The way we were: all the stuff we didn’t read

Samantha over at Defeating the Dragons has a post for Banned Books Week, called “The books I didn’t read.” Some of the attitudes she discusses are all too familiar to me. She writes,

“I read the books that the adults in my life were comfortable with me reading– books that wouldn’t challenge any of their (or my own) ideas, books that didn’t ask any hard questions they might not have been able to answer. Safe books. Easy books. Antiquated and archaic and adorable and aristocratic books– only books that enforced the perceptions we already had.”

Oh yeah. That pretty much describes how we tried to raise our kids… and what our lives were like in the highly conservative, insular Muslim communities that I was involved in.  For a complicated bunch of reasons.


When I converted, the first Muslim communities that I encountered were usually led by immigrant men who had been heavily influenced either by the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami. Some of them were engineering or medical students. They had little time for the arts, and that included literature of any kind. After all, what good was it? How did it help teach people Islam or make them better Muslims? Literature was most often ignored, or when it wasn’t, it was treated with some suspicion.

As a new convert, most of what I wanted to read was about Islam. Books in English on Islam were in short supply back then where I was living, but we would comb the public library for them (and occasionally mission out to the ISNA-run Islamic book store, which was just a hole in the wall in those days… but that’s a subject for another time). Most of the books related to Islam at the library dealt with modern political issues. I read a certain amount of that, but didn’t often find that it answered the questions I had.

I and my convert frinds read other stuff as well, but we self-censored a fair amount. We usually read books that were practical in some way,  or religious, or old. But we seldom read contemporary fiction, and when we did, we often found it unsettling for various reasons. Looking back, I can see that some of my negative reactions to fiction were trauma-related—stuff like The Color Purple was frankly triggering. But some of it was due to my discomfort with the ideas that the books expressed, as well as their “sinful” characters and open-ended plots that didn’t end with the punishment of those who did wrong and reward for those who were righteous.

While fiction often seemed cynical, or amoral, or blasphemous, or reflective of an impossibly complex life with no easy answers (if there were any answers at all), the Muslim religious books (or more often, pamphlets) that we read presented much the opposite: a predictable moral universe where God was clearly in charge and every question had a simple answer. There were no morally complex decisions to be made, because God had revealed guidance that could be applied to every situation. That sort of reading material could and did present us with difficult questions (or more accurately, would have if we had allowed ourselves to ask critical questions about it), but at the same time, it was ultimately reassuring. It had the effect of short circuiting critical thought with a combination of familiar and comforting fallacies (such as the fallacy of the excluded middle), and vague feel-good rhetoric about divine justice and spiritual equality and whatnot.

Once we had children, we were very concerned about what sorts of books they should read (or when they were younger, that we would read to them). There were very few children’s books dealing with Islam in those days. We got what was available from the Islamic book store, but even we found most of those books almost impossibly preachy. When we tried to find suitable children’s books in the library, however, we ran up against issues of accuracy and bias. Islam and Muslim ritual practices were often written about with a hint (or more than a hint) of condescension.

Lacking the sorts of books to give them that we wished existed, we fell back on trying to steer them towards wholesome and presumably “safe” older books that we remembered reading when we were kids, such as Little House on the Prairie, which stressed the values of family and hard work and didn’t glorify disobedience or teen rebellion.

As efforts were made to organize part time or full time Islamic schools, the question of what books should be used in the classroom or made available in the school library was sometimes raised. Converts were sometimes the most rigid when it came to these issues. I recall S., a convert sister from another city proudly telling me that she and another convert sister volunteer at their Islamic school, who had protested at the parents’ meeting against some of the books that had been donated to its library. When I asked S. what books she and the other sister had objected to, I was told that one was a children’s version of 1001 Nights (too indecent! because there was a story that involved a man kissing a woman he wasn’t married to!), and another was a pop-up book about human reproductive systems. According to S., during the meeting, the other sister went so far as to open up the book to the part which had a pop-up penis on the table right in front of the school principal as she loudly voiced her objections to it. (!)

