When I read Amina Wadud’s post today on the blog, Feminism and Religion, I thought: The ice is breaking.
Her post is about the Hajar story. It was wrenchingly honest.
She points out that when Hajar was left in the valley, she was left in a situation where she was a hair’s breadth away from death. She discusses several ways that this story is whitewashed in the usual ways that it is told, with Hajar’s slave status and Africanness all but bleached out.
She calls Abraham a dead-beat dad, and Sarah a selfish bitch.
Being the well-trained former neo-traditionalist that I am, I reflexively cringed at that… and then, it was as if the ice was breaking.
As if those figures from all those stories we were told and that we read and believed about the prophets and their wives and the Companions and the awliya and shaykhs and other pious believers… began to move from beneath the ice where we had entombed them—and where we had entombed ourselves. As if I myself felt the layer of ice that I hadn’t realized was encasing me begin to crack.
It took me back to when I was a kid, standing on the bridge over the big, deep river that ran through the small town I lived in, and looking down on its frozen, snow-covered surface. The days were slowly getting a bit warmer. Several men had put an old oil drum on the ice, and people were betting on the day that the ice would crack and it would be in the water. I remember being on that bridge when the ice cracked. The river was coming back to life before our eyes. The ice was breaking, and pulling trees and docks and all sorts of other things along with it.
* * * * * * * *
Those stories… oh, those stories.
As converts in the ’80’s, we were in search of role models—especially, of pious female role models whose stories could speak to the predicaments we were in. And we found those role models in the Qur’an, the hadiths, the sira, the stories of the prophets, and the lives of the awliya. As well as in quasi-hagiographic stories of modern female believers who had suffered and sacrificed in different ways for their faith.
We were often rather critical of the ways that most of these stories were told to us. We did notice that women’s agency was frequently downplayed, especially when this involved playing any sort of role outside the home.
Such as in the story of Hajar. Hajar’s agency, when she actively searched for water, was being more or less deliberately ignored, we thought. We picked up on the implied message that women are ideally acted upon rather than acting, and that women rarely act independently by, say, rescuing themselves instead of waiting passively for some man to step in and protect them. So, when we retold these stories to one another, and to our kids, we tried to emphasize female agency: women’s choices to believe and practice Islam even in very difficult circumstances, women’s steadfastness in the face of danger and persecution, women’s determination, women’s all-too-often unnoticed knowledge and wisdom and strength.
And we also sought out stories about women that seemed to lend themselves to such female agency-focused retellings. For example, the story of Nusaiba bint Ka’b, who fought with a sword and bow and arrow to defend the Prophet at the Battle of Uhud. This story is often told as though she had “only” come to the battle with the intention of treating the wounded and carrying water, but was emotionally moved to go beyond such properly “feminine” tasks when she saw that the Prophet was in danger. But we realized that it would be extremely unlikely that Nusaiba could have effectively defended the Prophet if she was not already quite skilled in the use of weapons (meaning, that she must have been taught how to use them, and to have practiced…), so her participation in the battle could not have been the impulsive, rare event that it was made out to be. Somehow, a story about a female warrior had been turned into a rather tame sermon illustration about the importance of loving the Prophet (with the implied message that the ways women usually are allowed to love the Prophet are based on individualized emotion that does not have much if any intellectual or rational dimension).
So yes, in effect we tried to make these stories our own. And, we thought that by calling attention to examples of female agency and choice and bravery, that we could neutralize the aspects of these stories that made us uncomfortable—though we weren’t usually able to admit to this discomfort, not even to ourselves, in the privacy of our own minds or hearts.
Because (we were taught) you don’t question the prophets, and you don’t pass judgments on the sahaba. Because that is kufr, blasphemy. Once you start on that slippery slope, where can it end but with the complete loss of faith? Even doubting the rightness of the actions of the awliya is risky. Remember the hadith qudsi, where God says, “I am at war with the one who is at war” with one of My friends? Do you want to risk God declaring war on you?? And who are you to judge? Better to leave all judgment to God, and be humble enough to learn from the good examples of those who have gone before instead of doubting or (god forbid) being critical of them.
And, you can’t question the story either. If it’s in the Qur’an, if it’s in authentic hadith, if the great scholars of the past have decided that it is this way… then you can’t tell it a different way. You can’t say that well, if we retell it from another perspective, then it might be very different, and then proceed to do that. Because the texts say what the texts say, and what they say is true, so any imaginative attempt to retell it another way that runs counter to the accepted retellings must be… false.
And, if all that weren’t enough, we couldn’t question the rightness of practices permitted by Islamic law either. Practices such as patriarchal marriage, polygamy and concubinage, child marriage, very unequal access to mosques and “public” spaces, compulsory motherhood… could not be questioned, because this was all permitted by God, so therefore it all somehow had to be “just” and “right”. And if it didn’t look that way to us, then the problem must be with our wrong perceptions and our weakness of faith.
So, our retellings of these stories could only go so far. We could stress the “positive”—meaning, instances of what we interpreted as female agency. But we could not criticize the patriarchal framework of the stories. We could celebrate Hajar running between Safa and Marwa… but we couldn’t doubt the rightness of Abraham’s decision to leave her and their young son alone in a desert valley with only a waterskin, much less Abraham’s taking her as a concubine in the first place.
We could celebrate Umm Sulaim at the Battle of Hunain, heavily pregnant and armed with a dagger, boldly declaring that if the enemy came anywhere near her, she would rip up his belly with it… but we couldn’t ask wherre female “agency” and “choice” might be in the story of how Umm Sulaim adorned the just-bereaved and widowed Safiyya bint Huyyay after the Battle of Khaibar so that the victor—the Prophet—could consummate his marriage to her. We buried the small, niggling question of how much choice Safiyya would have really had, under the circumstances, and refused to question what Umm Sulaim’s actions might mean for the image we had constructed of her as a faith-filled warrior woman who stood up against the oppression that pre-Islamic Arab women suffered.
