Posts Tagged Muslim cults
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.
In the last post, I discussed a number of reasons why I (and many of my convert friends) found conservative Muslim arguments in favor of women being stay-at-home wives and mothers convincing, and highlighted some of the ways that deciding to stay home limited our ability (and even, our inclination) to make independent, adult decisions on a whole range of things.
In staying home, we became financially dependent. And, we didn’t chart our own courses as wives and mothers either—there were not only our husbands to answer to, but also various conservative, insular and often quite intrusive Muslim communities. For those of us who became involved in Muslim cults, that goes double.
I became financially dependent, despite the fact that my ex wanted to have both the comfort and convenience of a stay-at-home wife (and mother), AND the benefits of a wife who also brings in some money—though, one who would work in a way that wouldn’t ever inconvenience him. I tried to do that by babysitting from home. That was supposed to be the ideal balance between the need to generate income, and the “need” to be at home with my kids full-time, without in any way falling short of my wifely responsibilities to cook, clean, etc, or my moral responsibilities to wear hijab and avoid working alongside or closely interacting with men. I also hoped that it would protect me from job discrimination and the type of dismissive treatment that often is experienced by people in low-status jobs. After all, I was working at home….
I am in the process of trying to disentangle “Islam” (the world religion with some 1400-odd years of history) and my particular experiences as a North American convert in the early ’80’s.
This is challenging to do for several reasons. First of all, because “Islam” was often used as the justification for everything and anything–by community leaders, and by individuals. It was the ultimate legitimating tool for almost any action.
Second, because I was involved in or associated with different Muslim circles at different times, and they understood or defined Islam differently. Yet, those differences were often rhetorically blurred for a number of reasons. All the differences were particularly confusing to converts in particular, and we often missed the nuances of debates about beliefs and practices–or failed to understand that there was a debate going on at all. We had little or no sense of the history behind different positions, and tended to take what people said at face value.
Third, because North American discourses on “Islam” were ever-evolving. “Islam” was and is a moving target–though few community leaders typically admit that.
Frankly, most internet discourses on “Islam” get inane pretty fast. Remarkably wide generalizations abound–made both by believers, as well as those who are not Muslim and have no connection to Islam whatsoever. People generalize all the time about “Muslim women”, “the status of women in Islam,” “converts to Islam”, and so forth, in ways that they probably wouldn’t do if they were talking about almost any other group.
It has taken me some time to realize that a fair amount of what I have experienced is actually not a reflection of most North American Muslim women’s lives. Although I (and often, my convert friends) were often told or otherwise given to understand that “X is Islamic” and that no “good Muslim woman” would even dare to question Y, looking back, I can see that in some cases we were frankly being manipulated. Things were seldom as simple as we were told that they were.
At present, I (and a number of other converts I know) are dealing with the following issues:
the aftermath of bad marriages, ranging from dysfunctional to frankly abusive
psychological trauma (the effects of which range from depression to PTSD)
disturbed and traumatized children
strained relationships with our birth families (with some relationships damaged beyond repair)
serious financial losses/problems
long-term damage to our earning power; obstacles to career advancement
worries about how we will survive once our health does not allow us to work
the aftereffects of social isolation and alienation from the wider society
a deep sense of betrayal and loss