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, wikimedia.org

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.

Arrrgh!

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.

A woman who is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as posing a challenge to the patriarchal powers that be will often be criticized in sexualized terms: Not only is she out of line, but somehow, there’s a sexually wayward vibe to what she is doing. A woman who won’t keep quiet, or who wants female members of the congregation to be able to play more active roles is just trying to get (male) attention. A woman who seems to be very interested in learning more about her faith and attending religious classes is probably motivated primarily by a crush on a (male) teacher, or on one of his (male) students. A woman who has managed to gain some sort of religious leadership role, limited though it might be, has probably “qualified” for the position because the men who decided she should play that role found her attractive. And so on.

For that matter, much the same thing goes on in secular society. Women in the public eye for whatever reason remain vulnerable to sexualized scrutiny in a way that men simply are not. Any woman, even a judge or a politician, can expect to have attention paid to her physical desirability in the eyes of men  (or presumed lack thereof), her attire, her personal life, relationship status, and her sexuality. Prominent and powerful men can get away with everything from cellulite to repeated failures in the relationship department (or even well-known extra-marital affairs), and still be taken seriously as intelligent and worthwhile people with admirable leadership qualities. Women usually can’t.

This sort of thing, especially in conservative religious communities, acts to shame women into silence and passivity. Because people insinuating that you are motivated by sexual desires rather than by piety, or by a wish to contribute positively to the community, is profoundly shaming, if you are female. This is of course based on a sexual double standard. For a woman, having a sexual past (or even having had untrue rumors spread about you) is supposed to be something that you can never, ever live down. When was the last time we ever heard of a religious community venerating a holy man who is a “reformed frequenter of prostitutes”? Or even a “reformed pimp”?

And then there’s the whole notion that women’s sins are primarily sexual in one way or another, and that sex work = sin. Because, sexual sins are primarily caused by women tempting or seducing men (who otherwise wouldn’t have sinned, natch). And because of course the only reason any woman ever got into sex work, or remains in sex work, is because of her lustful desire to bed as many men as possible. Sex work is never motivated by, say, economic necessity. There are no social or economic structures that make sex work one of the only—or the only—viable option for many women (and sometimes men, or transfolk) to survive. Because it’s supposedly all about one woman’s sinful personal choice. And the “solution” to the “problem” of sex work is for these women to repent. Yeah, right.

And aside from these factors, why would Gregory feel free to “fill in the blanks” about Mary’s life, and decide that she must have been a “reformed prostitute” but that by and large, powerful, elite free and educated men have written history. In this scheme of things, women don’t have a history, the poor don’t have a history, slaves don’t have a history. History is “his story.” Religious history is also “his story.” Powerful, elite men can feel free to tell the stories of these other, historyless populations any way they please. And if the result is edifying, why should anyone object? Telling the story of Mary Magdalene as a leader wouldn’t be edifying (especially not for churches that still refuse to ordain women, but even sometimes for those that do). Because all believers should be focusing on being faithful followers, and stop talking about real-life hierarchical structures that make the lives of real people at the bottom of the hierarchy difficult… because if we don’t talk about these structures or call them into question or resist them, then somehow they won’t matter. At least, not to the spiritually-minded.

If I were going to retell Mary Magdalene’s story, how would I go about it? Reading what the gospels say about Mary Magdalene, I am struck by her cry at the empty tomb: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Leaving aside the context of that statement for a moment—she doesn’t realize that he is risen—I am tempted to read it as the cry of a woman seeking God, who realizes that patriarchal religion has robbed her. The patriarchs have taken God for their own, made God in their own (patriarchal) image, and carried God away, and made God copyright. They have created a limited god, a cruelly warped god, and have left us squinting in the dark, trying to see something—anything!—and hoping against hope that it’s not just emptiness.

No, of course this isn’t historical. I know that.

Anyway. I am not a Christian, so I would be well advised to leave Mary Magdalene’s memory to those who are. But the question of how to interpret her story makes me ask questions about how we understood and related to Muslim female saints. And how they were often used to both make us feel that we had a place within the faith, but also at the same time, to limit us in so many different ways.

