Archive for July, 2012

Holy women: (male) memories, (male) privilege and (male) power

I have had a life-long fascination with the notion of female saints. And so far, it has been my undoing.

Looking back, it rather seems odd. I wasn’t raised in any religious tradition, so it isn’t as if I was raised to look up to saints of any sort as protectors or examples. Saints certainly weren’t subjects of dinner table conversation! And there was no religious art of any sort in our house. Maybe it was because “God” was a masculine noun. I was fascinated by the idea of God (yet another notion that had no place in our house), but didn’t see anything that I as a non-male could really relate to in the doctrinal fragments of Christianity or Judaism that occasionally came my way. Holy women seemed to provide a bridge of a sort into a religious universe, in which I too could encounter God.

Female saints tend to fall into several predictable categories: self-abnegating mother, devoutly obedient wife, pious virgin daughter. What are patriarchal religions to do with holy women who don’t fit into these neat little boxes? (Mary Magdalene as a penitent prostitute, Titian, ca. 1565,

Anyway. I am still trying to disentangle the role of holy women in my life. To that end, I recently listened to a sermon on Mary Magdalene (whose feast-day is on July 22). A Christian saint. It would be a nice break from agonizing over the stories of Muslim female saints and how they used to make us feel so guilty, so inadequate… and how they were utilized in order to keep us down… or so I thought.

Well, I was certainly wrong about that. The whole experience was quite triggering. Because it laid bare a whole lot of the dynamics of my and my convert friends’ relationships with Muslim female saints.

The sermon can be summed up in this way: Today is the feast-day of Saint Mary of Magdala. For about 1400 years, Christians have believed that she was a reformed prostitute who left her sinful life in order to follow Jesus. This isn’t true historically, but Christians believed it for centuries because of a sermon preached by Gregory the Great, in which he mistakenly conflated Mary with an unnamed “sinful woman” mentioned in the gospels who anointed Jesus’ feet. Whoops! Well, the church wasn’t right about that one, but anyway…. We probably can identify with the experience of being wrongfully accused of something, but this is not what we should take out of Mary’s story. Instead, we should look at what we do know about her. She followed Jesus, ministering to his needs. She was present at the crucifixion, and she was the one at his tomb on Easter morning, and he told her to go and tell the others that he had risen. So, she is known as “the apostle to the apostles.” We should follow her devoted example of faith.


Okay. First of all, the misidentification of Mary Magdalene as a “reformed prostitute” is not just a fluke. That kind of thing happens all the damned time to women in patriarchal religious communities, past and present.

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How we were sold on patriarchal religion: reason #59

We could be holy. Or at least, we could try to be.

How does respect for, or veneration of holy women of the past affect real women’s lives today? Does it mean that most real, live women are also treated with respect, or allowed to exercise authority? If not, why not?
(Shrine of Sayyida Zaynab, in Syria.

When I was in the process of converting to Islam, I remember reading an article written by a woman, in a Muslim magazine aimed primarily at women. Most of the article was typical, conservative stuff from a Shia Iranian perspective about women’s duties and rights (note the word order). It also briefly discussed several holy women of the past, such as the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, his first wife Khadijah, and his grand-daughter Zaynab. The author concluded with a statement along the lines of: Yes, in Islam women are subject to certain legal restrictions that men are not… but this is not important. What really matters is that a Muslim woman can be a woman who devotes her life to God, and remains unswervingly on the path of divine guidance. Neither difficulties nor “the women who blow on knots” (a quranic reference to sorceresses, used in this case to dismissively refer to secular or feminist women) will divert such a woman from her “chosen way.”

In this way, the author manages to divert the readers’ attention from some serious legal restrictions by invoking the model of the saintly woman.

That is, rather than paying attention to (or worrying about) the legal disabilities that the article said we must accept as God’s will for our lives, we should be feeling inspired by the heroic examples of self-sacrificing pure mothers of martyrs, loyal and supportive wives promised an exalted place in heaven, and brave daughters who risked their lives to speak the truth to power. Saintly women, who had been chosen by God to play important roles in the lives of prophets and holy men, and to witness miracles.

Feminists who find many aspects of Sharia law unjust towards women are just being churlish, the article suggests. They are looking for things to pick holes in. They are failing to see the big picture. And their claims that conservative religious women are “oppressed” or their representations of the lives of dutiful mothers, wives, and daughters in “traditional” conservative religious families as essentially passive and unfulfilling is wildly incorrect.

