Archive for category Polygamy

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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A call in the night

Something woke me up. Wasn’t sure what it was, at first.

Then, I realize that the phone is ringing.

I reached for it, and picked it up, dimly wondering who on earth it could be at that hour. A wrong number, maybe? Not that many people have my phone number, and anyone who knows me knows better than to try calling me at 2 am.  I’m barely able to string a sentence together at that hour. Especially not when I have work the next day.

It was one of my daughters. Her voice was shaking with sobs. I asked her what was wrong, and she began to talk about… her memories of when I was still stuck in polygamy.

Her father shouting at her to do the cooking and cleaning while I was off at school (trying to get some skills training so that I could get a job because now that he had taken another wife, I needed to find a way to support myself and the kids). The feeling of being made to be the woman of the house, although she was not even in high school yet. The other woman—now called her “other mother”—coming to visit from abroad for the first time, with her kids, and my ex telling my kids that these are their siblings now.  And then, after my ex divorced her, she and her kids vanished… and my daughter wondered what became of them. How could they be her siblings one month and no relation at all the next?

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Idols, and breaking them

The story of Abraham is central to Muslim belief. Abraham the unbending monotheist. Abraham who broke the idols. Abraham who left his family and everything he had ever known for the sake of God. Abraham who was even willing to sacrifice his own son when he thought that God wanted it.

The Qur’an speaks about Abraham and other prophets in very positive terms, and holds them up as examples of faith. But the Qur’an does not say that they (much less their wives or other family members) as sinless, perfect, or beyond all criticism.

Centuries ago, Muslim scholars debated the question of whether prophets can doubt God’s promises, whether they can make small mistakes and errors of judgment or even major ones, whether they can commit minor or even major sins, whether their pronouncements are only error-free when it comes to the divine revelations that they proclaim or if everything on every subject that they said is unquestionably true.

But listening to most Muslims today (especially those who are neo-traditionalists, but certainly not only them), you’d never know it.

Islam as I was taught it, whether by Salafi-influenced Muslims or neo-traditionalists, had absolutely no room for questioning prophets, much less criticizing anything they did. You were supposed to hold them in reverence, take them as examples, and never, ever express any doubts about the wisdom or justice of any of their actions whatsoever. No critical questions could be asked. You didn’t question them any more than you questioned God.

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The ice is breaking

When I read Amina Wadud’s post today on the blog, Feminism and Religion, I thought: The ice is breaking.

Her post is about the Hajar story. It was wrenchingly honest.

She points out that when Hajar was left in the valley, she was left in a situation where she was a hair’s breadth away from death. She discusses several ways that this story is whitewashed in the usual ways that it is told, with Hajar’s slave status and Africanness all but bleached out.

She calls Abraham a dead-beat dad, and Sarah a selfish bitch.

Being the well-trained former neo-traditionalist that I am, I reflexively cringed at that… and then, it was as if the ice was breaking.

As if those figures from all those stories we were told and that we read and believed about the prophets and their wives and the Companions and the awliya and shaykhs and other pious believers… began to move from beneath the ice where we had entombed them—and where we had entombed ourselves. As if I myself felt the layer of ice that I hadn’t realized was encasing me begin to crack.

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Musings on Muslim identity (I)

As God says, “Fa-aina tadhhabun?” (Where are you going?)

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In the beginning, it seemed quite simple: belief that God is one (as opposed to belief in a trinity), belief in the prophets with Muhammad as the last, reading quranic passages in my personal prayers more frequently than Bible verses… I couldn’t even pretend to fit into any Christian church any more. My religious beliefs, my ritual language, were undeniably becoming more and more Muslim.

But that was before I had encountered a Muslim community. I had met individual Muslims—most of whom were students who weren’t very practicing, although a few nonetheless plied me with dawah literature. But they were not an organized conservative community, with clear ideas of who was “in” and who was “out,” or an interest in policing what people believed or did. So at that point, gradually becoming a Muslim was primarily about my own individual, private spiritual practice.

Once I married my ex, however, the specter of community slowly began to rear its head now and again.

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Awesome

Today, I tripped across a Muslim woman’s letter, asking for advice on how to deal with the fact that her pious, Muslim husband had cheated on her.

Don’t read it, every instinct told me. Don’t read it. It will only trigger you.

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Because I thought that I knew what the answer will be. Some slight bits of sympathy will be tossed this woman’s way by the advice-givers (so as not to seem too harsh)… and then the words of blame would inevitably follow: Hints, perhaps tactfully delivered, that she probably hadn’t been doing her wifely duty “properly.”

That she needed to try harder to dress up for him at home, to cook nice food for him, to keep the house even tidier and the kids even better behaved… and that she needed to make sure that she never, ever denied him sexual access within the limits of Islamic law.

That she needed to look critically at herself in the mirror: Maybe she needed to lose weight? Get her hair done? Join a sisters’ exercise class and tone those flabby arms? Do more crunches and reign in those sagging stomach muscles? Or that maybe the problem was more about her character: She needed to be more feminine, more content, more grateful for everything he does for her, and never let a complaining word cross her lips in her husband’s presence.

Or even, that she needed to just accept that her husband was the sort of man who could not be content with just one woman, so she needed to encourage him to marry another wife rather than committing zina.

I braced myself for some or all of that… and didn’t find it.

I was astounded that the advice given to the woman was actually reasonable and compassionate.

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Today’s flashback—I was worth nothing in those days

Today was an incredibly strange day. It was one of those days in which my past reaches up into my present, and tries to grab hold of me, taking me by surprise. I did not see this coming.

A conservative Muslim group that I had had some indirect dealings with years ago contacted me, asking me to do some work for them. This really weirded me out. Because I have done my best to completely forget about those dealings.

Back in those days, my ex had just embarked on his first venture into polygamy—and it wasn’t working at all the way that it is supposed to in theory. He didn’t have the wherewithal to support even the family he had (me, and several kids), much less another wife. Since we didn’t live in the same place either, he was trying to divide his time between us—or so he said, but in reality, he was much more eager to spend time with her. She was quickly getting fed up about the way things were working (or rather, not working).

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