Those female saints who we read about, and whose lives we tried to emulate: the female Companions, the wives of the Prophet, the women of his family, Sufi women—what did we really know about their lives? What a few elite men writing centuries ago had seen fit to tell us, that had in turn been filtered through what a few modern conservative Muslim writers (usually men, though not always) had decided that it was most important for us as women to know about them.

So, holy women seldom speak for themselves. Even when they are said to have related hadith, or wrote poetry, or preached, it was usually men who wrote down their words, and it is through those men that we have access to them today. These men weren’t stenographers, assiduously recording every single word that the holy woman said—they only wrote down what they thought merited preservation. This was the first implicit lesson we received, really: female silence = female holiness.

And because so little is known about these female saints, then male authors of the past and present—as well as some conservative female authors today—feel free to fill in the blanks. These saints become in effect blank slates, and whatever is regarded as “proper” female piety will be written upon them. (The next lesson we implicitly received: even pious women can’t speak for themselves, or interpret their own lives. Others, mostly men, do that for them.)

So Khadijah, the Prophet’s first wife, who was a wealthy and well-connected businesswoman who basically bankrolled most of the first half of his career, is often presented as… a loyal, domestic woman who essentially offered him emotional support when few people believed in him. While I’d be the last person to dismiss the importance of providing emotional support to those who need it, to sum up her life in this way is to provide women with a very restrictive model of piety that keeps them well within conservative ideas of a “good wife” as one who stays at home, and supports whatever her husband does. Such a woman has no power, whether within her community, or to direct her own life… and certainly not within her marriage.

At best, she donates whatever wealth she might have access to, and male leaders will be the ones who will decide how to use it. Female piety is associated with silence, self-sacrifice, endurance of privation, and absence from the public realm. Pious women do not lead. So therefore, Khadijah must have been a primarily domestic, quiet, self-sacrificing woman, content to follow, and to bankroll the Prophet’s preaching without even so much as expressing an opinion or advising him or his followers. However unlikely that sounds historically. (Next lesson: holy women operate outside history, outside of economic, political, social and legal structures. Piety for women means not worrying about such things.)

These female saints usually fitted into neat little categories. They were pious, self-sacrificing mothers, who would give up everything in order to raise righteous children. If they were mothers, they were also usually wives—piously obedient wives, who uncomplainingly performed their wifely duties, while never of course distracting their pious husbands from the remembrance of God even for a minute… because they didn’t have, like, emotional or sexual needs or anything like that. If they were daughters, they were obedient, pious and (of course) virgin daughters, who dressed and behaved modestly, and supported their pious fathers in their righteous works. (Next lesson: women, even pious women, are nearly always defined in relation to men. And a pious woman’s relations with the men in her life must support rather than challenge patriarchal prerogatives.)

Some female saints didn’t fit into these categories very well, such as the wives of the Prophet—and among them, A’ishah in particular. In that case, their deviations from these categories would be used in the Islamic literature that we read in order to show how badly things turn out when women don’t follow the rules. In A’ishah’s case, she could never quite live down the accusation of adultery against her (even though she had been pronounced completely innocent through a divine revelation, no less, writers nonetheless kept bringing it up…), nor her leading role in the Battle of the Camel, where she fought against Ali, the fourth caliph (and the first imam of the Shia). If only she had stayed at home where she belonged, it was implied, then all the bloodshed at the Battle of the Camel could have been avoided. In any case, most of the books we read said that she spent the rest of her life weeping over how unwise she had been in leaving the seclusion of her home and getting involved in the masculine domain of politics. (Next lesson: pious women are both trapped by their female bodies—which limit them to certain spaces and certain social roles—but also have to transcend their bodies as much as possible, by desexualizing themselves whenever they are in the public eye. Women who don’t manage to walk that tightrope are damaged goods. Forever. And no, of course a pious woman can’t lead. If she’s truly pious, the thought wouldn’t even come into her head.)

