As in, female piety that doesn’t inhibit or prevent women from being complete human beings. That recognizes and celebrates women’s abilities to think, reason, create, feel, desire and love to the fullest extent of their abilities. I’ve been asking myself this question, and I really don’t know.
Of course, I know what the conservative Muslim communities that I have been involved in or have otherwise encountered in the past would say. When it came to female piety, there was a sort of double-talk that constantly went on. The sameness of men’s and women’s ritual obligations—to pray five times daily, to fast in Ramadan, to pay zakat, to go on Hajj at least once—was stressed. Also, both men and women were often reminded of the importance of seeking to follow the Prophet’s example in praying extra prayers, fasting outside of Ramadan, giving in charity, doing dhikr and reciting the Qur’an.
But as some say, the devil is in the details. In reality, the details of fiqh of salat, fasting, pilgrimage, charitable giving, reading the Qur’an,… constantly remind women and men that they are not equal. And, lived practice in the communities that I was involved in underlined these inequalities even more sharply. Essentially, the fiqh plus the lived practices that I experienced helped to produce a situation in which the body of a woman was never, ever her own. It is never really under her control; unlike a man, she cannot be assured of being able to choose to engage in rituals, or to enter sacred space. And, her body was always at the disposal of others—her husband, of course, and her children, as well as to a lesser extent, relatives and guests. 24/7.
Nothing brought the internal contradictions of these ideas about female piety to the fore quite like Ramadan did. For me, anyway.
On one hand, we as women were obligated to fast just as men were, and we would start off the month listening to the sermons about how the devils are chained during this blessed month, and how every good deed that we did would be rewarded by God. We would be determined to pray tarawih every night, to recite the entire Qur’an through at least once, to make extra time for dhikr, and to stay up in the last ten nights, “looking” for Laylat al-Qadr.
But. As fertile women of child-bearing age, we were effectively put in the position of being at war with our own bodies. We dreaded the onset of menstruation, which would mean that we would lose days of fasting. We especially dreaded menstruating during the first few days of the month (then everyone would be starting the fast but us) or during the Eid (then we couldn’t perform the salat). But whenever our menses fell, we would not only miss fasts, but also tarawih prayers, and days of Qur’an recitation. And, we couldn’t go to the mosque.
We tried to stave off our menses through pregnancy and breast-feeding. So, even though Islamic law allows pregnant or breast-feeding women not to fast in Ramadan if it would be harmful to their or their babies’ health, we often tried to fast through pregnancies anyway. Because who cares about risking low birth weight when for once you have the chance of making it all the way through the month, fasting every single day?
Mind you, our “good” intentions (if fasting despite possible risks to the fetus in your womb can be called “good”) sometimes fell to the wayside, because fasting while pregnant or breast-feeding often made us really, really tired. Which was a serious problem, because Ramadan brought with it even more domestic obligations.
In Ramadan, dinner had to be ready precisely at fast-breaking time. Especially (ESPECIALLY) if there were guests. And cooking just any old food, like macaroni-and-cheese, or vegetable stew, was not acceptable, even if there were no guests that evening. (What, your husband has been fasting all day, and all you are going to set in front of him is a simple, one-pot meal??) You have to make some sort of finger food (meat pies, samosas), a nourishing soup, salad, a juice or yoghurt-based drink, rice, stew, preferably some kind of meat dish also, and a nice dessert. And tea and sliced fruit to follow.
In order for you to produce this spread, someone would have to go and shop for groceries. At least once a week. Since for years, neither I nor my best friend had cars, this meant that we would walk a couple of miles to the grocery store, pushing strollers and dragging our toddlers with us. We’d usually walk back as well. Pregnant, with our little kids, and our heavy bags of groceries. A sorry sight we made, I suppose. But no wonder we were a lot slimmer in those days. :-O
If guests were coming, then not only did the cooking have to be done, but the house had to be cleaned. And once the guests left, there would be even more cleaning to do. Especially if they too had little kids.
