A lot of the posts on this blog deal with the impact of certain hyper-conservative interpretations of Islam on my life, as well as on the lives of other female converts that I have known. I have repeatedly blogged about the difficulties of trying to recover from living in certain very restrictive and stifling situations, and trying to (re)build a life for oneself and one’s (often confused and sometimes troubled) kids.
But one angle of these situations that I haven’t really dealt with is the impact on (some) men. On my ex, for instance. On some of my friends’ exes. On conservative, often immigrant, Muslim men, who became “born again Muslims” after living for a time in “the West” as young male refugees or students. And for that matter, on some of our now-grown sons, who were raised in very conservative, insular and controlling Muslim communities.
One reason I don’t deal with this subject much is for much the same reason that I don’t write about the 1 percent. I mean what—the problems that are consuming you at the moment are that your butler quit, and junior has started spouting some kind of lefty nonsense about how rich people should pay more taxes? Do you even have a clue how many people in the world would love to have your “problems”?? It’s not just the male privilege that these conservative Muslim men have that tends to leave me thinking that I don’t have much to say about their situations, it’s that unlike many women exiting rotten or abusive marriages or trying to distance themselves from toxic community dynamics, these men usually have considerably more power.
In the types of communities that I am talking about, the rhetoric about how “we respect our women” (and the “our” says it all for those who are listening carefully…) does not at all undermine the patriarchal nature of power. Men are in charge of women. Men are the religious scholars and leaders; whatever knowledgeable women there might be do not have anything like the same voice or authority as their male counterparts. In marriage, men are expected to be breadwinners and heads of the household. They are the ones who represent the family within the community, and who are expected to “guide” their wives and children to live conservatively pious lives. They are the ones who have the power to make the major decisions about where the family will live or how the kids will be raised. They are the ones who have by far the greatest degree of access to financial resources. They can initiate divorce if they wish, or decide that the wife they have is insufficient and so polygamy is necessary. They can often befriend who they want, go where they want, and spend time with whoever they want. And not only do they have this power, but within the community their exercise of these powers is affirmed as natural, just and in accordance with what God wants.
This is not to say that therefore, all men will necessarily have enjoyable experiences with the community, or feel fulfilled by all the expectations as to how a properly pious man will live, or that he will have a happy marriage or a peaceful home life. Not at all. But if he doesn’t like the community, or is fed up with their expectations and social pressures, or his marriage is on the rocks or his kids are rebelling, he typically has options that his convert wife is less likely to be able to easily access. It is often much easier for him to decide to leave a community, or question the leadership. He often has financial resources, job skills, and years of work experience (that is, unless his job is now a dinosaur thanks to technological change, or he chose to devote years to study of Islam in hopes of becoming a scholar). Usually, his confidence in himself and his right to make efforts in order to secure a good and fulfilling life for himself have not been eaten away by years of guilt-tripping and undermining and community gossip designed to make him believe that suffering and sacrificing and being a doormat is innately holy and that not wanting to put up with all that makes him “western” and “selfish” and “immoral.”
So, all’s well with those men we used to know, then? In some cases, not so much. Watching what some men do in the aftermath of the collapse of their marriages is insightful in its own sad way.
On one hand, those immigrant men who married converts twenty or more years ago usually are in a better position financially, in terms of work, and also socially and religiously when their wives finally decide that enough is enough and leave them, than the wives are. The community typically supports the men, and sympathizes with them, reassuring them that of course they did their absolute best to be good husbands and fathers, and of course their ex-wives are being totally unreasonable and ungrateful and ungodly and are mostly if not completely at fault. Even if the man was never what they used to call “a good provider,” or was seldom at home because he was off with “the brothers” when he wasn’t at work, or was flat-out abusive, his bad behavior will often excused by his family and friends, and his ex-wife will be blamed for lacking patience, and all her faults will be magnified and dissected in detail. Whatever practical help a man might need—getting a lawyer, for instance, or moving, or getting married again—he also may well get help with from family and friends.
