We failed you in so many ways

To my kids (and my convert friends’ kids…):

We failed you in so many ways.

Far too many ways to count.

And for that, I am so very sorry.

Two posts ago, I received the following comment, which brought to mind a key way that we failed you:

“…I did wonder, aside from forced marital sex, have you ever discussed, or even experienced the effect of pornography in muslim marriages? I have grown up witness to the horrific effects a husband’s addiction to pornography can have on a marriage, and I feel it links closely to the idea you touch upon in this post about how women are expected to “keep beautiful” and “not let themselves go”, while men are to pursue and enjoy them… This is one excuse I have heard for the husband watching pornography (i.e. he feels the wife has let herself go so no longer is able to please him). It sickens me. I am sure it happens in non-religious marriages too, but the reason I raise it here is because another excuse the husband has given for it is that “it is more halal than outright sleeping with other women”. In my mind, though, I can’t help but think it is almost more haram than actually taking a mistress… At least with a mistress, there is something tangible to deal with.

Any thoughts? I have often, often wondered about this issue but never actually articulated into a post or a question like this….

My mother was an eighties convert like you, and your blog is helping me untangle some of the mess that, as you know better than anyone, ensued for the children within such marriages, especially for girls.”

Porn itself—no. At least, not as far as I know. Because back when I converted, and for a decade after that, there was no internet. And even once home computers and the internet became ubiquitous, that didn’t affect me or my family immediately. We were forever short of money, and we had no reason at that point to regard having a computer (much less going online) as any sort of priority. And we were also caught up in a pretty world-denying mindset—that sort of thing would be classified as “seeking the dunya.” So, in that world, porn wasn’t something that would have been all that easy to get. Certainly not something that could be plausibly explained away as something that you “just happened to find by mistake.”

Which is not to say that there were no equivalents of porn to be found in the communities we were in contact with or involved in. There certainly were. But we didn’t recognize them as such, at that time.

Part of the reason was that we were caught up in the legal minutiae of what could be seen of a given person by whom and when. For us back then, looking at erotica or pornography (we didn’t really differentiate…) was haraam because it involved the sin of looking at the body or exposed flesh of someone you weren’t married to.  It was a sin of the eyes, that revealed the presence of sinful lust in the heart. And supposedly, the “cure” for any man degenerate enough to want to look at such things was marriage, as soon as possible. (In our world, it was rarely if ever acknowledged that women also can and do consume erotica and pornography.)

Another part of the reason was that we were so deeply invested in the notion—myth, really—that unlike in “the west” where “women are stripped naked and objectified before the gaze of lustful men in order to sell products,” we as Muslim women were protected from all that. Because we wore conservative hijab and worked hard on developing our “inner hijab” and socialized only with other (conservative Muslim) sisters in gender segregated spaces and married conservative Muslim men and were busy housewives with lots of kids…. Which somehow meant that we weren’t being objectified.

And, we worked very hard to ensure that you, our children, would also kept (allegedly) safe in this same conservative Muslim bubble. This bubble in which the question of whether women need to cover their feet in order wear correct hijab was seriously discussed. This bubble in which the word “sex” was rarely spoken in public.

There was such a long, long list of things that were forbidden or strongly discouraged in this bubble. “Immodest” dress (even for swimming or sports…), “suggestive” music or dancing, any kind of literature, art, theater, movies or tv shows with “suggestive” themes… Not that we spent all of our time thinking of more things to forbid. We tried to take as positive an approach as possible, given the circumstances, and in fact we prided ourselves on trying not to be “too extreme.”

We weren’t like that purdah-observing South Asian woman my friend knew who always kept the curtains drawn on every window of her house, and wouldn’t even let her three-year-old daughter ride a tricycle in the yard. We didn’t agree with that hyper-conservative Somali alim who’d studied in Saudi Arabia and who said that those enterprising Somali sisters in the jilbabs and khimars who’d started an all-women’s gym were sinning because women aren’t allowed to take off their clothes outside their husbands’ homes. Well, no, we weren’t that extreme. But we were plenty extreme enough. And we believed that we were keeping you safe. And we were blind to the fact that we actually weren’t.

For starters, we didn’t really talk to you about sex. When you were young, it was easy for us to assume that it wasn’t necessary, that it didn’t affect you. After all, you went to a Muslim school, and usually played with other Muslim kids… what would you need to know about sex for?? That was only for kids who went to public schools (where they might be molested…), or who were left in the care of non-Muslim babysitters (ditto).

When you got a bit older, we could see the point of at least giving you some idea of where babies come from, and fortunately enough, the Islamic bookstore had just started selling a picture book about two children, Hend and Hany, whose mother had become pregnant. The book was rather racy in my opinion (it showed a husband and wife lying in bed together… under the covers, mind you, but still…) but didn’t really explain how a baby is conceived… which we thought was fine. After all, you would find out about the precise “mechanics” when you were ready to get married. Why would you need to know that earlier?

