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.

The kind of job that is very stressful and not much valued, and workers are seen as a dime a dozen, so if they are running into problems dealing with clients or fellow workers, it’s less bother for management to find some pretext to fire them and hire a replacement than to (say) look into making any changes to the workplace culture. The kind of job that pays a pittance, so that you can’t survive on it alone. The kind of job that has few avenues for advancement, and will likely not lead to anything in future except another job very much like it. That is, if budget cuts or technological change or outsourcing don’t lead to the job being phased out altogether.

The kind of job that you can’t afford to retire from, because you can’t save anything, and there is no pension. The kind of job that you have to keep doing until you become incapacitated, or die. No matter how much you hate it. No matter how humiliating it is. No matter how badly you are treated.

In the ’80’s and ’90’s, the conservative Muslim leaders in the part of North America that I was living in at the time strongly discouraged the idea that women should work for wages outside the home. Girls should get married, and married women should have children, they said, because that’s women’s god-given role. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important in a woman’s life than being a good wife and mother.

Therefore, these leaders didn’t really encourage women to pursue education past high school. While they acknowledged that Muslim communities need some women to become doctors (especially obstetricians and gynecologists), and school-teachers for Muslim schools, and perhaps even social workers, this was presented as something that a small number of exceptionally gifted women might do. But such exceptions did not change the rule, as far as these leaders were concerned: women in general shouldn’t work outside the home.

It is the responsibility of men to provide for their wives, children, and needy female relatives, they said. Therefore, higher education isn’t really necessary for girls. Except perhaps to enhance their marriage prospects—though even this is not really a good thing, because a truly pious man would seek to marry a girl for piety, not because she had some diploma or degree.

Women working outside the home (they said) is unnatural. Women are by nature suited to domesticity, bearing children, and caring for their families. Men are by nature suited to providing for and protecting women and children. “The West” and “feminism” has upset this natural balance. But in reality, all that they have done is to make women miserable, because now women have to work two jobs—the job that they do when they are at work, and then all the housework when they come home. This has made “the Western family” unstable, and led to more and more divorce, single parenthood, and workplace adultery. It has made men feel confused about their roles, and less responsible for their wives and children.

But Islam (they said) had the solution to these “Western” problems. Women need to be stay-at-home wives and mothers, and men need to step up and act as providers. According to Islam (they said), no woman should ever need to worry about how she is going to survive. A daughter is provided for by her father, a wife by her husband, an elderly woman by her sons. A divorced woman returns to her parents’ home, or at least will be provided for by her brothers or other close male relatives.

I knew girls and women who literally acted on these teachings.

There was Sister A., the high school senior who announced to her fellow students that she intended to get married, and since she would not work outside the home, there would be no need for further education. She would only go to community college in order to take Early Childhood Education if she wasn’t married by the end of her senior year—so that she would be even better prepared to be a good stay-at-home mother.

This sort of thing seemed a bit alarming to me and some of my convert friends even then. What would be so wrong about women at least getting some sort of post-secondary job skills training, so that if they end up being divorced or widowed that they can go into the work force and find a decent job? Many of the more liberally-minded Muslims we encountered agreed. But the conservatives we knew—in particular, those in The Cult—did not.

According to The Cult, the whole “Western” educational system was deeply suspect, and Muslim children should not attend public schools if at all possible. Post-secondary education was also seen as dangerous, though their concession to reality was that boys could attend community college or university in order to gain the qualifications needed to practice skilled trades, run their own businesses, or go into a profession. But there was no need for girls to get post-secondary education, because they would marry and be stay-at-home wives and mothers, and their male relatives would always ensure that they would be taken care of in any case.

But (we said), as converts, we know that if we are ever divorced or widowed, we can’t expect our (non-Muslim) parents or siblings or relatives to provide for us. We would have to support ourselves, then. And, we wear hijab. With no work experience to speak of, and no job skills, how on earth would we be able to compete in the job market??

This would not be a problem, one of the leaders assured us. Because you could easily get a job working as a grocery clerk, like Brother D.’s mother is doing part-time, in order to help pay off their mortgage. Or, better yet, you could run a home daycare, like Brother Y.’s mother-in-law is doing, now that her kids have mostly grown up.

Looking back, I can’t believe that we fell for it. But we did.

And I can’t believe that these men taught us such nonsense, and claimed that this is what God says. Even though they knew better. Even though they knew damn well what the outcome of our following such teachings could very well be. How little they thought we deserved. How little they cared about the welfare of those trusting souls who sought their guidance.

