One of my daughters came home recently, and said: “I’m really tired… because today, we went jumping off a bridge.”
I blinked, and stared at her for a moment. Whaaaaat? Was she joking, trying to scare me, implicitly warning me that she was considering suicide….?
Then I realized that she meant jumping off a bridge into the river, and swimming back to the bank, and climbing up again. She’d gone with her friends up the river, near that bungie-jumping place. She seemed tired, but happy.
She said that it had been really fun.
“So… did you think how fun it would be to be paralyzed for the rest of your life? What if there were rocks?” I asked. “Or if you had hit something else? Did you even know how shallow or how deep the river was? And what if you had gotten swept downriver by the current?”
“I stood and watched the other kids before I tried it,” she answered. “They kept jumping, swimming back to the riverbank, and jumping again. Nobody was getting hurt. So I could see that it wasn’t dangerous.”
Well (I thought) I suppose I should be relieved that she didn’t just jump off that bridge straightaway, without even wondering whether or not it was safe. But still….
“Just because some people do it, and it doesn’t seem to harm them when you see them doing it, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not dangerous,” I pointed out. “And yeah, I know that a lot of teens around here jump off cliffs and so on… but every year, someone gets hurt. Sometimes seriously hurt.”
“Oh, jumping off a bridge is much safer than cliff-jumping!” she assured me. “When you jump off a cliff, you have to push away, so that you don’t hit the rocks… but that isn’t a problem when you jump off a bridge.”
(OMG, she thinks there aren’t any rocks under the water’s surface under bridges… arrrrgh!)
Quickly wearying of listening me trying to talk about safety, she went off to bed, saying that she had to get up early for work tomorrow.
At least she’s being responsible in other ways, I remind myself. She has a full-time job. She is saving money for her studies in the fall. She is making something of her life.
She is in a much better place than I was, when I was her age.
When I was her age.
I sat there, thinking about how religious patriarchy for women can be so much like jumping off bridges or cliffs.
Like my daughter, we saw others jumping off bridges—getting swept up in highly conservative religious communities, marrying conservative men they hardly knew, deciding to be stay-at-home mothers who didn’t really use birth control—and we were reassured. Regardless of what our mothers or some feminists might think, it was going to be ok. Because hey! lots of other women were doing it. So, there couldn’t be any real problems involving in making those sorts of choices.
We were not thinking long-term. For one thing, we didn’t really think we would live to old age. We couldn’t really picture it, and we believed that the world was probably going to end soon anyway—or, that we Muslims in the West were going to soon face serious persecution. We had other things to think about then the long-term effects on women of heavy-duty religious manipulation, domestic abuse, and giving birth to many children (and often living in poverty while doing it), scuttling the possibility of achieving financial independence or security, giving over our minds to supposed holy men or scholars or political ideologues….
We were wrong. And by the time we realized that, it was way too late.
Like my daughter, we also thought that there was a significant difference between jumping off a bridge and jumping off a cliff. The cliff-jumping sisters—those who put on niqab and made hijra with their children to Muslim countries so that they could raise them “Islamically,” those who gave up so much to follow shaykhs, or who got involved in religiously and politically extreme groups—seemed to be making different choices than we did. They seemed braver, they seemed to have stronger faith… and from what we could see, they seemed to be doing ok. Nobody seemed to be getting hurt.
Now, I realize that a lot of them and their kids have suffered long-term harm. And now, it’s too late.
But you couldn’t have told us that at the time. We probably wouldn’t have listened.
Perhaps there’s something about being young, that you think that you know it all. And that you are indestructible.
That somehow, the laws of gravity don’t exactly apply to you. As long as you have faith and good intentions.
And then you find out that they do, after all.
But it wasn’t all youthful bravado and idealism that got us into the fixes that we ended up in. In The Cult, we were taught that sincerity in faith means being willing to sacrifice everything. Absolutely everything. That this is what trust in God is. So even when we began to wonder if maybe we had gotten ourselves in too deep, then we felt way too guilty to really explore those feelings, much less to rethink what we were doing. Our doubts (we believed) must be satanic suggestion. Satan was trying to undermine our efforts to achieve sincere faith. Or, because we were western women raised in a secular, godless society, our doubts were a hold-over from that, so we had to work even harder to squelch them.
People (we were taught) are like camels—only one in a hundred is good for long journeys. (It’s a hadith) And, we were determined to be among those select souls who were one in a hundred. We’d push through and complete the long haul. We wouldn’t let any roadblocks on our way deter us. Things like poverty or awful marriages or unhappy kids or health problems or financial insecurity or doubting non-Muslim relatives who kept gently expressing their misgivings… were just obstacles sent by Satan to try our faith, we thought.
So in the end, I did become a cliff-jumper. But didn’t see myself as doing anything much different from bridge-jumping—I thought I was just achieving a deeper, more true faith.
There isn’t much you can say to someone who is processing their experiences like that. They can’t hear you.
From time to time, I get comments on this blog that essentially say: What’s wrong with religious patriarchy? It’s working out fine for me and for the other sisters I know. It didn’t work for you because you married the wrong guy/followed the wrong shaykh(s)/didn’t keep working part-time when you had your kids/followed a too-extreme interpretation….
I don’t see it as my job to tell people how to live their lives (well, except for my kids…). And I recognize that there’s little you can say to someone who is deep into it like we were, anyway. What I would say is, look to the long-term in whatever decisions you are making. And YOUR earthly, mundane welfare in the long-term matters. No one in the end can ensure that but you, and the decisions you make today. Taking care of your own welfare and future is not selfish or impious. It is that which will enable you to be of any use to others who depend on you, down the road. As they say in those safety instructions that they give you at the beginning of a flight, if oxygen masks are needed, you put yours on first before you help those around you.
But I do wonder how it is that people can’t see the destruction that religious patriarchy has caused for others. But I suppose that such selective vision is nothing new—like the Prophet’s audience in Mecca, who were reminded of the destruction visited upon other communities before them….
Woe to those who deny on that day! Those who deny the Day of Reckoning… but what speech would they believe??