I see that the Feminism and Religion blog has an awesome article up about stories of holy women in Islam. This got me thinking about a number of things. I was one of those converts who was really drawn to those stories. Still am in some ways, I guess. And I wasn’t the only one. A number of female converts I knew were into stories about holy women, whether these were women in the Qur’an, stories about female Companions, Sufi women, or Muslim women today. We devoured books like Daughters of Another Path (about American women converts). We loved hearing stories about Muslim women political activists such as Zainab al-Ghazali and Merve Kevakci.
What was that all about, exactly? Because, looking back, I recall that (as Laury points out in that article), that having “too much” interest (aka more than a superficial passing interest) in such stories was discouraged in the Muslim communities that I was a part of. And, that even though this interest of ours was fairly controversial, we ardently pursued it… although now that I think of it, once you’d read several of these stories (especially about Sufi women or modern political activists) then there wasn’t usually too much that was surprising in any of the others. In other words, they were often pretty stereotypical. Why would they be controversial, when they were so utterly harmless? And what effect did reading them have on us?
And… along comes another Debbie Downer. 😦
I think that our interest in these stories was suspect because this was something that the male leaders in our communities weren’t really comfortable with, and feared that they couldn’t control.
In the case of the Salafis, they didn’t approve of stories of Sufi women anyway for theological reasons, but even “too much” interest in the stories of the female Companions bothered them. I suspect that it was partly because in their mind, Islam is really all about men, men’s stories, men’s perspectives—which they equated with “human” stories, viewpoints and concerns. Because after all (as they used to say when questions would be raised as to why a male speaker was yet again speaking on “woman in Islam” rather than a female), “the truth is the truth, so it doesn’t matter whether a man or woman speaks.” Except that of course it did matter—they didn’t really want a woman speaking. What they meant was that it is best if men speak for women.
In their minds, truth couldn’t exist independently of male validation. And they were suspicious of our motives for wanting stories about women, as well as worried that we might draw “wrong” conclusions from them. We should not, for example, conclude that Aisha’s leading role in the Battle of the Camel means that women can lead men. (Those were the days when even the suggestion that a woman could be elected as president of an MSA was heartily denounced as “unIslamic” and haraam.) The fact that we wanted stories about women implied that the male-centered “Hislam” they were teaching us somehow wasn’t enough for us, and that we wanted to get around the whole “ideal wife and mother” thing somehow, to claim (falsely, in their view) that there could be more to Islam than that.
The neo-traditionalists were somewhat more welcoming of our interest in stories about women, but ultimately were suspicious of our motivations as well. Like Laury, I remember being told that my longing for these stories (as well as my concerns about how real living women today are treated) show that I am too attached to this dunya, and that my priorities are not appropriate for someone who is supposedly serious about progressing spiritually.
In those days, our access to stories of Sufi women were pretty limited (Rabia of Basra, as well as the stories in Javad Nurbakhsh’s book, Sufi Women). I remember getting that book from a sister, who had gotten it from another sister. Our male leaders didn’t encourage us to read that sort of thing. Unlike the Salafis, it wasn’t for theological/ideological reasons, but like them, it was again an issue of control.
Our leaders had particular ideas about the roles they wanted women in the community to play, and being a “good wife and mother” was supposed to be our top priority. Attending study circles and dhikrs was sometimes permitted or even encouraged, but ultimately, the ideal was to be the pious woman who worships alone in the privacy of her own home (that is, after she has served her husband and family, and looked after all their needs and wants). They did not want women to be “too interested” or self-directed in their pursuit of learning or spirituality, especially not if that led women to meet together on their own initiative, or to seek out female teachers outside the group. Such “outward” strivings were primarily for men, and women were supposed to play supportive, enabling roles behind the scenes. That we wanted to read about women who did such things, and to emulate them, was equated with a sort of closet feminism—which was of course bad, in their eyes.
So, why did we love these stories, and seek after them? Partly because it was an unconscious way of resisting the patriarchy that surrounded us, I think. We did want alternative, less harshly patriarchal views of Islam. We were also confused by the “bait and switch” involved in our conversions—we had been led to believe that Islam is about each believer having a direct, unmediated relationship with God, but after conversion fairly quickly discovered that for married women, one’s husband is in effect the intermediary. After all (we were told), one’s husband is one’s paradise and one’s hell. A woman can’t fast outside of Ramadan without her husband’s permission, or go for Hajj or umra, or give certain kinds of charity. A woman whose husband is pleased with her will enter paradise. The first question any woman will be asked on the Day of Judgment is, did she obey her husband. If any person were to be told to bow to another, then wives would be told to bow down to their husbands. (These are all from the hadith.)
These stories reassured us that we could aspire to relate directly to God, no matter what all these hadiths about the vital importance of pleasing one’s husband seemed to suggest. We tried to follow some of the practices of these holy women, performing extra fasts and praying at night. We so wanted to experience what they had experienced.
These stories also offered us some sense of validation. Our birth families, our non-Muslim neighbors, random people we encountered when we rode the bus or went shopping might think that we were odd or brainwashed. Many conservative immigrant Muslims thought that as converts, we were never really up to snuff. But those stories were about all kinds of women, and many of them didn’t seem to fit in very well socially either. We couldn’t imagine that many of them would have been too welcome in our communities, if they had shown up. They gave us hope that God might think better of us than others did.
But what these stories seemed to give with one hand, they took away with the other. These women were very exceptional. How could we possibly be like them? They seemed to be patient in the most terrible circumstances, and barely seemed to need to sleep or eat! We were forever pregnant or breastfeeding, or tending young kids (or all three at once), so of course we were often tired and hungry. And we tended to find our circumstances frustrating. Our community tended to put the blame for things not going well (whether in the world in general, or in families, or at the Islamic school, or anywhere else) on the fitna caused by women. We became accustomed to forever second-guess ourselves and our intentions, suspecting that our existential discontent (which we could never quite seem to get rid of) was due to pride or some other sin—instead of realizing that the root of our problems was that we were stuck in rotten marriages, living in poverty, in a toxic, controlling group which was turning into a cult.
But those stories unfortunately encouraged us to further blame ourselves, to frantically search our hearts for hidden sins, to turn ever more inward, instead of taking a good hard look at the choices we were making and where our lives were headed (as well as the impact on our kids). We feared that we were too attached to the dunya. We ought to be perfectly content staying inside our homes, taking care of our kids and serving our husbands and then standing the night in prayer, but we couldn’t quite manage to entirely silence that inner voice asking if this is all there is. We felt so guilty that we couldn’t manage to be perfectly resigned, like Maymuna the Black, the shepherdess who was promised paradise because she was absolutely content with what God had destined for her (which was slavery, isolation, and dangerous and boring working conditions). We wished we could be like Rabia of Basra, who didn’t feel any need to go out and look at the beauty of spring, because she could see God’s beauty inside the confines of her home. She didn’t need any fresh air or exercise, unlike us. She didn’t even need beauty in her life—aside from God, of course.
When I began to seriously question what I had been taught, those holy women reproached me. I believed that the choices I made to ensure the survival of myself and my kids meant that I had thrown away whatever chance I might have had to be like them. That I was indeed too attached to the dunya. That I was making an impossible choice—between survival and faith—that I had failed the test, and that I was probably damned.