Archive for category How we were sold on patriarchal religion
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.
On a road trip with an old friend of mine—another formerly conservative convert—we were listening to the radio as we were driving along. And, lo and behold, the issue of the day that the radio host was discussing with several invited guests was the burning question of… (drum roll…) whether or not “we still need feminism.” As soon as he announced the topic, my eyes started rolling. I guess that’s part of getting old—because as far back as I can remember the media has been dredging up this non-issue at least every few years, with wearying regularity. And these discussions never seem to resolve anything.
This particular discussion was no exception. One of the guests was a rightwing woman who spent most of the time repeating well-worn Tea Party-ish talking points: Yes, feminism sort of did a bit of good for women way waaaay back in the day, by getting women the right to own property and attend universities and vote… but then it went right off the rails, because it turned into a movement that is all about putting men down and demonizing them, while trying to make women superior instead of equal. Feminism (she said) denies the innate differences between men and women, and promotes women neglecting their husbands and children, while stigmatizing women who want to stay home instead of having a career. Women are weaker than men, and women should celebrate and embrace this rather than deny it. Oh, and feminism is also bad because it promotes abortions.
In the last post, I gave some of my initial reactions to a recent article about early pious and Sufi women on the Feminism and Religion blog. A stroll down memory lane, basically. Yes, reading and retelling these stories was a way that we sought validation, and tried in some limited ways to resist the patriarchy-on-steroids that otherwise surrounded us in our very conservative Muslim communities.
But what was their impact on us? Sure, they inspired us to make greater efforts to try to engage in certain stereotypically “pious” acts such as praying at night and fasting extra days—and also, to beat ourselves up when we failed. But did they help make us better people? Were they really spiritually uplifting, or did they function more as an opiate that temporarily distracted us from the tedium, poverty and petty cruelties that hemmed in our lives then?
I was particularly struck by the author’s bald statement that conservative Muslim “talking heads” use these stories “to lie about the past.” She points out that:
“These… narratives of the past… do not empower women, but rather leave men in charge of women’s history and worship today….
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.