Because, what might appear to be subjection to patriarchal power and privilege is in fact… spiritually fulfilling. And not just spiritually fulfilling, but the source of exaltation.

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The men who speak with God’s voice

Whenever I think about God nowadays, usually, two things happen. First, I draw a blank. Then, I notice the voices.

The voices that I internalized, as a result of years spent in several conservative Muslim communities.

What does it mean when your god loves everything that you love, and can’t stand all the stuff that you can’t stand? Doesn’t that mean that you have created a god in your own image?
(Photo: Remi Mathis

The voices have a lot to say. About everything. About how the world “should” be.

The voices are not disembodied. They issue forth from human beings.

“That’s odd,” I think. “After all, as Muslims we don’t believe that God has a form or a body. God is beyond human characteristics like gender and race and class. So, why is it that I can’t think about God without these embodied voices intruding?”

The voices are male. They speak very confidently. They are very sure that they know exactly who God is, and what God thinks about everything. They know what God wants them to do, and even more, what God wants other people to do. Especially women. Especially me.

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Malcolm X moment

It’s not as though convert voices, or convert stories are never heard in conservative North American Muslim communities. “Why I embraced Islam” talks have been a fixture of MSA-sponsored events since the ’80’s at least. A growing number of converts are becoming prominent community leaders and scholars. A very small number of these converts are even female.

But here’s the thing: The stories told by converts that get heard are usually what the immigrant Muslim establishment sees as “feel-good” stories. Stories about women (especially white, middle-class women) who convert, put on hijab, and say that for the first time in their lives they feel truly liberated were popular in many of the conservative Muslim circles I frequented. But what about the stories of female converts who didn’t find marriage to a Muslim the “sheltering peace” that they had been led to expect? What about those who sought knowledge, and then were horrified by what they found? What about those who were manipulated and spiritually abused by shaykhs they trusted? What about those who are still dealing with the after-effects of their involvement in Muslim cults, dysfunctional Muslim communities, abusive marriages… or all of the above?

Convert stories are often really complicated. And they should be heard in all their complexity. Even when they don’t tell born Muslims things that they want to hear.

We seldom heard their stories. And, when their stories did come to light, they were quickly swept under the rug, or dismissed in various ways: It is an exaggeration. It can’t be true. She never really believed in the first place. God was testing her, and she should have shown more patience.

When sisters were struggling, they tended to avoid contact with other conservative Muslims. Once they had left, or been forced out, they typically disappeared. We lost contact with them.

Recently, Aminah left the following comment about the abuse that some converts have had to deal with:

“We have tried to talk about this before. Its not just that the community, including progressive or liberal Muslims, distanced themselves. Remember the last spate of ex Muslimah blogs, which started to crack the silence about abuse in marriages, community, tariqas and institutions? And what followed was abuse, slander, death threats, harassment. Muslim women unconnected w the blogs were suspected of being anti-abuse bloggers and subjected to phone calls and emails and community ostracization. Several of those women were hung out to dry. For a lot of us who blogged or guest posted or just read for the sense of a community – finally, not alone! – it was triggering and disheartening, particularly because this little handful of bloggers quit. Or moved on, taking their blogs with them. Just when we started to understand we weren’t alone – and started breaking the taboo of “revealing your husband’s secrets,” getting over the fear of that “sin,” it was all over.

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How we were sold on patriarchal religion: reason #89

Because it gave us knowledge of everything. And knowledge is power.

The conservative brands of Islam that I came to know intimately all had one thing in common: they gave you knowledge of everything. Everything in this world that mattered, anyway, as well as a glimpse of the next.

We thought we knew it all. Or at least, that the leaders we followed knew it all. So, through them, we had access to all the secrets of the universe. Every aspect of life could be fitted into this handy template that they supplied us with… so we thought we knew where everything (and everyone) belonged. (

Whatever question you might have, there was a plausible-sounding, coherent answer for. Often, a fairly straightforward answer. All you had to do was to ask an imam, a shaykh, or a person known for their Islamic knowledge.

Any question at all. Ritual questions. Legal questions. Ethical questions. Practical questions. Theological questions. Eschatological questions. Questions about how Islamic beliefs stack up against other religions. Historical questions. Psychological questions. And so on.

Of course, there often wasn’t one single answer. Especially not if you were asking ritual or legal questions, because the Sunnis have four main legal schools (as well as others that did not survive until today). But regardless of the technical details of the answer, there was a template, which (with a little practice) you yourself could use, and bring order out of the chaos of your experience.

