Posts Tagged early marriage
A lot of the posts on this blog deal with the impact of certain hyper-conservative interpretations of Islam on my life, as well as on the lives of other female converts that I have known. I have repeatedly blogged about the difficulties of trying to recover from living in certain very restrictive and stifling situations, and trying to (re)build a life for oneself and one’s (often confused and sometimes troubled) kids.
But one angle of these situations that I haven’t really dealt with is the impact on (some) men. On my ex, for instance. On some of my friends’ exes. On conservative, often immigrant, Muslim men, who became “born again Muslims” after living for a time in “the West” as young male refugees or students. And for that matter, on some of our now-grown sons, who were raised in very conservative, insular and controlling Muslim communities.
One reason I don’t deal with this subject much is for much the same reason that I don’t write about the 1 percent. I mean what—the problems that are consuming you at the moment are that your butler quit, and junior has started spouting some kind of lefty nonsense about how rich people should pay more taxes? Do you even have a clue how many people in the world would love to have your “problems”?? It’s not just the male privilege that these conservative Muslim men have that tends to leave me thinking that I don’t have much to say about their situations, it’s that unlike many women exiting rotten or abusive marriages or trying to distance themselves from toxic community dynamics, these men usually have considerably more power.
In the last post, I discussed the downward spirals the female converts can get into, and the ideas found in some conservative Muslim discourses about women’s roles that can promote this.
Are there any solutions? I can already hear the puritanical “do it by the book” types pontificating about this: As we’ve been saying, all sisters, including convert sisters must have a wali in order to get married! Or: Sisters should know that it is their Islamic right to be financially supported by their husbands, and if they allow themselves to be cheated out of their Islamic right, then they only have themselves to blame!
Translation: she had problems because she was Doing It Wrong. She either didn’t know The True Islam (TM), or lacked enough taqwa to put it into practice.
That sort of claim is not really an answer, so much as a conversation-stopper. Nobody is supposed to be bold enough to ask how getting some man who might not really know much about her (like some overworked mosque imam), or even a man whose supposed concern for her welfare might not be disinterested (such as a reputedly pious brother married to her best friend, who is secretly on the lookout for a younger, more attractive second wife) to act as her wali would necessarily protect her from getting into a bad marriage.
Nobody is supposed to notice that many of the reasons that getting into bad marriages can be so destructive to female converts is due to the way the system itself is often set up, what with so much emphasis on women in particular getting and staying married, and such limited options for exiting bad or even abusive marriages. Instead of proposing that there needs to be less pressure on women to marry, and more access to family counseling and female-initiated divorce, the solution is supposed to be more patriarchal control of women by not allowing them to get married without a man’s permission.
Recently, Muslim converts—particularly, white, middle-class female converts from North America—are in the news again, thanks to the attack in Boston. And not in a good way.
I’ve been too heartsick to blog about it.
The (white, female, North American) convert responses to this latest situation that I have so far been able to find online deal with two main issues: the stereotypical media portrayals that imply that there is a connection between putting on hijab and becoming radicalized, and media portrayals that imply that female converts who marry immigrant Muslims don’t have agency. In other words, these converts don’t want to be put in the same category as Katherine Russell. They don’t want people making assumptions about why they converted, or why they wear hijab (for those who do), or what their relationships with their husbands are like.
Well, that’s understandable. In the more than two decades in which I lived as a conservative, hijab-wearing Muslim, I had to put up with a lot of assumptions about why I converted, why I wore hijab… and I had to deal with patronizing dismissals of my agency. And not only from non-Muslims, I might add. The stereotypes about female converts—that we don’t really know anything about Islam, and/or that we were motivated to convert by emotion or a desire to please a Muslim man—were not uncommon among the immigrant Muslims that I dealt with. So, enough with the stereotypes already.
But. To my mind, rejecting such stereotypes shouldn’t be the end of the discussion. It should be the beginning. And now that we’ve done that, can the discussion move on to more important things than headscarves and alleged initial reasons for converting. Things like what resources there are that might be available to converts who find themselves getting in way over their heads.
In the last post, I discussed a number of reasons why I (and many of my convert friends) found conservative Muslim arguments in favor of women being stay-at-home wives and mothers convincing, and highlighted some of the ways that deciding to stay home limited our ability (and even, our inclination) to make independent, adult decisions on a whole range of things.
