Archive for September, 2012
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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
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.”