Posts Tagged “ideal Muslimah”
(Cont.) Reading Esra Ozyurek’s book, Being German, Becoming Muslim was like a step back in time for a number of reasons… and one of them was her discussion of converts who had taken it upon themselves to represent “real Islam” in German society. For example, she writes about a mother, Iman, who feels that because so many (immigrant) Muslims are uneducated and marginalized that she has a “responsibility” to wear hijab and speak up about “Muslim needs” in situations such as neighborhood and school meetings:
If I do not, I can be certain that no Muslim voice will be heard, even though there are many immigrant Muslims in my neighborhood. I have to represent the Muslim position on issues such as not serving pork at the school cafeteria, about issues regarding co-ed swimming classes, etc. Sometimes nonobservant Muslims come to these meetings, and their position then represents the “Muslim” voice, which makes life much more difficult for us, practicing Muslims. (p. 40) [emphasis mine]
Yikes. Where to even begin?
On one hand, I remember the expectations that we as converts do this sort of thing—be publicly visible Muslims who not only adhered to a long list of rules and restrictions about clothing, food, social interactions and recreational activities, but made sure that our kids followed them too, no matter how much inconvenience this might cause ourselves or others, or how much of a social barrier this might create.
A while back, another convert left a comment for one of my posts (can’t remember which one, unfortunately). She agreed enthusiastically with an observation that I had made about how I had never really felt welcomed by most immigrant (or second generation immigrant) Muslim sisters in any community I was involved in or had dealings with. She commented that after converting, she had married an immigrant Muslim man, hoping that this would help her to feel more part of the community, and that the immigrant sisters would be more accepting of her. But the reverse happened. “So much for sisterhood,” she concluded.
At the time I received that comment, I wasn’t sure what exactly to say in response. That sister had evidently had a disillusioning experience to say the least. Like me, and like some other converts I know, she had apparently been exposed to the “we are all brothers and sisters belonging to one umma” rhetoric, and had taken it more or less at face value. She had expected that since all Muslim women are supposed to be sisters in faith, that therefore the other women at the mosque would welcome and accept her as a fellow Muslima, especially since she had demonstrated the sincerity of her conversion by marrying into the community. She wondered where the “sisterhood” was, and why it wasn’t being extended to her.
In some ways, I could definitely relate. On one hand, I did take that rhetoric seriously.
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.
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.
Samantha over at Defeating the Dragons has a post for Banned Books Week, called “The books I didn’t read.” Some of the attitudes she discusses are all too familiar to me. She writes,
“I read the books that the adults in my life were comfortable with me reading– books that wouldn’t challenge any of their (or my own) ideas, books that didn’t ask any hard questions they might not have been able to answer. Safe books. Easy books. Antiquated and archaic and adorable and aristocratic books– only books that enforced the perceptions we already had.”
Oh yeah. That pretty much describes how we tried to raise our kids… and what our lives were like in the highly conservative, insular Muslim communities that I was involved in. For a complicated bunch of reasons.
When I converted, the first Muslim communities that I encountered were usually led by immigrant men who had been heavily influenced either by the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami. Some of them were engineering or medical students. They had little time for the arts, and that included literature of any kind. After all, what good was it? How did it help teach people Islam or make them better Muslims? Literature was most often ignored, or when it wasn’t, it was treated with some suspicion.
As a new convert, most of what I wanted to read was about Islam. Books in English on Islam were in short supply back then where I was living, but we would comb the public library for them (and occasionally mission out to the ISNA-run Islamic book store, which was just a hole in the wall in those days… but that’s a subject for another time). Most of the books related to Islam at the library dealt with modern political issues. I read a certain amount of that, but didn’t often find that it answered the questions I had.
I and my convert frinds read other stuff as well, but we self-censored a fair amount. We usually read books that were practical in some way, or religious, or old. But we seldom read contemporary fiction, and when we did, we often found it unsettling for various reasons. Looking back, I can see that some of my negative reactions to fiction were trauma-related—stuff like The Color Purple was frankly triggering. But some of it was due to my discomfort with the ideas that the books expressed, as well as their “sinful” characters and open-ended plots that didn’t end with the punishment of those who did wrong and reward for those who were righteous.
On a road trip with an old friend of mine—another formerly conservative convert—we were listening to the radio as we were driving along. And, lo and behold, the issue of the day that the radio host was discussing with several invited guests was the burning question of… (drum roll…) whether or not “we still need feminism.” As soon as he announced the topic, my eyes started rolling. I guess that’s part of getting old—because as far back as I can remember the media has been dredging up this non-issue at least every few years, with wearying regularity. And these discussions never seem to resolve anything.
This particular discussion was no exception. One of the guests was a rightwing woman who spent most of the time repeating well-worn Tea Party-ish talking points: Yes, feminism sort of did a bit of good for women way waaaay back in the day, by getting women the right to own property and attend universities and vote… but then it went right off the rails, because it turned into a movement that is all about putting men down and demonizing them, while trying to make women superior instead of equal. Feminism (she said) denies the innate differences between men and women, and promotes women neglecting their husbands and children, while stigmatizing women who want to stay home instead of having a career. Women are weaker than men, and women should celebrate and embrace this rather than deny it. Oh, and feminism is also bad because it promotes abortions.