Posts Tagged Muslim convert guilt
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.
“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!
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).
I often read blogs belonging to others who are at various points on the recovery-from-a-highly-conservative-religious-movement process. Partly, because sometimes I run across things or stories that helps me think more clearly about the issues that I am trying to sort out. Partly, because some of these bloggers are damn good writers. And partly… to feel less alone.
Much of what I read, I can identify with up to a point. But it’s rare—very rare—for me to read anything online and to feel that it describes my situation so well that it is almost as if I am seeing my reflection in a mirror. All the same, that is what reading Lynn Beisner’s post, “Why I Don’t Tell People I was in a Cult” was like for me. (I found it via Libby Anne’s take on it.)
“How can you tell someone the truth about your past when there’s a good chance they won’t believe you?
I am part of a minority group that I call “People with a Big Story” for lack of a better term. People with Big Stories have two things in common. First, something has happened in their lives that is so outside the range of the ordinary that it seems unbelievable to most people. The second thing is that this unbelievable event impacts their lives so greatly that they cannot keep it private.
For People with a Big Story, the most private and painful part of our lives, the stories we would want to share only with those we trust the most, cannot be hidden from people who know us. [….] What makes my sojourn in the cult different from other traumatic life events is that it created such a gaping hole in my personal history that I do not have a choice to keep it private. What makes it necessary for me to tell the Big Story is not the trauma of drills or the physical abuse that I survived. It is all that I missed…..
You cannot know me very well without having to know this. You would be surprised at how hard it is to go more than a few good conversations with a person that I like without hitting on a subject where an honest response would require knowledge of The Big Story….