Libby Anne has posted disturbing quotations from a Bible study addressed to women, that tells women in unhappy or even abusive marriages that even if their husbands don’t change, they (the wives) can take comfort in the knowledge that for their patient endurance, they will be crowned in heaven. Reading her post took me back to some “advice” that I received years ago, from a (convert) male community leader who I had approached asking for advice on how to deal with my awful and highly dysfunctional marriage, “Islamically.”
In retrospect, it was advice that should have sent me running for the hills. But it didn’t.
That community leader reminded me of the sufferings of Asiya, the wife of Pharaoh. Asiya was married to the tyrannical pharaoh who refused to listen to Moses and Aaron, who wouldn’t allow the Children of Israel to leave Egypt, and who even blasphemously claimed that he was divine. Asiya, however, was a monotheist. She saved the life of Moses when he was a baby. Unlike her evil husband, she believed in the message that Moses was preaching. She used to pray to God to deliver her from Pharaoh’s sinfulness, and to give her refuge in heaven. And as the story goes, Asiya finally got her wish—Pharaoh ordered that she be killed in a horribly painful way, so she was granted the honor of the death of a martyr, and in the process, release from life with him.
Asiya (the leader told me) was a queen. She had every worldly thing that she wanted, even a crown of diamonds. But she was willing to surrender everything in order to suffer. She put on the crown of suffering, and sought her reward in the next life. Like Jesus. Like all the prophets. Because that’s what holy people—especially holy women—do. And that’s what I should also do. While “Islamically” I had grounds to leave my marriage, the more virtuous thing to do would be to stick it out.
Now, I remember this and think that this is just insane. So, holiness means enduring unnecessary pain—as opposed to, say, taking action to make your life better. Because if a woman ends up in a rotten marriage, in a highly conservative and judgmental community where women don’t work outside the home and there’s really no place for a divorced woman, it’s the will of God. Not the result of bad human decisions and unjust social structures and oppressive religious ideas. And the best she can do is to patiently endure, regarding her life as one long act of martyrdom, in the hope that God will accept her good deeds and reward her in the next life.
It sounds crazy now, but I really believed that. And, I found stories of holy women like Asiya inspiring. Because what better could I do with my life than to sacrifice it?
And now that I look back, this belief was fostered by a number of quite mundane social and economic conditions. It was normal in that community for women to marry men they didn’t know well—especially if they were converts. This made it more likely that a woman would end up married to someone they didn’t see eye to eye with. While men had easy access to divorce, and could divorce their wives unilaterally, women wanting divorces had to convince an imam that they had grounds. And since women didn’t usually work outside the home, and seldom had much if anything in the way of assets, divorce was often not a very realistic solution anyway, especially if they didn’t have a family willing or able to take them in. If the economic and (Islamic) legal challenges weren’t enough to deter women from divorcing, then there was the intense social pressure and negative judgment. All in all, it was “easier” in a way to believe that some women’s lives were divinely destined to be like martyrdom than to question the social, economic and religious factors that interacted to make their lives hell on earth.
A patient, long-suffering and dutiful wife would be praised, if only backhandedly: “I don’t know how she can stand to live with him!” But a woman who questioned how this was fair? No praise for her, only blame, and likely also the charge that she is “causing fitna.”
The myth of Asiya really depended on our unthinking acceptance of black-and-white thinking: Wives are either worldly, materialistic and self-seeking, or they are pious, self-abnegating martyrs. And it is obvious which category a believing woman should wish to be in. There is no middle ground between these two stark possibilities, and no real room for a woman’s independent action to improve her lot.