The world made sense, because we learned how to slot every question, every experience, every situation or thing that we encountered or read or heard about into its “correct” place in the scheme of things. And because we could do that, we gained a feeling of control over our lives. And, sad to say, over the lives of others.

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Slippery language: “recommended” and “obligatory”

As I continue to sort through the bafflegab that (in my experience) surrounded the “mainstream” Sunni conservative discourses in North America that I was most often exposed to, one issue that comes up again and again is literature or sermons that imply equality or equivalence where frankly, it doesn’t exist.

Why did women fight for the “right” to vote? Wasn’t the “recommendation” that men take women’s opinions into consideration when making decisions more than enough? How very unreasonable of them….

One of the ways that this is done is to almost-but-not-entirely fudge the difference in Islamic law between something that is “obligatory” and something that is “recommended.” To phrase it in such a way that the average listener or reader—who is not likely to know much about Islamic law—will probably think that there’s little or no difference, but the knowledgeable listener or reader will see that the difference has been implied and so will probably not call the speaker or writer out on it.

This kind of slippery use of language is usually found in discussions of gender issues or family law. Basically, their function is to paper over the fact that classical legal texts aren’t starting with the same assumptions about the nature of humanity and justice that most modern North Americans are.

Most North Americans today believe that human beings are equal, and that treating women and men unequally for no good reason is an injustice. While there are ongoing debates about what exactly “equality” is and how it should be expressed in law and social practice, the abstract notion that gender equality is “good” and “just” is fairly widely accepted. We start out with the view that men and women are citizens, who are therefore equal before the law and should have equal rights. This is true to the extent that even many modern North American patriarchal religious groups make some effort to package their patriarchal and quite inegalitarian teachings as though they are somehow “equitable” or at least “fair.”

But classical legal texts (e.g. Shafi’is Umm, Sahnun’s Mudawwana, Ibn Qudama’s Mughni…) were written way before anyone had even though in terms of citizenship or equal rights. Such ideas didn’t exist at that time. Their authors lived in a world in which it was taken for granted that humans aren’t equal. Rather, there is a god-given social hierarchy, in which men are above women, and free persons are above slaves (and Muslims are above non-Muslims). Therefore, these texts don’t equate social or legal equality among men and women (or free and slave, or Muslim and non-Muslim) with fairness or justice. Rather, they assume that “justice” means giving each his or her due, depending on that person’s place within social and familial hierarchies.

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“Seeking knowledge”: a cure for patriarchal abuses?

In my experience, yet another important way that the blame for some men’s failures to fulfill their “responsibility” to provide for and protect women is often shifted onto women is through the imperative that all adult, sane Muslims “seek knowledge.”

That is, when a Muslim woman ends up being poorly treated or abused by a Muslim man who is supposed to be providing for and protecting her—whether this be her husband, her father, or any other close male relative—or by a Muslim man in a position of power or authority, such as an imam, shaykh, or community leader, then the main person at fault is supposedly… her.

If you don’t “seek knowledge from cradle to grave,” Sister, then of course you won’t know what Islam Really Teaches…. Yes, this is a madrasah for boys, true. But there are so many opportunities for sisters to learn all about their Islamic duties and rights. For instance, you should ask your husband to teach you….

Because, if she had only done her Islamic duty and sought knowledge, then she would have known that the way this man was behaving is haraam, or that his interpretation of Islam is wrong. She would then have been able to protect herself from ill-treatment or abuse by her knowledge. But, because she was somehow remiss in seeking knowledge, and therefore did not know what True Islam (TM) teaches, she ended up in this tragic situation.

From time to time, I get comments to this effect: How sad that I and my convert friends were treated so badly. But then, this is because we didn’t know what True Islam is.

I recognize this rhetorical move quite well, because I used to do it. As far as I was concerned, any kind of abuse done by Muslims—even if they were justifying their actions with the Qur’an, the hadith, Islamic law, the ruling of a recognized scholar, ijma’—couldn’t possibly be anything to do with True Islam. There must have been some sort of misinterpretation somewhere. Or, the abusers were just cynically using Islam as a justification, but they didn’t really, honestly believe that their behavior is Islamic. And so on. This rhetorical move is a faith-saving device, essentially. Motivated by the concern with husn al-dhun (“thinking well”—of God, of his Prophet, of the scholars, of other believers…), as well as a wish to avoid having to deal with some really difficult issues.

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