Timeless values?

Sierra’s recent post, “We thought modesty made us timeless” brought back a lot of memories. Because that was pretty much how we thought about wearing hijab—and about a lot of other things.

Thinking through the romanticized views of “the past” that we had, I wondered why? What exactly was the attraction? How did we acquire such a rose-colored view of “the past,” and then decide to hold it up as some sort of ideal?

The apologetic pamphlets and books on “Islam and woman” that we had access to in the early ’80’s and 90’s tended to have two main approaches to the question of how the conservative Muslim teachings that they were pushing as “Islam”, full stop, related to the place we actually lived (North America).

The first approach was based on an “us versus them” view of the world. It contrasted the morally superior Muslim ideal (usually, as defined by modern, educated, middle-class and urban Islamists) with the less-than-ideal practices of the supposedly morally inferior “West.” So, for example, a conservative utopian Muslim ideal in which men and women always dress and behave with complete modesty, people are segregated by gender in any public or common space, nothing remotely suggestive is ever to be seen in books or movies or on tv, and everyone is married in their teens in order to protect them from the temptation to fornicate was contrasted with “Western” phenomena such as dating, promiscuity, venereal diseases, unwed mothers, prostitution, pornography, infidelity, and so forth. It was seldom admitted that these exist in Muslim societies too—or if this was acknowledged, it would often be explained away as either statistically rare or as stemming from “Western” influence.

The second approach stressed commonalities between “Islam” (again, usually as defined by modern, educated, middle-class and urban Islamists) and “the West”—typically, hand-picked aspects of “the West” that were either socially marginal, or from the past. So, the attire of pre-Vatican II nuns was often compared favorably to the hijab. Lists of European figures (some of whom, like Martin Luther, had lived centuries ago) who had supposedly approved of polygamy in some limited circumstances were gleefully quoted. The point was to imply that practices such as hijab or polygamy are valid regardless to time and place—and that therefore, Muslims (or for that matter, others) should not criticize them or consign them to the past. It was an attempt to deal with cognitive dissonance.

Sometimes, both approaches could be found in the same book or pamphlet. This presumably testifies to the author’s internal turmoil… or just his (it was nearly always a male author) lack of attention to overall coherence when it came to making arguments.

As converts, we found the first approach both offensive and deeply depressing. We ourselves were often very critical of our own societies (and birth families), as well as alienated from them to various degrees. But still. Being branded as having come from a morally inferior culture just made us feel… hopeless.

The second approach resonated a lot more with us, partly because it seemed to offer us a way of dealing with our own internal conflicts and alienation. It was comforting to tell ourselves that regardless of the perception that we were “dressed like Arabs” in our hijabs, that a hundred years ago, women wore long dresses and covered their heads. The reason that our decision to wear hijab looked so strange and out of place was because the moral standards of North American society had declined dramatically in the last several decades, as a result of the decline of religion. So, we were actually the ones who were right—we were firmly rooted history, in timeless religious values, that anyone ought to be able to appreciate.

And, the neo-traditionalists we were involved with strongly encouraged this line of thinking. As far as they were concerned (and as they taught us), modernity is bad. And the past is usually morally superior to the present.

Modernity is bad because rather than putting God at the center of everything, it puts humans and human interests at the center. Galileo (we were told) was wrong, because his discoveries undermined the supremely God-centered worldview that put the earth at the center of the universe, directly under the eye of God. Simply being scientifically correct was not worth the upheaval that he had caused in the worldview of the average European.

Modernity is bad (we were taught) because it focuses on the material and quantifiable, and has little time for the spiritual. And because it promotes misguided ideas, such as democracy and gender equality and secular education and secular legal systems.

The past is generally morally superior (we were told), because in the past, humans feared God—and societies were such that the odd person who didn’t in fact fear God would be forced by social pressure to act as if he (or she) did. Therefore, there was a lot less social corruption. People felt proper shame for their misdeeds, instead of boasting about them. And in any case, most people worked hard, which kept them too busy to get involved in a lot of the sins that moderns get up to, and gave their lives clear direction and meaning.

