Archive for June, 2012

Idealistic visions of “dignity,” unmasked

When a kid posted a video on Facebook of several other middle-schoolers from his upstate New York school insulting, swearing at and threatening Karen Klein, their 68-year old bus monitor, it went viral. The resulting outpouring of indignation and sympathy (as well as thousands of dollars in donations so that Klein can take a vacation and recover from the experience) seems to have caught media pundits by surprise.

Why did so many people react so viscerally? Perhaps because they felt shame that an old person would be treated so badly in our society? Maybe because they themselves had been bullied in various situations, and felt empathy?

Perhaps some people reacted as I did: I read the story in horror. Couldn’t even bring myself to watch the video. And as something cold and heavy sunk to the pit of my stomach, I said to myself, “This could have been me. Yes, this could so easily have been me. This is what the “honor” and “dignity” that the conservative Muslim leaders I listened to in the ’80’s and ’90’s said that Islam provides for women as stay-at-home mothers protected from needing to work outside the home can end up looking like in reality, for women like me. Yes, this is what it can really quite easily look like.”

Karen Klein had the kind of job that women—especially older women with limited educations or job skills—tend to disproportionately work at. The kind of job that’s sometimes touted as just the thing for women dealing with family responsibilities or health issues but want or need to contribute to the family budget.

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Muslim marriage: picking up the pieces

Question: Which two things look one way at first, but totally different close up?

Answer: Marriage, and mirage.

An old, old joke. Didn’t think it was funny, way back when I encountered it in my teens in an old book. But I didn’t really understand it, either. That it wasn’t just a rather clumsy play on words, but a rather bitter comment on a lot of people’s lived experiences. That joke had come from way before there were no-fault divorce laws in North America, when churches barely if ever recognized that there could be good reasons for getting divorced (aside from adultery, possibly), and social expectations made it pretty hard for women in particular to leave even abusive marriages. Yet, women were strongly encouraged, pressured even, to get married, and to do so as soon as possible, lest they end up “on the shelf” as “old maids.” There were few “respectable” and respected possibilities open to a woman who didn’t want to marry, aside from becoming a nun (usually a choice only open to Catholic women, with a few exceptions).

This grim scenario seems awfully familiar to me now. Except, we didn’t even have the possibility of a life of celibacy. While in the distant past, a few Sufi women are said to have refused to get married so that they could devote their entire time and energy to God, the conservative, insular Muslim communities I was involved in would never have countenanced a woman today doing that. But otherwise, we really did go back in time in many ways.

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Unpacking “choice”, and the fish-trap effect

In discussions of hijab in North America, the issue of “choice” is often raised.

Women who wear hijab in North America (and elsewhere) often state that it is their “choice” to wear it. Muslim men who support this practice also often claim that “women choose” to wear it. And those who disapprove or of or oppose the wearing of hijab often try to cast doubt on whether or not women “really are free to choose” to wear it or not. While this never-ending debate has the potential to raise some important issues, it seldom manages to, in my experience.

Partly, because the word “choice” is being used to mean different things. Those who say that they “choose” to wear hijab might mean that they personally decided to wear a scarf today, because they felt like it, but they might not wear one tomorrow. Or, they might mean that they gave the issue of whether or not to hijab a lot of thought, read up about it, talked to their friends, and finally made the momentous decision that they will wear it, each and every day. Or, they might mean that they were raised with the expectation that they would wear it, and voluntarily went along with their parents’ wishes.

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Why appropriating the burqa-clad woman is not cool

After exiting my abusive marriage, and in the process, leaving behind my insular, conservative Muslim community, I rejoined “mainstream” white North American society, sort of. I rejoined it in the sense that I got a job, moved to a place with relatively few Muslims, and avoided interacting with the few that there were as much as possible. I was worried about being judged by conservative Muslims. The past was still very fresh in my mind, and I had not even begun the recovery process, so I wanted to have as few reminders of it in my daily life as possible.

In order to have as good a chance as possible to get a decent job that would support myself and my kids, I dehijabed. As a result, I now blended in. I was just another middle-aged, white working single mother with kids. Walking down the street, shopping, sitting on park benches, waiting in line at government offices… were now practically trouble-free. No one stared, no one commented or shouted insults, no one asked nosy questions, and I wasn’t ever made to feel that I had to justify my right to be there. It was so different from what I had been used to, when I wore hijab.

So, a great way to illustrate my transformation would be one of those generic pictures of an anonymous Afghan woman lifting up her burqa to show her face, right?

No. Just no.

This stereotypical picture is not just really tired, but… since when did disavowal ever change the world for the better?? (Picture courtesy of:

Why not? After all, some female survivors of patriarchal religion do describe their experiences of coming to realize that they were being manipulated and abused as escaping “the mental burqa.” Some even refer to conservative cultish Christian churches or groups as “Taliban.” And they didn’t invent this way of talking either—various American media personalities have been referring to homegrown (white, often right-wing Christian) religious and political ideas or groups that they regard as too extreme as “jihadi” or “talibanesque.”

So what’s the matter with that (one might ask)? Aren’t the Taliban notorious for their violence, misogyny, and draconian approaches to almost any and every social or political question? Aren’t they just about the worst example of a cruelly literalistic religious/political movement in recent memory? And isn’t the Afghan “shuttlecock” blue burqa now a commonly recognized shorthand for the Taliban’s brutal subjugation of women in the name of religion and tradition? So why wouldn’t I use the word “burqa” as a synonym for “mental prison” or “oppression,” and “Taliban” for “misogynist” or “religious extremist”? Or throw in a few burqa/lifting the burqa pictures to brighten up my blog? Especially since I’m recovering from my experiences with very conservative Muslim communities??