But in the end, it is not those men who pay the price for such foolishness. It is women like us. And our children.

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  1. #1 by Saliha on June 24, 2012 - 5:47 pm

    I know so many women in this situation. I’ve seen younger women who had degrees and skills before marriage and/or who still have family ties who manage, with difficulty, to get back on their feet after leaving abusive marriages and oppressive interpretations of Islam.

    But I’ve also known quite a few women who converted in the late 70s through mid 80s who are now in their 50s and their situations are so much more dire. Many live in humiliating poverty and feel it’s better to beg for money from the masjid, or be underpaid and poorly treated working in Muslim schools rather than wear less hijab (I’m not even talking about taking off hijab, but wearing a pants suit and a pastel scarf rather than a big black abaya or chador) and try to pursue work outside of the Muslim community.

    It’s not just piety that traps them, though. Sadly, after years and years in a Muslim bubble I think they are terrified of having to be Muslim in the larger society. Even if they leave Islam, as you know, there is a long and difficult recovery process involved. There are a series of psychological hurdles that have been put in their way. Some of them know they need help, but there are so few resources available for mental health for even the most obviously ill. Few people care about the needs of these women. As is typical with abusers, many women have been cut off from family for years and repairing those relationships takes more resources than they have left. For many, even their children are trying to rebuild their lives after living in a Muslim bubble (often outside of the US in cult or cult like groups that kept them isolated EVEN from the broader Muslim society they were living in) so they are carrying the extra guilt of how their children were hurt.

    I have to say that I’m impressed by the number of convert women I know who converted later and never bought into that. But for those women who did, the outcome has been awful.

  2. #2 by MK on June 24, 2012 - 6:59 pm

    This breaks my heart. Its all very well to trust in God but there has to be a back up plan (education, training, job) for everyone irrespective of gender. I just cannot understand how any just or sensible person can advocate such utopian and unrealistic attitudes.
    Was there no discussion about others within the community who experienced unfortunate realities of life: divorce, disease, death or falling out with families or families unable/unwilling to help out?
    What about these people whose lives were clearly falling short of the ‘ideal’ life? How could that be glossed over and given a positive spin?
    Most of all what was it about these religious leaders and their teachings that inspired such unquestioning obedience and trust? We all have an instinct for self-preservation and that people were able to suspend better judgement despite misgivings is deeply unsettling.
    The fact that innocent people were treated so shabbily by trusting in the ideals of their leaders and continue to suffer the consequences of this ill placed trust saddens me.

  3. #3 by luckyfatima on July 6, 2012 - 2:19 pm

    Whenever I have talked to women who have resorted to begging or who have some education but are working as housemaids, it is always because they have been crushed under this power structure after men in their lives failed them. Husbands abandoned them but did not divorce them. Husbands died but their own in-laws threw them out and then their brothers’ wives caused problems for them because resources were tight (both for ILs and brothers’ homes, and ILs may be relatives, too) and feeding one more woman with children would be too much. This system pits women against each other, squabbling for male-provided resources. It perpetuates mother-in-law vs daughter-in-law strife. And in reality, this system has only ever worked (with huge flaws caused by power imbalances) for the middle classes and elites. Poor women have always worked. Which is an underlying cause of why an earning woman who appears in public is shameful. Women who are not desperately poor but who travel by themselves for work, who interact with men at work, who earn for their families, and so forth are like impoverished women. This is shameful. Poor men and families whose women appear in public to work are shamed people. Working women are emasculating for this reason. And all of this is wrapped up in a shiny but cheap bow and presented as God’s word under the cover of the justifications for the system which you discuss in your next post.

  4. #4 by xcwn on July 7, 2012 - 2:11 am

    Saliha—Oh my goodness. Your description of those chador/abaya-wearing converts… reminds me very strongly of some sisters I used to know. I have often wondered how those sisters are doing. When I knew them, they were married, had lots of kids, and sometimes taught at Islamic schools. They lived in Muslim bubbles and raised their kids in those bubbles… and they would have been so very vulnerable if their marriages ended. I have lost track of them, and if they’re still conservative, I doubt that they’d even want to talk to me, but still, I wonder how they are. I hope that they are ok, and that they have a dignified life.

    These ideas of virtue we had… were just so out of touch with reality.

  5. #5 by xcwn on July 9, 2012 - 3:06 am

    Luckyfatima—“This system pits women against each other, squabbling for male-provided resources.” Yes, it does. That was one of the key ways that it wore us down, and kept us divided against one another.

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