In the last post, I discussed the downward spirals the female converts can get into, and the ideas found in some conservative Muslim discourses about women’s roles that can promote this.
Are there any solutions? I can already hear the puritanical “do it by the book” types pontificating about this: As we’ve been saying, all sisters, including convert sisters must have a wali in order to get married! Or: Sisters should know that it is their Islamic right to be financially supported by their husbands, and if they allow themselves to be cheated out of their Islamic right, then they only have themselves to blame!
Translation: she had problems because she was Doing It Wrong. She either didn’t know The True Islam (TM), or lacked enough taqwa to put it into practice.
That sort of claim is not really an answer, so much as a conversation-stopper. Nobody is supposed to be bold enough to ask how getting some man who might not really know much about her (like some overworked mosque imam), or even a man whose supposed concern for her welfare might not be disinterested (such as a reputedly pious brother married to her best friend, who is secretly on the lookout for a younger, more attractive second wife) to act as her wali would necessarily protect her from getting into a bad marriage.
Nobody is supposed to notice that many of the reasons that getting into bad marriages can be so destructive to female converts is due to the way the system itself is often set up, what with so much emphasis on women in particular getting and staying married, and such limited options for exiting bad or even abusive marriages. Instead of proposing that there needs to be less pressure on women to marry, and more access to family counseling and female-initiated divorce, the solution is supposed to be more patriarchal control of women by not allowing them to get married without a man’s permission.
And a key way to spot a man who would make a “good” husband is one who is willing and able to support his wife financially, or so they say. That sounds reasonable (at least, for those who are already sold on “traditional” gender roles or aspire to be stay-at-home moms)… until one reads the fine print. Because in Islamic law, the wife’s right to support are tied to her obedience and sexual submission to her husband. He can forbid her to work, or even to leave the house. Most husbands don’t impose such restrictions, of course… but there are some who do, and women who are married to them are in a difficult situation.
The “ideal” system of marriage we were taught was quite brutally patriarchal, now that I look back at it. But at the time, I didn’t see it that way. But that’s a topic for another post.
Focusing on the “downward spiral” question: a key part of the problem is the not minor issue of who it is who gets to decide what that is, exactly. Which is part of why this post is so hard to write—I remember all too clearly what my early years of marriage were like, how my family reacted… and how I just couldn’t see what is was that they were so concerned about. This issue does hit way too close to home. It is like looking at a horrible tragedy that has just taken place where you were just standing minutes ago, and you realize: this could have been me. This could just so easily have been me.
The easiest and most tempting way to deal with issues like this is to take a doctrinaire, point-scoring approach: She ended up in that situation because she didn’t know or exercise her “true Islamic rights.” Or, because she wasn’t following scholar X, or because she “didn’t know the real Islam” or “the right interpretation of Y.” Or because she unfortunately ended up in the “wrong” Muslim community, or married a man who “wasn’t a good Muslim” or who didn’t come from the “right kind” of Muslim family. Taking that sort of approach safely lays the blame on the female convert herself, or on other Muslim groups or segments of the community that one doesn’t agree with, while avoiding a critical look at the larger factors that enable abuse.
In my case, and in the cases of my close female convert friends, it was the combination of a number of factors that resulted in us getting into pretty bad situations. Some of these factors had to do with our family situations and individual personalities and lack of life experience… and some of them had to do with where the Muslim communities we encountered were at at that time. It was in many ways a bad, even sometimes toxic combination.
* * * * *
I remember back to my first year of marriage, when I was all of 19 years old. I had grown up living a sheltered life, growing up in a small town with conservative, overly-protective parents who severely limited our tv watching and rarely allowed us to see movies. And this was back in the ’70’s, so no internet.
I met my soon-to-be husband not long after moving to a small city. He began pressuring me almost immediately to marry him. I didn’t recognize that as a red flag. I had never really thought about abusive relationships, how they happen, and what their warning signs are—which was partly a reflections of the time and place (early ’80’s). What sex ed we received at school didn’t deal with healthy relationships or how to spot warning signs of abuse, and growing up, abusive relationships weren’t talked about openly.
He claimed that Islam doesn’t allow dating, so he wanted to marry in order to avoid committing any forbidden act. I was impressed that he was so serious about being a good Muslim, and thought that he was really god-fearing.
I did intuitively know that my parents—particularly my mother—would be strongly opposed to my marrying him, but I didn’t really understand why, and didn’t give it much thought. But then, I was at the tail-end of my teens. My relationship with my parents hadn’t been the greatest during my teen years, and I had fallen into the habit of passively resisting their authority rather than openly challenging it. If I thought that they would disapprove of something, I would go ahead and do it, and if/when they later found out, I could then plausibly claim that I had thought it would be ok with them. Astoundingly, I did that with my marriage—I married, and they found out several months later.
Looking back, I am absolutely appalled that I did that—and that not only my (now-ex)husband, but also his friends and contacts in the local Muslim community apparently didn’t think that this was in any way problematic. Now, I see that as such an obviously immature and short-sighted thing to have done, that the fact that I was all set to do that should have indicated to my ex, his friends and the imam who I am told advised him to marry me that I should not have been getting married at that time. And to make matters even worse, my ex knew that his family wouldn’t want him to marry a woman who wasn’t from his ethnic background, so he didn’t tell them until after the marriage had taken place either. This was a marriage that was definitely not off to a good start, what with no support from either set of in-laws.
