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.
The Cult made particular use of this type of manipulation, but it was also to be found in more “mainstream” conservative Sunni contexts in the ’80’s and ’90’s. Sermons, books and pamphlets underlining how Muslim beliefs (especially about family, gender and sexuality) are supposedly vastly superior to those of “the kuffar.” Or, sermons and conference talks about the importance of establishing and supporting “Islamic schools” and youth programs to protect our kids—the implication often being that we ought to try to keep them as insulated as much as possible from “the kuffar” and their inferior, morally bankrupt notions.
Of course, when you think that those who don’t agree with you are lesser than you, you are less likely to think that there is anything you can learn from them. This type of manipulation can be a highly effective way to isolate people. Whenever outsiders (such as relatives, or even liberal Muslims) would express concern about our beliefs or practices, we would interpret that as prejudice and hostility, as well as evidence that we were indeed speshul. We were the few, chosen to walk the path of divine guidance in these immoral, godless times just before the apocalypse. We were being tested, but we would (inshallah) persevere til the end.
Looking back, I am rather taken aback by the, well… sheer arrogance underlying such beliefs. And the exaggerated drama… wow. Just wow. As well as the fact that we didn’t seem to really notice how unequally distributed these burdens of suffering and sacrifice were. Women and girls suffered and sacrificed the most in this scheme of things, while (straight) adult males reaped most of the benefits.
But our suffering was glorified. Especially in The Cult, where we were taught that in fact we should be worried if our lives were going smoothly, because “this world is the prison of the believer and the paradise of the kafir.” Having a peaceful, satisfying life on earth would mean that we probably were doing something wrong, and could look forward to punishment in the next world. But suffering and sacrifice were supposed to be both inevitable and glorious. Especially for women.
Looking back, I am rather bemused by the fact that I had several cassette tapes of Malcolm X’s speeches, which I used to enjoy listening to—that emphatically rejected the idea that suffering in and of itself is in any way noble. In one speech, “Message to the Grassroots” (1963), he caustically compares the notion that civil rights marchers should “suffer peacefully” while they were being beaten, water hosed, and attacked by police dogs to a patient at the dentist who has been given novocaine before his tooth is taken out:
“Blood running all down your jaw, and you don’t know what’s happening. ‘Cause someone has taught you to suffer—peacefully! The white man do the same thing to you in the street, when he want to put knots on your head and take advantage of you and don’t have to be afraid of your fighting back. To keep you from fighting back, he gets these old religious Uncle Toms to teach you and me, just like novocaine, suffer peacefully. Don’t stop suffering—just suffer peacefully….”
Why didn’t I ever connect the dots?
A lot of different reasons, one being that we didn’t see much if any contradiction between opposing race-based legal and societal discrimination and affirming that men and women should play “complementary, not competing” roles (which is conservative Muslimese for separate and unequal roles).
But another important reason is that we conservative Muslim sisters bonded, as well as found our places in The Cult, through sacrifice and suffering.
Now that I articulate it, that sounds absolutely insane. But we did. Sacrifices and sufferings took particular forms, that ultimately, most North American women would have had a hard time identifying with. (Or so we thought at the time—little did we know just how many conservative patriarchal religious groups there were in North America in those pre-internet days….) But as far as we were concerned, those few who had gone through the sorts of experiences that we had shared a special bond. We were different. Set apart. Chosen. “Worldly” people just didn’t understand us. But whatever.
Whenever one of us was faltering, we would step in to encourage her not to give up. We would offer concrete help (babysitting, cooked food, help with shopping, etc) when needed if we were able to do so, but even more often, we would offer advice and exhortation. Together, we made dysfunctional marriages, alienation, isolation from the wider society, spiritual abuse and a whole host of other problems seem bearable, by reinforcing one another’s beliefs that suffering meant that in the eyes of God, we were special.
For a wonderful and insightful analysis of this destructive type of thinking, see Saliha’s post, “Suffering doesn’t make you special; it just makes you miserable.”