Posts Tagged self-hatred
I see that the Feminism and Religion blog has an awesome article up about stories of holy women in Islam. This got me thinking about a number of things. I was one of those converts who was really drawn to those stories. Still am in some ways, I guess. And I wasn’t the only one. A number of female converts I knew were into stories about holy women, whether these were women in the Qur’an, stories about female Companions, Sufi women, or Muslim women today. We devoured books like Daughters of Another Path (about American women converts). We loved hearing stories about Muslim women political activists such as Zainab al-Ghazali and Merve Kevakci.
What was that all about, exactly? Because, looking back, I recall that (as Laury points out in that article), that having “too much” interest (aka more than a superficial passing interest) in such stories was discouraged in the Muslim communities that I was a part of. And, that even though this interest of ours was fairly controversial, we ardently pursued it… although now that I think of it, once you’d read several of these stories (especially about Sufi women or modern political activists) then there wasn’t usually too much that was surprising in any of the others. In other words, they were often pretty stereotypical. Why would they be controversial, when they were so utterly harmless? And what effect did reading them have on us?
And… along comes another Debbie Downer. 😦
I think that our interest in these stories was suspect because this was something that the male leaders in our communities weren’t really comfortable with, and feared that they couldn’t control.
But why is it that some converts accept Islam, adopt some of the practices and rituals, make some Muslim friends, maybe get a bit self-righteous for a short while……but soon come back down to earth and manage to live a relatively balanced and “normal” life involving good relations with their non-Muslim family and neighbors, a happy marriage, fairly well-adjusted kids and making positive contributions to the well-being of society?
While some other converts end up cut off from their non-Muslim families, former friends and neighbors, or suffering psychological harm, or getting into bad or abusive marriages, perhaps only managing to get out years later if at all, with traumatized kids?
I don’t know. It does seem to depend on a number of factors: When and where people convert, their social location (gender identity, race/ethnicity, social class, religious background, educational level, age, occupation, sexual orientation, etc), what sort of Muslim community they get involved with, where they are in their lives at the time, how their family and friends react… and a whole slew of other factors. Some converts seem to be more resilient than others. Some are more able to access the support they need, whether inside or outside their Muslim communities.
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).
Today, I tripped across a Muslim woman’s letter, asking for advice on how to deal with the fact that her pious, Muslim husband had cheated on her.
Don’t read it, every instinct told me. Don’t read it. It will only trigger you.
Because I thought that I knew what the answer will be. Some slight bits of sympathy will be tossed this woman’s way by the advice-givers (so as not to seem too harsh)… and then the words of blame would inevitably follow: Hints, perhaps tactfully delivered, that she probably hadn’t been doing her wifely duty “properly.”
That she needed to try harder to dress up for him at home, to cook nice food for him, to keep the house even tidier and the kids even better behaved… and that she needed to make sure that she never, ever denied him sexual access within the limits of Islamic law.
That she needed to look critically at herself in the mirror: Maybe she needed to lose weight? Get her hair done? Join a sisters’ exercise class and tone those flabby arms? Do more crunches and reign in those sagging stomach muscles? Or that maybe the problem was more about her character: She needed to be more feminine, more content, more grateful for everything he does for her, and never let a complaining word cross her lips in her husband’s presence.
Or even, that she needed to just accept that her husband was the sort of man who could not be content with just one woman, so she needed to encourage him to marry another wife rather than committing zina.
I braced myself for some or all of that… and didn’t find it.
I was astounded that the advice given to the woman was actually reasonable and compassionate.
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….
So, it’s National Coming Out Day. The day that marks the importance of coming out for LGBTQ folks.
In the insular, conservative Muslim communities that I have been involved with in the ’80’s and early ’90’s, coming out was unacceptable. It was so far from acceptable that it was rarely even acknowledged as a possibility.
Coming out—or more often, being found out—was usually equated with having supposedly made the choice to be a sinner, and to sin openly.
This myth—that being LGBTQ is a choice which people willfully make because they want to indulge in sin—was believable to so many for so long in part because almost no one came out.
Oh, some brothers dodged marriage for years, claiming poverty or studies or “they just hadn’t found the right woman yet.” There were those women who put off getting married—or once divorced, didn’t seek to marry again—or who stayed in loveless marriages and poured their emotional energies into very close friendships with other women. Some people might suspect, or even whisper about them. But they didn’t speak openly about their experiences and lives, so the community didn’t have to deal with the reality of LGBTQ Muslims in their midst.
Looking back at the conversion process that I and a number of my white North American convert friends went through back in the early ’80’s, I remember a lot of concern with the outward trappings of “Muslimness”:
Names and name changes.
Appropriate attire and adornment (especially for women).
Learning to say and use phrases such as “bismillah”, “al-hamdulillah”, “jazak Allahu khayran”, “maa sh’Allah”, and of course, “inshallah”.
Re-learning how to do a variety of mundane actions “Islamically”: sneezing and responding to someone sneezing, getting dressed, putting on shoes, entering and leaving a bathroom, serving food or drink, cutting one’s nails….
Re-training one’s automatic responses to certain social cues, such as overcoming the tendency to automatically respond to a hand outstretched in greeting by shaking it, without first considering the person’s gender.
Most of the pressure to adopt such trappings came from born Muslims. The wife of one of my (now-ex)husband’s friends was so concerned about my non-Muslim name that one night when we were eating dinner at their place, she told me that I should change my name. When I tried to put her off with a polite excuse, she took it upon herself to select an appropriate name for me—which in her mind was the nearest Arabic match to my name, sound-wise. I objected that I didn’t like the name she was suggesting, and didn’t see why some random Arabic name is particularly “Islamic” anyway. But as we walked from the living room into the dining room to eat, she introduced me to her husband (and my now-ex husband) with the name she had picked out for me. I had to object again that I wouldn’t accept being called by that name.
Essentially, in the minds of such conservatives, to be Muslim was to be Arab (or in the case of some other conservatives I encountered, it was to be Pakistani, or Turkish, or Iranian, or Malay, or…). But it was not to be “western.”