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How we were sold on patriarchal religion: reason #102

Because being part of the group made us speshul. Chosen by God, even.

Adhering to ideas and practices that were regarded as extremely old-fashioned if not alien supposedly meant that we had been favored by God with his guidance. Beliefs such as the teaching that the man is the head of the household and that a good wife will follow his lead. Or, that married women need their husbands’ permission to work—and that in any case, mothers really shouldn’t be working outside the home anyway. Practices such as hijab, and gender segregation.

Because we had been guided to “the truth” that most North Americans (and increasingly, many people elsewhere in the world) had turned their backs on. We (unlike most) had the discernment to understand just how wrong most modern ideas about the family and gender and sexuality really are. We (unlike most) could bravely stand against the tide. We (unlike most) could and would chose the harder, rockier road, because God was calling us to do so. Like the prophets and the saints of old, we were giving up so much for God.

Oh, were we ever speshul.

Looking back, and trying to untangle all this, what strikes me is how we seem to have started off with good intentions—wanting to be close to God, wanting to sincerely follow God’s guidance—but ended up in an egotistical mess, being manipulated by those with power but not being able to see that this is what was taking place.

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Hijab and our daughters–II

I raised my eldest daughter surrounded by hijab. She was taught that the Qur’an and the hadith, as well as the views of Muslim scholars past and present make it crystal clear that wearing hijab is an obligation on every Muslim girl once she reaches puberty—no exceptions. I did my best to present it in a positive way.

And I, and my closest friends, took care to consistently model modesty in dress and behavior at all times, even at home. In accordance with the teachings of The Cult, even in the privacy of our own homes, we wore long dresses, or tunics over pants. We also carefully filtered the TV shows and movies that they were allowed to see, so that (we hoped) they wouldn’t come to see “immodest” dress and behavior as “normal.” But we tried to place these restrictions on our children in such a way that they would not see them as limitations, by making efforts to provide them with “halaal fun”—outings with other Muslim mothers and their small children, Muslim events, Muslim youth camps…. We didn’t want them to feel deprived. Instead, we did our best to ensure that they would be proud of their identity as Muslims, and honored to publicly represent Islam and its values by wearing hijabs (and in the case of the boys, Muslim caps).

So, what happened?

Depends on who you ask.

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Hijab and our daughters

The day that I gave birth to a girl for the first time, I felt the weight on my shoulders increase.

When my sons were born, I also felt the weight of responsibility. Most of the time, I was a stay-at-home mother, and I was in a “traditional” marriage (meaning, the baby-related stuff was basically my responsibility), and in a conservative Muslim community in which a woman’s mothering skills played an important role in judgments of her worth as a human being. Of course, I was expected to raise my sons well, and to instill in them a strong Muslim identity, and I took that responsibility very seriously.

But with the girls, it was a whole other level of responsibility. I was expected to raise them well, and to instill in them a strong Muslim identity—which first and foremost, meant policing their bodies. I was expected to raise them to behave modestly at all times, so that they would be reserved, even a bit shy, in all their bodily movements, in the use of their voices, and in their interactions with others. All this was supposed to result in them willingly, even eagerly, “choosing” to wear hijab once they approached puberty if not before, and then keeping it on until the day they died. And, of course, conducting themselves with irreproachable modesty and chastity throughout their lives.

It was not only my daughters’ Muslim identity that was on the line, but mine.

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Hijab, “empowerment” and “choice”—the darker side

Audre Lorde famously wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

In the last post, I examined several reasons why I, and a number of other North American converts I knew in the ’80’s and early ’90’s enthusiastically embraced hijab. We believed it was our religious obligation, we found identity and community through it, hijab allowed us to have a sense that we were actively participating in our religious communities, and it seemed to be a way of laying our issues with our bodies and sexualities to rest.

There is a less sunny side to all this, however. Read the rest of this entry »

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Hijab, “empowerment” and “choice”—the sunny side

In my previous post, I said that my (now ex-) husband did not force me to put on hijab. In the ’80’s, that was quite true. If anything, he resented the fact that I wore it, partly because he thought that it made him look like a fundamentalist. (While he was certainly growing into one day by day, he wasn’t ready to publicly announce it through his wife’s clothing; his immigration status was tenuous, and he was worried about what might await him if he ended up having to return to his homeland, where Muslim fundamentalists were often suppressed by the government.) Sometimes, he’d refuse to be seen with me in public if he thought that my attire was too conservative-looking. Read the rest of this entry »

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Learning to wear “good hijab”

Putting on hijab was part of my conversion process. Initially, I hemmed a navy blue square of light-weight poly-cotton material, and tied it firmly under my chin. I wore that with baggy jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, which I left untucked, so that it would sort of cover my butt.

In the ’80’s where I was living in North America at the time, that was more than enough to turn heads, and to prompt endless questions from complete strangers as to “why I was dressed this way.” It also made it nearly impossible to get a job. Going into a store drew immediate attention from the salespeople, who would quickly come and ask me if I “needed anything.” Riding the bus, going for a walk, or even sitting on a park bench would draw comments, nosy questions, and of course, endless staring.

Some converts I knew dealt with this sort of thing by becoming walking, talking advertisements for Islam, turning comments or questions by curious onlookers into opportunities to basically preach to the nonbelievers. Read the rest of this entry »

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