Making 70 excuses for your brother (but not so much your sister)

One of the things that struck me most in all the backing and forthing over Abu Eesa’s misogynistic comments was how willing most people were to make excuses for him, minimize the significance of what he had done, try to understand where he was coming from… even many of his critics. While some called on AlMaghrib to fire him, a number of those who were very critical of his comments still didn’t seem to think that he should lose his post or suffer any long term consequences.

I found this all the more striking because in my experience, this is absolutely not what happens to a girl or woman whose behavior is seen as embarrassing or offensive to the community.

And it’s not just because he is a scholar with a wide following, either. Yes, that likely helped—but being given the benefit of the doubt (and being quickly forgiven even when caught red-handed) is one of the many perks of patriarchal power and status. Generally speaking, the higher status a person has in a community in terms of their race, ethnicity, social class, gender, educational level, health, sexual orientation, etc, the more likely they are to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Oddly enough, I’ve known that for a long time. Back when I wore hijab, when I would walk into a store, my presence would immediately be noted, and within a few seconds somebody would usually come bustling up to “help” me find whatever it was that I wanted. Nowadays, my shopping experiences are much more relaxed and leisurely. Nobody acts like they find my presence unsettling, or that they want me to leave. I knew what was going on then, and I know now. But somehow, I didn’t connect the dots until recently. Because in the Muslim communities I was involved in, religion was used to cover, legitimize and excuse everything.

What I could have recognized as differential treatment based on prejudice out in the secular world, I couldn’t recognize as such when it was presented to me as “God’s will” and in accordance with “God’s law.” Men had religious excuses (some plausible, some pretty flimsy) for just about anything and everything they got up to. And men covered for other men. With pious faces, and solemn platitudes about the sinfulness of gossip and not causing fitna and the importance of guarding your brother’s reputation and making 70 excuses for him.

But such latitude would rarely if ever be extended to girls or women. Especially not to converts.

And the thing is, this nonsense is turning out to be the poisonous “gift” that keeps on giving. In my case, anyway. Because when my kids have dealings with the extended family, or with their father’s circle of (Muslim) friends, or with the parts of the Muslim community that knows anything about who their parents are… then they have to deal with the judgments that people express about their mother.

Two of my kids were recently subjected to this. A pious “brother”, an old not-very-close friend of my ex who apparently remembers me, asked my ex in front of two of my kids and a bunch of other pious “brothers” what on earth had happened with me. Because I “used to be so religious.” His assumption that I had left religion behind was solely based on having heard that I had dehijabed, and left my (abusive) marriage. And in his mind, this was unacceptable. Needless to say, my kids were deeply embarrassed. Not one of those “pious” brothers apparently had the sense to tell him to keep quiet, much less to lecture him on the virtues of minding one’s own business or the sinfulness of ghaiba.

Nor did any of them think it was time to give nasiha to my ex about the way he has treated his various wives (and the way he treats his present wife), or his children. And it’s not as if they don’t know about it—they do. But it’s not a problem for them the way me dehijabing and leaving a marriage is. My actions defy what they regard as the divinely given order of things in the family and in the community, but his don’t. At best, his actions are seen as somewhat regrettable, that perhaps he could be doing things better—but not as a serious problem. Certainly not as a scandal.

And it’s not just men who act this way. I have never experienced any Muslim woman asking me what on earth has happened with my ex because “he used to be so religious” and who would have thought that an apparently god-fearing man would do the things he has done. Men simply aren’t held to account the way women are.

This is a problem for my kids that is not going away. I had thought that after several years, those people will find other things to worry about than my life choices. But apparently not so far, anyway.

I worry about the impact on my kids primarily because it communicates and reinforces a really, really skewed set of values to them. It tells them that what really matters “Islamically” about any woman is not whether she is leading a happy, productive or fulfilling life that is free of abuse, but whether she is covering her hair and living under the supervision of a (conservative Muslim) husband.

It has the effect of undermining my rather tentative attempts to suggest to them alternative ways of thinking about family relationships. I don’t want them to assume that the dysfunctional relationships and ways of relating to children that they were surrounded with growing up is the norm, or that it is acceptable. But such pious “brothers” teach them by their actions that basically being a dead-beat dad and an abusive husband is no big deal, socially and religiously. Because after all, he prays, he fasts Ramadan, he doesn’t drink, he has a beard, he has conservative social views (even if he doesn’t always live up to them…), so he passes muster as a “good brother.”

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  1. #1 by Ex-H on March 17, 2014 - 1:40 am

    Ah, yes, this all sounds so familiar to me. I went to an Islamic school where my male classmates were excused for things my female classmates and I never would have been allowed to get away with. One example being that we had two bathrooms (two separate male and female bathrooms) set up in two hallways. Our sinks were built in a way so we could do our wudu out in the hallway. One hallway, despite having both sexes’ bathrooms, was always crowded with boys. And though it was faster going to the prayer room through said hallway, any girl seen going through it would immediately be chastised and blamed for wanting to bring attention to herself, but no one would tell the boys to make room for her to go through. It was our job to avoid them rather than both of us compromising. Whenever girls crowded the other bathroom/hallway, we were told to disperse if the boys were coming through. No one would blame the boys for wanting to attract female attention, because our teachers always seemed to think that as girls, everything we did was in the hopes of getting the boys to pay attention to us – which is why we got blamed so much more. End of school celebrations? Let’s let the boys have free reign of the building, walk around, have fun in the gym, hang out in the prayer room, run outside. The girls? Round them up, put them in a small classroom where they can quietly listen to Islamic music and take off their hijab. That should make them happy.

    Sorry, this is more me venting than anything else, but there are about a million other things I could say to prove what you’ve written about and sadly my school was seen as a great example for other Islamic institutions to follow, despite how overtly sexist they were.

  2. #3 by rosalindawijks on May 27, 2014 - 9:56 am

    I just read yet another interesting article of Omid Safi, which made me rethink the whole question of husn al-zann. I think it’s a good vantage point, when practised rightly.

    For instance, If one would practice husn al zann as a principle, the naming, shaming and blaming of women would end.

    The whole sad irony, though, is that the people who talk most about it, ALWAYS assume the worst if the issue concerns a woman, her life and her choices, especially the way she dresses and her sexual choices.

    And brothers, especially the powerfull ones, are always of the hook.

    Whatever happened to telling the truth and standing witness, even against one’s own kin???

    Here is the link:

  3. #4 by rosalindawijks on May 27, 2014 - 12:29 pm

    Shouldn’t one consider “husn alzann” just as the Muslim version of giving someone the benefit of the doubt?

    Ofcourse, that should NOT mean a though-stopper or an excuse for abuses, or to exonerate people who say and do sexist, racist or otherwise opressive things.

    And yes, Maya Angelou is oh so right: “If someone shows you who they are – believe them.”

  4. #5 by rosalindawijks on February 19, 2015 - 10:58 am

    This post of Yasir Qadhi, in which he defends Abu Eesa, exactly proves your point. Trigger warning included.

  5. #6 by rosalindawijks on February 19, 2015 - 11:13 am

    In this article, Omid Safi openly criticizes Abu Eesa and – well, tells him off.

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