But unfortunately, the prevailing conservative Muslim discourses on marriage that he and I had access to at that time promoted marriage with few questions asked: He’s a good brother? She’s a good sister? Fine, then. Let them get married as soon as possible, because marriage is from the Prophet’s sunna, and so that zina can be avoided. That was the rhetoric, and I took it at face value. It took me a while to realize that in fact, there was quite a double standard in terms of how such rhetoric was applied to female converts (or to non-Muslim women) and to born Muslim women (especially those from “good families” whose families were with them). It wouldn’t have been seen as acceptable by most for a born Muslim woman from a “good family” to have been married without her family’s knowledge and active involvement. While that could work against such women if their families, say, refused permission for them to marry someone they wanted or tried to pressure them into marrying someone they didn’t like, it also could put some pressure on the husband to continue to support his wife and behave in an “acceptable” way. But husbands didn’t feel that sort of pressure with convert wives, a fact that some were not slow to take advantage of.
It also took me a while to realize the weight that immigration status issues had in decisions on marriage. My ex’s student visa was close to running out, and he was debating whether or not to chance a return to his war-torn homeland (where he would face the draft). I knew that, but didn’t grasp the full implications of what that meant. It would be some time after marrying him before I realized just how widely accepted it was in some corners of “the community” to mix marriage and immigration matters. I am not referring here to straight-up marriages of convenience (though some of that went on…) but to marriages in which immigration status is a consideration in the decision to tie the knot. In situations like that, people sometimes got into marriages that they weren’t wildly enthused about—they needed to be able to stay here, and this person seemed reasonably ok as husband/wife material, and things could be worse, and this is the best that can be done right now, and inshallah it will all work out…. No intent to deceive or to “use” someone here, but neither was there much focus on working on the relationship.
I lived with my new husband in a smelly, roach-infested apartment building in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city he (and I) had just moved to—and he knew that it was one of the worst, having lived there before, but I didn’t. I had never seen a roach in my life before meeting him. I had never seen such an apartment building, either, much less lived in anything like that. I hadn’t even imagined such a place.
My ex was working, but illegally. He was caught, and threatened with deportation if he worked illegally again. (This was another side of life I hadn’t been exposed to before—the plight of people who live in North America but aren’t legally entitled to work here.) So, I had to find a job. Because I was wearing hijab, and only had a high school diploma and little work experience, the only job I could get was cleaning offices in the evening.
At that time, I had already read Jamal Badawi’s “Status of Woman in Islam,” as well as several other books and pamphlets that discussed women and Islamic law. So, I knew that I had the “Islamic right” to be financially supported, and that whatever money or property that a woman has is hers alone. It wasn’t my lack of knowledge that was the problem here. It was that the “rights” I was theoretically entitled to had not been framed with someone in my situation in mind. I could not turn to my family. Having married behind their backs, and put on hijab, my relations with them were now quite understandably strained. My ex’s relations with his family (such as they were, given that they lived half a world away) were also under a cloud, because they were upset that he had married a western woman. And even if they had been accepting of the marriage, they didn’t have the means to send him any financial support.
So, I was working and getting paid minimum wage, taking every hour that I could get, but still not making enough for us to live on. We were basically living on bread (with a bit of jam or yoghurt or occasionally cheese or egg) and tea and rice and stew (“stew” that was basically sauce, with some beans or a few pieces of vegetable or meat in it). We rarely could afford fresh vegetables or fruit. I soon exhausted the several hundred dollars that I had had saved, and then we took in a boarder (a friend of my ex’s, from his country) in order to help pay the rent. This was in a small one-bedroom apartment.
As if all this were not stressful enough, I was also being dragged into… exile politics.
My ex’s country of birth was a dictatorship. He (and his friends) were very politicized, and very paranoid about who might be watching/listening/reporting on them. His ethnic community was internally divided for political reasons, and there was deep distrust among the factions, as well as in relation to outsiders. People actually did sometimes spy on one another. Conspiracy theories were the very air that they breathed, and anyone who expressed some skepticism about some of the claims being made was pitied as “naive” or ignorant of how the world works.
For those of my ex’s ethnic community who were Islamists (or who leaned that way), the paranoia was even greater. It was practically an article of faith for my ex and his friends that the CIA, the Zionists, the USSR, or persons/groups supposedly being “paid by” them was behind most world events, especially those events that somehow harmed Muslims or Muslim interests. It was taken for granted that the government here was watching any Muslims who were politically active, and that they kept files on them and probably tapped their phone lines too. And that “the media” was controlled by interests that were indifferent to if not actively hostile to “Islam,” and that they would therefore misrepresent any “truly Islamic” movement, political party or government. Secular parties or individuals, either from the homeland or in “the West” weren’t to be trusted either, because their beliefs and aims were opposed to “Islam” and they were in the end the enemy, ideologically speaking.
For me, all these factors added up to what amounted to living in an alternate universe.
I was too worried about getting by (as in, managing to pay the rent and buying food) to think about where all this was going. I wasn’t eating a nutritionally balanced diet, and I was dealing with high levels of stress. As a new convert, I was also preoccupied with learning how to do things such as fasting my first Ramadan “properly.” I was very socially isolated, having no contact with my family (who lived quite far away in any case). I had no friends. Most of the conversations that swirled around me in our apartment were in languages I didn’t understand. Poverty, I found, was also a social isolator. And “the government” is not to be trusted, so the last thing anyone wanted is any government agency knowing your business. And, most members of your Muslim community shouldn’t know too much about you either, because you never know who is a spy, or who is telling what to whom.
There was no one to provide a reality check, really. And once I did reestablish contact with my family, and they continued to express varying degrees of concern about my living situation, I couldn’t really “hear” what they had to say. In part, because in the meantime, I had lost any vocabulary capable of naming the downward spiral that I was in for what it was… but that is another post.