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.

They (especially my ex) still try to reel me in sometimes. Typically, for the supposed sake of the kids. I had to deal with another episode of that fairly recently. It is always very emotionally upsetting—not only does it trigger me big time, but I feel absolutely, terribly guilty for even trying to say “no” to whatever-it-is that they’re trying to drag me into.

But this time, I couldn’t take the unfairness of it all. And I started to get angry. Angrier than I’d ever been before in these situations. How dare they? Here I am, trying to put my life back together, trying to provide a future for my kids, holding down a demanding job, trying to pay off my heavy debt load (partly incurred as a result of supporting the family back when I was still married), trying to deal with health issues, trying to deal with a kid who is pretty troubled at the moment… and I should somehow feel guilty for not doing enough?? Why, I do way more than my ex does, or ever will do. I can’t do any more than I am doing.

And why don’t I have the right to live a life that doesn’t leave me with a feeling of shame, for a change?

Oh, but (a voice in my head said) you’re being selfish. You’re focusing on your life, what you want, when what you should do as a mother is to give, to serve, to nurture. You’ve been led astray by modern, western, individualistic thinking. What really matters is not what you want or think, but what will help the family. Being loyal to the family.

And I knew that this wasn’t just about that blaming voice in my head that I have internalized over the years. This is actually what they think. They do their best to make me feel guilty for not giving in to them.

Trying to sort out the whole thing in my head, I decided to make a list. What was it exactly that I wanted for my life? What were my non-negotiable goals? What was I determined to have, regardless of what anyone else wanted me to do?

The list was quite short, as it turned out:

  • To live with dignity and integrity. Meaning, I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror and not be ashamed. That means living honestly, in a way that is considerate of others, obeying the law, and giving back to society.
  • To live in a financially responsible way. Meaning, to pay off my debts, pay bills on time, spend wisely, live within my means, and begin saving for emergencies and retirement.
  • To live with a positive focus. Meaning, to make good use of my time and resources. To be thankful each day. To continue to learn and grow.
  • To live in a healthy way. Meaning, to take good care of my physical, mental and emotional health.

I looked at that list… and realized three things. First, that I HAD NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE. EVER. I had never sat down before and made a list of what I wanted in life. I had always been too concerned with either surviving whatever was going on in my life at that particular time, or being whatever my ex or my kids or the folks in The Cult were saying that they needed me to do or be at that moment. There hadn’t been a long-term plan. I didn’t have goals—except to live a righteous life (as my very conservative community defined that for me), and to do my best to ensure that my kids lived righteous lives and made it to paradise. And that was it.

Oh sh*t—I’d ended up like that table-dancer in the bar in that song from the early ’80’s by I forget who now:

“…she never had dreams/so they never came truuuue…”

That song had always made me so sad. And I had thought, I’ll never be anything like that woman. Because I’d never, ever be a table-dancer in a bar….

And second—meanwhile, although I had no real goals, no dreams, and believed that I had to set aside whatever aspirations I had whenever my (then-) husband or kids or community wanted me to do whatever-it-was in order to be a good wife, a good mother… the men didn’t see their lives that way. My ex sure didn’t, and doesn’t. While I very much doubt that he ever sat down and made a list of his life’s goals either, he has always been quite determined to have certain things in life (and to also avoid doing certain things that he doesn’t want to be bothered with). And he fully believes that this is his right to live his life in this way. So do his family, apparently—at least, they don’t stand up to him and say, “enough!” even when he puts them to trouble with the situations he gets into.

And third—none of these things that I wanted are actually unreasonable or immoral. So, refusing to get dragged into legally murky situations is my right. It follows that they have absolutely no right to make me feel guilty about not wanting to get involved in this stuff. I’m not doing anything wrong.

But the guilt… that stuff is inculcated deeply. Especially in women.

People will say it’s not a religious issue. Well for me, it is, and it isn’t. I was certainly taught to believe (and I read) that a “good” wife and a “good” mother spends her time giving and sacrificing… and that that is her identity. The implication is that she shouldn’t have her own independent goals. Her entire life’s purpose is to be what others want or need her to be. Saying “no” to almost anything was therefore selfish.

While I also read (and occasionally heard) that a wife should not (or at least, did not have to) obey her husband if he tells her to do “something sinful,” there was little attention paid to what that meant exactly. Sure, if a woman’s husband forbade her to wear hijab or pray, or told her to eat pork or drink alcohol, she was not to obey him. Those were clear-cut instances of the husband transgressing the Sharia.

But what about things like… various kinds of financial finagling, that supposedly are “victimless”? And the man is from a sub-culture that finds this sort of thing acceptable, and has many friends who don’t think it’s wrong either? Because hey, “everybody does it”? Doesn’t “everyone” supposedly lie on tax returns, lie to welfare? Doesn’t “everybody” do scam-y things now and again? (And then have to lie and lie again in order to cover their tracks… and ask others to cover for them?)

Thing is (I realized), the ideal of being what we called “a good wife and mother” was one in which… to be good, to be pleasing to God, to be righteous, was to have no personal boundaries. No boundaries of your own. Rather like an amoeba. The only boundaries that existed were those set by others on your behalf.

I found that realization just so very ironic. We believed that a pious woman who lived up to this ideal of the “good wife and mother” was protected. Fortified. Against sin, against harm, against all bad things.

And it wasn’t true. What protection does anyone have who can barely say “no”?

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  1. #1 by Saliha on March 21, 2013 - 1:39 am

    I’m right there with you. Shame and guilt are some of patriarchy’s most powerful tools. I found this piece really helpful in articulating some of the issues with guilt.

    • #2 by xcwn on March 25, 2013 - 11:53 pm

      Saliha—Awesome article. I’m still digesting it, days later….

      Yes, it’s absolutely true that we have been socialized to feel guilty for absolutely everything, including (or especially) things that we can’t possibly control. I still can’t quite get over how comparatively free from guilt all the Muslim men I know are, no matter what they’ve done or failed to do. They seem to be able to draw a line and say that they’ve done what they could (whether or not that is actually true…) and forget about it. And everyone else seems to accept that they have the perfect right to do that. But women don’t have that right, apparently.

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