Archive for category How we were sold on patriarchal religion

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.

books

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.

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Do we “still” need feminism?

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.

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Oh, how they lied

I’m in the middle of reading what is so far a pretty awesome book: Ayesha Chaudhry’s Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition.

It's awesome because it's honest... at least, what I've read of it so far. Which is sad, really---why is being honest about "the tradition" so rare? What does this say about the self-styled bearers of "the tradition" who I dealt with that they couldn't be bothered to be  honest, or actively didn't seek to be? What is a tradition worth when people can't tell the truth about it?

It’s awesome because it’s honest… at least, what I’ve read of it so far. Which is sad, really—why is being honest about “the tradition” so rare? What does this say about the self-styled bearers of “the tradition” who I dealt with that they couldn’t be bothered to be honest, or actively didn’t seek to be? What is a tradition worth when people can’t tell the truth about it?

This is quite an experience. Parts of it are very triggering, frankly. Reading through all the medieval interpretations of Q 4:34 as well as the views of the jurists who followed the four Sunni madhhabs, was really something. Much of it I had encountered before, mostly through reading… but that was in dribs and drabs. The overall effect of all that delivered at one fell swoop was really, well… horrifying. Just bone-freezingly horrifying.

For several reasons: Because the misogyny of “the tradition” was simply undeniable. Because it kept mentioning things that had happened to friends of mine, or to me, or which had been reported on the news… and we had been assured that it is “unIslamic” and that “no true Muslim would do such a thing” or “this is a misinterpretation.” And it wasn’t true. Which brings me to the third, and in a way, the worst reason: Because they lied. Those imams, shaykhs, community leaders, study circle teachers, people we looked up to and trusted… lied.

I can’t count how many times down through the years that we were told in so many ways that marriage “according to the true teachings of Islam” is ultimately all about love and compassion. That while men and women have different roles in marriage, this is according to the design of the all-wise Creator, and therefore these differences are intended for the benefit of both of them, as well as for the benefit of the children, and society as a whole.

Well, not only does it turn out that this idea derived from 1950’s-’60’s functionalism (a very secular sociological theory devised by non-Muslims, btw—the horror!) rather than the Qur’an, the sunna or “the tradition,” but medieval Qur’an commentators and jurists to a man saw marriage primarily in terms of what men (aka not women, or even children) were entitled to. And among the things that most of these scholars held that a man is entitled to is an obedient wife. We’d heard that often enough… but with the edges of the definitions of “obedience” typically softened.

We heard different definitions of “obedience”—everything ranging from a woman performing her ritual duties properly, to obeying her husband in everything unless he commands her to do something sinful. But we never heard the opinion that a wife who, say, had been in the habit of meeting her husband with a smile but ceased to do so is “disobedient” and therefore should be admonished, separated from in bed, and if he deems it necessary, beaten. (!?)

This is the sort of interpretation that had me wondering wtf?? Since when does hitting someone for not being cheerful or welcoming enough make them more rather than less cheerful or welcoming? The author wryly points out that she can think of any number of reasons why a woman might not be in a smile-y mood (illness, tiredness… I’d add pregnancy or cramps or in-law problems) that have nothing to do with her attitude to her husband. But the scholars with this particular take on disobedience were not at all concerned with trying to understand why a wife might behave in a way that her husband finds less than satisfying, as the author points out—their focus was on what the husband is entitled to. He was entitled to a wife who pleases him. She however was not entitled to a husband who pleases her. If she got that, then that was a bonus, but she had no legal or moral right to it, in their view.

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Of converts and fantasies

Now and again, I get these questions submitted as comments: Are you still Muslim? If you are still Muslim, then why?

I don’t usually answer. Partly, because these questions are often at least implicitly judgmental. Answering them risks touching off a string of cut-and-paste rants about how if I am Muslim, then I need to know that I’m doing X wrong and that it’s a sin to say/do Y.

But aside from that, it’s triggering. The conservative communities I was involved in were very concerned about defining exactly who is and isn’t a Muslim, what words, deeds, or even thoughts put a person outside of Islam, etc. That sort of environment fosters constant self-doubt and self-censorship. Until today, I have issues with automatic self-censorship, that happens so quickly and unobtrusively that I only know that I’ve done it again when I realize that I know something is missing or unsaid or not quite honest in what I’ve said or written… but yet I can’t put what it is into words.

But even when these kinds of questions aren’t motivated by judgmentalness, there’s something about them that deeply disturbs me. But I didn’t know exactly what. Until I received this comment:

Yes actually, the question [why are you still Muslim—ed.] came from a place of sincerity. I didn’t mean to offend. I only asked because I thought however you came to still stay Muslim would help me do the same despite those concerns.

Hoooo boy. A really triggering comment—though unintentionally so, I realize. But it is triggering because it sums up so many of my experiences with convert–immigrant born Muslim interactions in a nutshell: The idea that, as white, North American female converts, we have worth because we can potentially provide reassurance and affirmation (along with a generous side serving of halaal entertainment) to certain types of immigrant or immigrant-descended born Muslims.

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More thoughts on stories of holy women: Half-truths and lies

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….

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Thinking about stories of holy women

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.

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Damsels in distress, the chivalrous caliph, and the misogynistic scholar: a modern fairy tale

A long time ago, in a galaxy that is unfortunately not nearly as far away from me as I would like, I was taught that the reason for all the problems that women face today—especially in “the West”—is that relations between men and women are seriously out of balance.

And that's why brothers don't need to bother trying to understand women! Epic lulz!

“The first time that someone shows you who they are, believe them” (Maya Angelou)

Western women have been misled into rejecting their divinely created feminine natures. They don’t value marriage and motherhood, and try to emulate men by cutting their hair short and wearing masculine-style clothes and having careers and being promiscuous. Therefore, men are understandably put off by them, can’t respect them, feel emasculated by them, and don’t want to marry them. As a result, the family is in disarray, single motherhood and juvenile delinquency are on the rise, men feel lost and confused, and women are wondering where all the good men have gone. But (we were told) there is a simple  answer to all these problems:  Return to Islam. Go back to “the True Teachings of the Qur’aan and the Sunnah” (as the Salafis would phrase it), or to “Sacred Tradition” (as the neo-traditionalists would say). To the fitra—the innate, divinely given nature of every human being, which says that “true” men are hyper-masculine and “real,” god-fearing women are ultra-feminine… and anything that doesn’t fit into that binary view of gender is just laughable. Go back. Nothing else works. Anything else is rebellion against God.

Because women don’t need autonomy, or independence, or feminism, or godless “human rights.” What women need (and really really crave, deep down) is to be protected, cared for, and put on a pedestal by good men. Every woman should do her best to deserve to be treated like a queen, by being pious and modest and home-oriented and accepting of male authority. And if women are deserving, then of course good men will step up and act like good men should, by protecting them and their children, respecting them, and supporting them financially.

And there are no problems with this simple approach. None at all. Underage marriage, domestic violence, child abuse, or rape? Ha ha ha!! Only those western feminists get all upset about such non-issues for no reason, because they are silly emotional women who hate Islam / don’t understand what True Islam (TM) teaches / are misled by their modern sentimentality and rebellion against God’s perfectly just Law / secretly envy the veiled Muslim woman who is pure and beautiful and respected, and they want to bring her down to their level / they are misguided by their nafs and the shaytaan / whatever. Misogyny? What?! Of course we don’t hate women! We respect our women!

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