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.”


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.”


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  1. #1 by Anonymous// on September 5, 2012 - 6:21 am

    There is no shirk in the hadith adduced as evidence for that, in the same way that there is no shirk in the ayah- “…if God wished to take a son, He would have chosen from what He created whatever He willed.”. And how can the order to obey husbands, in certain things, be shirk when it is at the very least strongly implied by the Qur’an?

    • #2 by xcwn on September 5, 2012 - 12:06 pm

      Anonymous—LOL. The whole question of obedience would be another post. Though, I will simply point out here what I thought was already obvious—this hadith was not carefully bubble-wrapped in apologetics in the communities I lived in. On the contrary, it was wielded like a trump-card by the holders of patriarchal power, in order to slap women down. As for how obedience to husbands “in certain things”… lol, the bubble wrap again. It was obedience to husbands in everything, unless they command you to do something that is clearly sinful (such as drink alcohol, or not pray). In other words, you hardly ever had an excuse not to obey your husband.

      • #3 by Anonymous// on September 5, 2012 - 6:52 pm

        I’m not sure what you’re laughing at, since I was being serious. Anyway, you know better than I that the tradition (in the Macintyrean sense) mostly construed ‘obedience’ in terms of sexual availability and restrictions on mobility. Marion Katz has a paper on this, in which she cites Imam Nawawi on the non-obligation of domestic work. Others like Sheikh ul-Islam considered such duties as.obligatory, contingent on custom and so on. I would like to think that I’m neither an apologist nor a polemicist, but I do believe in presenting the tradition on its own terms (which is why I admire Kecia Ali’s work so much), including anything the white middle class mind might find repugnant. Not that you belong to that tribe or anything.

        I don’t have any problems with the hadith of prostration- though ibn Qayyim adduced it as proof of the opinion you mention. I do tend to agree that a wife’s obedience is much broader in scope than most jurists felt.

  2. #4 by MK on September 5, 2012 - 1:12 pm

    As for: “true Muslim women” supposedly just “naturally” love to serve and obey their husbands”
    Well, this should be derided and dismissed as the opinion of insecure and absurd men who deserve no credence but unfortunately such ridiculous opinions continue to be circulated.

    It must have been so painful and confidence eroding to hear this and other repellent views consistently aired like they were gems of profound wisdom and truth.

  3. #5 by nmr on September 5, 2012 - 6:47 pm

    In wrestling with this question, “Why is female sexuality such a threat to Islam?”, I found this book particularly helpful:
    “Sex and Punishment: 4000 years of judging desire” by Eric Berkowitz (2012, Counterpoint Press, Berkeley).

    Warning: It may want you to ask even MORE questions!

  4. #6 by Anon on September 7, 2012 - 12:33 am

    I gave up most rituals in my islam and yet My initial reaction to the naked lady with stick was “how immodest!” out there with her parts out for anyone to see. How trained am I? Now if she was hidden in the darkest corners of her home naked with a stick I’d be all mashallah for serving her man proper – yet stories can’t be told if women live up to that since no one know they were out there being all devout and what not . Cringe worthy. I actually shuddered

  5. #7 by xcwn on September 7, 2012 - 8:52 pm

    Anonymous—I was choosing to laugh rather than to cry at your focus on a point of grammar in that hadith rather than the larger issue raised in the post. In my life, I have heard and read more than my share of such arguments. But anyway, that’s another post. Suffice it to say that I think you’re smarter than that.

    As for the notion that the scope of a wife’s obedience is really broader than most pre-modern jurists claim, that is a remarkable statement. What, being virtually confined to the house (should one’s husband wish it) and having to sexually service him at his behest with only a few legal limitations on that “right” of his isn’t “broad” enough?? Perhaps you’ve never met a real live woman whose husband decides to exercise such “rights”, so you don’t know what that can look like in reality??

    And in any case, whatever the jurists say or don’t say, local custom as well as economic realism usually plays a significant role in determining the scope of a wife’s obedience. I don’t know many women who can actually demand that (say) their husbands hire a maid to cook and clean and care for the children. Whatever the jurists’ views on a wife’s obligation to do housework and childcare, reality is that most women are put in situations where they pretty much have to do it.

    MK—Yes, well the conservative men in the communities I was involved with loved playing women off against one another. And women would often play along, even when it wasn’t ultimately to their advantage.

    nmr—Thanks a lot for the book recommendation; I’ll check it out.

    Anon—Yes, it is clearly intended to be a shocking story. It shocked me when I first heard it, not just because of the public nudity per se, but because it declares in no uncertain terms that women exist for only one thing. But even after hearing a story like that, I still didn’t see any problem in agreeing that “Islam”, unlike “the West” protects women from being treated like sex objects… cognitive dissonance much?

    • #8 by Anonymous// on September 7, 2012 - 10:05 pm

      I’m flattered that you think so- I’m not so sure myself. I was only taking seriously-and then dealing with- the claim that the hadith implied shirk.

      Remarkable, perhaps, but legally compelling IMHO. Sheikh ul-Islam meant custom in the fiqhi sense, as in, the kind that is probative in determining legal obligation. Custom in the so-called real world is obviously even more decisive in shaping what really happens. You know better than me.

      Sorry, in discussing a few technical points I didn’t realise that what I said might be triggering. That’s me- always missing the wood for the trees.

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