In Islam as I was taught it, following the sunna in the literal, mimetic sense was the goal. Belief wasn’t separate from physical practice. Sure, our intentions, as well as having sound belief (aqida) were seen as absolutely essential, or one’s actions wouldn’t be accepted or rewarded by God. But it was the physical practice was the focus, really.
And the sunna as it was presented to us was all about the body. Molding our daily physical habits—how we slept, woke up, used the toilet, bathed, ate, drank, dressed, left the house….
But this focus on our bodies worked out differently for men and women and genderqueer folks: Men were to follow the life-example of the Prophet. Women were to follow his example too, except when it came to the (numerous) points when gender affects the law, and then they were to follow the example of the Prophet’s wives and female Companions. Genderqueer people… didn’t have a pattern to follow at all, because their existence wasn’t even acknowledged. The bodiliness of the practice of the sunna effectively erased their very existence, forcing them to lie daily to themselves as they attempted to live a gendered pattern that wasn’t their own.
While men’s following of the sunna molded the way that they inhabited their bodies, all right, as far as I can see, it didn’t trap them in their bodies. It didn’t make their religious practices all about what they did or didn’t do with their bodies. It didn’t make their religious lives virtual hostages of physical processes that they couldn’t control. Men’s bodies weren’t spoken of as a source of temptation or fitna. Men’s bodies weren’t regarded as marking them as intrinsically lesser—less intelligent, less pure, less worthy of being taken seriously, less worthy of accommodations in the masjid.
I still remember my puzzlement at a statement that a (convert) Sufi shaykh made in a teaching session. He was saying that humans are made up of body, nafs and spirit, and he emphasized to us that “You are not your body.” And he included the sisters present in that statement. At the time, I heard it as potentially liberating—that somehow, I wouldn’t be trapped in this female body forever. I would be able to transcend it, be something other than a female body, be a… person. But at the same time, I was confused. Because it wasn’t true.
In that group, female-bodied people weren’t allowed to be anything other than female, with all the conservative restrictions and limitations that that implied. Not on a social level, anyway. And not on the level of ritual practice either. We had to pray silently at the back, when the men made dhikr out loud, we had to do it silently, and at celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday and the Eids, the men would sing nashids, but the women could only sit silently and listen.
Because our voices issued forth from female bodies, so our voices couldn’t just be heard as human voices praising God. Our voices could only be heard as female voices that evoked female bodies… which had to represent temptation, disorder, fitna. Until today I can’t quite get my head around that. I suppose in their minds, female voices bring to mind female lips which bring to mind… vaginas?? Or something. Just how the hell did these oh-so-pious men think that they entered the world, anyway—that the stork brought them? Why this horror of women’s bodies, and what does it have to do with piety??
But even more insidious in my experience was the way that we ourselves learned to look at our menses and bleeding after childbirth as impure, as something that places a barrier between ourselves and the things that mattered most in our world, because it was through them that we worshipped God. Being forbidden to make salat, fast, sit down in a mosque, directly touch or read the Qur’an, wear jewelry with the names of God or quranic verses on them… there are no words, really.
Men don’t experience anything remotely like this. If they are junub, all they have to do is wash (or perform tayammum), and then they are instantly able to perform all the rituals. Even a man with a medical problem that causes him to constantly leak seminal fluid isn’t barred from these rituals. But for most women, being barred from carrying out most acts of worship for days at a time (or weeks, after childbirth) is a feature of their religious lives until they reach menopause—though even then, they might not be entirely home-free. But no man need doubt that impurity might possibly prevent him from praying during the last ten nights of Ramadan seeking Laylat al-Qadr, or from participating fully in the Eid prayers.
Not that we were passive prisoners of our biology. Our favored way of attempting to ensure that we would be able to fast through Ramadan and perform the Eid prayers was pregnancy, as well as breast-feeding (we tried to do the full two years). But pregnancies come to an end sooner or later, and with their end, a maximum of 40 days (or 60, if you’re Shafi’i) of impurity, depending on how much you bleed…. Another “solution” that some women used (particularly if they were going for hajj) was to take pills. While I could see why (especially in the case of hajj), it also made me deeply uncomfortable, for reasons that I didn’t really put into words.
But now I can. The idea of taking pills in order to suppress menstruation in effect means that in order to worship God fully, a pre-menopausal woman is at war with her body and must suppress its basic biological functions. Not just biological drives such as hunger and thirst (as everyone does when they fast), or the urge to sleep (as anyone who stays up for night prayers does), but biological functions that are seen as a basic part of being a woman.
That might not be problematic in religions that have very ascetic attitudes to human bodies, sexualities, and reproduction in general, because in such religions everyone who wants to seriously pursue spiritual growth has to detach themselves from their bodies. But in Islam as I was taught it, what this did was to put pre-menopausal women in a no-win situation. Men weren’t put on a collision-course with their bodies. Men were supposed to marry and father children, but that didn’t act as a barrier to their participation in worship in any way, and it only enhanced their positions. They were living out their “masculinity” and “following the sunna.” Women were forever pulled between their bodies and their spiritual aspirations—but weren’t supposed to even admit that this was in any way a problem. Because that would be questioning God’s will.
There were apologetic rationales for this state of affairs, of course. And yes, we tried to find them believable. We tried to tell ourselves that in fact, being barred from salat and fasting is a blessing and that we ought to be grateful for it—especially when Ramadan fell in summer when the days were long. We tried to tell ourselves that by not performing acts of worship, we were still worshipping God because we were obeying the ban. We tried to reassure ourselves that we could earn divine rewards by bearing children (giving birth is supposed to erase sins), caring for them, and being obedient wives. We tried so hard to shut down our awareness that these rationalizations just sound really… desperate. And unconvincing.
So anyway… the legacy of these bodily practices is… something else. Highly alienating. Difficult to process.
I suspect that this is an important reason why Muslims prefer to endlessly debate hijab. It’s easier to discuss clothes than the body underneath them. A lot easier.