In the past (we were taught) families were stronger, and communities more cohesive, because people of the past hadn’t been corrupted by the peculiarly modern focus on the individual. So, people of the past weren’t worried about individual fulfillment, but were usually glad to sacrifice for the good of the group. This was also because people in the past didn’t have modern delusions about democracy or equality or human rights—everyone just accepted that there was a god-given hierarchical order for the family, the village, the society. And because men were men, women were women, and children were not nearly as rebellious as they are now. There was none of this modern restlessness and endless, fruitless search for identity and meaning. So, people in the past were happier, lived more wholistic and fulfilling lives, and were (of course!) in a much better spiritual state than we could ever hope to reach….

This was so much romantic balderdash. We were sold a pretty picture of “the past” that was hopelessly unconnected to any particular time or place. That way, we couldn’t really raise critical questions about this pretty picture—but somehow, we didn’t really notice that.

Another thing we didn’t really notice is the violence—the physical and the structural—that existed in “the past” in order to keep subjects obedient to their rulers, wives obedient to husbands, children obedient to parents, servants and slaves obedient to their masters….

Oddly enough, it was reading about the Magdalene laundries that finally brought home to me the extreme violence that was needed in order to keep such “traditional” hierarchies in place.

(Due to the ways we were taught to see violence in Muslim contexts—which almost never allowed us to see structural violence unless it stemmed entirely from outsiders—as well as the interminable apologetics around what is “religion” and what is “culture,” we didn’t usually notice such “traditional” violence. Or if we did, we would not perceive it as violence that is intrinsic to preserving social hierarchies.)

The Magdalene laundries, I realized, are only a particularly blatant example from the very recent past of an attempt to construct and maintain the illusion of a “morally virtuous” society. Those girls and women who didn’t or wouldn’t or couldn’t fit into the narrow roles that their society deemed appropriate were literally made to disappear from sight.

As far as possible, there would be no “illegitimate” children, unwed mothers, juvenile delinquents, raped women, molested girls, or prostitutes. At the discretion of their parish priests, male relatives, or other men who decided that this was appropriate, they would be imprisoned in laundries run by nuns, where they would spend months or years laboring from morning til evening, doing penance for their supposed sins—and most importantly, away from the public eye. Out of sight, out of mind. And there was no perceived need for anyone—government officials, say—to bother inspecting the laundries or investigating the working conditions, because religious orders could be presumed to not require such oversight. Conveniently enough.

These were not the sorts of things from the past that we were taught to notice, however. Or for that matter, even the present.

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  1. #1 by shepardmary57 on January 13, 2013 - 8:38 am

    The idea of being “timeless” makes us believe that we are right – that other value systems come and go, but “ours” endures because it is given to us by God and he knows best. It is implied that the misogyny, feelings of shame, rigid gender and social roles, are divinely decreed and so it is a sin to deviate from them. It is, then, a sin for a woman to not cover her head, or to want a different role in society than that which was assigned to her.

    The Islamic equivalent of the Magdalene Laundries is in every Muslim family and community. Any woman whose behavior is not acceptable to the group is ostracised – I saw this happening to a woman who was part of a Pakistani community I was close to a few years ago. She was told she could not visit the masjid, and the woman was excluded from receiving any comfort or companionship from the women – they ignored her. Her crime? Living with a man as his housekeeper, and she was caught in the worst possible way one could imagine – the man, embroiled in a custody battle with his ex-wife for their three young children, shot all three of them in their beds and the turned the gun on himself (but he survived). This demented act alone is horrific enough, but the “bad behavior” of this Pakistani Muslim woman and how she was treated in the aftermath of this tragedy spoke volumes to me.

  2. #2 by xcwn on January 13, 2013 - 4:30 pm

    Mary—Yes, that’s a very good observation. In our minds, “timeless” equaled “right.”

    But to say that the Muslim equivalent of the Magdalene laundries is every Muslim family and community is IMO an overstatement, depending on what you mean by that.
    I’d say that in my experience at least, it’s accurate in the sense that in the communities I have been involved in, the family is often expected to contain girls or women (or for that matter, gay males) who don’t conform, so that the wider community isn’t forced to confront the fact that such persons exist. And that the authority of elders in the family is often conveniently assumed to be benevolent, so there is no need for any outside oversight or intervention.

