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.)