Archive for December, 2012
Or (for an alternative title): Up From the Bottle Dungeon.
Years ago, I remember reading about bottle dungeons in Scottish castles. These are underground, bottle-shaped prisons, with only one possible entrance, source of air or light—a narrow shaft leading to a hole in the ceiling, which would have been far above the prisoners’ heads. Prisoners would be tossed into the dungeon, or let down on ropes. Escape was well-nigh impossible, except with outside assistance. And I wondered what sort of people those lairds and their families were, calmly going about their daily lives while prisoners suffered and moldered away below.
Looking back at my former life as a neo-traditionalist and how difficult it was to even begin to see my way out of it, I am reminded of bottle dungeons in more ways than one.
As a neo-traditionalist who was also heavily involved in a Muslim neo-traditionalist group (which turned out to be a cult) for some years, I lived in an almost entirely self-referential world. It was built like a fortress. Built to last. And that was not accidental.
It was a mental prison that was self-sustaining. And oddly enough, it was incredibly hard to leave, mentally and psychologically speaking—even once I began to recognize how much harm it was doing to myself and my children, as well as to dear friends of mine.
One of the reasons why this world-view not only drew us in, but was so very durable was its emphasis on certainty and knowledge. We wanted certainty. And what was more, we believed that any faith worth the name should be able to deliver it. We also felt as though we were under siege from the wider society, so we wanted our beliefs reaffirmed. So, we were primed for leaders who would provide affirmation and promise certainty.
In the last post, I discussed a number of reasons why I (and many of my convert friends) found conservative Muslim arguments in favor of women being stay-at-home wives and mothers convincing, and highlighted some of the ways that deciding to stay home limited our ability (and even, our inclination) to make independent, adult decisions on a whole range of things.
In staying home, we became financially dependent. And, we didn’t chart our own courses as wives and mothers either—there were not only our husbands to answer to, but also various conservative, insular and often quite intrusive Muslim communities. For those of us who became involved in Muslim cults, that goes double.
I became financially dependent, despite the fact that my ex wanted to have both the comfort and convenience of a stay-at-home wife (and mother), AND the benefits of a wife who also brings in some money—though, one who would work in a way that wouldn’t ever inconvenience him. I tried to do that by babysitting from home. That was supposed to be the ideal balance between the need to generate income, and the “need” to be at home with my kids full-time, without in any way falling short of my wifely responsibilities to cook, clean, etc, or my moral responsibilities to wear hijab and avoid working alongside or closely interacting with men. I also hoped that it would protect me from job discrimination and the type of dismissive treatment that often is experienced by people in low-status jobs. After all, I was working at home….
During my conversion process, I read several books and booklets written by conservative Muslims that essentially argued that the “Muslim woman” (in an “ideal Islamic society” at least) are far better off than the generic “Western woman.” This is because while “Western” women have to compete with men in the working world in order to survive, (it was argued) Muslim women are respected, protected, and can count on being financially supported by their male relatives or husbands throughout their lives.
As time went on, conservative Muslim writers and speakers began to use words and phrases such as “gender equity” and “true liberation” and even “a western feminist’s dream” to describe this vision of what Muslim women are supposedly entitled to.
I (and my convert friends) bought into this vision. And we tried so hard to make it work, for years. Why? And, what was this vision really about? Was it an authentic, indigenous third-world/western religious woman feminist (or womanist) idea, as some claimed? Or was it really about infantilizing and controlling us by limiting our options to make choices?
We were taught that women dedicating their lives to being stay-at-home wives and mothers was “natural” and biologically-based. Different authors/speakers made this argument in different ways. Some attempted to do so using positive-sounding language and focuses on what (all) women supposedly want and need, arguing that women “naturally” want to be protected by men, and stay at home and devote their time and attention to having children. They quoted western feminists talking about the “second shift.” How is it fair (they asked) for a woman to be expected to work full-time, and then to have to come home and deal with most or all of the housework and childcare?
Because we knew it all. After having read a few pamphlets, and heard a few inspiring (and carefully vague) talks on “the status of woman in Islam” (as such talks were often entitled back in the early ’80’s).
Let me back up a bit here. Several weeks ago, I received a comment that weirded me out because it could have been written by me years ago.
It was a rather unnerving experience, but also an instructive one.
“I am a convert, who recently moved from Western Europe to Egypt. I hear all the time that women are oppressed here and controled by men. I however don’t see this in my daily life here. Women work, they are doctors, lawyers, scientists, pharmacists etc.
I also dont know any hadeeth that are demeaning to women, actually i know many that show that men should treat women well.
As always, one must differentiate between tradition and religion. The traditions are stuck to cultures, the religion is what the religious books (bible, quran) say. traditions can change as the people change, religion, like God is constant.
I am sure that every man who abuses a woman, inside himself he knows that what he is doing is wrong, he is just too selfish to stop. All persons (with a few exceptions) are born with the knowledge or intuition of what is right and wrong.
What are the parts of quran or the trusted hadeeth that are demeaning to women according to you all???”
My kids are angry. They have lots of things to be angry about—growing up in (religiously-induced) poverty, growing up with a lot of religious restrictions that even some other Muslim kids they knew didn’t have, their father’s actions (especially, his cheating, justified as polygamy), my actions (especially, my conservative Muslim idealism that flew in the face of reality), our inability to live the idealized (and for us, quite unrealistic) vision of the “ideal Islamic marriage/family,” our divorce, the bone-headed judgmentalness of those conservative Muslims who couldn’t keep their opinions about our divorce and how the kids were likely going to be affected by my working and dehijabbing and leaving my marriage to themselves….
Sometimes, they turn their anger inward, and become very moody. Sometimes, the younger kids express their anger by squabbling among themselves. Sometimes, by being rude to me. And sometimes, they rebel.
There’s teenage rebellion, and there’s teenage rebellion. Some of it is par for the course in the wider society—piercings, tattoos, skimpy or “gangster-ish” clothing—though not acceptable in the conservative community that they were raised in, where such signs of teenage rebellion are sources of stigma for parents (who clearly didn’t manage to “raise their kids properly”). But some types of rebellion can lead to trouble with the law.