Archive for category Neo-traditionalism

So much for sisterhood: conversion, appropriation… and is there a difference? (II)

Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is without the consent of the originating culture, and when the appropriating group has historically oppressed members of the originating culture.” It goes on to explain that appropriation is not the same as acculturation or assimilation, and that it is made possible by very unequal relations of power.

Basically, it occurs because people from the dominant culture assume that they have the right to take whatever it is that they please from wherever. They unconsciously see the entire world and everything and everybody in it as if it were their own personal all-you-can-eat buffet, so they are therefore entitled to help themselves as they wish. This is possible because the group they belong to has disproportionate access to resources, political and economic power, as well as social status, especially when compared to the group that they are appropriating from. And because of this differential in power and status, the appropriating group gets to enjoy and manipulate these “exotic” and “cool” cultural elements as it pleases without paying the price that the originating group would, and without regard for its cultural or religious meanings.

How do white converts relate to such relations of power?

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Oh no, KM’s post is gone: thoughts on “apostasy”, shunning and conditioned reflexes

About a month ago (?), someone posting at A Woman’s Country under the initials K.M. put up a post about some aspects of life after leaving Islam. Particularly about the longlasting impact that certain mundane practices can have even once you no longer believe the theological reasons why you are supposed to do them, as well as the problem of how to meet one’s needs for de-stressing when religious rituals are no longer an option.

While she identifies as someone who has left Islam altogether and I don’t, I liked that post, and thought that it raised some important issues that can face anyone who leaves an insular, high demand religious group and whose beliefs shift significantly.

It is spooky to say to the least when you find yourself continuing to act and react in preprogrammed “sunna” ways that way back when, you learned (it isn’t as if you were born doing them!), but now you can’t seem to unlearn. After all, we put so much pious effort in the aftermath of our conversions into learning all the rules, in training our bodies and our automatic responses: Don’t shake hands with men, walk, sit and move modestly, lower your gaze, don’t laugh loudly in public or where non-mahram men might hear you, because modesty should be second nature and is a barometer of your faith as a Muslim woman. Always wash away all traces of urine and feces, avoid dogs (and especially, contact with dog spit), carefully read all food labels and avoid all hints of pork and alcohol byproducts, because believers are pure and God only accepts what is pure and if you really believe you should find anything impure intrinsically disgusting.

Avoid music (except nasheeds or possibly classical), don’t dance or whistle, careful of what you sing (and who might be able to overhear your voice), prefer reciting the Quran and reading the stories of the Companions and making dhikr to reading fiction or poetry or watching movies or plays or going to fairs, because a believer takes life seriously and is forever wary of being seduced by dunyawi attractions. The sincere believers should opt to follow the sunna in preference to the ways of the world or one’s own comfort, so one should put on the right shoe before the left (and take them off in reverse order), sleep on one’s side facing qibla (too bad for us restless sleepers), step into a washroom left foot first (and saying the appropriate du’a)… and so on.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: some reflections

Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I am conscious that I am reading it with what I would call doubled vision. Meaning, as I read it I am constantly aware of how I would likely have received it if I had read it back in the day when I was a hyper-conservative Muslim, as well as how it comes across to me now. So, I am all too aware that aspects of it that I now regard as insightful wouldn’t have seemed that way to me then.

"I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit." (The Handmaid's Tale, p. 131)

“I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit.” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 131)

The primary target is evangelical Christian political activism aimed at limiting women’s rights to control their own bodies and lives, in the name of supposedly “biblical” values (with some biting critique also of certain strains of ’80’s feminism). The “biblical values” being promoted by groups such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority back when this book was written were usually spun as good old-fashioned wholesome warm-n-fuzzy all-American values that for some strange reason had only recently been questioned by a few misguided feminists and liberals. However, Atwood is having none of that eye-wash—the “biblical values” described in The Handmaid’s Tale are absolutely nightmarish—yet, they can arguably be justified from biblical passages that speak of women desperately desiring to bear children, men having sex with female slaves in order to sire offspring (whether said female slaves consented was irrelevant), arranged marriages of daughters, commands addressed to wives to obey their husbands, and so forth.

This makes the point that “biblical values” are ultimately less about whatever the Bible says (or doesn’t say), and more about  what parts of the Bible one wants to highlight, as well as about who has the power to define what “biblical values” are in a given context. “Biblical values” might sound as though they come with some sort of guarantee of fairness or compassion, at least as far as “good Christian women” are concerned… but they do not. Even those women like Serena Joy, who had devoted their lives to promoting such values, did not have the power to define what “biblical values” would mean. It was powerful men hell-bent on control and feeling entitled to it who had that power.

Back in the day, I wouldn’t have wanted to read any further, because this obviously raises questions about any religious movement claiming that its allegedly divinely given values should govern followers’ lives (much less religious movements with political ambitions). I would have seen this as unfair, as foreclosing the possibility of religious women seeking liberation within their religious tradition. I would have also taken offense at the Orientalism of comparing the handmaids’ boredom to a painting of harem women, and dismissed the entire book as therefore irrelevant to Muslim women.

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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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What salvation looks like: I didn’t die before this

I have not had the time or the energy to blog recently. Partly due to the situation with ISIS.  What is there to say in the face of such everyday horror, and every time there is an explosion you worry that someone you know might be dead?

And partly due to things going on in my former extended family network, as well as at work. Tiresome nonsense, that boils down in both cases to the unwillingness of a conservative former cultie Muslim dude (who knows that I was once a conservative Muslim and what sort of group I was a member of) to treat me with basic respect, while also not having the courage to be honest about what he is doing.

Hyper-conservative family dude plays tiresome, manipulative headgames that end up dragging innocent and unwilling others into the fray, and then when called on it, denies that he is doing anything. Work dude is patronizing and covertly undermines me, while being clever enough to do so in ways that leave no hard evidence.

Because I’m apparently hell-bound, a sinner who doesn’t even have the humility to admit that the conservatives’ ways of looking at the world are morally superior or to play the “inshallah someday I’ll have strong enough iman to re-hijab and bow down to the scholar-gods again” game. No, I’m not playing that game. Life is too short to live a lie.

It gets depressing and emotionally exhausting to deal with. Especially since I understand all too well where they are coming from.

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Of current events, triggers, and moral bankruptcy (II)

As events unfold in Syria and Iraq, I am brought face to face with so many deeply troubling aspects of what we used to believe. As well as what we weren’t told. And yeah, chose not to see.

For several weeks now, I have been debating whether or not to actually try to blog about some of these issues. These are really difficult issues to think about, much less talk about. And how would trying to talk about this be at all constructive?

But I see that threekidsandi has blogged about the situation in Sinjar (northwestern Iraq, where thousands of members of the Yezidi minority are trapped on a mountain by the so-called “Islamic State”, formerly known as ISIS). So, I suspect that I’m not the only convert/ex-convert who is being triggered by these events and is having a great deal of difficulty processing them.

Why? For a number of reasons, I guess. As converts or ex-converts who were part of very ethnically diverse communities, some of us knew people from those areas, or who now live there, and we now worry and hope that they are ok. In that, we are not so different from many other Muslims in North America.

But there, the similarities end. For some of us, the antics of the so-called “Islamic State” (I’ll use “IS” from here on in) raise serious theological questions, evoke survivors’ guilt, and finally undermine whatever lingering trust in or regard for our former leaders that we might still have.

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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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