    But part of the horror of the Magdalene laundries (for me, anyway) is that they continued to exist in a state that supposedly upheld the rule of the law, and recognized the individuals, including women and children, have legal rights.

    I do sometimes get the sense that certain Muslim sub-cultures in North America (including those peopled mainly by converts, or the offspring of converts) are sort of understood to function in a similar way by “mainstream” society. In other words, let them go off and do whatever it is that they do, and as long as “we” don’t have to bother with them, who cares. Especially when it’s people who have been in trouble with the law before, who are poor.

  3. #3 by Chinyere on January 13, 2013 - 5:55 pm

    That all Muslim families function like Magdalene laundries is definitely an overstatement, thankfully! Having grown up in an African-American, two-generation Muslim convert family (my generation was the first that was not a convert) and knowing other families like mine that have gone through the interesting transformation of NO to “Orthodox” Islam…we cannot be counted in that number. Coming of age in schools with many Muslim kids in non-black Muslim families…some of my Muslim friends in high school had sex, came out as gay, and would grow up to live with their boyfriends/girlfriends, and their families knew, and I don’t know of any who were ostracized. Going to college and being oriented for the first time with actual conservative Muslims…this is where I found, in the context of communities, that those of us at the fringes…those of us whose practice wasn’t adequate, those whose behavior did not conform with conservative Muslim ideals…were ignored. Never addressed in the community, in the MSA…and somehow, in spite of the many Muslim kids I went to high school with, who were some of my best friends…I bought into the “Muslims don’t do XYZ” because I came to buy into the fact that those kids were outliers, weren’t real Muslims, and neither was much of my family growing up, and neither was I prior to meeting this conservative “reality”…

    There are so many Muslim families that do not fit into this conservative bucket. Conservative communities have dismissed or deny the existence these families, any individuals who still identify as Muslim that do not fit, and it’s all very convenient. Don’t make all five prayers a day? That’s a pillar…definitely not Muslim. Right? But thankfully, thankfully, these families hold fast to the religion that brings their lives solace and meaning without worrying what conservative bodies would deem them, and go on loving their children who “stray,” even in cases where moms and dads may push for the cohabiting child to marry their partner, or struggle to understand their lesbian daughter and subsequently vote to uphold marriage equality in their state.

    I don’t know how many Muslim families do operate on the ignore-or-ostracize paradigm, as I was never “adequate enough” to place myself in conservative circles and as most of the Muslims I know are American raised, if not American born. Even if our numbers are few, I am encouraged to know that not all Muslim families operate like that.

    As for the entry…brings back memories. Outside of conservative Muslim parlance, my mother also bought into the “timeless modesty” thing and its an idea, although I no longer I guess observe it, that is really hard for me to shake, even now…

    • #4 by xcwn on January 13, 2013 - 7:47 pm

      Chinyere—Thank you for your comments. As a convert, I know that my view of Muslim communities and families is skewed, because I was disproportionately exposed to conservatives, some of whom were rather extreme. And yeah, I was also in a cult, which was very very concerned about deciding who was a “real” Muslim and who wasn’t, and would shun those who didn’t measure up.

      Frankly, more liberal families or individuals that I encountered in the ’80’s and ’90’s weren’t often very welcoming to converts, and were sometimes quite rude. Since they often seemed to see Islam as part of their ethnic identity, I suspect it didn’t make sense to them that anyone would convert to it. Those who were willing to treat converts as fellow Muslims (rather than as, say, weirdos) were usually conservatives, who were either influenced by Salafism and/or “Islamic fundamentalism”, or neo-traditionalism. Because they saw Islam as this identity that is universal and transcends race and ethnicity and lineage—or at least, it is supposed to in theory. But to make up for such a scarily “open” view of identity, they were much more concerned about who is “in” and who is “out” than the more liberal people.

      And it seems in this age of internet and televangelist imams that conservative Muslim obsessions with who is or isn’t “Muslim enough” are becoming mainstream in a way that they weren’t before.

  4. #5 by Lucreza Borgia on January 14, 2013 - 4:13 pm

    Women in the 1800’s might have covered their heads and worn long sleeves, but not always and some of those dresses were skin-tight and so low-necked that one could almost see nipples.

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