Archive for September, 2012

“Passing” and convert identity: some thoughts

Looking back at the conversion process that I and a number of my white North American convert friends went through back in the early ’80’s, I remember a lot of concern with the outward trappings of “Muslimness”:

Names and name changes.

Appropriate attire and adornment (especially for women).

Learning to say and use phrases such as “bismillah”, “al-hamdulillah”, “jazak Allahu khayran”, “maa sh’Allah”, and of course, “inshallah”.

Re-learning how to do a variety of mundane actions “Islamically”: sneezing and responding to someone sneezing, getting dressed, putting on shoes, entering and leaving a bathroom, serving food or drink, cutting one’s nails….

Re-training one’s automatic responses to certain social cues, such as overcoming the tendency to automatically respond to a hand outstretched in greeting by shaking it, without first considering the person’s gender.

Most of the pressure to adopt such trappings came from born Muslims. The wife of one of my (now-ex)husband’s friends was so concerned about my non-Muslim name that one night when we were eating dinner at their place, she told me that I should change my name. When I tried to put her off with a polite excuse, she took it upon herself to select an appropriate name for me—which in her mind was the nearest Arabic match to my name, sound-wise. I objected that I didn’t like the name she was suggesting, and didn’t see why some random Arabic name is particularly “Islamic” anyway. But as we walked from the living room into the dining room to eat, she introduced me to her husband (and my now-ex husband) with the name she had picked out for me. I had to object again that I wouldn’t accept being called by that name.

Essentially, in the minds of such conservatives, to be Muslim was to be Arab (or in the case of some other conservatives I encountered, it was to be Pakistani, or Turkish, or Iranian, or Malay, or…). But it was not to be “western.”

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The “burqa” (or Taliban, or Mawzlum) derail

Here they go again. Well, the spiritual abuse recovery movement sure is… white.

But it’s not just the thoughtless stereotyping and xenophobia that gets me in this article, “Burqas anyone” (complete with this cartoon). It’s the dangerous ineffectiveness of the argument.

American women today are under threat primarily from conservatives who want to take away women’s ability to make choices about their sexual and reproductive lives. Patriarchal meddling in adult women’s lives is bad—no matter what religious or racial group is doing it, and regardless of what god or “values” they invoke in order to justify it.and it should be possible for American women to make that argument without dragging in burqas. If that can’t be done convincingly, then we are up the creek without a paddle… (and no Planned Parenthood, either).

Over at nolongerquivering, a site chiefly aimed at women recovering from the Quiverful/Christian Patriarchy movements, Calulu (whose writing I usually enjoy reading) posted about a recent trip she and her daughter Laura made to a fast-food restaurant. The restaurant happened to be full of a group of conservative Christians who were evidently on their way to a conference. The conservatively attired women were wearing long skirts, loose, high-necked tops, and barely any make-up. She writes:

“Spared a glance at the eating crowd and moved on to the counter to order for everyone. While we stood there and awaited our pile of processed chicken and franken-fries I started to get the itchy feeling that someone was watching me. It’s a sudden creepy-crawly feeling when you know you’ve managed to catch the eye of someone and they are busily boring holes into your back. I turned to see who was looking and it was more than one. We were getting those frowny stares from a number of people in the crowd. Laura and I just looked at each other, shrugged, got our stuff and left, not getting why we’re been glared at en masse by the conference goers.

It wasn’t until later the next day that it dawned on me what those hostile glares were all about. Vyckie Garrison posted a link on Facebook that apparently one of the big ideas that day at a Washington DC area faith and politics conference had been that women in general were immodest and should put some more clothes on. I’m thinking the group I encountered had just come from that very conference that day. So the glares were about immodesty?

One of the quotes from the literature was: From the “True Woman Manifesto”: “All women, whether married of single, are to model femininity in their various relationships, by exhibiting a distinctive modesty, responsiveness, and gentleness of spirit.”

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How we were sold on patriarchal religion: reason #97

In a word: adab.

Not so much how we were sold on patriarchal religion initially, but definitely an important reason why we couldn’t ask critical questions about it for the longest time.

Knowing your “proper place” and staying quietly in it is the best way to avoid being told to watch your adab. Even if your “proper place” is small, cramped and doesn’t allow you to see or hear properly….
(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abu_al-Abbas_al-Mursi_Mosque02.JPG)

Adab. Good behavior, refinement of character. It sounded like a much-needed antidote to the harsh angry black-and-white take no prisoners Salafi-influenced rhetoric that we had had way too much of. As in, let’s have a civilized Muslim discourse in which the speaker doesn’t accuse those he doesn’t agree with of being kafirs, and different perspectives can receive a hearing. Nice idea, in theory. But in practice?

Too often, adab became a handy way to shut people down. And up. Especially women. Most especially young, convert women. Because in the end, adab was all about power, not civility or respect for others. So those with more power  (or aspirations to cozy up to those with more power) played the “careful of your adab” card on others.

There was such a long list of things that were bad adab, in a conservative, insular and cultish community I was involved in:

-Asking most kinds of critical questions, whether about the Qur’an, the hadith, fiqh, the life of the Prophet… and so on.

-Not unquestioningly following what we were taught is the sunna. Even if it didn’t make sense, or seemed absurd or unnecessary.

-Any kind of parody, joking, satire, etc about scholars or religious leaders who were deemed worthy of respect.

