I’m still recovering from Eid. Rather odd, I know. Eid was on October 26, which is what—three weeks ago, now?
But Eid al-Adha (Korban Bairami, Eid l-Kbir, Hari Raya Haji, Baqar Eid, Eid-e Qorban…) was a transformative experience for me this year. Which was completely unexpected, because even when I was a very conservative Muslim, Eid al-Adha was my least favorite holiday.
Why that was so, I never really knew, because I could never allow myself the freedom to be honest about what I was thinking or feeling, especially if that threatened to take me into any kind of doctrinally or socially questionable territory. Early on after converting, I quickly learned that openly expressing discomfort with any ritual practices would lead to me being classified as someone that other sisters would be warned to stay far away from. And I and my convert friends were trying so hard to be model Muslimas, so rather than ask ourselves why we weren’t really feeling the Eid spirit, we threw our energies into trying to make it something we could somehow connect to—or at least, that our kids would enjoy.
As we tried to connect to Eid, we retold the story of Hajar as a model of a pious woman who suffered adversity, but relied on God alone, and in the end, her faith was abundantly rewarded. By focusing on her actions, her faith, and the hajj ritual that required every pilgrim to retrace her steps between the two hills, we could avoid dealing with the many troubling questions that the story raised for us that we couldn’t quite suppress.
After all, here was an African female slave who had been forced to bear children on behalf of an infertile free woman, Sara. There was no suggestion in any retelling of the story we were aware of that Hajar’s consent to either sex with her mistress’s husband or child-bearing was thought to matter in the least. Meaning, it hadn’t mattered to Abraham, nor to Sara, nor even to later audiences down through the centuries. Including the communities that we belonged to.
And then, Abraham left Hajar and Ismail in the desert, in a deserted valley, with only a few provisions that they had brought with them, saying it was God’s will. Again, her consent was hardly an issue. Had she wanted to come to the valley, even? Clearly, she hadn’t expected to be left to fend for herself with her child.
Against all odds, Ismail and Hajar survived. And then, years later, Abraham came back and reclaimed his son.
When he saw himself sacrificing his son* in a dream, then he told his son this. His son’s response was that Abraham should do as God commands. At the last moment, the sacrifice was averted by divine intervention—God instructed Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. But where (we wondered) was the boy’s mother? Did Abraham ever consult her? Did Abraham even tell her what he was going to do?? How did she respond after the sheep had been sacrificed instead?
Again, this was a topic that seldom interested the Muslim communities that we were involved in. Most people didn’t even seem to notice that the boy’s mother had apparently been left out of the story. Eid sermons never failed to discuss Abraham’s sacrifice, pointing out how very very difficult it would be for any father to have to even consider sacrificing a son, and drawing the analogy between sacrificing a son and sacrificing the most precious thing that you have. I even had a Qur’an tape in which the reciter’s voice broke when he recited the verses that speak of Abraham breaking the news to his son, and the (male) audience’s weeping could also be heard in the background.
We gratefully seized upon the suggestion that we picked up somewhere-or-other (and based on who knows what evidence) that the boy’s mother had died by this time. That way, we didn’t have to ask why her consent was so irrelevant to the story, much less what the larger implications of that were.
But somehow, in the back of my mind was the question: If the story had been about a woman (Abrahama, say) and her heart-rending decision whether to sacrifice her daughter, would a holiday have been based on it??
We did our best to focus on Hajar’s strong faith, and how it was eventually rewarded. After all, it was thanks to her frantic yet faith-filled search for water for her dying child that the Zamzam well sprang up, making survival as well as the founding of Mecca possible. And some state that when Hajar died, she was buried (along with Ismail) next to the Ka’ba. Clearly, her faith had been pleasing to God. That was all that mattered, we tried to tell ourselves. To sacrifice, to struggle, to try with all our might to fit into the mold of the pious Muslima who always accepts what God has decreed.
Yet, try as we might to get some spiritual sustenance out of Eid al-Adha, it could not escape even our notice that of all the holidays celebrated in our insular, conservative community, this one had the least space for women and small children. Just like the Abraham story as it was told to us, oddly enough—Eid too was really a celebration of patriarchy and male bonding.
After the Eid prayer (which always featured a sermon praising Abraham’s sacrifice, as well as stressing the necessity of physically slaughtering animals rather than, say, giving the money you would have spent on buying an animal to the poor instead), the men and older boys would drive off to a farm to slaughter sheep (and occasionally a cow or two). At least, those who could afford it. The social pressure on men to slaughter was pretty strong, so only those who were really poor would not do so.
