Archive for July, 2012
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.
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.
We could be holy. Or at least, we could try to be.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.