Sex-related ptsd. Trauma. Abuse. Crazy-making familiar dysfunction, proof-texted by “Islam.” How to deal with it? How not to get overwhelmed by it?
One thing that I sometimes find helpful is running across what could be called counter-discourses—people who are going on their merry way, saying and doing pretty much the opposite of what we were taught and pressured to do and say and think. And, being totally unapologetic about it, in all senses of the word: They aren’t doing that in order to “do dawah” or show the world that all Muslims aren’t like that, or whatever. They’re not preaching. They’re not trying to position themselves in line for a seat at the next White House iftar, or an honorary doctorate from Georgetown, or a hand-out from some rich dude for their institution teaching their patented brand of Traditional (TM) Learning.
No, they’re just living their lives, using their god-given talents, standing up for justice, and telling it like it is. And nobody pointed me in their direction, either. Nobody told me that “I really should read this” or that it will be “good for my imaan” or some such balderdash. Which may be part of why it helps. Because it’s like being surprised by joy, rather than being guilted into taking medicine.
The first counter-discourse I came across recently was another column at Love, Inshallah. Ms Sunshine’s advice in particular, to a man who wrote in asking how to deal with his feelings of jealousy and anger about the “past” of the woman he is involved with.
This is yet another topic that I would usually avoid reading about on even the most supposedly feminist or justice-oriented Muslim site. Because it isn’t hard to predict how most columnists would answer—judgmentalness and slut-shaming and utopian standards that few live up to, with the sexual double standard only partly disguised with the near-obligatory rhetoric about how both men and women are forbidden from committing zina, and possibly coupled with a few hadiths or sayings of scholars praising the “natural ghira” of men for good measure. I wouldn’t expect any half-way reasonable reply.
But Ms Sunshine answers:
“You’re right that the root of your feelings are obvious. You feel “angry, upset, and hateful” because someone touched something that you want to one day be yours’. Many men grow up in an environment where this kind of jealousy is praised as a natural and correct expression of healthy masculinity. Masculine men, we are taught, protect what is theirs. But wives aren’t possessions: they are partners. Women are individuals whom Allah has invested with a free will equal to men, and an accountability equal to men. Your anger over not being able to control her sexuality stems from the idea that you have a right to do so. You do not. God gave that right to each of us, and your desire for control is oppression. Jealousy is a sign of insecurity, not healthy masculinity, and certainly not love.
The words you’ve used to describe your emotions are powerful, and they are alarming. The fact that you feel this strongly over how she chose to use her body in the past should be a warning sign that you’re not ready for a serious relationship with any woman. A man who feels anger and hate toward a woman is dangerous. You’re dangerous to her. If you love her, then you should let her go.
Your anger may never result in physical harm, but hanging this woman’s sexual history over her head hurts both of you. It hurts you because it is abusive and manipulative behavior which can only retard your spiritual growth. It hurts her because your refusal to move on, your idea that she is somehow untrustworthy and/or tainted despite her repentance, shames her and keeps her tied to the past even though she’s ready to move on. It’s cruel. Everyone who makes it through the birth canal alive acquires a past. A person’s “past” is everything that happens before their present. Someone’s “past” is not polite euphemism for out-of-wedlock sex. It’s a sexist euphemism used to degrade women for doing the same things men are praised for doing….
You say that she regrets her previous sexual encounters. That’s between her and God. She doesn’t need your anger providing an obstacle in her path to make peace with her actions and change her life according to what she thinks is best. No one’s body belongs to you. You have absolutely no right to feel anger– much less hatred– toward her because of her past decisions. The fact that you do, demonstrates that you have very little respect for a woman’s autonomy over her own body. You have very little respect for her at all. If you can’t respect her, then you’re only harming each of you by trying to marry her.”
Reading that, I couldn’t believe it. My jaw was practically on the floor.
She didn’t make a single excuse for the brother. Not a single one. Not even one half-disguised behind a hadith.
She called it exactly what it is: Control. Insecurity. Treating women as possessions. Shaming. Manipulation. Degradation. Cruelty. Almost complete lack of respect. And a negation of women’s full personhood, as responsible before God.
She didn’t bend to the usual rationalizations of sexual double standards, not even for a moment, or give them any legitimacy. She exposed them as a violation of tawhid, and moved on to more important matters.
Never before have I witnessed any Muslim doing that so decisively, so unapologetically… and in public.
(How can I go about nominating Ms Sunshine for president???)
Again, wow. Just wow.
Among other things, her paintings deal with social hypocrisy, and social issues such as child marriage… and even same-sex relationships. Looking through the gallery, I was struck by several things:
First of all, at how amazingly talented she is.
Second, at the compelling combination of beauty and social commentary. This is not shallow sloganeering about social questions, this is art that draws you in, and makes you look at things in a new way. But it doesn’t preach at you, nor does it try to supply easy answers.
And third, that some of the figures in the paintings strongly reminded me of people I have known. Particularly the ways that some of the men sit, the positions of their legs and hands and the ways that they hold their subhas…. But that familiar as some of the details in the paintings are, such an artist would probably never have come from our world—our convert sub-culture, where art was treated with suspicion and any kind of artistic expression had to proceed within fairly narrow boundaries, especially if the artist was female.
We discouraged our kids from drawing or sculpting human or animal figures, and any depiction of “haraam” activities in art risked being taken as an endorsement of sin, so it was regarded as best avoided. For us, the only “safe” kind of art was “Islamic art”—Arabic calligraphy, geometric abstract art, nashids, pious, preachy stories… and possibly at the liberal end, very limited depiction of human or animal figures, but not in a naturalistic way or (god forbid) showing bare female flesh. Free exercise of creativity was “modern” and “western” and “individualistic,” and therefore bad and “unIslamic.” Unfettered artistic expression was not to be trusted, because who knew where it might lead. And then we wondered why the only “art” that seemed to emerge from our communities was trite and didactic.
And aside from such fiqhi questions, there would have also been the question of “washing dirty laundry” in public. The idea of doing art about “difficult” or “controversial” issues… wouldn’t have been acceptable either. A scholar preaching a sermon about it, maybe—because he’d be speaking from a position of authority, and there wouldn’t be any ambiguity about what was right and what was wrong, because he’d be quoting Quran and sunna and the rulings of the scholars. But art?? That would leave too much power in the hands of the artist, as well as in the hands of her audience. The power of interpretation, the ability to express human emotions such as outrage and anger and disillusionment and grief and betrayal and loss. And to ask and to think about questions that didn’t have any cut and dried “Islamically correct” answers.
I was drawn into picture after picture after picture. It was hard to look at, and hard to leave. Seeing stuff that in the communities I belonged to or had dealings with was swept under the rug, or went on but wasn’t talked about much depicted with honesty and insight. Seeing practices that were defended or rationalized or pussy-footed around effectively skewered in oil paint.
There was so much courage in that paint. Courage that we didn’t have, back then. Courage and honesty and integrity and sympathy for human weakness and outrage at abuse… and recognition of complexity. And through it all, being able to see and produce beauty.
I’m completely in awe.