The organizations in the wider Muslim community we lived in were pretty much opposed to allowing their kids to receive sex ed in the public schools. These were parents who were definitely more liberal than we were, willing to risk their children’s eternal damnation by sending to (gasp!) public schools… but even they drew the line at sex ed. The theory was that teaching kids such things will only put ideas in their heads that they wouldn’t have otherwise had, and lead them to experiment sexually. And, some of the content reputed to be in sex ed classes—masturbation, homosexuality, birth control use by unmarried people—was regarded as totally unacceptable in any case, so there would be no reason why kids should learn about such things.

What we didn’t notice was that in reality, you were getting quite a sex education. And, not the one that we would have ever wanted to give you.

You watched, you listened, you learned. You saw the types of marriages we were involved in. You heard certain “brothers” talking about what they wanted/expected in a wife, or why their marriages weren’t working out the way they wanted. You listened when imams and conference speakers talked about the rights of the husband and the obligations of the wife. You couldn’t help but hear the endless, endless verbiage about hijab and how girls and women mustn’t tempt boys and men and how female hair and ankles and wrists must be covered because it’s so so sexy, and men are more visual and so women need to cover in order to be treated with respect….

Before most of you had reached your teens, you had already heard about: flogging and stoning as punishments for sex outside of marriage, houris, slave-concubinage, mut’a (and the often judgmental attitudes towards women involved in such relationships…), underage marriage, and honor-related violence. You had heard about the first three (punishments for zina, houris, and concubines) at your Islamic school. You had encountered the rest through observation, as well as listening in on adult conversations about goings-on in the community.

And as if that was not enough, you had witnessed and lived with polygamy. You overheard the justifications for why a man sometimes “needs” more than one wife… or more than two. For why a man “has the right” to in effect, turn the lives of his already-existing wife and children upside down.

You may not have had such a clear grasp of the “mechanics” of sex at that age, but you already knew so much more than most kids your age probably did about how sex can be used in order to control, manipulate, humiliate, subjugate and degrade.

You already knew as much if not more than the most seasoned porn-watching kid your age that men are their dicks, that sex is their right (and women’s duty), and that “halaal” sex is something that men are entitled to take even if by so doing, they are harming others. And even worse, you were in effect taught that this is the way things have to be, because this is the “nature” of men and women, and the way that God wants it. Because God was ultimately the excuse for everything any man wanted to do, and he usually wouldn’t really be called on it by anyone with the power to do much if anything about it.

Once in a while, you would ask a question or make a comment that would make us wonder where exactly you had gotten it from. We would assume that you’d seen something on tv, or overheard some other (non-Muslim) kids talking, but wouldn’t probe further. Because we assumed that with all the “superior” Islamic morals you were undoubtedly imbibing at your Islamic school and through Muslim youth activities and (of course) at home that there wouldn’t be any problem. You would grow up saving sex for marriage, and marrying good Muslim spouses, and raising pious children of your own….

Until reality hit.

When that was exactly, I am not sure. I think it might have been when I watched as you confronted your father about his online escapades on Muslim matrimonial websites, and he lied through his teeth, and you accused him again, and he lied… and you knew he was lying, because you’d seen the evidence yourself. And then you heard one of his relatives justifying his behavior to your mother, because as a man, he has, well, “needs” that your mother was allegedly not supplying.

Or maybe it was when one of you girls stayed out late, and when you came home around midnight, your father and your brothers laughed at you through the locked door as you tried to get in, calling you and your cousin “whores” and “sluts.”

Or when one of you girls started using tampons, and one of your brothers noticed the box and basically accused you of not being a virgin—yes, that same brother who was constantly in trouble in school, skipping classes and staying out with dodgy friends until odd hours of the night.

Or maybe it was when the eldest of you got into a relationship that ended up being abusive… and you couldn’t see where the problem had been. After all, aren’t wives made for their husbands to order around and condescend to and pressure into sexual acts that they don’t want to perform? Isn’t that just the way men are, the way marriage is?

I don’t know what to say to you. How to even begin the process of reversing years of sex mis-education that we unwittingly gave you. I don’t know if that is even possible.

Sometimes, I try to talk to you about relationships. About how they don’t need to be like what you saw growing up. I’m sorry if I sound preachy. If it sounds to you as though I am just grasping at straws. I’m trying to find a way beyond the narrow horizons and the morass of endless guilt and fear that we were caught in for so many years.

I am hoping that you will somehow get beyond the darker side of your upbringing and find ways to have good, mutually fulfilling and healthy relationships. Somehow.

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  1. #1 by beiia on September 28, 2013 - 11:02 pm

    I cried when I saw that you had taken the time to write a post, based on the comment I had left last time. That was the first time I have ever left a comment on a blog before, and I remember shaking when I hit send. And I cried again, when I read the last lines of this post.