Convert wives are significantly less likely to receive such help, support or even verbal affirmation. They are much more likely to have their motives for leaving their marriages questioned, to have difficulty finding a place to stay or a job or skills training necessary for employment or childcare, to find themselves in a difficult position between Islamic and secular laws… and as a result, may also have to deal with a crisis of faith on top of it all. So, it’s easy to assume that, well, men in these situations have it much better, since they have the support and affirmation and resources and therefore, much greater ability to make a range of choices.
Except that it doesn’t always work out that way. Some men are also at a loss when their marriages end, and seem to have a fair amount of difficulty adjusting to the changed circumstances and moving on.
I had assumed that a good part of that was simply due to injured male pride—after all, men are empowered to divorce women if they think it necessary, but women are supposed to stay even in very unhappy marriages and “be patient”… or at most, leave in a huff and return to their parents’ home with a tale of woe, stay there for a couple of weeks, and then give in to their family’s and husband’s pressure to go back and try again. Or maybe, in very extreme cases, women might beg and plead for an imam to grant them a divorce. But women are not supposed to single-handedly walk out of a marriage, move away from their hyper-conservative Muslim community, dehijab, and try to build a new life for themselves, much less take the kids.
But in a particular example that I have been observing for the last year or so, there’s evidently much more going on than injured male pride (though there’s certainly some of that).
This was a man who built his life around the whole idea of being part of a very conservative Muslim community, and having a family that was going to be run precisely according to that “ideal (an unambiguously patriarchal) Muslim family.” His (convert) wife appeared to be on board with that—and to the extent that it was evident that she had her doubts, he assumed that this was just due to her non-Muslim relatives “interfering” and that it would pass. His identity was bound up in being a very conservative Muslim, who had no real friends outside of “the brothers” in his insular community. While he held a well-paying job, he didn’t like it all that much, partly because it required him to deal extensively with non-Muslims (and liberal Muslims) whose lifestyle choices he was strongly opposed to. His job paid the bills for his large family and allowed him to keep his wife at home, baking fresh bread, sewing many of the family’s clothes by hand, growing the vegetable garden, and homeschooling the kids. But he did not get his identity, sense of worth, or even much enjoyable social contact from his job.
When his kids rebelled, and his wife started to assert herself and said that she wanted a more egalitarian marriage, he reacted as though his world was collapsing. He did his best to head off the changes that were in the offing, and kept behaving as though he was in charge by rights and whatever problems there might be were all the fault of his wife and kids. When his wife finally left him, he acted like a rudderless boat.
Family and community sympathy didn’t seem able to help him deal with the reality that he was facing. Partly because such sympathy and support was based on affirming his sense of male entitlement, and religiously legitimating it. This did not help him to move on with his life by doing things such as cooperate with his soon-to-be ex-wife in working out an amicable separation agreement, or to take steps toward building a better relationship with those of his teenage kids he is most in conflict with… or even to decide on a new career path. If anything, this support kept him stuck, angry at how this could have happened to him, and unwilling to even try to envision a different future, in which he is not the patriarch lording it over an obedient, submissive homemaking wife and a house full of their pious, hijab-wearing, well-scrubbed and docile children.
To some extent, I feel sympathy for men in this situation. Some of them, too, were pressured by community into marriage and the responsibilities that come with it when they were too immature and weren’t sure who they were or what they wanted out of life yet. They too were sold a bill of goods, an all-consuming fantasy of an “ideal Muslim family” which was part of “an ideal Muslim community,” in which everyone would piously play his or her appointed role in the hierarchy, and at the conclusion would be jannah (insh’Allah). To give up such a fantasy is hard enough even for those of us who continually got the short end of the stick no matter how hard we tried. How much more disillusioning must it be for men, who this fantasy is designed to primarily benefit, to have to admit that they spent decades of their life chasing an illusion. To have to put that illusion aside and build another identity, another sense of self, another life, pretty much from the ground up.
Although it seemed that the fantasies we were sold put us female converts in the position where we would always be on the losing end of things, ultimately, they set up men as well to lose. Success was (in theory) possible as long as men were plugged into a very conservative, patriarchal community, which supported them ruling the roost at home. But their ability to adapt to change was undermined by this very seductive fantasy.