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The darker side of “purity”

So yes, I (and a number of my convert friends) bought into the “virgin/whore” dichotomy which existed in the conservative Muslim communities we got involved in in the ’80’s. We had grown up with a similar way of looking at sexuality, after all. Looking back, I can say that many aspects of my upbringing (in a North American small town in the ’70’s) pretty much groomed me for buying into it.

“Saving yourself for marriage” was presented as a good thing, full stop. Avoid sin, avoid sexually transmitted diseases, get your marriage off to a good start…. The seamy underbelly of this sort of thinking was not discussed—not in conservative Christian circles that I had contact with growing up, and not in the conservative Muslim communities I got involved in either. As far as either were concerned, there were simply no downsides to it, or to the whole bundle of attitudes to gender, sex, and marriage of which the expectation that girls in particular should be virgins when they marry were a part. If you thought there were problems with it, then the implication was that there was something wrong with YOU.

In otherwords, it was (again) more about social control—control of girls and women, in particular—then about “women’s best interests” or “women’s true nature” or “morality.”

What lay on the other side of virginity?

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Disentangling the virgin/whore dichotomy

We totally bought into the virgin/whore dichotomy. Hook, line, and sinker. But we didn’t see it at the time. Or to be more precise, I refused to see it. Actively refused to admit it to myself. But that was what we did.

Nothing quite like putting it all out there, for the world to see…. it just looks so self-righteous and judgmental. Even to an ex-hijabi who used to wear bat-wing abayas, As we no doubt looked to others.
http://www.bibleknowledgebookstore.com/item/solid-rock-jewelry/purity-ring-in-stainless-steel/171500.html

What were we taught, exactly? And why did we buy into it?? And why does it have such a long-lasting influence on me even today?

In trying to sort through all this, I have found Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women to be fairly helpful. All this conditioning is so hard to disentangle, so reading her polemic is has made some things clearer to me.

First of all, although the ideas we were taught were presented to us as the morally superior Muslim way over against morally bankrupt “western culture,” the reality is that a lot of it actually reflects misogynistic notions that are found in “western culture” as well. That is undoubtedly why they had such a deep impact on me—on some level, they were already there to begin with. And, even though I am no longer surrounded by conservative Muslims, there’s enough in the wider culture that keeps reinforcing these destructive ideas.

Valenti points out that there’s a “virginity myth” in “mainstream” North American culture, that is mainly concerned with girls’ and women’s virginity. At best, lip-service is paid to male virginity, but the main focus is on female virginity.

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“Purity” as a myth

In the last two posts, I have been trying to disentangle why I (and some of my convert friends) bought into the notion that a girl’s or woman’s worth is essentially dependent on her “purity”—her virginity at marriage, and her chaste and modest behavior forever after. Supposedly, all this concern about what girls and women were or weren’t doing sexually was all about morality. Supposedly, it was (sexual) morality that made Islam and Muslims morally superior to “the West”, as well as to all other religions and cultures in the world. Or so we were given to understand.

But the reality as I experienced it was something quite different, now that I look back on it.

I remember various evangelical Christian sex scandals making the news, and the responses of the immigrant or convert Muslims that I knew: We aren’t like this. Because Islam has given us a superior way of life, that protects us from such things. Unlike Christianity, with its guilt about sex and its so-called monogamy, we have a realistic way of life that is in accordance with human nature (fitra), which doesn’t leave anyone any excuse to fornicate or to commit adultery….

To be sure, we didn’t really have sex scandals in the communities I was involved in or had ties with. At least, we didn’t think of them in that way. Because what this “realistic way of life” gave us was the illusion that everyone (or nearly everyone) was being sexually moral—and the means to make most infractions disappear. Men’s infractions, anyway. While girls and women bore the brunt.

An important consequence of this was that we didn’t question the teachings on sexuality that we were given:

  • A total ban on dating, or even on male-female platonic friendships
  • A ban on anything thought to facilitate or tempt people to commit fornication or adultery
  • Gender segregation in most situations, wherever possible
  • The requirement that women wear hijab, and dress modestly even in their own homes or in female-only spaces
  • The belief that fornication and adultery are very serious sins, that are to be punished by flogging and stoning in an “Islamic” state
  • The belief that even same-sex sexual thoughts or feelings are extremely sinful, and probably mean that the person having them is going to hell

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This does seem to be the core… oh no

I seem to have arrived at the core. Or, at the foundations of it all. However you want to phrase it.

Some of the feedback I have received about the previous post is along the lines of: Aren’t I still being really judgmental about women who didn’t or couldn’t live up to my standards of “purity”? Why do I appear to continue to buy into patriarchal standards of women’s sexual “morality”? Why don’t I just tell those nosy immigrant Muslims that my sexual history is none of their business? etc.

I am just being honest here. This is not a recovery blog for nothing. Yes, I know that I am still way, way too judgmental, and that patriarchal attitudes to sexuality continue to have a lot of unconscious influence on the way that I see the world. That is where I am at right now, unfortunately.

Part of the reason is that over two decades worth of social and religious conditioning can’t be undone in a day. And, as the previous post explains, the pressure to internalize these kinds of attitudes was intense. But part of it is that—as I am now realizing—this was in fact the core of our faith.

No, not tawhid. Female “purity.”

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