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.”
This is a horrifying realization. But when I think back, female “purity”—virginity and “modest” dress and behavior before marriage, absolute faithfulness and “modest” dress and behavior after it—were much less negotiable than, say, prayers or fasting. For girls and women, that is. So, a woman who didn’t pray or fast or give zakat (if she had wealth) would certainly be seen as sinful, in the conservative communities that I was involved in or had ties to. If she didn’t wear hijab, then that would be even worse. But as long as she was “pure,” then she would still be seen as redeemable. There was hope.
The situation was very different for boys and men, however—at least, as long as they publicly identified as straight. Having a sexual past, or even a not-quite-halaal present didn’t call their identity as Muslims into question.
Which is an important reason that we bought into this double standard, now that I look back on it: The conservative interpretations of Islam that we were taught in effect demanded that we base our faith on shirk. “If anyone were to be commanded to bow down to anyone, then a woman would be commanded to bow before her husband,” as the well-known hadith has it. We were taught (and we read) that a woman’s obedience and service to her husband will determine whether she enters paradise or not.
This teaching was conveyed in a number of ways, and not only by men quoting hadiths.
A story that I heard in the ’80’s from a Lebanese woman related that one day, the Prophet said to Fatima, “There is a woman in the world who is more perfect than you.”
“Who is she?” Fatima asked.
The Prophet answered, “She is in such-and-such place. Go and see her.”
So, Fatima went to that place. But when she reached it, she saw a naked woman sitting outside of her house, with a stick in her hand. She was very surprised, so she asked the woman, “Why do you sit here naked, and what are you holding a stick for?”
“I am waiting for my husband to come home,” the woman answered. “I am naked, so that if he wants to sleep with me, he will not have to wait for anything. And I am holding the stick in case he wants to beat me.”
(So much for the romantic notion that somehow “women’s Islam” is any less misogynistic than “men’s Islam. It certainly wasn’t, in my experience.)
This sort of thing made us feel very guilty. Somehow, we were supposed to wholeheartedly agree with this, but we couldn’t. We resisted the brutal misogyny of this vision of the “ideal woman.” (This was not what we had been given to understand that “Islam teaches” about marriage when we converted, after all.) But at the same time, we didn’t think that we could reject the entire patriarchal paradigm that had given rise to such stories. So, what we did was bargain with it, in effect: We couldn’t quite manage to be wives as perfectly surrendered as the naked woman with a stick. But, we would be “pure”. While we couldn’t see the naked woman with a stick as someone who was devoted to God above all, we could recognize a focus on female “purity” as synonymous with female saintliness, thanks to having grown up in a society in which Christianity still had a fair amount of cultural influence.
Essentially, what we did was pick our mode of shirk. In the final analysis, we weren’t down for wholeheartedly worshipping our husbands. We worshipped hymens and hijabs instead. And, forever fearing that this wouldn’t be enough—because “true Muslim women” supposedly just “naturally” love to serve and obey their husbands, unlike impious “Western” women, but we couldn’t find this “natural” inclination within us—we tried all the more to embrace this impossible model of female “purity.”