As converts to Islam in the early ’80’s, we were usually given to understand (both by conservative Muslims, as well as by the wider non-Muslim society) that the teachings on gender, family and sexuality that we received were uniquely Muslim.
Meaning, that if we had a problem with these teachings, we had a problem with God himself, and if they didn’t work out well in our lives, there must be something wrong with us and not with the ideas themselves (from the perspective of conservative Muslims). Or meaning (from the perspective of the wider society) that this only goes to show that Islam and Muslims are innately misogynistic, and choosing to be Muslim inevitably means choosing to be oppressed.
These ways of framing the issues we faced isolated us. We didn’t see the larger picture for the longest time. It made it difficult for us to see where abuse was taking place, much less to consider seeking help. It made us feel guilty about questioning certain practices, because we couldn’t “let the side down,” so to speak. Admitting that some practices were causing needless suffering was somehow seen as capitulating to “outsiders'” stereotypes of us as uniquely and inevitably oppressed.
The first time I saw the Power and Control Wheel, I didn’t know what to make of it.
A (Muslim) friend who had recently exited from an abusive marriage had emailed it to me. I looked and I looked, but I couldn’t recognize my experiences in it. Because the standards that it implied of what a non-abusive marriage ought to be like didn’t seem to be something that I could be justified in aspiring to. According to what we were taught, a man is supposed to be the head of the household, and a good wife obeys her husband. She does not have the right to work–or even to leave the house, in most cases–if he forbids her. And so on. Which is not to say that all husbands–or even the majority of husbands–took it so far that they forbade their wives to leave the house. They didn’t, in the communities I lived in. But at the same time, we knew very well that if a man wanted to do this, he had the legal right. And that if a husband reminds his wife to “fear God” when she opposes him, or threatens to divorce her or to take another wife, or tells her that God will not be pleased with her if she does not do X, he would not be seen as abusive, but as living up to his God-given role.
Sure, the more middle-class professional element of the communities I was involved in might look down on or even deplore a husband who threw around his patriarchal privilege too crudely, especially if they were Islamists–because in their view, a wise husband should have been able to “educate” his wife to see things his way rather than having to coerce her. But if a man did decide to throw his weight around, the typical advice that women were likely to receive was to “be patient” and to avoid shaming the community or endangering her faith by calling the police or going to a women’s shelter.
When discussing wife abuse (on the rare occasions when this was in fact discussed), people would parse verses from the Qur’an, or hadiths, or the views of scholars past and present. Never was it presented to us in a larger context, as the ways and means that abusers the world over use against those they abuse, religious pretexts or not.
So, we had leaders who would get up and say, with a straight face, that wife abuse is not allowed “in Islam,” but that a wife has to obey her husband unless he orders her to do something sinful, and if she does not, he should warn her, and then refuse to share a bed with her, and lastly (if none of these measures work) strike her lightly with a toothbrush. Nobody would object and say that this is abuse, because there was no recognized standard outside of our (narrow) frame of reference for determining what abuse is or isn’t. Which is of course a recipe for abuse.
The psychological impact of living with these ideas is not a small thing. In order to believe them–or even, to tolerate them in theory–you have to believe on some level that you aren’t as worthy of respect, security and human growth as a man is. And even worse, you believe that this is what God says. So that if you start to question this, you often believe that you have to choose between your own sense of self, and your salvation. For many religious women, this is no choice at all.
All these years later, I came to discover that a lot of the attitudes and practices that we were taught were nothing particularly special–they were unfortunately typical of right-wing patriarchal religious groups in North America in the ’80’s and ’90’s (and until today, in some cases):
- a strong distrust of “feminism” in any form whatsoever, including explicitly religious feminism
- strict limitations on women’s exercise of any type of religious leadership
- emphasis on the notion that the husband is the head of the household
- teaching that God has commanded wives to obey their husbands
- a strong emphasis on women getting married and having children
- discouraging higher education for women, unless it is in a field that is seen as necessary in order to fill community needs and is said to be in accordance with women’s “nature,” such as nursing or school teaching
- discouraging women from working for wages outside the home
- concern with regulating what women wear (while not paying nearly as much attention to men’s clothing)
- teaching sexual double standards as divinely given (e.g. putting the onus for “modest” dress and behaviour on women; allowing males more freedom to select a marriage partner and/or get a divorce, allowing men to take more than one wife)
- a strong suspicion of the public school system because children will be exposed to different views on religion, gender roles and sexuality
- strong advocacy of shielding children by taking them out of certain classes/events at their public school (e.g. sex ed, gym, field-trips), or by setting up religious schools, or homeschooling them
- a heavy emphasis on parents’ control of children’s behaviour, especially of daughters
- shunning and rejection of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or other gender or sexual minority members
- marked ambivalence or opposition to contraception, and/or abortion, even by married women
I realize that in many conservative “mainstream” Sunni North American Muslim communities, a lot of these ideas are increasingly passe, or even openly rejected by some more recent converts, to say nothing of the younger generation. Which to my mind is all to the good.
However, just because we now (thankfully!) have some leaders who object to the notion that husbands can strike their wives with toothbrushes, or even entertain the idea that maybe women can lead prayer does not erase the harm that was done to many of us who lived for years in communities where these ideas were regarded as mainstream. To say nothing of the harm often done to our children.
Many of us are still dealing with the fall-out. There is practically no recognition of this from Muslim leaders or organizations, much less resources designed to help us. Recognizing that our experiences were often not all that different from those of women in groups such as the FLDS, Quiverful, or Christian Patriarchy enables us to access resources that are already out there for women exiting or trying to deal with the effects of religious patriarchy.