    Perhaps they are tears of relief, knowing that there are other kids out there, who have been exposed to a horrific version of sex education in the form of being witness to the turbulent and messed up marriage of my parents, which has left me terrified – petrified – of the prospect of marriage or even a relationship with a man. Perhaps they were tears of sadness, knowing that such darkness – a darkness I wouldn’t wish on any child or young person – has been felt, it seems, by many, many others. Witnessing my parents’ marriage, which seems to me to be just like your own, give or take some, has also left me, at 25, having practiced steadily for the last decade, now sickened by the thought of Islam or anything to do with it. I used to believe it was all so beautiful, in that cocooned way you describe we all did so, in this post. Now I can’t disassociate salaat and vomit-inducing flashbacks of instances when I saw, on so so many occasions, my fathers’ substituting my mother for a computer, and the horrific verbal abuse she has been on the receiving end of. I just cannot seem to separate the many practices and concepts of islam, with hugely uncomfortable negative, mainly sexual related experiences like those you speak of in this post. The part about double-standards and brothers/boys with their flippant, shady behaviour going un-flinched at, while we, the girls, bore the responsibility of upholding all the honour of the family by going around hijab-ed up, and the sheer ease with which we, the women and girls, were referred to as whores, or sluts, or b****s, on a regular basis, for reasons which now, in my current state of a clarified mind, were totally unwarranted of such verbal abuse; the list simply goes on, and on, and on.

    I love my mother, but I often wonder what possessed her. I am deeply frustrated because she is by no means *my* role model of how a strong, self respecting woman would behave (though, having said that, I respect her enormously), yet, I am told she is the pinnacle of a good *islamic* female mother figure, for having born the brunt of such behaviour so tolerantly and patiently. I began, many years ago, to quietly begin to take issue with precisely this point, and thus my spiral outward of the islam cocoon began.

    Having now de-hijabed, (and thus having gravely dishonoured the family, and every person connected with our family, of course! I find myself having never had what would even come close to being a physical relationship with a boy or man, yet my brothers are, of course, wonderfully savvy of the intricacies of how physical relationships work. And so I say it again: I am petrified. I am shy and anxious in front of men, and I cannot relax. I am afraid, in ways I’m not even sure I truly understand. And I know other girls, who went the complete opposite way, and ended up having strings of physically intimate relationships with men, and others who turned to homosexuality as a result. We all responded and compromised in our given ways, based on our personalities and characters, forced to because of this particular and, I might say, peculiar darkness within which we were raised. I have a dark hatred for my father who seems to have seared the idea into my being that as a woman, I must be, I simply have to be, visually pleasing to a man or else I will be sleeping on the floor, traded in for a computer, in a dark and cold marriage for the rest of my life. And the same father taught me that in Islam, a woman’s beauty should be inward. I cannot reconcile these two ingrained lessons. And all of this, justified by his – and by the sound of it, your ex-husbands’ – brand of islam, and stemming from what you have now helpfully given a label: a dark and gravely wrong “sex mis-education”.

    This web of issues has persistently troubled me deeply, since childhood I daresay. But somehow, it is only since coming across your blog, that I’ve been able to even dare to question and deal with them. Perhaps it is the comfort of knowing that you have been brave enough to share your questions, thoughts, and experiences, which has meant that I have, in turn, been able to confront my own.

    Thank you for this post. Thank you for this blog. And thank you for your apology. As a person who falls into the category of the ‘child of a convert’, and thus an individual this post was written for, I, for one, accept this apology and hope that your children and the other children of similar converts might do so too. I echo your wish that we *all* will be able to have and keep truthful, caring, happy and mutually fulfilling relationships, no matter what we have been exposed to.

    All the best,

    – B

  2. #2 by ayasmom on September 29, 2013 - 1:42 am

    Enthralling. I think of the community around me and I wonder about all the sweet girls whom I call friends, which of them has had these experiences? Which of them are now married and headed for experiences like these?

  3. #3 by ki sarita on September 30, 2013 - 2:05 pm

    and yet you also gave them the gift; the gift of leaving, the gift of your recovery

  4. #4 by Chinyere on October 2, 2013 - 12:45 am

    I have few words. This is poignant and beautiful, though palpably painful. I hope it gets easier for you and your children.

  5. #5 by Ambaa on December 19, 2013 - 4:21 pm

    #1, I may be too late to comment on this, but I wanted to say that therapy can help a lot. I can’t begin to describe how terrified I was of sex. I stayed a virgin, pretending it was for virtue, when really it was from crushing fear.

    I talked to a therapist and found it very helpful because she could give an outside perspective and a new way of looking at it.

    Sex was still scary and difficult for a long time, but I’m now in a happy marriage with a wonderful man who is a total feminist and is really teaching me about being a feminist!

  6. #6 by Anonymous on March 21, 2014 - 1:49 pm

    Muslims don’t have access to porns? Are you kidding me? Houris have large breasts, climax with hem lasts for forty years according to our times and so on and so forth.

    Those who are against fornication should realise that sex education can be misused just like fire. I didn’t have any idea what sex was and that men sometimes acted wrongly with us. I was molested quite a few times, without knowing what was happening to me. I was ashamed to tell my parents about it. I just told them that I had urinated in my knickers! What if I had sex education?

    • #7 by xcwn on March 23, 2014 - 12:14 am

      Anonymous—I am very sorry that that happened to you.
      Yes, I agree that the stories about the houris are often pretty pornographic in their objectification of female bodies. And, that sex ed is important to protect children from molestation. But back when I and my friends were drinking the kool-aid, we were in denial about the reality of sexual abuse of children in every community, including of course conservative Muslim ones. Tragically.

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