Archive for category Neo-traditionalism

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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Q 4:34—Enough is enough

Laury’s comment on the last post pretty much wrote this post for me (thanks a lot!):

I recall when I first was confronting this abuse, M. Fadel said to me the problem in the verse is not hitting it’s authority over women. He was right, but I wasn’t there yet and needed to deal with the hitting (why God used that word was more disturbing to me at the time than why God put men in charge of women).

I know this book is going to open the conversation up significantly. She apparently has no time for apologists and sharply takes contemporary leaders to task.

http://www.oupcanada.com/catalog/9780199640164.html

Looks like an awesome book, and I can’t wait to read it. (Though it must say that it’s so sad that after all these years of Muslims in North America writing about women and Islam, that I get excited when I see something that’s actually honest instead of apologetic, because that’s just so damn rare. Honesty shouldn’t be rare—we should be able to expect it as a matter of course from our scholars and imams and academics and da’is. But unfortunately, it’s as scarce as hen’s teeth.)

But to business. Laury’s comment raises several issues for me:

  1. the question of willful blindness masquerading as “interpretation” or even as a straightforward reading of the Qur’an,
  2. the larger problem of patriarchal authority in the family, and
  3. the patriarchal authority of the “scholars” (aka men who studied for several years at the University of Medina, or for longer with shaykhs, imams, or anyone in North America who has somehow managed to become known as “shaykh so-and-so,” whatever his qualifications might or might not be).

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Crowns… and really bad advice

Libby Anne has posted disturbing quotations from a Bible study addressed to women, that tells women in unhappy or even abusive marriages that even if their husbands don’t change, they (the wives) can take comfort in the knowledge that for their patient endurance, they will be crowned in heaven. Reading her post took me back to some “advice” that I received years ago, from a (convert) male community leader who I had approached asking for advice on how to deal with my awful and highly dysfunctional marriage, “Islamically.”

In retrospect, it was advice that should have sent me running for the hills. But it didn’t.

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“As my shaykh taught me…”

On the last post, Bebe g commented:

“…We were even taught by our pakistani sheik that all white people where naturally evil and would never convert to Islam because they naturally have dark hearts. But he was quick to marry a white woman 1st chance he had. Good thing I never believed him.. To many people who are donned leaders of the community and are followed by the ignorant non reading locals….”

Hoo boy, did that part of her comment trigger memories! Things that people’s shaykhs taught them. Or, things that people claimed that their shaykhs had taught them, anyhow. Things that people we looked up to as “scholars” and “shaykhs” taught us, and that we felt that we had to believe. Things that people claimed to know because they were following the Sufi path….

My earliest memory of that sort of thing falls into the latter category. We were visiting the family of a friend of my ex. This friend (and his family) were from the same ethnic background, but that was about where the similarities ended, because the friend (unlike my ex) was a devoted Sufi who followed a shaykh from back home. (My ex told me later that this shaykh was a charlatan who was well known for his shady financial dealings and lavish person lifestyle… but anyway.) While we were at my ex’s friend’s house, we met another of that shaykh’s murids. When the murid realized that I am a convert, he immediately wanted to know what my ethnic background was.

I replied that my mother’s side of the family is originally from X, and my father’s side from Y.

The murid loudly objected, telling me: “No, you are only what your father is, not what your mother is! Your essence can only come from your father.”

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Jumpers

What do… jumpers, alternative communities, religious hip-hop, incense, Malcolm X, traveling to Asia to find a religious teacher, long denim skirts, reading Rumi’s poetry, religiously-motivated home-schooling, Sufi chanting, preachy children’s videos, religiously-themed nursery rhymes and squeaky-clean boy-bands singing religious lyrics for audiences of ecstatic pre-teen girls have in common?

Not only did we design, sew and wear abominations like this for a time, but Shukr did it too... Yes, that's a Shukr design there, with the usual headless model. Fortunately, they seem to have ceased committing such fashion-crimes... thank God.

Not only did we design, sew and wear abominations like this for a time, but Shukr did it too… Yes, that’s a Shukr design there, with the usual headless model. Fortunately, they seem to have ceased committing such fashion-crimes… thank God.

They are all North American Muslim fads that I have lived through.

Man, do I feel old.

Reading a post over at Love Joy Feminism, which quotes Julie Ann asking how she as a homeschooling mother ended up getting sucked into buying an entire conservative lifestyle “package” that included wearing jumpers, I was reminded of when I and a convert friend of mine experimented with them.

Our problem in the clothing department (as we saw it, back in the ’80’s and early ’90’s) was twofold: to somehow discover a way of wearing hijab that would not look alien to North America, but would also be “modest” enough to fulfil what we were taught were the requirements for a Muslim woman’s dress in public, and to devise something similar for our young daughters to wear.  For a time, we saw jumpers as the answer. I designed and sewed jumpers for myself, out of plain broadcloth. For the first one I made, I used recycled fabric—it had originally been sewn into and used for something else. My friend had slightly more fashionable ideas (and more money to spend); she bought heavy cotton patterned cloth, and paid a woman with better sewing skills to make it into a jumper for her.

At the time, we thought pretty highly of our efforts to dress “modestly”, yet also not stick out too much. We sewed jumpers for our little daughters to wear too, over t-shirts and pants, and with matching hijabs. We thought they looked cute, yet also suitably modest, especially when compared to the “unsuitable” clothing that other girls their age were often wearing. We thought that we had managed to strike a balance between timeless “traditional” values of female “modesty” and the need to relate to the time and place in which we were living, by wearing North American clothing….

But when I looked at the photo of Christian homeschoolers wearing jumpers that Julie Ann linked to, it was unnerving. It was like looking back through time at ourselves and our daughters… and suddenly realizing that actually, we must have looked pretty… strange. Frumpy. Self-righteous. Cultish.

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Some unhelpful things to say to survivors of religious abuse (convert edition)

Well, nobody forced you to join that group/mosque/community (or to marry that person). You chose to join it (or, to get married).

In other words: What happened is at least partly caused by you. So, stop blaming the group/mosque/community/your abusive spouse, and focus on what you did wrong.

But the thing is, sometimes religious authority is misused. And sometimes adults do get drawn into things against their better judgment. Female converts in particular have often been pressured by people who supposedly had “Islamic knowledge” into getting involved in controlling or cultish communities—“satan attacks the one who is alone,” and all that—and even into marriage with people that they hardly knew.

Saying this sort of thing handily shifts accountability for whatever happened away from the shaykh/mosque leadership/community leaders or husband—meaning, away from those who had more knowledge and power, and who the convert was led to believe that she had to listen to “Islamically”—and onto the convert herself. And what it sounds like to the survivor is something like this:  No matter how badly you may have been treated, your life just don’t count nearly as much in the greater scheme of things as the reputation of that group/mosque/community/man does.

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