A far less problematic saintly figure in the books we read was Fatima, the Prophet’s youngest daughter, the wife of Ali and the mother of Hasan and Husayn, the second and third Shia imams. Sunni books that we read affirmed that she was one of the few perfect women who had ever lived, but it was never really clear what her holiness was based on. She was a loving daughter, who wept when the Prophet’s enemies threw dirt on him as he prayed, she was very modest, she married and had four children in quick succession, she carried water from the well and ground grain until her hands were blistered… but she didn’t seem to have much of a personality. And, she died young, about six months after the Prophet’s death. She was presented to us as a long-suffering figure, basically. (Next lesson: truly pious women don’t really have individual personalities.)

And then there were the Sufi women. Rabia of Basra, first and foremost, but there were also others, from Rabia of Syria (who happily enabled her husband’s polygamy, or so we read) to Maymuna the Black, a slave who pastured sheep and patiently put up with at least one bothersome Sufi man who stalked her because he had gotten it into his head that she would be his wife in paradise. That would have been a very frightening and dangerous experience—to be a slave woman out alone in the countryside pasturing animals, and being stalked by a male stranger, in a society that regarded slave women as “easy” and put little value on the lives of slaves, especially not on those who did that kind of work. But the book we read that mentioned her didn’t even acknowledge that whole dimension of her story. Rather, the writer reported that Maymuna’s holiness was said to be due to the fact that “she was thoroughly contented” with her lot in life. (Next lesson: men’s sexual desires are like forces of nature. Asking men, even pious men, not to be horndogs is like asking the wind not to blow. Pious women don’t question or protest this; they gracefully accept the inevitable, allowing men to exercise their patriarchal prerogatives in situations where this is legally mandated. Also, pious women focus their efforts on not tempting men to sin.)

What strikes me now, looking back, was how these women’s holiness was presented to us in entirely patriarchal terms. They were holy because the patriarchal powers that be—male scholars, male Sufis, male writers—had deemed them to be so. Above all, their holiness can be summed up as enabling and supporting the continued existence of patriarchal religious structures, whether these be the family, the community, the mosque, the Sufi order, or whatever else.

As women, we had no say in what piety—even female piety—was supposed to look like. We had no right to decide who were or were not holy women. I wonder what that right would look like. Which will be my next post.

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  1. #1 by Diana Beatty on July 29, 2012 - 10:23 pm

    I have really struggled in trying to find a true role model for a Muslim woman. Any woman held up as a role model we know almost nothing about because of that code of ‘silence’ you mentioned. The lesson seems to be that a saintly woman is an invisible woman. This really bothers me because we are deprived of clear examples to emulate and are basically guilted into silence and inactivity.

    • #2 by xcwn on July 29, 2012 - 10:56 pm

      Diana–I don’t know what to do about the examples question. It’s complicated. Though, I do wonder sometimes about the validity of looking for saintly examples—especially if it becomes a search for past precedents to justify our existence. I don’t think that we should feel that we need to “prove” through the lives of saintly women that it is ok for us to work outside the home, or study fiqh to the highest levels, or preach, or travel, or whatever-it-is that we feel called to do. Somehow, men’s lives don’t seem to need this kind of constant justification.

  2. #3 by Anonymous// on July 30, 2012 - 3:15 pm

    Would you recommend any books to read, other than the Wadud, Ali, Ahmed, Badran and co we are familiar with?

    Thanks.

    • #4 by xcwn on August 1, 2012 - 2:57 am

      MK—Yes, it is certainly true that history is written by the victorious. As they say, the story looks quite different when told from the perspective of the lions instead of the hunters.

      Anonymous—Books on what specifically? On female saints? On gender and sexuality in Islam? In either case, there isn’t that much out there that is both informed and analytical, though fortunately that is gradually changing.
      Khaled Abou El-Fad’s book, _Speaking in God’s Name_, raises some interesting questions about authority, gender and Islamic law.
      Laury Silvers has some thought-provoking work on female saints, as well as women-led prayer.
      I like some of Michael Muhammad Knight’s books (especially _Blue-eyed Devil_ and _William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an_), because (among other things), he raises some insightful questions about the ways that masculinity and straight masculine sexuality are constructed in some North American Muslim communities.
      Omid Safi’s book, _Progressive Muslims_ is a bit old now, and you’ve probably read it, but there are a couple of interesting chapters in it.