In staying home, we became financially dependent. And, we didn’t chart our own courses as wives and mothers either—there were not only our husbands to answer to, but also various conservative, insular and often quite intrusive Muslim communities. For those of us who became involved in Muslim cults, that goes double.
I became financially dependent, despite the fact that my ex wanted to have both the comfort and convenience of a stay-at-home wife (and mother), AND the benefits of a wife who also brings in some money—though, one who would work in a way that wouldn’t ever inconvenience him. I tried to do that by babysitting from home. That was supposed to be the ideal balance between the need to generate income, and the “need” to be at home with my kids full-time, without in any way falling short of my wifely responsibilities to cook, clean, etc, or my moral responsibilities to wear hijab and avoid working alongside or closely interacting with men. I also hoped that it would protect me from job discrimination and the type of dismissive treatment that often is experienced by people in low-status jobs. After all, I was working at home….
Why do I tell sad stories about my past life, on my blog and sometimes IRL?
For sure, they aren’t easy to listen to or read. For that matter, they aren’t easy to tell. I do not like to relive them. I also worry about being rejected by friends when I tell them. After all, there is presumably a certain point when enough’s enough. Most people like to be around friends who make them feel happy, not friends who seem to be consumed with sad things that happened in the past. So I try not to tell them too often IRL.
Sometimes, I tell them because it’s like a poison that is taking me over. A poison that I am trying to expel. Maybe if I write it or speak it, it will leave me for once and for all. Maybe it will be like vomiting—you feel awful before you do it, you feel awful while doing it, you feel awful afterwards… but then ultimately, whatever-it-was that disagreed with you is gone, and you feel better. Maybe I can finally shed these awful memories, and somehow become like everyone else. Like, not haunted. Normal.
Well, that’s the hope. But so far, it hasn’t worked.
Sometimes, I tell them because they still bother me. It’s like the thorn in your foot that left a bit of itself behind even when you pulled it out. A bit that’s too small to see, but it still hurts. Yes, the story is in the past, but it still haunts me, because there is something about it that I can’t figure out. Usually, why things happened the way they did. Sometimes, I can’t figure out if a particular person who acted a particular way was in the wrong or not. Or what the incident should or should not have told me about his or her personality or priorities. So, I tell the story hoping that someone will know the answer. Someone whose judgment is better, who knows more about human beings and what is or isn’t acceptable behavior than I do.
No, I don’t want pity. I want insight.
I am not the only person who tells these stories. My kids do too. But they do not usually tell them as sad stories. To them, these are odd, sometimes funny, yet strangely disturbing stories.
An ongoing experience in my life as a North American convert has been that (some) born Muslims feel free to make assumptions about what my life must have been like before I converted. And some have felt the need to voice such assumptions, or ask really nosy questions, that a woman from their own immigrant Muslim community would never be asked.
In other words, my body became an object of scrutiny in a way that it had never been before. Public property, in a sense. Somehow, my sexual history had become every Muslim’s rightful business. Even a Muslim I hardly knew (or even, had just met!) could at any time feel free to ask about it, and jump to conclusions.
When I was a wide-eyed teenager, and then a twenty-something, and I encountered these sorts of attitudes, my first instinct was to blame myself. Presumably, I wasn’t modest enough, or something was somehow “wrong” with me that other Muslims could see, and that had led them to make such assumptions. After all, I had grown up in a culture (’70’s small-town white North America) that labeled and judged girls and women according to their presumed sexual experience (or lack thereof), and being labeled negatively was simply presumed to be the fault of the girl or woman in question.
After I encountered other female “Western” converts who had had this experience as well, I put it down to ethnocentric prejudice and stereotyping: that basically, some immigrant Muslims have fixed ideas of what all “Western women” (by which they usually mean white women, primarily) are supposedly like. Presumably, derived from watching too much bad American tv.
In the past, I tried ignoring it as much as possible. After all, as Lynn Jones points out in her book, Believing as Ourselves (which has a chapter about this very issue, entitled “The American Harlot”) people will make assumptions, and there’s nothing we can do about it. So the best thing is not to take it personally.
But this sort of thing has long bothered me for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s really, really insulting. Given the attitudes that many of the people asking these sorts of questions or making these sort of assumptions have about a woman having sex before marriage, what they are saying in effect is: “So… are you morally depraved? Have you committed an unforgivable sin that will stain you forever?”