Posts Tagged holy women
For a number of reason, many of which I outlined in my last post, Eid al-Adha was far from being my favorite holiday back when I was a conservative Muslim. In the insular, very conservative community that I belonged for a number of years, Eid was really a celebration of patriarchal power and privilege.
While I and my convert friends did our best not to acknowledge this, and tried so hard to get into the spirit of things, to find some spiritual nourishment in the whole thing—or failing this, to at least make it memorable and fun for our kids, it was practically impossible for us not to notice that its overwhelmingly patriarchal focus left barely any room for us or our children. It was a celebration of a particular type of hyper-masculinity that all but erases every way of being that doesn’t fit into that mold, and damns to hellfire all those of us who can’t help but protest the injustice of being negated and shoved to the margins.
But as this year’s Eid al-Adha approached, I began to hear things that made me wonder if perhaps I hadn’t written off this holiday too quickly. One mosque had invited a woman to give the sermon at the Eid prayers. And another was having a woman lead the Eid prayer. History was being made, apparently—and on this day of all days, when the story told in innumerable sermons around the globe studiedly ignores female subjectivities, and real live women are most typically relegated to the kitchen. I could hardly believe it.
But I was skeptical. The holiday is what it is, I thought. How could a few women giving sermons or leading prayers make any difference? Wouldn’t it be the ritual equivalent of… I don’t know, trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?
I’m still recovering from Eid. Rather odd, I know. Eid was on October 26, which is what—three weeks ago, now?
But Eid al-Adha (Korban Bairami, Eid l-Kbir, Hari Raya Haji, Baqar Eid, Eid-e Qorban…) was a transformative experience for me this year. Which was completely unexpected, because even when I was a very conservative Muslim, Eid al-Adha was my least favorite holiday.
Why that was so, I never really knew, because I could never allow myself the freedom to be honest about what I was thinking or feeling, especially if that threatened to take me into any kind of doctrinally or socially questionable territory. Early on after converting, I quickly learned that openly expressing discomfort with any ritual practices would lead to me being classified as someone that other sisters would be warned to stay far away from. And I and my convert friends were trying so hard to be model Muslimas, so rather than ask ourselves why we weren’t really feeling the Eid spirit, we threw our energies into trying to make it something we could somehow connect to—or at least, that our kids would enjoy.
As we tried to connect to Eid, we retold the story of Hajar as a model of a pious woman who suffered adversity, but relied on God alone, and in the end, her faith was abundantly rewarded. By focusing on her actions, her faith, and the hajj ritual that required every pilgrim to retrace her steps between the two hills, we could avoid dealing with the many troubling questions that the story raised for us that we couldn’t quite suppress.
After all, here was an African female slave who had been forced to bear children on behalf of an infertile free woman, Sara. There was no suggestion in any retelling of the story we were aware of that Hajar’s consent to either sex with her mistress’s husband or child-bearing was thought to matter in the least. Meaning, it hadn’t mattered to Abraham, nor to Sara, nor even to later audiences down through the centuries. Including the communities that we belonged to.
I seem to have arrived at the core. Or, at the foundations of it all. However you want to phrase it.
Some of the feedback I have received about the previous post is along the lines of: Aren’t I still being really judgmental about women who didn’t or couldn’t live up to my standards of “purity”? Why do I appear to continue to buy into patriarchal standards of women’s sexual “morality”? Why don’t I just tell those nosy immigrant Muslims that my sexual history is none of their business? etc.
I am just being honest here. This is not a recovery blog for nothing. Yes, I know that I am still way, way too judgmental, and that patriarchal attitudes to sexuality continue to have a lot of unconscious influence on the way that I see the world. That is where I am at right now, unfortunately.
Part of the reason is that over two decades worth of social and religious conditioning can’t be undone in a day. And, as the previous post explains, the pressure to internalize these kinds of attitudes was intense. But part of it is that—as I am now realizing—this was in fact the core of our faith.
No, not tawhid. Female “purity.”