Apparently the principal refused to cave in to their demands that the books be removed from the library, however. Not sure why, though maybe part of it was that he as an immigrant male didn’t want to appear to be pushed around by some loud-mouth female converts, who after all weren’t the ones who he would have been looking to for the financial donations that he needed to keep the school running.

I saw English textbooks from another Islamic school in which most of the illustrations had been partly covered over with white stickers, so that any human or animal wearing shorts or short skirts was now “modestly” covered. Such examples of censorship were too extreme for me, even then.

Which oddly enough was one of the initial attractions of neo-traditionalism for me, back in the day. Because the neo-traditionalists I had dealings with did not dismiss art and literature out of hand, and didn’t seem to be overly concerned with censoring “immorality.” Certain classics such as Shakespeare’s plays, were even put on a pedestal of sorts. It seemed like a refreshing change, at least at first.

But what it ended up being was just another kind of censorship. Literature from the past that romanticized “tradition” and didn’t involve a critique of religion or social hierarchies or sexism or homophobia was all right, but any literature that did, especially if it was satirical into the bargain was rejected. That left out an awful lot of modern literature… which was presumably the point. But we were taught to think that there was nothing much (if anything) of value in such blasphemous writing. And we didn’t think that there was, either. What could some secular liberal white (or whitewashed) author from the scoffing classes and unthinkingly revolting against sacred tradition possibly have to say that would benefit us??

As a result, I had never read books like The Handmaid’s Tale. 

Seeing it in a bookstore recently, I recalled that it is one of those books that I vaguely heard about years ago, but had never actually read. I picked it up, glanced at the blurb on the back… and felt the marrow in my bones begin to freeze. Male dominance and female obedience, females reduced to their wombs, polygamy, male guardians… Maybe this secular woman whose life had presumably been so very different from mine might have something to say about the inner workings of the worlds I had spent so many years in after all.

I stayed up late reading it. I could hardly put it down. (cont.)

, , , , , , , , ,

  1. #1 by nmr on September 29, 2014 - 12:59 am

    I have met so many Muslim women from a wide age-range who are avid fans of Jane Austen. I mean, they can quote verbatim from the text! They won’t read much modern stuff, but they love the Austen. I think they must highly identify with the whole rigid, mannered, patriarchal environment and the spunky heroine who breaks a few- but not all- the rules to get what she wants = the perfect spouse. sigh. A safe genre. sigh sigh.

    • #2 by xcwn on September 29, 2014 - 9:49 pm

      Surprisingly enough, I never read Jane Austen. Then, last year, a friend of mine dragged me to see a performance of Pride and Prejudice. I wasn’t expecting to find it very interesting, much less to connect with it at all. But to my surprise, I found that it reminded me so much of life as a conservative Muslim in many ways. The extreme pressure to marry, the match-making, the personality of the mother of the girls, the stress on reputation, the superficial standards for girls’ behavior, the wheeling and dealing… it was like a satire of communities I had known. I thought it was brilliantly subversive, a send-up of meddling aunties and judgmental elders and super-entitled men and shallow women and the whole social structure that produces such people. But yeah, I was disappointed that Elizabeth was “rewarded” at the end with a good marriage. That was a let-down, though probably what had enabled the book to be published and survive.

  2. #3 by threekidsandi on September 29, 2014 - 2:35 am

    After I had two hyperactive toddlers I discovered how limiting a traditional austere Islamic lifestyle truly was.
    I started with the computer. When we were tired of our alphabet and I was sick to death of preschool songs I typed something benign and child friendly into YouTube and discovered Empire of The Sun’s ¨Walking on a Dream¨. I swear it woke me back up.
    I had missed color, art, dissenting ideas, cultural diversity, even leaving the house and the concept of romance. I watched it countless times due to my autistic child’s fascination with it. It was a sort of therapy. I found more things to watch, rediscovered music and movies that I had tried to forget or had forgotten.
    You are right, when you have children, you relive a bit of your own childhood through them. Wonder is an important experience for a child, their mind grows when you open up the world to them. I did not want the guilt of denying them the world.
    I am interested in your take on the book. I am glad you chose it over the movie, no movie ever lives up to the book that inspired it.

  3. #4 by L on September 29, 2014 - 4:44 am

    Can’t wait to read the second half of this !

