Posts Tagged Muslim convert marriages
My kids are angry. They have lots of things to be angry about—growing up in (religiously-induced) poverty, growing up with a lot of religious restrictions that even some other Muslim kids they knew didn’t have, their father’s actions (especially, his cheating, justified as polygamy), my actions (especially, my conservative Muslim idealism that flew in the face of reality), our inability to live the idealized (and for us, quite unrealistic) vision of the “ideal Islamic marriage/family,” our divorce, the bone-headed judgmentalness of those conservative Muslims who couldn’t keep their opinions about our divorce and how the kids were likely going to be affected by my working and dehijabbing and leaving my marriage to themselves….
Sometimes, they turn their anger inward, and become very moody. Sometimes, the younger kids express their anger by squabbling among themselves. Sometimes, by being rude to me. And sometimes, they rebel.
There’s teenage rebellion, and there’s teenage rebellion. Some of it is par for the course in the wider society—piercings, tattoos, skimpy or “gangster-ish” clothing—though not acceptable in the conservative community that they were raised in, where such signs of teenage rebellion are sources of stigma for parents (who clearly didn’t manage to “raise their kids properly”). But some types of rebellion can lead to trouble with the law.
I have been thinking off and on about posting about my attempts to work through the ways that my whiteness, gender identity and convert status intersected, and what the results were like.
But I have been putting it off. Yes, race was certainly a major issue in the conservative Muslim communities that I have been involved in. But I am not sure that I am the person to talk about it—in fact, I’m pretty sure that I’m not. And it’s very, very complicated, especially when race intersects with gender identity, class, immigration status, sexual orientation… and so forth.
Part of me really does not want to talk about it. For one thing, whites—even white women—are a tiny minority of converts in North America. The problems folks like me have faced are often ugly, but they are only a very small share of the total amount of racism in the communities that I was involved in. There’s a much larger elephant in the room—the racism often faced by black North American converts within Muslim communities—that isn’t receiving anything like the attention it deserves. Other North American converts-of-color also often have to deal with racism from other Muslims, and that receives even less notice.
But this blog is about my recovery process primarily, not about telling Muslim communities what they need to pay attention to. I don’t imagine for a minute that anything I say here will change a thing, either in the communities that I used to be involved in, or in any other Muslim community. The racism that I was so often immersed in—sometimes as a target, more often as a passive beneficiary, and sometimes as a perpetrator—existed in those communities for a number of complicated reasons, and its continuing existence is enabled by a larger web of oppressive factors that reach far beyond their borders.
There are so many aspects of racism that impacted us as white converts:
- we were fetishized and exoticized, and in the process often dehumanized
- when we were welcomed, it was often at the expense of converts-of-color (who weren’t given nearly such a warm welcome), or of born Muslims of color who weren’t toeing the conservative line
As in, female piety that doesn’t inhibit or prevent women from being complete human beings. That recognizes and celebrates women’s abilities to think, reason, create, feel, desire and love to the fullest extent of their abilities. I’ve been asking myself this question, and I really don’t know.
Of course, I know what the conservative Muslim communities that I have been involved in or have otherwise encountered in the past would say. When it came to female piety, there was a sort of double-talk that constantly went on. The sameness of men’s and women’s ritual obligations—to pray five times daily, to fast in Ramadan, to pay zakat, to go on Hajj at least once—was stressed. Also, both men and women were often reminded of the importance of seeking to follow the Prophet’s example in praying extra prayers, fasting outside of Ramadan, giving in charity, doing dhikr and reciting the Qur’an.
But as some say, the devil is in the details. In reality, the details of fiqh of salat, fasting, pilgrimage, charitable giving, reading the Qur’an,… constantly remind women and men that they are not equal. And, lived practice in the communities that I was involved in underlined these inequalities even more sharply. Essentially, the fiqh plus the lived practices that I experienced helped to produce a situation in which the body of a woman was never, ever her own. It is never really under her control; unlike a man, she cannot be assured of being able to choose to engage in rituals, or to enter sacred space. And, her body was always at the disposal of others—her husband, of course, and her children, as well as to a lesser extent, relatives and guests. 24/7.
Nothing brought the internal contradictions of these ideas about female piety to the fore quite like Ramadan did. For me, anyway.
In the last post, I wrote: “What we didn’t realize is that in reality (and also, in Islamic law…), responsibility and power go hand in hand. What was marketed to us as freedom from responsibility ended up meaning lots of responsibilities for wives and mothers, but little actual power or resources to deal with them. And, lots of blame for failing to live up to idealized standards of “good” wife- and motherhood.”
