Archive for March, 2013

Some unhelpful things to say to survivors of religious abuse (convert edition)

Well, nobody forced you to join that group/mosque/community (or to marry that person). You chose to join it (or, to get married).

In other words: What happened is at least partly caused by you. So, stop blaming the group/mosque/community/your abusive spouse, and focus on what you did wrong.

But the thing is, sometimes religious authority is misused. And sometimes adults do get drawn into things against their better judgment. Female converts in particular have often been pressured by people who supposedly had “Islamic knowledge” into getting involved in controlling or cultish communities—“satan attacks the one who is alone,” and all that—and even into marriage with people that they hardly knew.

Saying this sort of thing handily shifts accountability for whatever happened away from the shaykh/mosque leadership/community leaders or husband—meaning, away from those who had more knowledge and power, and who the convert was led to believe that she had to listen to “Islamically”—and onto the convert herself. And what it sounds like to the survivor is something like this:  No matter how badly you may have been treated, your life just don’t count nearly as much in the greater scheme of things as the reputation of that group/mosque/community/man does.

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Boundaries… and goals

My ex, his family, and some of my older kids have what one might charitably call a creative attitude to the law. [BTW, for anyone panicking at this point: “Muslims! Law-breaking! What, is this a Security Threat?!”—uh no, that’s not the sort of thing that I’m talking about at all. What I do mean is what has been called a “culture of illegality.” Here’s a post about what I am talking about, though this woman definitely had it worse than I did.]

Alas, the message I got was that a "real" woman, a "good" wife and mother... will do just that.

Alas, the message I got was that a “real” woman, a “good” wife and mother… will do just that. Deform yourself in order to fit into someone else’s idea of what you have to be… in order to suit their needs and wants. Because who are you, anyway?

Which means that now and again, they get themselves into situations. Back in the day, when I was still married and involved in very conservative, insular Muslim communities, I’d sometimes get dragged into things that I wanted nothing to do with. And looking back, my ex in particular was an expert at putting me into positions in which I was made to feel that I had to cover for him, bail him out (figuratively, not literally, but still in terms of money, time or resources), or deal with the trouble, worry and upset caused by whatever-it-was that he had gone and done—although he had gone and done it either without my knowledge, or after I had objected to him doing it.

That sort of thing always bothered me a lot. It was humiliating. Whether or not people found out, I felt wrong. Unclean, even. That was how strongly I felt about it. And all the religious, cultural, political and other excuses that my ex and others came up with to justify things that they did never quite convinced me. I wanted to accept those excuses. Sometimes I almost did. But I couldn’t, and as time went on, I became more and more disturbed by what was going on.

So, one of the benefits of being divorced and moving away from those communities (I thought) would mean that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen any more.

But unfortunately, I was wrong about that.

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Blogging my way through Badawi’s “Status of Woman in Islam” is bringing all sorts of things to the surface, I am finding. And thinking this stuff through is quite exhausting.

One issue that keeps coming to mind as I blog is the question of accountability in various conservative Muslim communities that I have known.

As I experienced and observed accountability, in theory, everyone is accountable—to God on the Day of Judgment, and to their fellow believers if they were acting wrongfully. But the reality? In practice, the more powerful someone was and the higher status they had in the community, the less they would ever be held to account.

Back in the ’80’s where I was living at that time, there was little if any accountability of imams, community leaders, organizations, or even of fund-raising efforts. Public financial statements or yearly forensic audits? Nah. Accountability to the community or transparency in decision-making for mosque boards? Unnecessary. Fair elections, even when a Muslim student organization’s official constitution mandated them? Lol.

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On othering and “feeling sick”

I read a number of blogs written by women (and sometimes men) recovering from Quiverful and other similar very conservative Protestant movements or churches. As the links on this blog indicate. I can relate to a lot of the things that they write about—patriarchal family dynamics, ridiculously high levels of intrusion into people’s lives, cults of personality around self-styled leaders, destructive scripturally-based “counseling” and rotten “marital advice” dished out by such leaders, victim-blaming rhetoric, the after-effects of isolation from “the world” in favor of living in a religious bubble… and the list goes on.

When I read these blogs (and some of them are really good), I wish I wasn’t haunted by, well, some all-too-recent history that somehow won’t quite stay dead and buried.

Sometimes, the things they write about help me to think through things that happened to me. Sometimes, they make insightful suggestions about how to deal with particular issues. Sometimes, it’s just nice to know that you are not alone in dealing with the aftermath of such things.

But unfortunately sometimes, reading these blogs is more like realizing the answer to a question that been haunting me ever since I saw a memorial display with the statistics (broken down state by state) for lynchings of African-Americans in the twentieth century: Where does such visceral, violent hatred go? What happens to it, when it is finally driven more or less underground? Does it die for lack of oxygen? Or does it lie there in wait, perhaps mutating into something more socially acceptable so that it can rise again?

Posters and commenters in particular in some of these blogs (and others like them) sometimes use a sort of short-hand that expresses that certain ideas, practices and institutions are oppressive:

  • a fundamentalist, controlling Christian community is a “fundystan”
  • any oppressive, hyper-controlling church or group is a “taliban”
  • conservative Christian teachings (especially on women’s roles) are a “mental burka”
  • to question and reject said teachings is to “throw off the mental burka”
  • Hepzihah House is “Hezbollah House”
  • and so on

Basically, any media word/part of a word that is associated in one way or another with Muslims is equated with oppression, violence, cruelty, or danger, regardless of what the word means in the language(s) or community(ies) that it originally comes from.

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Musings on Muslim identity (IV)

Recently, I was talking to a secular Muslim, who doesn’t practice and who regards the antics of North American Muslims of all stripes (convert and otherwise) with some amusement.

He mentioned something about admiring the Muslim ideal of humility.

And I thought, “WHAT?? What humility?”

I wondered, do you mean the “humility” of the rock-star imams who charge large speakers’ fees and stay in five-star hotels? Or maybe the faux “humility” of that shaykh or study circle leader who says that oh no, they don’t know anything at all compared to the great scholars of the past… but they do know more than enough to tell everyone around them how they should live their lives, down to the last detail? Or maybe the “humility” that I was taught that I should have—which amounts to being grateful for what you have even if it’s awful, because you don’t merit anything better.

But I knew that he didn’t mean any of those things.

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Musings on Muslim identity (III)

“O you who believe! Stand up for justice, bearing witness for God even against yourselves…” (Q 4:135)

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So far, my musings on Muslim identity have been very much centered on MY particular experiences as a white North American convert. Which is unsurprising, but also potentially distorting in a way. Perhaps the problem is not so much with all the racial and gendered dimensions of conversion in North America, but… me?

I mean, sure, conversion to any religion is bound to have its challenges. And becoming Muslim in North America in the early ’80’s was very much a leap in the dark. I thought that I knew what I was doing at the time, of course, but looking back, I just shudder at how remarkably unaware I was of the implications of just about everything that I was doing. Yes, those were the pre-internet days, and I was young and very naive about the way the world works, but really….

And once I had begun to get a sense of how race and gender and class and a whole host of other factors were going to make my relationships with both Muslims as well as non-Muslims a lot more complex now that I had converted and become a practicing, conservative Muslim, then surely any half-way sensible person wouldn’t still expect any sort of warm welcome, much less a sense of belonging? Maybe I just had very unrealistic expectations—not only due to the dawah literature I read, but due to… white privilege. After all, in this racially polarized society, how was it reasonable to have expected anything other than what ended up happening?

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