“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

  • A total ban on any kind of same-sex sexual relationships or acts, and the belief that these should be punished by flogging or stoning in an “Islamic” state
  • Pressure in favor of early marriage, especially for girls
  • Permissibility of underage marriage (even if the girl’s consent was unclear
  • A strong preference for arranged marriages, and an emphatic disdain for love marriages or the very idea of “being in love”
  • A total ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men, along with the belief that any woman who does so is living in a constant state of fornication. Therefore, one cannot have normal social relationships with her
  • A ban on having normal social relationships with people who are living together without being married, even if they are one’s non-Muslim relatives
  • The permissibility of polygamy

We didn’t ask some pretty obvious questions, such as whether or not these teachings are realistic, or fair, or even possible for most people to follow in twentieth century North America. Because the evidence that they can be followed was supposedly right in front of us—in the form of a community, and especially its leaders, that seemed to be adhering to them.

But now, looking back, I can remember all sorts of odd things happening, that typically got framed in this conservative Muslim way, so that at the time, we hardly realized what must have been going on. And yes, we lived with remarkable amounts of cognitive dissonance.

So, when a middle-aged man, Brother Y, with a wife and a number of kids suddenly announced that he was marrying a teenage girl who was his eldest daughter’s friend from school, it didn’t occur to us to wonder exactly what had happened there. The story I was told was carefully vague. The girl had been coming over to the eldest daughter’s home after school, on a couple of occasions at least. Brother Y had approached the girl’s parents, and asked for her hand in marriage, and the parents had apparently been pleased to agree. Brother Y’s wife had also agreed to the marriage, apparently, but had stipulated that she didn’t want to share a house with the second wife.

?  ?  ?

At the time, I kind of wondered how Brother Y had even managed to form an opinion of the girl, given that he observed strict gender segregation in his house… or at least, when I had visited his home along with my (then-)husband and kids, the men and the women were so carefully separated that I didn’t see the men for the entire time.  I also sort of wondered why the girl’s parents would have been so eager to marry their teenage daughter to a middle-aged man who already had a big family, and was not at all wealthy. Now I wonder even more—what happened?? Presumably something. Not just a middle-aged man’s mid-life crisis, but something that convinced the parents that their teenage daughter could do no better than to become his second wife….

Polygamy served as a very convenient cover for what the wider society would have called “having an affair” or “cheating” or “being a player.” Not just polygamy in the way that Brother Y did it—taking a second wife “officially” (by marrying her in the mosque)—but less-formalized relationships. Secret “marriages.” Misyar. Sunnis claiming that they were practicing mut’a. Brothers carrying on with women who were not their wives, but justifying it with the self-serving claim that they were “intending to marry” them—or at least, that they were intending to marry another wife, and how could they make this decision without getting to know the woman first?

At the time, we thought something was a bit “off”, or we mildly criticized individual men for being selfish… but usually, the impulse to “make seventy excuses for your brother” won out. We didn’t ask searching questions. We took most things at face value. After all, a man had the right to polygamy, and marriage was supposed to be the all-purpose bulwark against temptation, so if a man was marrying a second wife under rather odd circumstances, no one could really say anything.

Now, I also wonder how truly consensual some of these relationships were. Was that teenage girl really eager to marry Brother Y? Did she really have a choice?

There was a man who was looked up to as a scholar who was married, and had kids… and all looked fine. But his wife whispered that he kept having relationships with women who came seeking his help, or who he saw as needy. As far as he was concerned, he was somehow benefiting them by sleeping with them.

Another young woman whispered about a middle-aged teacher who had asked her to become his second wife. But she decided against it, not wanting to cause another woman suffering.

All these whispering women. If we put together a data base of all these men, what would we find?? But individuals whispering don’t provide an overview of what went on, or a big picture, a map to warn other women.

Then there was Brother D, who had righteously refused to marry his convert mut’a wife, who was in love with him, because she had a “past.” Instead, he married a fifteen year old virgin from his ethnic background. The girl hadn’t been that keen on the marriage, however, and got involved with a boy more to her liking. Brother D was publicly humiliated, especially when the girl left him in favor of her boyfriend. This was one of the few scandals that really became public knowledge. And of course, the girl got the blame—as well as her parents, who supposedly hadn’t raised her properly. Brother D was seen as an innocent victim.

