An ongoing experience in my life as a North American convert has been that (some) born Muslims feel free to make assumptions about what my life must have been like before I converted. And some have felt the need to voice such assumptions, or ask really nosy questions, that a woman from their own immigrant Muslim community would never be asked.
In other words, my body became an object of scrutiny in a way that it had never been before. Public property, in a sense. Somehow, my sexual history had become every Muslim’s rightful business. Even a Muslim I hardly knew (or even, had just met!) could at any time feel free to ask about it, and jump to conclusions.
When I was a wide-eyed teenager, and then a twenty-something, and I encountered these sorts of attitudes, my first instinct was to blame myself. Presumably, I wasn’t modest enough, or something was somehow “wrong” with me that other Muslims could see, and that had led them to make such assumptions. After all, I had grown up in a culture (’70’s small-town white North America) that labeled and judged girls and women according to their presumed sexual experience (or lack thereof), and being labeled negatively was simply presumed to be the fault of the girl or woman in question.
After I encountered other female “Western” converts who had had this experience as well, I put it down to ethnocentric prejudice and stereotyping: that basically, some immigrant Muslims have fixed ideas of what all “Western women” (by which they usually mean white women, primarily) are supposedly like. Presumably, derived from watching too much bad American tv.
In the past, I tried ignoring it as much as possible. After all, as Lynn Jones points out in her book, Believing as Ourselves (which has a chapter about this very issue, entitled “The American Harlot”) people will make assumptions, and there’s nothing we can do about it. So the best thing is not to take it personally.
But this sort of thing has long bothered me for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s really, really insulting. Given the attitudes that many of the people asking these sorts of questions or making these sort of assumptions have about a woman having sex before marriage, what they are saying in effect is: “So… are you morally depraved? Have you committed an unforgivable sin that will stain you forever?”
Not all askers are quite that conservative, of course—there are those who don’t take sex before marriage (even for women) so seriously, and don’t really condemn them for it. But they still don’t really respect women who do it, either. So in that case, their questions/assumptions mean something more like: “What sort of a bimbo are you? Will your life-story be more or less as amusing as watching Jerry Springer or the Maury Show?”
Second, because it is triggering. Until today.
I was married for years to a man who came from a community where the default belief was that a woman who has sex before marriage has stained the family’s honor, and traditionally, she would be killed. I was told story after story with such themes—a girl killed on her wedding night by a man who set up a test in order to see if she was a virgin or not, and she failed it. A woman who broke a window with her bare hands and killed her would-be rapist with the broken glass in order to save her honor… as every decent woman in such a situation supposedly ought to have the presence of mind to do. My ex spoke of honor killing as an old-fashioned practice that was fast becoming replaced by the notion that one should leave such sinful women to God, and God will punish them in the afterlife. Nonetheless, the message behind those and other stories was crystal-clear: a woman who strays, or even is suspected of straying, is worth nothing. Absolutely nothing.
No, he didn’t believe in honor killing. But he did believe in verifiable virginity. That is, if a woman doesn’t bleed on her wedding night, she should be taken to a gynecologist and examined. The gynecologist (he claimed) is always able to tell how the woman lost her hymen—from falling, or from having had sex previously. Several weeks ago, Muslimahmediawatch linked to a story about this, from Iraq. I felt relieved to an almost ridiculous degree when I read that an Iraqi doctor interviewed for the story not only rejected the belief that a virgin will necessarily bleed on first intercourse as the result of “very poor” sex education, but that he also criticized the practice of virginity tests as “shaming” for women. Irrational as it is, some of us did end up internalizing this stuff. If you live in an environment where this is held as the norm, you too will learn to measure yourself in the same way. So for me, these types of comments and assumptions can’t help but communicate that my worth as a human being is pretty much nil in the questioner’s eyes.
Third, because it was and is crazy-making. Such questions/assumptions were just so very far from my upbringing and lived reality. It was as though I looked in the mirror and saw one thing, while everyone else looked at me and saw quite another. Who was right, then?
Fourth, because it was and is just really degrading. Here I and other converts were being treated in ways that born Muslim women wouldn’t be. Just because of the color of our skin, our parentage and place of birth.
But anyway. The experience of raising daughters has made me aware of just how much certain conservative Muslim notions of virginity (and for that matter, chastity) are social constructs that are also regarded as socially guaranteed.
