When your existence, your theological status is a game. A counter in someone else’s hand, that can be used for scoring points against an opponent in a debate. A joke, even. What can you do?
As a female convert, I soon encountered two things: One, an apologetic discourse that claimed that “according to Islam” women had certain rights, that could not be taken away because God had given these rights to them. Two, communities and individuals with leading or influential positions in these communities who were never short of arguments explaining that although in theory a girl or woman might have the right to do or have X, in reality, taking that right away was perfectly justifiable in that circumstance.
The result was that almost any right that girls or women supposedly have was always up for debate. You could never count on being able to continuously enjoy rights you had, either, because it could at any time be decided that the circumstances that had previously made this justifiable had changed.
You could educate yourself in the ins and outs of the apologetic discourse all you liked. For many years, I and my convert friends were convinced that this was THE answer. Out-quote those who want to severely limit your education/keep you out of the mosque/tell you you can’t laugh in the hearing of unrelated men/prevent you from working outside the home/keep you from talking to your best friend because she’s getting some unorthodox ideas/refuse to pay you your mahr/etc. Quote the Qur’an, the hadith, the views of scholars past and present, historical examples… and get your “legitimate” rights.
It took us a while to realize that the whole thing was rigged against us. Because in the end, it is about power.
Those with more power, influence, access to education, leisure time to read and think, a greater voice in the community… would be heard, and we wouldn’t be. Because we didn’t have the power to define the terms of the debate. Our voices, our thoughts, our subjectivities didn’t matter. The voices, desires, ideas and subjectivities of our husbands/(male) leaders/senior males in the community were what counted. After all, it was they who had been given the position of leadership over women and children, and the right to make decisions for the supposed benefit of the family and the community.
This caused many practical problems in our lives, of course. But the larger question was theological.
Did God want things to be this way? Were we supposed to just put up with whatever others (typically, powerful men, but occasionally influential women) decided about what we were to do and be? If we resisted, even after we had been told that those with more power that according to the Qur’an/hadith/scholars/historical precedent everything was quite ok, were we rebelling against God?
As a former neo-traditionalist, I took the theological dimension of these types of questions very seriously. In the end, I was willing to seriously entertain the notion that yes, God did want things to be this way. Because there didn’t seem to be any logical way to argue against it. There is no shortage of proof-texts that can be quoted in favor of women (and children, and slaves, and subjects) submitting, obeying, being patient, and not resisting the authority of their husbands (or parents or owners or rulers). And before the nineteenth century, what Muslim scholar (or for that matter, what religious scholar of weight in any faith tradition whatsoever) had seriously questioned the patriarchal nature of marriage and the family, or challenged the legitimacy of slavery as an institution?
Could the overwhelming majority of human beings have been so very wrong about what God wants since the dawn of recorded human history, up until the nineteenth century??
If so, how do we know that we are closer to understanding what God wants now?
Reality did continuously collide with my attempts to make theological sense of our situations as female converts in a highly conservative, insular community (which turned out to be a cult), in really bad marriages. Things would happen that would make me seriously wonder if this could possibly be what God wants.
Did God really want to see grown, intelligent women reduced to child-like status, begging their husbands for “permission” to do this and that mundane thing?
Did God approve when men made religious arguments justifying outrageously irresponsible behavior toward their families, and the influential men in the community either nodded or kept quiet?
Don’t women as well as men want to be able to learn, grow, and make autonomous, considered adult decisions about their own lives? How is it that when pious men want these things, God usually approves and it is in accordance with men’s divinely given nature, but when pious women want these things, it is immediately problematic, and pious men have to lay down firm limits on how far this can go lest women go against their divinely given nature??
But I had been taught to ignore reality as a source of theological insight. The apologetic rationales (aka thought-stopping techniques) as well as pious derails would play in an endless loop in my mind:
- The Islamic tradition is perfect, but human being are imperfect. So, injustice and abuse is the fault of humans and not the tradition itself.
- You are overthinking this. The kitchen floor is dirty and the laundry needs doing; those would be better ways of spending your time and energy.
- These questions are just the whisperings of the shaytan.
- This is just from your nafs.
- Modernity has misled us into thinking that this life is all there is. But everything that seems to be unjust here will be evened out in the next life.
- Women have been warned about their tendency to be attracted to worldly things and to be ungrateful to their husbands. Most of those in hell will be women. How can you base a theological argument on your own female subjectivity and experience, when it is by nature flawed?
- You are western and modern, so you are out of touch with your true female nature.
- Your secular education has done nothing more than give you the knowledge of ignorance, so you can’t recognize true knowledge or wisdom.
…and so on.
I used to discuss these issues with convert friends of mine. I remember asking a convert who was about as independently-minded as you could hope to meet how she dealt with believing in obedience to her husband. Her response was that while she obeyed him, she could usually find a way to talking him into agreeing with anything she really wanted anyway.
