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.