Meaning: When I was a teenager, the notion of deciding to wait for marriage to have sex was regarded as a personal, individual decision. Conservative Christians said that God would know what you did or didn’t do, of course, and that you would be held responsible in the next life. Whatever you did or didn’t do would be fuel for the small-town gossip mill, to be sure, and it would affect your reputation. But ultimately, this was seen as a personal matter. Growing up, I never heard of the notion that a bride should be able to provide proof of her virginity. Nor was it assumed that there is necessarily a direct correlation between how strictly a family monitors a girl’s movements, and the likelihood of her being a virgin.
The conservative Muslim communities I ended up encountering, as well as my ex’s ethnic community, didn’t see things this way.
Girls’ virginity wasn’t regarded as primarily an individual, moral decision. Girls like us, who had converted as teenagers and gotten married young, were still often assumed to have not been virgins, because we had not come from strict families that had vigilantly monitored our every move. Without such externally imposed restraints, a girl’s claim that she is a virgin would be dubious, as it would rest on her word alone. As such, it did not have the familial and communal stamp of authenticity on it. It was less tangible, and therefore less valuable. Especially if she turned out to be one of those who does not bleed on her wedding night.
I found these attitudes quite puzzling, frankly. Especially the rampant double standards and hypocrisy: How could my ex’s friends regard a Muslim girl from their ethnic background as a “virgin” just because she had not had vaginal intercourse, when she had engaged in other sexual acts with her boyfriend (including anal intercourse)? And they assumed that “Western” girls who wouldn’t even go that far were innately less “moral”? And they even looked down on Christian girls from their own homeland as supposedly “immoral”, just because they were not Muslims? And no matter what a straight man did, he was somehow always “moral”—or at least, he hadn’t done any damage to his character or reputation that a little repentance wouldn’t fix.
The ways they thought about sex didn’t have much to do with Islam per se. Certainly, no Muslim religious authority would have told them that what they were doing was permissible. Islam functioned in their minds as more of an identity marker. It supposedly conferred moral superiority on them, just by virtue of the label.
But if community leaders didn’t condone what they were doing, neither did they actively try to combat it. Rather, the answer to all sexual issues was supposed to be marriage. Marriage would allegedly make most things halaal. It was the cure-all for everything, that enabled religious authorities to avoid dealing with reality. And marriage also served to underwrite these sexual double standards. A man supposedly had the god-given right to a “pure”, virginal wife.
But another dimension of the problem was that as far as we female converts were concerned: through the mere fact of our conversion, we had become somewhat unchaste.
After all, in the communities we were trying to join, a “chaste” and “virtuous” girl would never turn her back on her family’s religious beliefs and cultural traditions. She would never convert to another religion. She would never marry out of her community, either. Or marry a man who her parents hadn’t approved of (if not chosen for her). But we had done those things. So even though we had supposedly “chosen rightly” by converting to Islam, our conversions still had the flavor of unchastity about them.
Anyway. One of the positive things (I assumed) about leaving behind my conservative Muslim community would be that I would no longer have to deal with these attitudes, these nosy questions, and these insulting assumptions. That would be a welcome relief. I would just avoid dealing with conservative Muslims, and that would solve the problem.
I was unfortunately wrong about that.
I still do have to deal with them such questions and assumptions from time to time. From Muslims who are not by any stretch of the imagination conservative, who don’t know me, but who feel entitled to make comments and ask intrusive questions.
I don’t for the life of me know why. I am a pretty introverted person. Not at all the partying type. I’m pretty stodgy. There is nothing about me that would signal to any reasonable person that I might have some sort of a colorful past, much less a salacious present. Quite the contrary.
Here I am, back to looking in the mirror, seeing one thing… and being aware that a fair number of Muslims apparently see something very different. Because of my ancestry, and the color of my skin.
The only conclusion that I can come to is that it’s like sexual harassment. There is no rhyme or reason. It’s not the woman who “causes” it by being in a certain place or dressing or walking a certain way. It happens because there’s a harasser in her vicinity, who thinks that he can get away with it.
This is a form of sexual harassment, perpetrated by women as well as men. It is an attempt to assert power. To mark the space as “Muslim space” (as opposed to “Western space”) or an identity as “Muslim” (aka morally superior to “the West”). By signalling to “western” female converts that they can never really, totally belong in the way that born Muslim women can.
Looking back, I am deeply saddened by how messed up the whole mindset was and is.
Recovering from the aftereffects of this sort of self-objectification will not be easy or quick.
In the meantime… I don’t know.