Archive for June, 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
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??