      But really what I would recommend is to read original sources critically. With attention to their historical contexts. And read real live people’s stories and experiences, especially those on the margins.

      • #5 by Anonymous// on August 1, 2012 - 3:35 pm

        Books on those subjects, and on anything you consider worth looking at, actually. I’d be happy to read fiction on your recommendation.

        As for ‘real lives’, do you have any in mind? I suppose this blog is somewhere to start.

        Thank you again.

  3. #6 by MK on July 30, 2012 - 3:20 pm

    Totally agree with you on this. Fatima is very undefined personality wise and as for the Prophet’s other daughters they are ciphers we (or at least I) don’t know much about them. Dodgy and random male transmitters of hadith are given more precedence and their views (no matter how idiotic and contradictory) have been recorded with such enthusiasm.

    History is written by the victorious and recorded mainly by men and so we can never really know these women or their motivations, emotions, regrets or lack of regrets for their choices and lives.

  4. #7 by xcwn on August 2, 2012 - 3:06 am

    Anonymous—Yes, there’s plenty of “real life” to be found on blogs, and sometimes in memoirs. And even better, by talking to people from different backgrounds. And of course there is film.

    Read everything you can get your hands on. It’s not so much what you read as how you read it. In The Cult, we were trained to read everything through this sort of filtration system, that ensured that no matter what you read, it would just confirm what you already believed and thought that you “knew.” Reading like that isn’t very informative. Reading with an open mind can be.

  5. #8 by rosalindawijks on March 16, 2015 - 4:20 pm

    “That kind of thing happens all the damned time to women in patriarchal religious communities, past and present.

    A woman who is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as posing a challenge to the patriarchal powers that be will often be criticized in sexualized terms: Not only is she out of line, but somehow, there’s a sexually wayward vibe to what she is doing. A woman who won’t keep quiet, or who wants female members of the congregation to be able to play more active roles is just trying to get (male) attention.”

    True! Amina Wadud was called a “whore” and a “prostitute” by one of the men holding a protest rally against her inclusive, female led-prayer in NYC.

    And these lovely Pakistani sisters who sing SUFI songs, for crying out loud, always accompanied by their father, were also called “whores” and “bitches” by a commenter on youtube.

    Here is a link to their amazing performance and, alas, one of those comments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taQvRYqxFFo

    “In The Cult, we were trained to read everything through this sort of filtration system, that ensured that no matter what you read, it would just confirm what you already believed and thought that you “knew.”

    Yes, that’s the confirmation bias. The leaders of that cult must have had knowledge of human psychology, since they clearly used it against you.

    “And then there’s the whole notion that women’s sins are primarily sexual in one way or another, and that sex work = sin. Because, sexual sins are primarily caused by women tempting or seducing men (who otherwise wouldn’t have sinned, natch). And because of course the only reason any woman ever got into sex work, or remains in sex work, is because of her lustful desire to bed as many men as possible. Sex work is never motivated by, say, economic necessity. There are no social or economic structures that make sex work one of the only—or the only—viable option for many women (and sometimes men, or transfolk) to survive. Because it’s supposedly all about one woman’s sinful personal choice. And the “solution” to the “problem” of sex work is for these women to repent. Yeah, right.”

    Yes! Prostitution exists because many men want it. Prostitutes are often VERY poor & uneducated women (the high class courtisans and call girls nonwithstanding). Many of them also have/had neglected, abused or loveless childhoods.

    To these women, selling their bodies is a last resort to prevent themselves and/or their children from starving. A woman doesn’t become a prostitute because she wants to sleep with many men. That’s something different alltogether. If it was about sleeping with many men, she could take lovers or marry several men.

    No prostitute sleeps with those men for fun. Another nonsense-story concocted by the very men who “visit” them.

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