Bringing all these memories together, and thinking about others (which I will not write about), I begin to glimpse to degree to which our supposed moral superiority was just… an illusion. A myth. A number of men played around on various pretexts—and not just average brothers, either, but sometimes community leaders and men who were looked up to as having knowledge. Sometimes, the women they were involved with appeared to be consenting adults, at other times, consent was murky (especially when the females in question were teenagers, or students, or in search of guidance or help). But girls and women at times jumped over the traces too—especially girls who had been railroaded into marriage at a young age, allegedly to save them from all temptation or opportunity to fornicate.

The men (and sometimes women) who were responsible for upholding teachings on sexuality that we were told were non-negotiable must have known what was actually going on. While we were being told that even doubting the rightness of stoning adulterers to death (obviously a totally theoretical issue, here in North America) is totally unacceptable… while we were being told that dating (even if it doesn’t involve sexual contact) is completely haraam… while we were being told that even gay thoughts will take you to hell… all this stuff was going on.

Now that I look back on it, it is nothing less than insane.

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  1. #1 by JDay on September 5, 2012 - 1:23 pm

    “Tradition does not despise the present. As MacIntyre insightfully points out, when traditions are vital they ’embody continuities of conflict.’ However, tradition becomes Burkean when it is viewed as being in opposition to reason. Then, adds MacIntyre, tradition ‘is always dying or dead.’ Yet too often, those who champion Islamic authenticity reify tradition to the state of laws or metaphysics. It is coded in such formulatic phrases and repetitive practices that it is denuded of that critical element of contestation and conflict.”

    -Ebrahim Moosa, “Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination pp 60-61

  2. #2 by Anonymous// on September 5, 2012 - 7:24 pm

    The problem with Moosa is that, as Farid Esack said of him, he refuses to draw any lines at all (though coming from the latter that may not have been intended as a criticism). After subjecting the entire religion to his ultra-historicist gaze, little or nothing is left. There are many points of religion we are perfectly justified in reifying, otherwise we end up with an ethics like Kecia Ali’s (c.f. her conclusion to her first book) or a theology like Don Cuppitt’s. Or even worse, we end up like the falasifa who mostly denied a corporal resurrection and so sided with the Qurashi pagans against the Prophet (s).

    • #3 by JDay on September 7, 2012 - 10:21 pm

      Seems to me that when women started asking men to help out around the house, particularly with the vacuuming, there soon appeared on the scene a nifty little robot that could vacuum the floor automatically. Now perhaps if men are asked to control their sexual urges, we will soon see the appearance of a “sexbot”. Sexbot would be easier than building an underground bunker for your sex slave, and polygamy could get your Greencard revoked, so let’s get those inventive little men brains together and invent SEXBOT! Sex on demand, any time, any where, or beat sexbot, that’s ok too. Sexbot is your property, and that is all the consent you need- ownership.
      In the meantime, perhaps the men that want real relationships with real women will have a boatload of kids (the sexbot owners too preoccupied) and over time we will genetically select for interesting men.

  3. #4 by xcwn on September 7, 2012 - 9:14 pm

    JDay—Yes, quite. The neo-traditionalists I dealt with talked about “tradition” as living and dynamic, but when it came to issues related to gender and sexuality, then reason was more often thrown out the window in the name of “authenticity.”

    Anonymous—Well, I hadn’t noticed that Ebrahim Moosa does away with patriarchy, so I suppose that’s something. 😦
    As for the question of “what will be left”: First, I am not impressed with “slippery slope” arguments. They are based on a logical fallacy.
    Second, I don’t see a problem with Kecia Ali’s ethics. If anything, I think that her refusal to make excuses for the many types of cruelty that go on under the excuse of “tradition” is ethically admirable. It would be a lot easier for her if she would compromise and play apologetic games, but she doesn’t. All too rare for North American female convert academics, that’s for sure.
    Third, the purpose of this blog is not to save anyone’s faith, it’s to recover from my experiences of patriarchal religion. Honesty is a prerequisite for recovery. So, I try to be honest.

    • #5 by Anonymous// on September 7, 2012 - 9:46 pm

      He has done away with the patriarchy in his head- the patriarchy without, though, is more enduring.

