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….
Needless to say, it didn’t work out quite like that. Watching other people’s kids in addition to my own left even less time to tend to the housework—in fact, the extra kids made even more dirt and mess (like, vomit on the carpet kind of messes). I had to deal with parents who routinely picked up their kids late, or “forgot” to bring cash or checks with them to pay me when they had said that they were going to. Since I also experienced some parents who decided they didn’t want me taking care of their kid when they came to my home and realized that I was Muslim, I didn’t want to risk alienating the customers I had by calling them on their very inconsiderate behavior.
And, the little money I made (hardly worth it, given how hard I worked and how exhausted I was) had to go straight to paying for groceries. While it helped somewhat, it wasn’t enough to give me more leverage within my marriage, much less any prospect of (say) saving anything. And I increasingly disliked doing it—and felt guilty about not liking babysitting very much. Again, I was failing to live up to the image of the ideal Muslimah, who is forever nurturing and giving.
Deciding that I wasn’t going to babysit any more was a sort of passive-aggressive way of trying to put some boundaries on the uses of my labor-power. Here I was trying to stay home and be a good wife and mother—so my husband ought to be playing his god-given role too, being the provider and protector and not expecting me contribute financially. (My husband’s response was to hold my decision against me.)
That point in my life would have been as good a time as any to rethink things. How were the teachings that I had accepted about what it is to be a woman, to be married, to be a mother working out for me in practice? How was the marriage going? Was I really cut out for having many children, much less staying home with them? Was I really ever going to manage to fit into the “ideal wife and mother” mold? And if I wasn’t, then why was I trying so hard to (or at least, to pretend to) fit into it?
But questions like that were way too threatening to be entertained. I believed that I had to be married, that I had to bear children, and that I had to want multiple children, and that if I couldn’t do these things joyfully, then I had failed as a human being. Acknowledging that the mold wasn’t (and would never be) for me was therefore not an option.
If things weren’t working out as they should be, then the explanation had to be that I just hadn’t tried hard enough.
Getting drawn into neo-traditionalist approaches to Islam, as well as into a particular neo-traditionalist conservative, insular community (that ended up being a cult), simply reinforced my belief that the problems were due to me not having tried hard enough—and that fitting the mold carried with it high theological stakes indeed. Females (we were taught) are supposed to outwardly embody the jamaali attributes of God—mercy, love, nurturing, and so forth. Males are to outwardly embody God’s jalaali attributes—judging, ruling, overseeing, punishing, etc.
While the jamaali attributes are in the end supposedly stronger—as the famous hadith has it, God’s mercy overcomes “his” wrath—in lived reality on earth, in the family and community and the law, it is God’s jalaali attributes (and those who outwardly exemplify them—males) that are to have the dominant role. Although a spiritually developed female ought to inwardly embody God’s jalaali attributes as well (we were taught), this makes no legal difference in her status or role in this world.
So, questioning our roles became even more unthinkable. For who were we to question the nature of God, or the manifestation of God’s attributes in the world?
In the end, what we were drawn into turned out to be what could be called labor-intensive mothering and home-making. Oh yes, we breast-fed our children (and aimed to do so until they were two years old, following a literal reading of the Qur’an), we home-birthed when possible, we homeschooled them for a time, we sewed many of our kids’ clothes (and most of our own), we made our kids Islamically themed toys, we baked our own bread, we made our own yoghurt, we cooked from scratch….
We became convinced that using birth control was not only “unnatural” and probably haraam in most cases, but also pretty much useless. After all, if God wants to create a human being, then God can do so regardless of what measures anyone decides to take. The Cult was very much in favor of women having many children, and there was a lot of social pressure to keep having them.
In that, The Cult was not all that different from other conservative Muslim circles that we had contact with at that time. I didn’t know many women who had stopped at having only one or two children. The prevailing message that we had been receiving for years in sermons and books on “woman in Islam” was that birth control is forbidden or at least strongly discouraged, except in unusual circumstances (such as risk to a woman’s life if she became pregnant again, or severe poverty). In such (supposedly) rare cases, birth control could be practiced temporarily (we were informed), but as soon as circumstances had changed for the better, then it was expected that the couple would stop using it. Sterilization was prohibited (we were taught), even if it would endanger a woman’s life to become pregnant, and abortion was only permitted in very rare circumstances (basically, to save the mother’s life).