In the end, we didn’t just read, hear and retell these stories. Although more conservative Muslims in the communities we belonged to did not approve of our “liberal” if not (supposedly) “feminist” attempts to retell these stories highlighting female agency, in the end, these stories had the last laugh: These stories “told” us.
These patriarchal, “classist” and “racist” frameworks that we couldn’t seriously question or criticize… were replicated in our communities, and in our own lives. Sanctified by these stories, of course, but also rendered all but invisible to us by our retellings that focused on women’s agency. We saw Hajar running, looking for water. We saw Nusaiba with sword and bow and arrows, and Umm Sulaim with her dagger. We saw Aisha and Umm Salama teaching men and correcting the mistakes of male Companions. We saw Umm Kulthum making the hijra through the desert alone, Zainab condemning Yazid at his court in Damascus, and Rabia of Basra telling various annoying men that no, she wasn’t interested in marrying any of them, and that they were too distracted by superficialities to glimpse the spiritual heights that she had attained. We didn’t see… or we chose not to see, or we couldn’t bear to see… the matter-of-fact notion that in the end, women’s bodies (most especially, enslaved women’s bodies) exist in order to be made use of by men underlay most of these and other stories. So concerned were we to celebrate whatever glimpses of female agency there were in these stories that we refused to acknowledge that these were seldom the real point of the story.
And for us, agency ended up not being a leitmotif of our lives either. We were led to believe that we had very few real choices. Our choices had been made when we (1) became Muslim, and (2) got married. Having become Muslim, we had (we were taught) “chosen” to accept a whole package deal of beliefs and practices that we hadn’t known about or really understood when we converted. Having gotten married, we had “chosen” to obey our husbands, which included never refusing sex, bearing children, not using any form of birth control without his consent, not having friends that he did not approve of, not going places that he did not approve of either…. Not only were we being told that as believing women, our ability to make choices was limited, in our lived reality, the “choices” we made to convert and marry young and wear hijab and bear multiple children and be stay-at-home mothers… actually limited our lives in quite concrete ways, that we did not really grasp at the time.
But we didn’t usually experience such limitations as, well, limitations. Partly because those stories were there to reassure us that we were doing the right thing, and to give us strength to persevere. Those stories told us that our lives were not meant to be easy, and that we had to strive and sacrifice, and hold the akhira higher than the dunya.
* * * * * * * *
There were times when the stories became too close for comfort. When they didn’t strengthen or reassure us, because they paralyzed us, froze us.
When I was in polygamy, I soon found myself locked in a battle with my co-wife, so that my children would continue to have food to eat, a home to live in, and a father in their lives.
This battle unfolded in a dreamlike, almost surreal way. When my ex took another wife, I knew from Islamic law that I did not have the right to object, and from the stories that objecting would only make me a “typical” weak woman, a “jealous” shrew who “doesn’t accept what Allaah has decreed.” I thought that being as calm about it as possible would be the best course of action, especially since I was very worried about the effect on the kids.
My co-wife, I soon learned, had no intention of remaining a second wife—she intended to get my ex to move to her country, and to spend most of his time with her, so that I and my kids would end up out of the picture altogether. (And my ex encouraged her to think that this would happen, judging by the emails.)
So much for Islamic law—the provisions directing that husbands treat multiple wives equally and take responsibility for all kids were clearly not going to protect my children or me, since neither he nor her intended to really play by the rules. And so much for the stories. The stories that I had looked to for role models gave me:
Sarah and Hajar. The Prophet’s wives, with their different factions, and the many stories of “jealous” outbursts. The Sahabiyat. Rabia of Syria and her polygamous husband.
I began to realize that these stories had lied about the female characters they contained. That these stories were told from a patriarchal, “classist” and “racist” perspective, that presented free, elite men’s desires and actions as typically normative and legitimate (unless it transgressed divine law), and that this perspective subordinated free, elite women to their husbands, fathers and male guardians, while also placing them above other women lower on the social ladder, as well as above enslaved women and men.
As readers and audiences of these stories, we were all expected to identify with the (believing) free elite male characters—Abraham, the Prophet, the male Sahaba, the male awliya. We were led to believe that the wives of the Prophet were “jealous” and “petty” and giving in to their “typical feminine weaknesses,” and that by extension, any wives who competed for resources and attention for themselves or their kids were also “jealous” and “petty” and being stereotypically “weak.” We had been led to romanticize oppression and suffering, focusing on Hajar’s question to Abraham—“Is it God’s will that you leave me here?”—and her quiet acceptance of his “yes” as a sign of her faith… and in our own lives, refusal to question the larger patriarchal paradigm that makes such actions seem acceptable as our test of faith.
It took a while for me to begin to realize that just became someone claims that God permits something (aka deploys a religious justification/excuse for whatever-it-is that they’re hell-bent on doing) doesn’t mean that it isn’t oppressive, or that I have to go along with it. I didn’t begin to realize that other ways of being were really an option until I began to encounter people who didn’t live in my community or in others like it—people who had very different standards for how marriage and other human relationships ought to function.
But physically leaving a community and a marriage is one thing—psychologically leaving behind all the guilt, the fear, the mental prison… is quite another.
Coming back to life. Unfreezing, bit by bit. It begins with saying what you’ve long been afraid to even think. And questioning the broader paradigms that underlie all those stories we were told… and that despite ourselves, we retold and lived.