I have had a life-long fascination with the notion of female saints. And so far, it has been my undoing.
Looking back, it rather seems odd. I wasn’t raised in any religious tradition, so it isn’t as if I was raised to look up to saints of any sort as protectors or examples. Saints certainly weren’t subjects of dinner table conversation! And there was no religious art of any sort in our house. Maybe it was because “God” was a masculine noun. I was fascinated by the idea of God (yet another notion that had no place in our house), but didn’t see anything that I as a non-male could really relate to in the doctrinal fragments of Christianity or Judaism that occasionally came my way. Holy women seemed to provide a bridge of a sort into a religious universe, in which I too could encounter God.
Anyway. I am still trying to disentangle the role of holy women in my life. To that end, I recently listened to a sermon on Mary Magdalene (whose feast-day is on July 22). A Christian saint. It would be a nice break from agonizing over the stories of Muslim female saints and how they used to make us feel so guilty, so inadequate… and how they were utilized in order to keep us down… or so I thought.
Well, I was certainly wrong about that. The whole experience was quite triggering. Because it laid bare a whole lot of the dynamics of my and my convert friends’ relationships with Muslim female saints.
The sermon can be summed up in this way: Today is the feast-day of Saint Mary of Magdala. For about 1400 years, Christians have believed that she was a reformed prostitute who left her sinful life in order to follow Jesus. This isn’t true historically, but Christians believed it for centuries because of a sermon preached by Gregory the Great, in which he mistakenly conflated Mary with an unnamed “sinful woman” mentioned in the gospels who anointed Jesus’ feet. Whoops! Well, the church wasn’t right about that one, but anyway…. We probably can identify with the experience of being wrongfully accused of something, but this is not what we should take out of Mary’s story. Instead, we should look at what we do know about her. She followed Jesus, ministering to his needs. She was present at the crucifixion, and she was the one at his tomb on Easter morning, and he told her to go and tell the others that he had risen. So, she is known as “the apostle to the apostles.” We should follow her devoted example of faith.
Okay. First of all, the misidentification of Mary Magdalene as a “reformed prostitute” is not just a fluke. That kind of thing happens all the damned time to women in patriarchal religious communities, past and present.
We could be holy. Or at least, we could try to be.
When I was in the process of converting to Islam, I remember reading an article written by a woman, in a Muslim magazine aimed primarily at women. Most of the article was typical, conservative stuff from a Shia Iranian perspective about women’s duties and rights (note the word order). It also briefly discussed several holy women of the past, such as the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, his first wife Khadijah, and his grand-daughter Zaynab. The author concluded with a statement along the lines of: Yes, in Islam women are subject to certain legal restrictions that men are not… but this is not important. What really matters is that a Muslim woman can be a woman who devotes her life to God, and remains unswervingly on the path of divine guidance. Neither difficulties nor “the women who blow on knots” (a quranic reference to sorceresses, used in this case to dismissively refer to secular or feminist women) will divert such a woman from her “chosen way.”
In this way, the author manages to divert the readers’ attention from some serious legal restrictions by invoking the model of the saintly woman.
That is, rather than paying attention to (or worrying about) the legal disabilities that the article said we must accept as God’s will for our lives, we should be feeling inspired by the heroic examples of self-sacrificing pure mothers of martyrs, loyal and supportive wives promised an exalted place in heaven, and brave daughters who risked their lives to speak the truth to power. Saintly women, who had been chosen by God to play important roles in the lives of prophets and holy men, and to witness miracles.
Feminists who find many aspects of Sharia law unjust towards women are just being churlish, the article suggests. They are looking for things to pick holes in. They are failing to see the big picture. And their claims that conservative religious women are “oppressed” or their representations of the lives of dutiful mothers, wives, and daughters in “traditional” conservative religious families as essentially passive and unfulfilling is wildly incorrect.
Because, what might appear to be subjection to patriarchal power and privilege is in fact… spiritually fulfilling. And not just spiritually fulfilling, but the source of exaltation.