xcwn on June 1, 2012 - 11:41 pm

        Freedom2Be: Yes, unfortunately. The prisons of the mind that we were in didn’t prevent our labor power from being exploited–on the contrary.

  3. #6 by Saliha on June 2, 2012 - 12:03 am

    Thank you. I love your blog, too. I like that more of us are coming out to have these conversations online. I don’t know how much hope I have for “the community” because I’ve had to detach myself from it for the sake of my faith and psychological health. But I think maybe we can build something better for people who do chose to hold on to their Islam while unambiguously rejecting interpretations that cause harm.

    • #7 by xcwn on June 2, 2012 - 12:37 am

      Yes, it’s great that the internet is cutting down on the isolation that so many of us lived with, thinking that we were the only ones.
      I think that a lot of the harm was done because people honestly didn’t realize that certain interpretations, practices, etc. can have seriously harmful long-term effects. But we were also sometimes used as guinea pigs in people’s idealistic experiments in community-building, and until today, I have not seen any indication that any major Muslim org or “leader” in North America has publicly recognized that using people in that way is unethical. Unfortunately.

    • #8 by Freedom2Be on June 2, 2012 - 12:40 am

      We will grow. I’m sure that there are others of us out there.

  4. #9 by Jenny jones (j.lynnjones) on September 2, 2012 - 12:52 am

    I just found your blog…you are a genius darn it…and you write so well. God bless, and you have a new follower.

  5. #10 by Jenny jones (j.lynnjones) on September 2, 2012 - 4:25 am

    I mean blog follower haha

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