In otherwords, subterfuge. Say you believe one thing, outwardly conform (at least, when the community is watching), but do another.
We had all sorts of ways of doing that, of dodging the real issue: Agreeing that “women in general” are deficient in intellect and religion, for instance. But privately resolving that this wouldn’t include us. Because we, unlike “women in general” were serious about our religion—at least, we hoped that it didn’t apply to us. We needed to work harder at doing regular sunna prayers and fasts, and step up our dhikr.
Forever looking for an escape hatch.
You can do that for a while, but in the end, the intellectual dishonesty involved becomes too much.
I asked another friend of mine about the “women are deficient in intellect and religion” hadith. She decided to ask one of the high-ups in the cult about it. That brother told her that yes, it is an authentic hadith, and yes, it is true. She told me that she expressed her reservations about it, but at the same time, her doubts that maybe as a woman, she didn’t have enough ‘aql to understand this hadith. The brother agreed. We both then wondered if perhaps God had given us brains as a sort of test. Like the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. To see if we would succumb the the temptation to actually use them. We were afraid that by thinking about these things, that we were already failing the test.
Yet in the end, I could not entirely surrender my mind. Mainly because I didn’t manage to kill what little remained of my conscience.
I really, really did my level best. But up it would bob again, like a cork that just won’t stay under water, finding logical fallacies in the beliefs that we had been taught about ourselves. I would silence and ignore it, as I had been taught to do. My salvation after all depended on it, I thought.
It was thinking about runaway slaves that began the process of unraveling the whole elaborate theology of self-deception that I was trapped in. The Cult, while wearing the mantle of Tradition, also went through a phase of glorifying Malcolm X, which was rather incoherent, given that Tradition (TM) also included the notion that slavery—at least in the past—was all part of the divine plan. Reading about Malcolm led to a whole lot of reading and thinking about American slavery and its aftermath. I found myself reading about slaves who risked their lives to be free, the measures taken by owners to prevent slaves from fleeing, the determination of black anti-slavery activists, and got a faint glimpse of just how strong the draw of freedom was. This didn’t accord at all with the vague apologetic bafflegab about slavery that I had encountered among certain neo-traditionalist Muslims. I began to read the hadiths warning that God will not hear the prayers of a runaway slave or a disobedient wife in a new light.
In the end, it was the realization that I couldn’t do this to my daughters.
No, I couldn’t in all honesty continue to inculcate these ideas into my daughters. I could and did teach them to wear hijab, to pray, to know the stories of the prophets, to recite the Qur’an… but I couldn’t tell them that they were in effect less than. To do this would be a violation of their trust in me, that I as their mother had their best interests in mind.
I couldn’t teach them that they are less intelligent. That their purpose in life in the end is to cater to others (particularly, to their husbands).
I couldn’t teach them that it is an obligation to obey their husbands. Or that the angels would curse them if they ever said “no” to sex with their husbands, without a religiously valid excuse.
There were so many things I couldn’t teach them, I realized.
Which meant… what?
Surely, as a believing woman I should not hesitate to teach my daughters these things? Lots of converts did, I knew. Typically, after carefully wrapping such ideas in bubble-wrap, so that they don’t sound nearly as bad: Women aren’t lesser, they’re just different. That sort of thing. Why couldn’t I just go along with the bubble-wrapping and deal?
Because in the end, I couldn’t lie to them.
The bubble-wrap, I realized, was just modern eye-wash. Didn’t predate the invention of plastic by much more than a century. It was a departure from the hallowed past. Just as ideas of women’s legal equality are. But why was the first ok, and the second not, in the eyes of God?
Because in the end, I felt that I had to treat them in accordance with how I myself would wish to be treated.
And even more, because I couldn’t teach my daughters that in effect, their lives are trivial. That their future husbands, male community leaders, or any other men ought to be able to play dice with their lives, their aspirations, their consciences, their minds—whether due to religious scruples or on a whim. And that the only “legitimate” defence they have against this is the ability to quote proof-texts, or clauses that they had the foresight to insert in their marriage contracts… which might or might not work.
Such choices are in their own way traumatizing. Choices in which you feel forced to choose between the living up to what God wants, and following your conscience. They tear you apart in the end, and leave wholesale destruction in their wake.
In the end, we don’t know the mind of God. What we have is a cacophony of voices claiming that they know. And we have the evidence before us of what often results when we have humans who think that they certainly know what God wants in every situation, right down to the details of what everyone “should” be doing.
And, we have the wreckage that results from people trying to believe that they were created to be lesser, because people saying that they speak for God said so, and trying to stifle their minds and consciences in order to keep their belief-system intact. The psychological harm that can result, as well as damage to the children of such people is all too real.
When theological discussion about human beings turns into a game, a pursuit of logical oneupmanship that trivializes human lives, then it becomes immoral.