So, much of our day would be dedicated to dealing with the kids, preparing the fast-breaking meal, and cleaning. Unless we had been invited elsewhere to break fast—on one hand, that would be a bit of a break from cooking, but we would make a dish to take with us as a gift, and we would also need to bathe the kids, and find them (and us) something decent and reasonably new-looking to wear.
Before iftar, the food had to be ready to serve, and the kids kept under control. (Your poor husband has been fasting all day at work while you’ve been taking it easy at home—can’t you keep the kids quiet and give him a break, for a change? What sort of a neglectful wife and mother are you??) After iftar, the men would pray tarawih. Before I had kids, I would sometimes manage to join them (and I’d be the only woman present…) but after kids—forget it. We’d be cleaning up, putting the food away, and keeping the kids from bothering the men too much, and (if guests were present) hoping against hope that the guests would leave early enough that the kids could go to bed at a reasonable hour. Otherwise, we’d be facing overtired toddler-meltdowns. Sometimes, I would get the chance to pray tarawih by myself later on.
We tended to get to bed later than usual, what with guests (or being invited elsewhere), and over-excited kids, and more clean-up to do. And, we’d have to get up before dawn, in order to prepare sahoor and pray fajr. But sleep-deprived or not, “wifely duties” and babies’ nighttime feedings are facts of life in Ramadan as well.
Somehow, we would try to find the time to pray extra prayers, do dhikr, and recite the Qur’an every day, in the midst of all that. By the end of the first week, things would be starting to fall apart. We were exhausted. And guilty about being exhausted, and about not having managed to do all the prayers and recitations that we had begun the month intending to do.
With the arrival of the last ten nights, our hopes would rise. We would do extra prayers and Qur’an recitations, and make up for all those that we hadn’t been able to do thus far. We would manage to finish reciting the Qur’an after all! And we’d stay up looking for Laylat al-Qadr. Maybe we’d manage to happen upon the time when prayers are granted, or we might even be given new insights into heavenly mysteries.
Well, sort of. Even if periods didn’t strike, then there was another problem—Eid was fast approaching. Which meant more shopping, more cooking, sewing new clothes for the kids (and perhaps self), house-cleaning…. Any spare time for worship was even more scarce. We’d try. But we’d fail. Inevitably.
I remember one year that I was determined to do i’tikaf, even for 24 hours, during the last ten days of Ramadan. I had read about female Companions doing it, and about how meritorious it is. But I soon found out that in my community, only men do it. Why? Because (I was told) i’tikaf is done in the mosque, and it’s not appropriate for a woman to stay in the mosque for such a long stretch of time, especially not overnight. But (I asked) can’t women do i’tikaf in their homes? (I had read that they can and should.) I was basically laughed at by the knowledgeable “brother” who told me that i’tikaf has to be done in the mosque for it to count.
But nothing daunted, I decided that I would do it at home by staying in a corner in the bedroom, reciting the Qur’an, doing dhikr, and performing as many rak’ats as possible. I made the vow, and informed my husband that this is what I was going to do. So, I managed to spend a couple of hours in i’tikaf… and then a bunch of guests came over. Men and women socialized separately, of course, so the woman and her three active little kids came into the bedroom. Where else would they have gone in a tiny one-bedroom apartment?? She thought I was nuts. I could see that i’tikaf wasn’t going to be possible. And that I would have to expiate my vow. I’d have to fast three additional days.
So, Eid would arrive. We’d go to Eid prayers, chanting the takbirat in whispers behind our hands (because our voices are awrah), and sitting in the Sisters’ section behind the barrier, trying in vain to hear at least some of the sermon over the noise made by fussing children and socializing women. When we did manage to hear anything of the sermon, it would be along the lines of, “Praise God, we have had such a wonderful month devoted to worship and good deeds! We should feel really blessed! And we need to keep up the momentum! Let’s not fall into the all-too-common trap of practicing our religion properly in Ramadan, but letting it go the rest of the year. We need to work on retaining these good habits that we have developed—praying more, giving more in charity, reading the Qur’an regularly….”