Meanwhile, the wives, daughters and little boys would go home, and wait for the men and older boys to come back with the meat, which usually happened in the very late afternoon or evening. Then, the women would have to clean the meat, cook some, and cut up and divide up the rest into freezer bags. Some would go in the freezer, to be cooked and eaten later, but the rest would be given to poorer members of the community in charity.
I don’t recall anyone ever seriously raising the question of whether a woman could also sacrifice an animal. Slaughtering in that community was a man’s thing—and it was promoted as a test of masculinity. Brothers would tell stories about it like some other men tell fish stories. Boys looked forward to going to the farm with their fathers, watching and learning how it was done. They were also quite aware that they were the ones having the most fun on Eid, while their sisters had to stay at home with little to do but wait, and watch (or help) their mothers cook.
We tried to make Eid more interesting for the girls as well as the boys deemed too small to go to the slaughter by putting up hand-made decorations, decorating sheep-shaped cookies, and doing crafts with them. Still, it seemed almost like rebellion when I heard of some sisters (not in our community) who decided to spend Eid day at Chuck-e-Cheese with their kids instead of waiting at home. I thought it was really daring of them, and gave it a try, but… well, I guess the kids had fun, which was the main thing. Anything not to think about why Eid left such a sour taste in my mouth….
Once I finally left my marriage, as well as that community, and moved many miles away, then Muslim holidays suddenly became optional. Not only optional, but difficult to observe, unless they happened to fall on weekends. But even when they were on weekends, did I really want to take the trouble to drive a fair ways to join a community that I didn’t even know in order to celebrate them? I had certainly had my fill of sitting behind the men, unable to even participate in the takbirat. I didn’t want to subject my daughters to that sort of thing any more. Nor did I see why I should put up with that—on a holiday, for goodness sake—when I wouldn’t have ever accepted to be treated like that at work, or in any other situation.
And what did Eid al-Adha have to do with me, now? My ex had never had the means to slaughter an animal, and I didn’t have the means to do it either, with my very low salary and kids to feed. Eid al-Adha was memories of waiting with my best friend and her kids for her husband and our older boys to come back from the slaughter ground, frozen meat parcels bestowed upon my family in charity after the slaughter was done…. The whole thing seemed like a somewhat well-meaning farce best forgotten. I never wanted to hear another sermon about Abraham’s sacrifice, either.
Gradually, as my distance from Muslim holidays of all sorts (and Eid al-Adha most of all) widened, I was able to look back and see what it was that had bothered me so much about that Eid in particular as it had been celebrated in my community: From start to finish, it had really been all about power.
Celebrating power, privilege, and patriarchal entitlement.
Celebrating a vision of an “ideal” order in which men have the god-given “right” to dispose of women’s and children’s lives (and the lives of all living things, come to that) as they deem appropriate, with their “superior” knowledge of what God supposedly wants.
An “ideal” order in which women’s perspectives or subjectivities are barely even acknowledged, because after all, a truly pious woman will follow where her god-fearing husband leads. She serenely surrenders control of her body and her life to him, obediently serving him in the kitchen and the bedroom, bearing him as many children as he wants, and carefully raising them to be good Muslims—usually, in accordance with his vision of what the latter entails.
An “ideal” order in which “sacrifice” is touted as an ideal, but it means significantly different things for men and women—through sacrifice, men grow and develop into leaders, while for women, sacrifice means silence and self-abnegation, waiting for men to decide and then following along, while shrinking ever smaller to fit into someone else’s notion of proper female piety.
An “ideal” order in which there are rich and there are poor, and the wealthier patronizingly bestow charity on the poorer—who of course know their place, are properly grateful, and don’t ask searching questions about why their situation is as it is.
And the thing was, these “ideals” weren’t just theoretical in the community I had lived in. They were put into practice. Not only in the way that we celebrated Eid, but in general. Eid was simply a ritual that affirmed that this was the way God wanted things to be, and that questioning this meant rebelling against God.
So, of all the Muslim holidays that I had ever celebrated, I had thought that Eid al-Adha was the one that would probably never be a part of my life again. What would be the point, after breaking free from an abusive marriage and an extremely limiting community? What would it do, other than trigger memories that I wanted to forget?
But I reckoned without one thing. (cont.)
* As the story was usually told to us, the boy who was to be sacrificed was Ismail. However, some Muslim scholars of the past identified the boy as Ishaq (Isaac, as in the Bible). But this debate had little to do with how we experienced Eid al-Adha—whether the mother whose perspective on the sacrifice was Sara or Hajar did not change the message that we got from the story about our roles as wives and mothers in that community.