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.

Women who play these “traditional” roles of self-sacrificing mother, obedient wife, and dutiful daughter, but do so with proper Islamic consciousness and a pure intention to serve God are following in the footsteps of the holy women of the past. Their lives therefore have dignity and purpose.

Which makes all the inequalities and indignities that they might suffer somehow… dignified.  Holy. And, all about these women’s CHOICES. There is no passivity or resignation here, these women are righteously CHOOSING to live in certain ways. That secular-minded women are too blinded by their love of the dunya and limitation by the material world to really understand. It is secular-minded women who are the ones who were limited, not religious women.

Looking back, I am struck by the “bait and switch” tactic. And also, by how well it worked on us.

We were in the market for holy female exemplars. Partly to help offset the often pretty crude patriarchy that we lived with. We needed to believe that there was a place for us in the faith beyond the kitchen and the bedroom—or at least, if that was where we happened to be physically located, that somehow we weren’t limited to those locations. That there was a larger dimension to our existence. That all the dirty dishes and (apparently self-dirtying) floors and piles of laundry and grimy, fussing children and entitled husbands were not all that there was to it. No, on the contrary—we were really engaged in an important, spiritually significant struggle to live righteously, and to bring up righteous children. We were refining our souls.

We were also self-righteous, self-martyring prigs, much of the time.

And pretty much unaware of how we were digging ourselves into a hole, in terms of our and our children’s futures. But then, in our minds, worrying about how we would pay for our kids’ education, or what would happen to us if we were divorced or widowed, or how we would survive old age would just be worldly. Asking ourselves why we were very unhappy in our marriages would be selfish, we thought, and unrighteous behaviour, because then we’d be questioning what God had seen fit to bestow upon us. Becoming luminous due to constant remembrance of God would be a much more worthwhile goal… or so we thought.

Looking back, I am struck by how ritualistic our ideas of “holiness” were. We thought that the way you go about being holy is primarily by engaging in more rituals, trying to improve one’s ritual performance, trying to follow the laws of conduct more strictly, being even more careful about avoiding the polluting influences of “the world”….

We didn’t really ask ourselves why that qualifies as “holiness.” Or why the world needs more of that sort of thing. That was “holiness” as self-absorption, which also quite nicely served the interests of the patriarchal structures of the communities we were associated with. It kept us in the kitchen, and telling ourselves that we ought to feel honored that we were serving God rather than resentful—and encouraged us to repress those faint “ungodly” feelings that we had now and again that things were not quite right.

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  1. #1 by rootedinbeing on July 29, 2012 - 4:43 pm

    I get sick to my stomach remembering the time I was ever associated with this utter bullshit. I can remember the huge mind bends I would make to try to justify how I, a feminist, could belong in a patriarchal religion BY CHOICE!! Oh man, the convert guilt of having ever tried to make sense of the oppression! There is no making sense of it. Being Muslim, whether we be conservative or liberal feminist – is CONDONING words that are used to oppress our own kind.

    Anyways, your post reminds me of the supreme brainwashing girls go through when being ‘groomed’ to be good little Muslims. I don’t care how liberal we think we are, the lingering effects of patriarchal abuse are still there! I have an extremely liberal Muslim friend who is one of my favorite people in the world – but the idea of ‘sacrificing for your man’ permeates her mind. She sacrifices her wants, needs, and even her own common sense in order to be seen as an ideal woman, and valuable, someone a man should be thankful for having. For some women it has become their only source of pride, and only way of being respected by men – so they go against their own self-interests.

    I cannot stand the idea of sacrifice. It promotes victimhood and women feeling their only sense of power is through that victim mentality. It is not a life affirming, joyful way to live.

  2. #2 by xcwn on July 29, 2012 - 7:44 pm

    Rootedinbeing–Ah yes, the notion of the “ideal woman” who any man should feel grateful for having as a wife. I bought into that for so many years. Like, I didn’t think that I was of any value in and of myself, unless I could live up to that ideal… and nobody could really live up to it, of course. In The Cult, we were actually taught that if we didn’t try with all our might to live up to their standards of piety, that in even God’s sight our lives wouldn’t be worth anything. That is a notion that is very difficult to recover from.

    You’re right—it is an absolutely miserable way to live, when you think that your entire value exists in your ability to not be a person with thoughts, wishes, desires and needs.

  3. #3 by Diana Beatty on July 29, 2012 - 10:03 pm

    This paragraph:

    Which makes all the inequalities and indignities that they might suffer somehow… dignified. Holy. And, all about these women’s CHOICES. There is no passivity or resignation here, these women are righteously CHOOSING to live in certain ways. That secular-minded women are too blinded by their love of the dunya and limitation by the material world to really understand. It is secular-minded women who are the ones who were limited, not religious women.

    really gets it right. I deal with such feelings of guilt for not wanting to make these choices or live up to this ‘ideal’, so I am somehow less pious, less blessed, less guided, less worthy.

    • #4 by xcwn on July 29, 2012 - 11:00 pm

      Diana—Ah yes, the guilt. I marinated in guilt for the longest time. I am still trying to work through all that guilt. It’s so depressing and paralyzing at times. And the thing is, even the most conservative Muslim men I know never seem to have this kind of guilt—not even if they have done things that any reasonable human being ought to feel very guilty about.

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