And that was the way it was. Men had responsibilities, but also the power to decide what the scope of these responsibilities was, how they were going to meet them, and when they had met them “adequately.” Which meant that, in effect, we women were always in the business of taking up the slack on their behalf. But we didn’t derive much if any power to determine the course of our own lives (or to make the lives of our children better) from doing so. If we managed to do it well, then we were just doing what was expected, because a “good wife” was supposed to cover her husband’s shortcomings. And if we didn’t manage to take up the slack , despite trying—or, god forbid! we got tired of doing so and voiced our objections to the way things were going—then this meant that whatever happened was our fault.
The Muslim marriages that I and my convert friends entered into were patriarchal. Meaning, the husband was supposed to be the “head of the household,” while the wife was supposed to be obedient.
But most of the interpretations of the Qur’an and of Islamic law that we encountered when we first converted did not (and would never have) used the word “patriarchal” to describe their vision of the “ideal” Muslim marriage. Nor did they put much stress on the duty of the wife to obey the husband. Instead, they focused on the idea that the family (supposedly, like every other social institution) needs a leader, or it will collapse. So therefore, the family needs someone who will take on the responsibility of casting the deciding vote in cases where the husband and wife cannot agree. They also talked about how women and children need to be protected and provided with the necessities of life, so men (again) have been given the responsibility to do this, which is why it is “only fair” that the husband rather than the wife is the head of the household.
This vision of how a Muslim marriage “should” work was often presented to us as a really sweet deal for women—a deal that feminists would envy, if only they understood Islam. Men (we were told) had been given this heavy responsibility by God, but women had everything given to them. Guaranteed provision for life, protection from the dangers of the outside world as well as the hardships of the workplace, freedom from the responsibility of having to make major decisions on behalf of the family… what more could any woman want??
What we didn’t realize is that in reality (and also, in Islamic law…), responsibility and power go hand in hand. What was marketed to us as freedom from responsibility ended up meaning lots of responsibilities for wives and mothers, but little actual power or resources to deal with them. And, lots of blame for failing to live up to idealized standards of “good” wife- and motherhood.
Question: Which two things look one way at first, but totally different close up?
Answer: Marriage, and mirage.
An old, old joke. Didn’t think it was funny, way back when I encountered it in my teens in an old book. But I didn’t really understand it, either. That it wasn’t just a rather clumsy play on words, but a rather bitter comment on a lot of people’s lived experiences. That joke had come from way before there were no-fault divorce laws in North America, when churches barely if ever recognized that there could be good reasons for getting divorced (aside from adultery, possibly), and social expectations made it pretty hard for women in particular to leave even abusive marriages. Yet, women were strongly encouraged, pressured even, to get married, and to do so as soon as possible, lest they end up “on the shelf” as “old maids.” There were few “respectable” and respected possibilities open to a woman who didn’t want to marry, aside from becoming a nun (usually a choice only open to Catholic women, with a few exceptions).
This grim scenario seems awfully familiar to me now. Except, we didn’t even have the possibility of a life of celibacy. While in the distant past, a few Sufi women are said to have refused to get married so that they could devote their entire time and energy to God, the conservative, insular Muslim communities I was involved in would never have countenanced a woman today doing that. But otherwise, we really did go back in time in many ways.
Recently, I was talking to B., one of my old Muslim convert friends. We have been close friends for over twenty years now. B. asked me something-or-other, and somehow, the conversation turned to the old days. The days when we were both living very conservative Muslim lives, in an insular Muslim group that turned out to be a cult.
And B. mentioned that she remembered how my ex-husband used to always be yelling my name. That whenever he wanted me to fetch him something, or tend to something, or give him some information about something (like somebody’s phone number), he would yell for me, even if I was upstairs doing something (like, changing a baby) and he was downstairs… or even in the basement. “And you would go and do it,” B. said. “Like a slave.” Her revulsion at that memory was unmistakable.
I hardly knew what to say in response. Yeah, he used to do that. But it hadn’t seemed to me to be all that bad at the time. Annoying, definitely. Disrespectful, absolutely. A really bad example to the kids, without a doubt. But that was just how he was. That was his personality. Trying to talk to him about it had had absolutely no effect. He didn’t care at all what I thought about it, or how it affected me or the kids.