  4. #5 by Abu Abdillah on September 29, 2014 - 11:30 am

    I read this article and immediately thought of this and other similar websites:

    • #6 by xcwn on September 30, 2014 - 2:51 am

      lol. Meaning, that if I was still in The Cult and/or my abusive marriage (or if I’d simply traded The Cult for another hyper-conservative, controlling Muslim group) that I wouldn’t have ptsd? Religious beliefs and practices don’t prevent ptsd, unfortunately—and in some cases, they can be the cause of trauma. But community pressure can sure lead people to deny that they have these sorts of issues, to call it something else, or to sublimate it by making others around them miserable.

      But despite ptsd, overall, I’d say that my health is actually better nowadays in several important ways: Since I’m no longer a stay-at-home mother married to a man who was not what they call a “good provider” even before he took a second wife, I now have access to the full range of health benefits for myself and my kids, including dental. That’s huge. My kids grew up hardly ever seeing the dentist. I hardly saw the dentist, either. We couldn’t afford it. This resulted in dental problems that are now being addressed, fortunately.

      I can get chiropractic treatment now, which I did without for years despite back problems that resulted from pregnancy. Again, we couldn’t afford it, so when my back went out, I could do nothing but lie in bed and hope that it would pass… fun times.

      • #7 by Abu Abdillah on September 30, 2014 - 10:47 am

        I suppose your first sentence could be attributed to perspective. When I read the article I was not at all thinking blame the victim but the aggressor–in this case the religion or cult providing the oppressive social structure.

        Also, the unofficial recognition of Religious Trauma Syndrome was exactly what I have been thinking of these days. I do not fault the religion itself for these abusive structures–the fault lies clearly with those at the top of a religious hierarchy subverting their respective religion for their own gain.

      • #8 by xcwn on October 12, 2014 - 5:48 pm

        Sorry, I misread your initial comment.

        I’m not sure if I have Religious Trauma Syndrome or not. As with so many things related to religion in North America, that label comes out of the experiences of (former) evangelical or fundamentalist Christians. So, some of the symptoms aren’t relevant to me—an irrational fear of having been “left behind” (aka that the rapture has happened, so Jesus has come and taken all the faithful believers, leaving you behind with the rest of the sinners to face the horrors of the apocalypse) when I wake up and nobody’s at home isn’t something I have to deal with, fortunately, because that wasn’t part of our belief system. But certain events in the news can set off intrusive memories of sermons we used to hear about the end of the world, so there’s that.

        Overall, I’d say that it wasn’t so much the belief system per se that caused the trauma, as how it was applied to social relationships and social-political issues. That did result in ptsd.

        I’m not sure if those who had leadership positions consciously subverted their religion for their own gain. I suspect that they honestly believed that what they were doing (and telling us that we had to do) was right. If they ever noticed how well their teachings served their own interests, I suppose they thought that was just a happy coincidence.

        While I think they should hold themselves responsible for the harm their teachings caused, and publicly apologize, I can also understand why they probably didn’t recognize that they weren’t qualified to give the advice that they did. It’s complicated. Perhaps things will improve when Muslim communities hold leaders to higher standards in a systemic way.

  5. #9 by Unmosqued1 on September 30, 2014 - 6:51 pm

    There was a woman who founded a writers group for Muslim women. She received great pressure and was constantly up against ideas that fiction was haram because it “tells lies”. It is such a shame because common sense tells a person to pass up violent and lewd entertainment of all types. There is no need to ban everything. Unless of course, you are of the mindset that more mindless rules equate to greater piety. This was one voice I never listened to.

    • #10 by xcwn on October 12, 2014 - 5:31 pm

      Oh my. Yes, unfortunately I can well believe that any sister trying to found a writers’ group for women would have to deal with “pious” objections. As well as with the idea that if fiction is to be allowed at all, it has to be preachy, with too-good-to-be-true Muslim characters that always do the right thing and are obviously superior to any “sinful” characters (and no complex, inbetween characters, at least not by the end of the book).

      Good for you that you never listened to the promoters of the idea that more rules = greater piety. I wish that I could say the same….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: