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.