Using birth control (we read, and heard) shows a lack of trust in God. But carrying a pregnancy to term, even if it is unplanned, poses financial problems, or even has been advised against by doctors was held up as a sign of true faith. These ideas were fairly “mainstream” in the conservative Muslim circles that we had access to at the time. Another pretty “mainstream” idea (thanks in large part to Mawdoodi) was that birth control is a plot by “the West” to reduce the number of Muslims in the world and therefore to rob Muslim countries of their one main military resource—(male) bodies.
We not only became drawn into an ever-more demanding world of labor-intensive, hands-on mothering, but we became virtual hostages to our wombs. We did not plan pregnancies—though as far as we were concerned, God was planning them, which we presumed was better. Along with multiple pregnancies came a certain number of miscarriages (and their assorted fiqhi problems—but that’s another post). Our lives came to revolve around the expectation of pregnancy and/or breastfeeding. When we sewed ourselves skirts, shirts, dresses or jilbabs, we made them extra wide in the waist in order to accommodate an entire pregnancy, and able to unbutton/unzip from neck to sternum to allow for breastfeeding. On the uncommon occasions when we bought ourselves clothes, we would use those criteria as well.
(Once I left that community, buying clothes was an odd experience in more ways than one. Finally, I was free to not take the possibility of pregnancy into account when buying them. It was odd, buying clothes that fit instead of always getting things that were several sizes too big.)
We had extremely busy lives. And, as far as we were concerned, our lives had purpose. Here we were, working to build strong Muslim families, which are the building blocks of strong Muslim communities. We were doing our utmost to raise righteous children. And all this (we believed) was what God wanted.
We were plugged into a community (The Cult), so we had a sense that we were part of something bigger, something that was the hope of the umma. We also counted on The Cult to help us raise our children to be good Muslims.
Looking back, I can see that we were so busy that we hardly had time to examine where our lives were going. The more children we had, and the more years passed of being stay-at-home wives and mothers, the less it seemed realistic to even consider working outside the home. Our resumes would be pretty much blank. The hard work we had been doing—homeschooling, volunteering with Muslim groups…—would scare off most employers (even before 9/11). Things like babysitting would not likely lead to any reasonably well-paying job. And, the idea of going back to school to gain some marketable skills seemed even less attainable. Even aside from how we’d deal with the care of our children, and the housework, and managing the volunteer work that The Cult required of us in addition attending school—how would we have been able to afford the fees? And, what would have been the point? Education for adult women was not something that The Cult encouraged in the least. Even for males, higher education was seen as at best a necessary evil, but for females, it was seen as unnecessary. Our destiny (we were taught) is to be wives and mothers.
And so, we were.
This left us dependent and vulnerable. Vulnerable to the whims of our husbands, and in my case anyway, inexperienced in many of the things that most adults in this society take for granted.
When I finally left my marriage, I had never supported myself financially. I had never lived alone. I had never had a credit card. I had no credit history. I had virtually no work history either. I had never held a full-time job. I had never found myself a place to live, or signed a lease. I had never owned a cell phone, or bought anything from a store on credit (and paid it off in installments). So, I quickly had to learn to do these things, while also hiding the fact that this was all new (and pretty intimidating, if not frankly scary) to me.
The life experiences that I did have and skills that I had acquired no longer had any relation to my daily (or weekly or monthly) routine. I wasn’t going to be pregnant or breastfeeding again. I wasn’t likely to attend another birth—not in the foreseeable future, anyway. I no longer had the time to bake my own bread or sew my own clothes. (Though I suppose that if someone suddenly went into labor at work, I’d have the presence of mind to know what to do, aside from calling 911 of course….)
Other women I encountered at work, or at the grocery story, or elsewhere seemed to inhabit another world, even when the talk turned to mothering or home-making. I quickly learned not to say too much about my experiences, which were so different from theirs.