And we’d spend Eid day trying to make it enjoyable for the kids and our husbands and the inevitable guests… and all the while, there’d be this haunting feeling of failure. Again. We hadn’t managed to experience these blessings that the sermon-preachers had spoken of. We hadn’t formed wonderful new habits of engaging in extra acts of worship. My husband and his friends had prayed tarawih every night, had read lots of Qur’an, and had regularly engaged in serious adult conversation about religious topics at iftars. They had stayed up for at least one of the last ten nights, seeking Laylat al-Qadr. I hadn’t managed to do much of any of that. Even if I’d managed to get a worship routine going for a week or so, then menses or kids or husbandly demands or guests (or all of the above) would throw a spanner into it. Nor had I managed to be anything close to the ideal-Ramadan-wife-and-mother-and-host.
Looking back, I am struck by how the whole thing was set up, in my community (and especially, in my marriage) so that the men would finish Ramadan with a feeling of success, while women—especially harried young mothers—were much more likely to finish it feeling that they had failed somehow. To say nothing of feeling exhausted, and put-upon. Fasting men were to be catered to by women, but who catered to fasting women? But pointing that out would have been seen as me admitting that I am extremely selfish and individualistic. Meaning, that I supposedly am a stereotypical “Western woman.” The worst thing that there is to be. The alleged opposite of the pious Muslim woman.
But (I can hear those men-speaking-with-god’s-voice voices now): Sister, you are misunderstanding things! Women aren’t blamed for not being able to fast during their menses. That they are exempted from fasting is just God’s mercy. And women aren’t obligated to fast when they are pregnant either. If it made you seriously exhausted, then you probably shouldn’t have been doing it. And don’t you know—women are given innumerable rewards by God for pregnancy, child-birth, breast-feeding, caring for their children, serving and obeying their husbands, being hospitable to their husband’s guests…. Ramadan is full of opportunities for wives and mothers to gain merit. All they need is to have the intention to please God in all of their actions! And then God will inshallah reward them accordingly.
Yes, we heard this sort of thing for years. And I for one certainly tried to believe it. I tried to tell myself that women’s religious path is different from men’s, that God would hopefully reward us for child-bearing and housework and trying to be good wives if we had the right intentions, that missing days of fasting due to menses was a mercy and meant that we would get more reward for making up those days without the psychological support of a fasting community…. And that if we women didn’t do all that cooking and domestic work, then what would Ramadan be like for everyone? Someone has to do it, after all. And babies need to be fed at 3 am, and husbands sexually satisfied, and if I don’t get up in a couple of hours and make sahoor then how would anyone manage to fast the day?
Translation: Women are prisoners of their biology. And a woman’s body—her labour power, her time, her energy, her attention, her sleep, her waking, her breasts, her vagina, her womb—is everyone’s but her own. A truly pious woman is reconciled to that, as God’s will. Her identity is summed up in her lack of boundaries, her permeableness.
In that world, for a woman to take control of her own body, to even think that it is her own to control, was an act of impiety. And of almost unthinkable selfishness.
Some of the less harshly patriarchal men-speaking-with-god’s-voice voices would say that our husbands ought to have been more understanding, and helped their wives more—that after all, this is the sunna of the Prophet. But at the same time, their teachings about marriage foster communities in which men feel entitled in ways that women just do not.
The long-term results seem to be very… well… long-term. I still can’t quite believe that I now control my body. That I can control who has access to it, who can demand labour or time or presence from it. I am very grateful that this is the case. But at the same time, I remain aware that this power is allegedly impious, and the sadness of this awareness never leaves me. I wonder if it is possible to find an approach to piety that also enables women to be whole and dignified people. And if so, what it would look like.