      Mine was an reductio ad absurdum argument, the same sort Kecia Ali argues was instrumental in the development of logically consistent though ethically problematical fiqhi doctrines. I don’t think there’s anything at all unreasonable in expecting logical consistency. And Moosa and Esack and others are actually consistent- which is what troubles me, and that was my point. Esack is actually on record as saying we have to confront all the forms of inegalitarianism upheld in the Qur’an. I have a problem with that kind of frontal assault on God’s Book. He didn’t even qualify that by speaking of wrong understandings/misguided interpretations. This takes me back to Kecia Ali- I’m sure she is a very nice woman and I love her scholarship, to be sure, but in the passage I’m referring to she writes of clear gender differentiation in the Qur’an and that on that basis at least a part of the revelation is morally defunct. I can’t accept that.

      As for your blog- you’re right, it’s your space and I hope my comments evidence some respect for that (I hope). At times it has been very painful to read and I think my heart broke when you wrote of your daughters’ indifference to religion. It all makes me think very hard about the sort of father- or husband- I should be.

  4. #6 by nmr on September 15, 2012 - 10:48 pm

    I think the bigger problem here is what is the method for aligning the ethical content of the external law with the individual’s internal conscience? In other words, if I see an external law that is lacking in social conscience (i.e. very logical but ‘heartless), how can I change that external law?

    Unfortunately, the word “method” is typically abused. I have seen it used far too often by (typically) male scholars to shut down discussion. “Method” is a code word for “what school of Islamic jurisprudence do you follow, because only the classical/tradition-approved schools have a proper ‘method’”. Would-be legal reformers are undercut by traditional scholars with the claim of “you have no method”, and when it comes to re-examining the law in context of women, the lines of battle are drawn tight. One need look no further than Fazlur Rahman’s career in Pakistan: when he was doing financial legal reforms, that was ok, but as soon as he touched marriage and family law he had to flee for his life to Canada and the bad guys triumphed. In all the Islamic legal traditions, women have historically been viewed as property of their husbands or fathers, much the same way that we regard children today (property of their parents, only parents give consent).

    The reformers have no method. But perhaps no method is better than an old, outdated method which negates reason and promotes injustice.

    Just to give an example which I know troubles a lot of people: Let’s say I have a legal contract that is quite complicated. I need a witness who will look it over and sign off on it with me. I have two choices of witnesses: a cab driver with a 4th grade education or a Harvard PhD in Economics. The choice should be obvious, but if the cab driver is male and the PhD is a woman, all of a sudden Muslims have a big problem. Why? Is that which is between the cab driver’s legs taking precedence over that which is between the PhD’s ears?

    Or is the bigger problem that Muslims have invested so much time and energy into the Qur’an is good for all time/ context independent/ teetering towards the literal hard-sell that they have effectively suffocated shari’ah?

    And as for Kecia Ali’s interpretation of a paternalistic Qur’an, well, that requires a careful examination of gender roles, historical context, and a bit of anthropology and ethnography. But it is a great question and should not be so easily dismissed with a charge of “revelation that is morally defunct”. My husband challenged me, “Name me a successful maternalistic society!”. Perhaps it is as Huxley suggests in “The Island”: you can build yourself a great society, but there is always some crazy megalomaniac that is going to destroy it unless you are on your guard. Although if you could build an army of genderless robot soldiers….

    • #7 by xcwn on September 20, 2012 - 1:03 am

      nmr—So many good points; thanks for commenting.

      “The reformers have no method. But perhaps no method is better than an old, outdated method which negates reason and promotes injustice.” It has taken me a long time to be able to even entertain such an idea. Essentially, things had to get so undeniably bad in my life and in the lives of some of my friends that I was left with little choice but to come to that conclusion.

  5. #8 by Keena on November 24, 2012 - 2:47 am

    This was painful to read as I thought of a young friend (16) I had who was married to a 30 something man who had a history of marrying young girls and divorcing them. He did the same to her. Last time spoke to her (prob 3 yrs ago) she was remarried and,it didnt seem too good. Its really sad and disturbing. Then like you said the sisters who are married to “students of knowledge” (she shouldve known better), and get divorced bc hes marrying and getting engaged to women behind her back (and hes already been divorced 4-5
    times and has a wife in another countrty?!) I dont know how some
    women stay with
    it..though I am muslim, I left the “cult muslims” and am greatful for that

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