Posts Tagged low self-esteem
In continuing to think about why as white female converts we often didn’t experience much in the way of “sisterhood” with born Muslim women, I found a book that I chanced upon recently fairly helpful. Esra Ozyurek’s Becoming German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe (Princeton University Press, 2015) talks about converts in Germany and how they position themselves as both German and Muslim, in a country where “Islam” and “Muslim” are often automatically associated with adjectives such as: immigrant, Turkish or Arab, lower class, chauvinistic.
While I picked up the book expecting to read about how and why people convert (and how they negotiate their convert identities afterwards), I encountered some unanticipated food for thought—about the personal issues that some white converts bring with them, and also about the similarities between some types of white convert discourse and white European racist rhetoric. I will discuss the first issue (personal issues faced by some white converts) in this post, the the second (convert and racist rhetoric) in the next post.
A number of the converts discussed in the book had faced very negative reactions not only from wider German society, but also from their families. While a number of the female hijab-wearing converts’ anecdotes about the ways that they were treated in government offices, or by the teachers at their children’s schools sounded pretty familiar to me (many converts, including myself, have experienced similar things), the book presents many of these anecdotes together. so, reading them (for me, at least) was rather like thinking that you are about to drink lemonade, taking a mouthful, and finding that it is basically undiluted lemon juice with no added sugar. In other words, wow. It packs quite a punch.
Years ago, I bought a copy of “Hijab–An Act of Faith” (way back when we still had VHS tapes). Recently, I noticed that I still own the thing, though I can’t actually watch it, because—like most other people nowadays—I don’t have a VCR. 🙂
But fortunately (?) enough, someone in youtubeland apparently was thinking of people in my situation, because they posted a copy of it.
Ok, so I watched it. Just for old times’ sake, I guess. I remember that I bought that video, even though it was kinda pricey, because I thought that on the whole, it was pretty good. Unlike most of the pamphlets and books and talks about hijab that I had ever run across, it didn’t feature some solemn-faced guy telling the womenz how they should be dressing and behaving. It was mostly women talking… and they were confident and articulate.
It’s interesting how the passage of time can alter one’s perceptions.
Back in the day, the main thing that struck me about that video was how new and fresh it all seemed. Instead of the books and pamphlets admonishing women to ensure that their clothing complied with x number of detailed rules, or warnings of divine punishment for those who didn’t comply, or suggestions that women who don’t wear hijab are somehow responsible for causing men to sin (or that they bring harassment on themselves)… instead, a number of clearly intelligent, informed and socially active Muslim women talked about a range of issues. Whether it was the history behind contemporary western stereotypes of veiled women, or the impact of advertising on girls’ self-concept, it seemed that these sisters had it all down. When I watched it, I felt validated. And, confident that my daughters would find it inspiring and validating.
But now, watching it again all these years later, I notice things that didn’t really register before.
Another night, another nightmare.
I am with a friend of mine—a friend that I know my ex would have strongly disapproved of. All is well, it’s a sunny day and my heart is light… until a tall, male shadow approaches from the side.
It’s my ex. I am petrified. I can’t move.
And then I wake up. Whew. It was only a dream. And I woke up before he could… say or do anything.
“But I’m divorced now,” I told myself. “I’m divorced! He’s not my husband any more. He had no right to say or do anything to me or anyone else, regardless of what he thinks of anything I do or who I choose to spend time with! No right whatsoever!”
It was hard to get back to sleep.
Sitting in a meeting at work. There’s a chairperson, an agenda, and the promise that we should all be out of here within an hour. Most of the others there have a lot more experience dealing with the stuff that is being discussed than I do, so I basically keep quiet and listen.
Among the issues that comes up is gender balance in our clientele and how this is going to be recorded in a report. I quickly realize that by “gender balance” what they mean is the number of females as compared to the number of males. There is no room in either the discussion or the relevant section of the report for people who don’t identify as either “male” or “female.”
I sit there, feeling more and more uneasy. It’s not just this meeting and this report—most of the forms I have seen in use here ask for gender (even when there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why the gender of the person filling the form would be relevant), and only allow for “male” and “female” options. As though there are no other gender identities out there.
As though people who aren’t either “male” or “female” don’t exist.
“She may not deny herself to her husband, for the Qur’an speaks of husband and wife as a comfort to one another.”
[Trigger warning for rape and domestic violence survivors]
When I was a conservative Muslim, I used to read voraciously. Everything that I could get my hands on about Islam, and especially, about what was expected of us as Muslim women. I don’t recall where I read this particular sentence, but I know that I encountered it in some Muslim book or pamphlet-or-other fairly early on.
And it puzzled me. Because if husbands and wives are supposed to be a comfort to one another, that sounded to me then like a, well, mutually supportive and fulfilling relationship. So how did this then come to mean a hierarchical relationship, in which wives are obliged to service their husbands’ sexual demands, and aren’t allowed to say “no”? Where is the “comfort” for the wife in that relationship, then?
This sort of sentence ought to have sent me running far, far away in the other direction, of course. Because the red flags were all there, waving right in my face.
But it hadn’t.
And now, here I was, driving along a lonely country road with many miles to go before I would reach my destination, and as if from nowhere, that sentence popped into my head. And with it, the nauseating feeling of guilt… and then the flash-backs came.
Never again, I said aloud. Never again. Never again will I allow myself to be put in any position in which anyone can possibly think that they have the “right” to lay a single finger on me.
The flash-backs receded, as I reaffirmed to myself that I will never, ever be in this position again. Never ever will I have to bargain over access to my own body. Never ever will I fear divine displeasure, or angelic curses, or condemnation on the Day of Judgment because I wanted a decent night’s sleep or couldn’t bear to have this or that part of my body touched tonight. Never again would I be put in the position of being held responsible before God and the community for another person’s sexual “morality.”
And as they receded, I realized that this can’t be right. Why would marital sex leave any woman feeling as though she had finally managed to run trespassers off her land? As though she had finally gotten her body back, and would never, ever let anyone anywhere near its boundaries again? Isn’t that how a… well… a rape victim might be expected to feel?? But this had been marriage!
In Islam as I was taught it, following the sunna in the literal, mimetic sense was the goal. Belief wasn’t separate from physical practice. Sure, our intentions, as well as having sound belief (aqida) were seen as absolutely essential, or one’s actions wouldn’t be accepted or rewarded by God. But it was the physical practice was the focus, really.
And the sunna as it was presented to us was all about the body. Molding our daily physical habits—how we slept, woke up, used the toilet, bathed, ate, drank, dressed, left the house….
But this focus on our bodies worked out differently for men and women and genderqueer folks: Men were to follow the life-example of the Prophet. Women were to follow his example too, except when it came to the (numerous) points when gender affects the law, and then they were to follow the example of the Prophet’s wives and female Companions. Genderqueer people… didn’t have a pattern to follow at all, because their existence wasn’t even acknowledged. The bodiliness of the practice of the sunna effectively erased their very existence, forcing them to lie daily to themselves as they attempted to live a gendered pattern that wasn’t their own.
The interpretations of Islam that I was taught had pretty straightforward answers to that question.
At the most basic, the answer was that God has provided detailed and authoritative guidance to all human beings (including me) in the Qur’an and the sunna.
Possible answers to the question of how to access that guidance and apply it to my life varied: Do you need to follow a scholar or scholars? If so, which one(s)? What about madhhabs? As a convert, how would you go about choosing which madhhab to follow?… and so on.
But whatever the answer, it was the sunna that in the end was central. Even the Qur’an was read and interpreted through the sunna. And out of the sunna came a template—a pattern that we were supposed to live our lives by.
What exactly following the life-example of the Prophet meant in reality depended on the interpretation and the community. There were those men who tried to follow it down to the last seventh century Arabian detail—peppering their everyday speech with Arabic words, carrying miswaks in their pockets, wearing short thobes or even turbans. (Mind you, their poly-cotton blend thobes had been made in China, but let’s not get overly technical here….) Then, there were other men who argued that this is taking things too far (especially in North America), but they had their own pet aspects of the Prophet’s example that they saw as non-negotiable, whether it was praying tarawih or wives being forever held hostage to the appearance of her husband’s guests (who would drop by without calling and who would of course have to be fed and served and might even elect to stay the night, regardless of whatever other plans she might have made).
In the last post, I talked about how “The Thaw” reminds me so much of similar North American Muslim discourses that I encountered when I converted. In particular, “The Thaw” reminds me of a particular Muslim rap song by Native Deen that I encountered well after I converted, but when my kids were young and thirsting for all the worldly things that we were trying to censor or prevent their access to.
For us, worried about keeping our kids Muslim (meaning, very conservative and inward-looking Muslim), the cassette tapes of “Muslim rap” and nasheed boy-bands and folk-y stuff that were slowly becoming available in the place we were living in the late ’90’s and early 2000’s seemed like a godsend. At least, Muslim songs with English words for a change that went beyond kindergartener-sounding stuff like “A is for Allah.” Music that sounded cool enough that it could engage our increasingly restless preteens and teenagers. We were perennially short of money, true, but we bought those tapes whenever we could get them, and played them for the kids (and to be honest, also for our own musically-starved selves…) at home and in the car.
Some of the lyrics of these songs disturbed me to varying degrees, but I tried to shove my reservations to the back of my mind. Here we were, after having endured years of music drought, making do with a few Arabic and Urdu nasheeds that we either didn’t completely understand or understood too well (and didn’t like their message…). We now had something half-way decent in English, that the kids would actually listen to. Far be it from me to start raising picky questions about lyrics. I’d better just be grateful, and hope that they’d keep on writing and performing, and that the writing would get better.
We didn’t have that many tapes, so as we played them, the same songs would come up over and over. I soon unwillingly learned the words to Native Deen’s “M.U.S.L.I.M,” and tried to suppress a twinge of… I wasn’t quite sure what… whenever it came on: