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Reem Abdel-Razek, this is for you, in honor of your supreme struggle and your vast determination. I love you, sister-in-arms:

We feel guilt that it takes us a long time to ‘get over’, to process unspeakable trauma and violence.

We feel guilt being around our colleagues and friends because we are so easily triggered, intense, moody, self-absorbed, disconnected, because we are so unstable. We tend to closet ourselves away, to hide, to withdraw because of this.

We feel guilt that we can’t just fix ourselves now that the worst is over and things are better.

We feel guilt for being unhappy when our whole lives have been wrought with tragedy.

We feel guilt that others are made uneasy, bothered, by our severe pain, consider.

We feel we do not deserve to be, do not belong among other people.

We need dire help with such frequency that we begin to view our entire existence as an imposition.

We feel guilty with how frequently we fail, don’t show up, don’t complete assignments on time, how often our minds hold us hostage and make us sick, how consistently we are incapacitated, and how many apologies and excuses we have to keep on making to everyone around us, how much like imposters we feel, because is it even possible for someone to get sick THAT often?

It doesn’t even matter that we’ve beat incredible odds, that we’ve accomplished incredible things, that we are smart, dedicated, hardworking, giving, and strong.

It doesn’t matter, my dear Reem, that you spoke up against the oppressive with courage, strength, determination, though you suffered costs no human should suffer. It doesn’t matter that you escaped, saved yourself, and now face the terrifying possibility of being sent back. It doesn’t matter that, though you are weighted down with mortal grief, you take stride after stride with self-betterment, a new life, healing, and championing human rights in mind.

Except for, it does matter. You inspire. When I look at you, I lose all ability to can :)

But still we feel guilt that parts of our communities are BOTHERED at us for being that type of person that formed and shaped herself in response to severe injustice and trauma.
We feel guilty for being JUDGED by people who have no idea what it’s like to live the kinds of lives you and I have lived.
People who cannot fathom what it does to a person.
We feel guilt for being judged for handling our burdens–ours–is if those who judge us can comprehend their weight.

And you know what? FUCK THAT NOISE.

But we also feel guilt because we feel that we are alone– that nobody else feels this way, that it is not normal, acceptable to feel this way.

But you are not alone, Reem. I am here with you.

Nor are you, reader, alone.

If you are a victim of trauma, repression, suppression, violence, depression, or mental illness and you feel these ways, I invite you to comment, raise your hand, in support, solidarity, together.

You are not alone. This is okay. You are not alone.

With love.

-Marwa

PS: If you have even five dollars to spare, please help Reem in her quest for asylum in the United States.

I’ve apparently come across this article a few months late. It’s a piece in which a white Western woman, Lauren Rankin, attempts to make the case that it is not Islam that contributes to misogyny and oppression of Muslim women. It is instead patriarchy, and characterizing Islam as a violent, misogynistic religion only contributes to racism against Muslims.

I read this in almost sheer amazement, and floundered through feelings of disbelief, hurt, and frank incredulity at the flimsiness of some if its claims. What struck me the most, however, was that this article was clearly written in goodwill with the desire to protect Muslim women from being racialized and attacked at heart. And I found this, to be truthful, quite ironic.

I’d like to break down some of the most problematic things I found in this piece, and try to present them within the context of the same goals Rankin has in mind: feminist ones, preserving and protecting women’s rights. It’s not some empty criticism, but an earnest evaluation given mutual goals.

I love my feminist allies and friends, but sometimes white Western feminists get things all backwards when they try to speak about the experiences of foreign women of color. Especially if they’re talking about people they’ve never met, places they’ve never lived, religious and legal and patriarchal systems they are unacquainted with, and make broad, sweeping generalizations about those systems. This is such an example. I understand that it might be driven by a reflection of the voices of Muslim women who freely choose and cleave to their religion and rail out against accusations that they are being oppressed–what I do not understand is how the experiences and insights of free women with agency and self-determination can speak to the experiences of their sisters who do not have such freedom–the woman who is free to practice Islam or not, to wear hijab or not–this woman does not speak for me or my ex-Muslim and Muslim friends who suffer under Islamic systems any more than a Western woman does.

To be clear, I applaud the instinct to try to reduce anti-Muslim hate and bigotry. It is the approach here that I think is utterly misguided and frankly dangerous. Rankin is attempting to object to Islam being characterized in a monolithic manner…by characterizing it in a monolithic manner, as something that never contributes to or causes misogyny, rape, and oppression of women in Muslim-majority countries. And while I myself am a champion of trying to oppose anti-Muslim bigotry, I believe the strongest and most compassionate way of doing this is by resisting the characterization of Islam as a monolith. What has happened here is that Rankin has engaged in what I say is a dangerous refusal to examine the very real influences and intermingling of religion and patriarchy in violence and oppression against women and children in Muslim-majority countries.

Her reasons seem to be noble: to prevent the stigmatization and racialization of women of color, of viewing them as oppressed and thus shorn of agency, freedom, the capacity to make decisions. However, denying the powerful and pervasive religious influences that cause women to be oppressed is not the way to do this. She herself falls into the same trap that she is condemning: she resists a reduction of Muslim women to a model of oppression–yet she herself seems to buy into the idea that claiming women are oppressed implies they are inadequate to challenge and critique that oppression. But an accurate characterization of Muslim women as oppressed does not bar them from being viewed as agential subjects who battle and engage with that oppression–we do fight back, in whatever ways we can, with a vengeance, and would even more strongly should more resources become available to us. And if such a characterization is accurate,  it is ultimately better to admit it and affirm the efforts of suffering women to challenge and make meaning of their circumstances (and the women speaking about their experiences DO need to be enabled, ex-Muslim and Muslim alike; I am lucky in my capacity to speak out and be heard).

And here are the reasons: Denying our oppression and pain is a much more dangerous brand of shedding us of our agency and voice than it would be to falsely claim that we are oppressed. I acknowledge that this largely relied on context and is thus arguable, but the voices we hear of Muslim feminists resisting the false characterization of their choices as oppression are the voices of women who do not need to be championed–they who are NOT oppressed, who DO have free choices, and who ARE free to assert their choices and their faith. They have the capacity to respond to bigoted, mistaken, unreasoned views against them–they don’t need white women to do it for them. And it’s true: many women in the West DO freely choose to cleave to Islamic practices and hijab up etc. (Many women in Muslim-majority countries claim that similar choices are free, but I will maintain that they are not fully free unless those women are free to choose a non-Islamic path without social, political, and legal repercussion– choosing your only safe and repercussion-free choice is not a choice). The capacity to have that free choice comes with an agency that makes it far less important to assert their ability to self-determine (an ability they largely have) than it is to highlight the struggles and challenges of oppressed women in patriarchal Muslim systems that do not have such freedom.

I feel a lot of what I find to be problematic with Rankins’ article boils down to the same model of argument and inquiry. In attempt to resist Islam being othered and viewed in a monolithic manner, it is called upon to be engaged with in a human manner, Muslim women listened to. However, the implicit suggestion is that once this happens, Islam will be revealed to be monolithic in an opposite way: that the Muslim woman will tell you what her reasons for hijab are and you will discover that it is not Islam that contributes to lack of agency in and oppression of women–as if those reasons and considerations and experiences cited by Muslim women are ever going to be the same, or at least thematically unified enough to reflect Rankin’s main point that Islam is not the problem when it comes to the oppression of Muslim women. Except many women born and raised and socialized of Islam have radically divergent stories that are not happy and do closely examine and challenge the Islamic influences of their oppression–what of the voices of those women? I tell the story of my fifteen-year struggle with forced hijab in the Middle East here–and it is radically different than that of the Muslim hijabi doing her PhD in Rutgers that  Rankin cites, quoting a line that nobody asks Muslim women what they think. Assuming they all think in a positive, free, affirming way about their religious circumstances is just as grave an error as not asking them to reflect upon their choices to begin with.

And I would argue that it is likely this assumption–that negative characterizations of Islam have no bearing on reality and are largely due to misunderstanding–that leads to Rankin making an argument such as the following:

Clearly, something is at play here, if that many women report being sexually harassed. I just don’t think that “something” is Islam. If it was, sexual harassment and rape would be limited to Muslim countries and communities. But as we well know, that is simply not true. Rape, sexual harassment, and violence against women are not isolated to a particular faith, but instead, they exist in every country, religion, and community that is patriarchal. The problem is not Islam; the problem is patriarchy.

It is clearly fallacious to claim that because misogyny happens in contexts, systems, and religions that are not Muslim, then Islam cannot be one cause of such misogyny. But I’d like to think that this is not exactly what Rankin is saying–I’d like to think that Rankin’s argument is not that an effect (misogyny and violence against women) cannot in practice have more than one cause (Islam among others), and that she is not simply falling into this fallacy. What I think she is trying to rather do is create parallels–by showing that similar effects occur in other contexts that contain religious elements but do not happen to be the effects of those religious elements but of a larger and more pervasive problem, namely patriarchy. Two points here:

1. I am confused at the attempt to characterize patriarchy as the problem of misogyny as if it is an outside discrete qualifier with one manifestation that can be added onto a variety of human contexts, instead of a system internally built and structured by the values, nature, and practices of those human contexts (cultural, religious etc). Patriarchy is not born of a vacuum, nor is it monolithic. Values of modesty, honor, chagrin, shame, tribalism, and family can contribute to patriarchy in one part of the world whereas individualistic, rentier economical models can contribute to patriarchy in other parts.  To suggest that patriarchy and Islam are separate in Muslim-majority countries, that they do not intertwine, influence, contribute to, feed into each other–I am unsure how that claim can be anything but devoid of substantial content, because what is the alternative source and fuel for a patriarchal system if not the values embedded in it and structuring it becoming institutionalized, as they are in places where Muslim presence is prevalent and strong enough to lead to its institutionalization.

2. Rankin tries to argue that misogyny and violence to women occurs in all sorts of religious and cultural contexts, and is not thus caused by them. Whether or not this is actually true is moot (for the record, I disagree that religious and political systems other than Islam don’t cause misogyny and violence to women), because it does not then follow that we can extrapolate that this is true of Islam. This is an inductive leap to be sure, so it is not wholly blind, but it is one that is based on perhaps creating false parallels as the basis for induction. The false parallel lies in Rankin’s insistence that Islam is no different from, not unique from other religious and political systems, no more violent than they are, so it should not deserve such forceful condemnation and scrutiny. Except she never backs this up. My argument is that it is in fact true that in general, most manifestations of Islam differ fundamentally from other faiths today, and must be dealt with on par with those differences. I wrote a long blog post justifying this claim if you care to look. At the very least in order to claim the opposite, Rankin must respond to the arguments and reasons for dealing with Islam in a unique manner, if not provide a positive argument of her own for why it in fact should not be done.

3. I believe the model of a simple cause-effect relationship between Islam and misogyny that Rankin takes issue with is one she fails to challenge with a more complex, robust analysis. She instead adheres to a very similar model, and replaces the word ‘patriarchy’ with the word Islam as the cause-effect explanation of misogyny, thus implying that the influences and circumstances of misogyny and violence against women can in fact be hashed in terms of a dynamic that simplistic–only not an Islamic one. She could have, instead of trying to find an alternative (seemingly) unrelated to Islam, ie patriarchy, tried to examine other ways in which Islamic beliefs, values, and practices might enable, contribute to, structure, influence, and otherwise entwine in a larger system of oppression and misogyny as a more complex, nuanced, realistic alternative than either ‘Islam causes misogyny’ or ‘patriarchy causes misogyny’. It would be ultimately more honest and broadly more semantically meaningful.

And this leads me to note: most ironically, Rankin calls for addressing the root problem of patriarchy and examining how and why it contributes to violence against women. Yet she herself makes no real attempt to examine the nature of either particular forms of patriarchy or Islam, or back up the claims she makes about them. She also provides no alternative explanation to the position that critique of Islam will only lead to bigotry against and racialization of Muslims. She does not consider that it may lead to active reform, to the voices of women of color being heard, to robust critiques of oppressive regimes of brown people by brown people, to the building of networks of emotional, material, and legal support for women and apostates seeking help, to positive publicity.

And let me get as anguished as I fucking deserve to be here–gosh, isn’t that astronomically important?  And let me get as personal as I fucking deserve to get here– I think her account is horribly, horribly uncompassionate to the plights of women under Islam who suffer from a system that institutionally oppresses them–an a far more structured and pervasive manner than a lot of free Muslim women in the west face from bigots. Perhaps she honestly believes that women like me and the hundreds of others I know do not or cannot exist, but fuck, I’d like her to face me, to face us, and tell us that the suppression, control, abuse, imprisonment, and torture we endure–justified via religious values and enabled by respected and established religious institutions–had and has nothing to do with Islam, and that our efforts at critique and discussion of them are detrimental lies.

My oppression is not a lie, Ms. Rankin.

-Marwa

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Trigger warningviolence, abuse, abduction. 

Some nights, I wake up from dreams of Lebanon, gasping and unsettled, and think, “I have keys.” It comes quickly, like a lifeline, this glimmering reminder that this is my life now, that I live in the United States and everything has changed—this knowledge settles into my brain anew and I can breathe again.

In those dreams, my brain frantically puts itself through terrors over-and-again, testing the walls, the phones, the windows, looking for ways out, testing every avenue and niche for survival in case the greatest danger my brain knows to my existence comes back one day in waking.

And I remember, relive, for those hours, what it was like.

What it was like to be a Muslim woman, the Muslim woman that I was.

Consider for yourself.

~*~

In those nightmares, you are an old, tightly-woven self, molded by adaptation, but not in ways that are healthy, that create spaces for growth .

You are a self that has learned to recognize the exact rhythm, length, and tone of every slipper as it slaps against tile in the halls and rooms of your house. Your self listens for like an unceasing sonar, blipping in the background. It’s the way things are.When it comes, you recognize it immediately, without having to register the assessment.

The sound with the dipping, lingering, heavy slap is Baba’s, the shorter, sharper one Mama’s.

Your fingers thrust any suspicious thing—book or cellphone usually—into hiding spots you could find blindfolded.

Your fingers gravitate of their own will to inconspicuous places, to settle there—in plain sight on top of a notebook for instance—you do not touch your own hip, your collarbone, anything with curvature–you uncurl your legs and set them straight on the floor, straighten your back. All this unfolding and realignment within seconds, mechanical.

Your fingers know how to erase recent calls and message inbox content in your phone totally blind, beneath the covers or inside a pocket, and how to set your phone to silent.

Your clothes at home are baggy, long, with sleeves to cover everything, even in summer. You adjust them over your thighs without thinking because your brain has memorized the things it must do to keep you safe.

Your sleep is light, semi-conscious too—you can sense the shifting body of your mother rummaging through your drawers at night, flipping through your books and notebooks. You can feign sleep through poking, prodding, pinching, sound while your body releases waves and waves of chemicals, your heart in your throat.

You think, now, of the adrenaline rush of a flight-or-fight response, that strange, liquid-metallic wave tingling over your body and settling into your fingertips—you think of how your body is awash with it so often, how it should not stun you when your nerves fire up and your brain lights up with anxiety and fear as you answer the clever, manipulative questions about your day on the car ride home, sift through the lies in your head, regulate your tone of voice and its casualness.

You think of a life lived with a body flaring up and down in panic and anxiety.

You are a body programmed to respond to the most delicate of stimuli.

You are a watcher. Even away from home, at work and at school, you are observing windows and doors and people on the streets, always watching, always wary, never knowing when an invisible emissary could be sent to monitor your behavior. You make mistakes, but make them less the more you learn.

The rooms with closed doors among trusted friends, colleagues, and professors are the safest, most glorious oases of warmth. You hole yourself up in them during most of your workday.

You never want to go home. Being away is respite.

But you must go home every day, because you do not own your body or heart. You do not own your life.

You are a self that trained itself to receive the intrusion of other bodies from the smallest of years, before ever understanding the concepts used to justify such intrusion: honor, modesty, shame, discipline. At that age, the reasons were less important than the lessons of escape and avoidance.

You watched there too, watched your six year old brother’s head pushed from a meaty palm and bounce off the corner of two walls meeting in a sharp corner, his small mouth frozen in shock, his hair matted in blood. You learned never to be caught standing in front of a corner because corners are sharp.

You learned that furniture low to the ground might have sharp corners too—coffee tables, nightstands—and they are tools to be used—stay close to the softer things.

Your muscle memory is imprinted with ten thousand ways to shift and move and tighten and relax to minimize pain and injury. They are as automatic as reflexes.

Your brain too, has learned—detach, detach, shut down, shut down, brace, brace, it will be over soon. You can enter lockdown in seconds when you sense it coming, when the shadow looming pins you to the wall before ever your skin gets touched.

You learn to dash your glasses off first and skid them away, out of bounds of the arena, so they do not break your face and hurt your eyes, so you do not lose your sight for a week or more until your need for proper vision is indulged.

You learn when to tighten your jaw and when to slacken it. You learned this young, first from watching your sister’s front tooth fall out of her suddenly unclenched jaw as her skull bounced against marble tile.

You learn to keep your hair tied tightly if it’s long enough, because pulling a ponytail hurts and breaks less than yanking and twisting at strands.

You lean in towards the hand that pulls your hair.

You sway out to shorten the distance and thus the force of blows.

You turn bonier parts of your body towards the flying fists and cracking leather, because they can withstand more.

You learn the best positions to sleep in to ease the bruising.

You shut off the lights in your brain and your heart, and wait, wait, wait for it to be over.

But it never is, because you must always be prepared for its possibility, must keep your muscles and your memory ready. Sudden, unfamiliar sounds and movements send you crouching and your forearms flying to guard your face—sometimes, rarely, when you are in public, and you dare someone to look at you with pity when you lower your arms.

~*~

Living this way, with constant wariness, your body an automaton of mechanistic reaction to minimize harm—this is a very familiar narrative for abuse victims from all backgrounds, religious or otherwise. It is not exclusive to Islam. How, why, then do I claim it to be a Muslim experience?

The first, simpler answer: It is a (rather intertwined and complex) causal relationship. Islamic doctrine and various interpretations of it, Muslim cultural norms, uphold, define, and contribute to patriarchal values of honor, shame, discipline, punishment, obedience—all tied to strict codes of living that can be violated by reading, singing, talking, touching, eating, moving, wearing certain things or in certain ways. Bodily autonomy is not assumed a human right. Sexuality is a crime. Bodies are shameful or sinful or to be hidden. Women need guardianship and are expected to give obedience. These values constitute social structures and power dynamics—pervasive, institutional ones in most Muslim-majority countries—that enable and sanction the treatment of women and children in these ways. In some places, they even require it.

While this sort of life, this sort of treatment is not exclusive to social and family structures with certain patriarchal Muslim ideals, it is particular to them.

This life that I lived was only possible because of the religious and value systems of not only my family, but the society and culture and country that surrounded them. Because I lived in a country that refused to pass a law criminalizing domestic violence and marital rape due to protest from the two largest Shia and Sunni authorities in the country, based on religious grounds. Because I lived in a country where I had no legal recourse or opportunity to gain freedom or independence, where girls did not move out unless for marriage, where marriage legally required a guardian’s consent—all on religious grounds. Where—and I’ll come back to this—my attempt to leave home, hide, go off the radar resulted in my being tracked down and dragged home by Hezbollah, my subsequent imprisonment, torture, subjection to a virginity test–all overlooked and brushed over by people with the power to help me. All of this justified and sanctioned by patriarchal values of modesty, family honor, saving face—all inspire and derived from religious-cultural social codes.

But that’s not my main or most compelling reason for claiming a Muslim experience.

Let me tell you again—I insist on cleaving to this title, this description for those personal experiences of mine, despite widespread criticism of my title of Part One that it may be misleading, though I never claimed it to be representative.

I insist on this title because of individuation—Muslims are separate, distinct, with individual characteristics, and they are not a brand–and individualism—because recognizing and esteeming personhood is paramount to any discussion of human experiences and human rights. Because of a refusal to use identity markers as excuses to lump people into fixed groups rather than considering identity markers to belong to individuals who reclaim them and revalue them in critical, honest ways.

When ‘Islam’ is not a monolith in practice, belief, or interpretation, when it is a disservice to real, organic human beings to treat it as such, when ‘Muslim’ can be an identity as widely varying as the faces of the women that carry it, as the beliefs of these women—then any and all of their stories are stories of what it is like to be a Muslim woman.

Because their religion and their culture belongs to them individually, and not vice versa.

I say again, because cultures belong to people, not people to cultures.

My story is always the story of what it is like to be a Muslim woman. And there is always another story, and it is always important.

Consider, again.

You are a human being, a vessel of discord and dissent—you can live at the organism level learning and adapting and surviving, but survival is not a life, and your body cannot stomach it, and damages are sustained—they heal from your skin but bear down deep into your heart and mind and you lose bits and pieces of what it is to be human—a voice, a will, bodily and facial expression, hope, expectation. You gain what it is like to be a trapped, frightened animal—desperation, recklessness, hunting, hungry eyes. You live with a divisive spirit inside you that you force to be calm, as your lips and face and actions speak one set of values and identities and your scrabbling fingers hidden under covers in the dark of night, your swollen heart, your stashes of books and papers speak an entirely other.

You have planned your escape your whole life,  because it is that or die, since the life you have is no life. But your fear, dependence, ignorance and naiveté, your blindness to the pervasive power structure invisibly chinking in tiny tunnels you think you can access—that is your first undoing. You have much to learn, and with learning comes failing, and with failing comes punishment, distrust, the tightening of your bonds.

You can only afford to fail so much.

Your plans, over the years, become more careful, wary, structured, patient and difficult, and you lay them down only in your head—no paper trail, no verbal trail—and exercise them slowly, bit by bit, setting one tiny piece in place at a time over many years, sometimes twice or thrice over as you slip up and ruin what you’ve already set in place and must begin again. It is like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of thousands and thousands of pieces.

The finished puzzle forms a key.

~*~

There were stories you learned much later, years later, from friends trusting enough to confide in you, that you wish you had known before. Stories of a young self picked up by Hezbollah while walking on the street at night and blackmailed into revealing her identity and being driven home and handed to her father, because Shia girls do not walk at night for whatever reason, because there is an unspoken right of the Hezb to regulate and police its demographic. Stories of friends reporting sexual assault and being harassed where they stood in the police station, realizing they had no help and nobody to turn to even within the system that promised to give them justice.

If you had known those stories, you would have planned in a wiser way.

But you did not, and in the reckless, desperate state you were in, you planned less carefully. You were 18, finally, an adult (or so you thought), and you would leave. You spent weeks slowly and carefully gathering your own documents, hidden in your mother’s room. It was the second semester of your sophomore year in college and you dropped all of your courses while continuing to go to campus every day anyway. You requested and gathered transcripts, corresponded with the American embassy and found out you could get a new passport issued without having to provide the old.

But you were young and naïve, and you had no real plan for a new life after you left your old one, and what planning you had left traces. And you were young and trusting, and turned to people you considered friends, people who tap-tap-tapped at your protective shield, preyed upon your frightened dependence alone on the streets of Beirut, and you found yourself in their home in the southern suburb interlaced with Hezbollah networks and offices—and you were trapped in that net drawing nearer and nearer, and they brought your family into the place they promised to be safe, and you were driven home, to the most educational and horrific nightmare of your life.

Because of the deviance, the unthinkable audacity and daring of your escape, you were accused, suspected, your skin torn as you were interrogated to release your motivations—you must be pregnant, a prostitute, a spy—nothing else could explain such behavior–nobody did such things. They burrowed into your flesh for the truth when the truth is that the truth of your motivations–a desire for independence and humanity–was utterly incomprehensible to their value systems–no matter what you said, you were a stubborn liar and nothing more.

And when the Hezb men came back to check on the family situation, your pleas for help were silenced, and your uncle held his gun to your head until you pledged obedience to your father, who turned his back to you and called his brother a darling and hugged him before you, while the men of the Hezb circled your living room as if they were unseeing, like cyphers, chanting the Qur’ans in their palms in monotone.

Then the virginity test. It appeased your mother, who held your stiff hand with childish happiness on the car ride home, satisfied that at least the most important thing was intact, preserved—but it did not move your father.

You were whisked off to the police station, too, to close the missing persons case your mother opened in panic when she realized you were gone—and for a brief, foolish moment you saw hope when they questioned you in the back room. When you blurted out your troubles, begged them for help, you saw their eyes and shoulders harden with disgust, distaste towards your trembling body and its sins. They told you to go back home with your father, to be good, because there was nothing they could do for you.

And back home you went, where the flexibility of your body and mind were tested. You turned to the skills and mechanisms you had learned your whole life, withdrew into the shell of your body for warmth. You stopped speaking altogether soon, turning deeper and deeper inward, and let your body go soft and yield to the bodies imprinting upon it. You turned into a rag doll, a bit of cloth swept to and fro by forces much greater than you.

And then came the imprisonment, the isolation for weeks, bruises blending into dreams, dreams blending into memories, day and night indistinguishable.

Consider, consider.

Imagine it was winter, and the laundry room was tiny. Seven by seven feet squared, it was nearly filled with a washer and dryer, with a shower fixture on one wall and a small ceramic hole-in-the-floor toilet in one corner. The light switches for this room were outside, in the kitchen. It locked only from the outside.

The darkness was insurmountable, and the first night, you felt for the apron from the hook behind the door and folded it into a square to serve as a pillow. Crouched, in the dark, you sifted through the piles of dirty clothes from the bin the corner, sizing up each piece by touch alone, until you found a sweater heavy and large enough to cover you, and you continued to dig and rummage until you formed a little nest, patching the cold tile with clothing, measuring the clear floor space with your hands. In the days and eventually weeks that would follow, you would lose awareness of your body so deeply that you would no pick for the cleanest clothing to build nests and scrabble in the dark for the opening of that ceramic hole, caring about what to dirty with the streaks of blood and shit on your thighs and ass. You would no longer make little sleeping-corners and pockets of softness. But at the beginning, you did. You explored your space,those walls, what had become the narrowing of your entire world.

You found that if you wedged your feet in between the toilet and the dryer, you could lie flat on the floor, your head pushed up against the door at the other end. You huddled, with apron and dirty clothes, in the cold. You moved your head and limbs carefully. You found if you tilted your chin into your chest, and held your left arm against my stomach, the bruising eased. You closed my eyes, let your fingers run over my eyelashes.

You imagined your mother, father, brother, sister all asleep in their beds.

You could not get warm. Pushing the sweaters off of you, you stood up and felt your way around the washer to the dryer. You pushed the dial and felt it rumble to life beneath you. You stood hugging it, and felt the warmth it gave seep into your bones.

Too tired to stand for long, you lay back down, with your knees bent and legs pushed against the dryer.

The warmth coursed up your legs, and filled your torso with a rich mellow orange-marmalade sort of feeling—warm but a little bitter. You tried not to choke, and slept, slept, if only forever-

To wake in a bed in the American Midwest, gasping for air and hope that today would be the day you would be able to speak up and out, as witness, as testimony, as hope, and soon, soon afterwards, to tell the story of your escape.

-Marwa

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This morning, I posted the following status on Facebook:

I have boobs, and I can grab them whenever I want to.

One of my Facebook friends commented on the ineffective shock value of such a statement, calling it ‘Lady Gaga-esque’ and purposeless. We got into a discussion that I personally found to be pretty inspiring, on the value of posting such things in a semi-public forum, and whether claiming they have socio-political purpose is just a flimsy excuse for posting purposeless statements that do not reflect real talent or effort towards realizing socio-political goals.

My take is that it’s socially and politically meaningful to publicly say such things. To give a parallel example, there are entire protest movements founded on women publicly baring their breasts and touching themselves and while their method, reasons, and effectiveness can be discussed and challenged, to claim they’re purposeless without investigating the reasoning behind them is shoddy mental work. I’m here to provide the reasoning behind my silly, ‘shocking’, ‘Gaga-esque’ Facebook status.

I’d first like to clarify that I do not claim my Facebook statuses to be comprehensively representative of what I do and believe but more of particular expressions of my values, and that I have several running and past projects, commitments, goals, and investments–teaching, writing, speaking, translating, research–that are intended to realize my academic, personal, and activism goals. This is not about whether simple expression can replace or compete with other forms of socio-political work, but how and why it is meaningful on its own or added to other things. Another quick clarification is that I am not advocating for all Facebook statuses to have meaning and purpose–there is nothing wrong with expressing silly, shocking, annoying, or meaningless things simply because they give you personal fulfillment and joy–your voice does not exist for the comfort or edification of other people. Turning serious struggles into the silly and shouting it to the world to help fight stress, or depression are good enough reasons in themselves.

But in saying that I like my boobs and I like touching them, I’m saying a very socially and politically meaningful thing.

Last night, I gave a public reading. I almost cried on stage reading about my struggles against suppression and taboo to an audience of friends and strangers alike. I read a version of my popular post, “What it is like to be a Muslim woman,” and it was a difficult and momentous event of self-expression for me. When I went to bed, I had this anaphora from my essay, the first line of my essay, in fact, floating around in my head, this song of my own construction… I have keys, and I can open my front door whenever I want to… imbued with incredulity, with joy, with determination:I have this, I have that, I have ALL of these freedoms and I can have them, and they’re mine. My own words, my own mantra, my longtime struggle trembled in my head while I slept.

In the morning, I posted I have boobs, and I can grab them whenever I want to on Facebook. Posting this light-hearted version of that struggle was fulfilling and meaningful to me because it represents the hard-won and suffered-for ability and freedom to express the taboo, the restricted, in a sillly, matter-of-fact way. The silliness is a crucial part of it, because it challenges these matters of taboo and restriction as precisely *not* worthy of second thought or comment, knowing that they are the very ideas and actions that Muslim women are violenced against for having, for doing. Women are beaten and threatened for touching their breasts or delighting in their bodies–

I was one of them for far too long.

Publicly claiming ownership of your own body, breaking the taboo, and finding joy, peace, and celebration in doing things that you would have had your blood spilled for thinking of or attempting to do– and doing it publicly when you were denied self expression your entire life– this is meaningful in the way that poems and stories are. It carries legacy and hope, it is an unbridled, unashamed commitment to personal freedom, to the ownership of your own body, to autonomy and the right to self-determination… my boobs are mine. And nobody can stop me from touching them, liking to touch them, and talking about touching them. Because I want to– because I am a human subject with a will, and because my will regarding my body was stolen and constrained by other people, and because that is not only a personal struggle I have faced, but one reflective of a larger social and political phenomenon that women worldwide struggle through.

Because people find it worth commenting on, find shock and stigma in somebody saying they touch a part of their own bodies.

And that’s not even touching upon the social struggles attached to public expression of same-sex attraction. I’m bisexual. I like girls. I like boobs. The homoerotic undertones of this status, even though it’s so simple, direct, are ones that so many live in fear of other people detecting. Female bodies are shamed, yes, but and queer and LGBT people are also shamed, restricted, stigmatized, denied rights. And until queer and female and LGBTQ bodies are no longer shamed and stigmatized, public expression of affinity towards them is socially meaningful, politically meaningful.

I love being able to finally say these things without grave consequence, and it’s a freedom hard-earned. My Facebook status might seem silly and pointless, but what is really silly and pointless is that my ability to express affinity for my own body has been so utterly restricted.

Now that I’m no longer in silence, voiceless, now that I have a voice– I’m using that voice to write, teach, do research, work, strive, fight, yes– but I’m also using it as a relentless banner of uninhibited expression of love and joy and affinity to what was only and ever mine and nobody, nobody will take that right away from me.

I want it to be seen.

I like boobs.

-Marwa

Ohai!! Catch me on the Drew Marshall show tomorrow Saturday at 2pm EST! I’ll be talking about ex-Muslim stuff and my blog in general, and some secular activism goals.

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I don’t know why you did it.

I’ve tried to give you the benefit of the doubt because I couldn’t fathom that the cost of an office visit could be worth it to you, a medical doctor, your role ideally a caretaker, a sworn-in ethical safe-guarder of health. Surely you wanted to be those things at least a little bit, to have become a doctor in the first place.

Surely, too, you had compassion, as a woman.

In the years since, when I turn that day over again and again and again in my head, I’ve thought that maybe you did it because you know that if you had refused, my parents would have taken me elsewhere. That there was a plethora of other doctors and not-doctors who would not bat an eye at parents pushing a young woman before them and demanding a test be given as verdict on her purity, her innocence, her life. Maybe you did it because you did not want me to fall into the hands of a less compassionate person who would not bat their eye, and thus you pretended not to bat yours.

Maybe you just wanted to protect me, to lie for me if necessary.

And although you were truthful, my father certainly did question whether you were lying when you declared me innocent.

I try to convince myself that this is the type of person you were. That you had a calm serenity imbued with sadness, something you’d steeled yourself against because you realized that the lives and safety of young girls were at stake. That you’d trained yourself not to blink, to not express sympathy or solidarity, because you had a conflicted sort of wisdom in line with reality.

I try to convince myself that you wanted, more than anything in the world, to visibly show compassion, to extend your de-gloved hand.

I try to convince myself you could compel yourself to do something of this sort, horrible in concept and utterly invasive and traumatizing in practice, a thing that betrayed your training and your conscience and made it hard for you to look at young faces in the street–you’d do all that, and wrestle with your conscience if it meant avoiding an even greater harm.

I try to convince myself that you were good because you were a woman and you knew that this is how things were and knew that you were as helpless to change things as any of us.

I was watching your face, you understand? I was watching your face as I stood before you trembling with knees weak and undermined from days of cramping in a solitary closet hole. I was fixated on you and nothing else, because you could help me, save me from undergoing this trauma and shame. I stood there, a pillar of mute appeal. I fixated on you, standing before you as I was, a woman so young and so inundated with fear that no word of consent or dissent could leave my lips.

I try to convince myself that you understood what you saw when you looked at my face.

There was impatience in your voice when I waited and stalled and shuffled my feet, unwilling to take my pants off.

Impatience as you said, quickly, quickly, there are other patients waiting.

I replay those words in my head sometimes, and what they imply: This is normal. This is routine. It cycles out, quick, cycle of violation then cycle of cruelty. Quick, quick. It must take its course. To make room for the next.

Sometimes I hear that tone, that impatience, when I’m trying to go to sleep, and I am wrested out of drowsy serenity with a jerking, a violence that can only come from bafflement and betrayal.

And for a moment, I forget to breathe, though it feels my rib cage is being cranked open with the effort of pulling air in, opening up, opening up, opening up…

I hope you never forget my face. I want it burned into your memory just as it was, as I implored you wordlessly, as I hated you, as I stared daggers at you and crossed my ankles over each other.

I hope you remember how tense my body was, how it steeled itself against your hands, my frozen arms extending forming the very Arabic letters that spelled NO. I hope you remember how I turned to stone laying there before you, unfeeling, unreacting, dissident, glaring.

Can a stone be a virgin?

I hope I haunt you.

I doubt you remember me.

But I hope so nonetheless, because that will at least mean that you understand the sanctity of consent, you understand and acknowledge that my parents cannot dictate a violation to my bodily autonomy, that this is not their right and they cannot give you permission based on what is not a right.

Because if you are a woman and a doctor, one who’s taken the Hippocratic Oath and one who routinely is given trust and vulnerability by other women concerning the most intimate of things–

if you are all of that and you do not understand or value and care about that day in your office and others like it–

if you do not understand–

then what hope is there for the rest of us?

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I was just reminiscing with Ali Rizvi about growing up in Saudi Arabia.

We were foreigners, the children of expatriate workers. We lived in Saudi Arabia at different times; he is far older than I am, and he left in ’91 while I moved to Saudi in ’95. We walked in the same places a handful of years apart, a bubble of time between us. We lived in the same city and went to the same school, one of the most highly ranked private international schools in the world.

One of our fellow ex-Muslims, a Saudi from the same city, the capital of the Kingdom, asked us, ‘What was it like? Was it a Saudi curriculum? Was it segregated?’

No, no. Not at all. Nothing like that.

Nothing like Saudi schools, this American international school. It was co-ed, boys and girls, young men  and women sitting side by side in the same classrooms, holding hands while walking to their lockers between classes. Nothing like the brutal segregation of Saudi schools, in one instance so extreme that girls are allowed to burn to death rather than be permitted to escape a burning building without the proper covering clothing.

Our had no such requirements. It did have a dress code, rather benign for the Kingdom. At the time of my attendance, no shorts or sleeveless shirts except for during PE, no bare midriffs, no excessive makeup, jewelry, piercings. Nothing like a Saudi school.  In fact, in the years I was there, I was one of the only people in my grade, year after year, to wear the hijab. The covered heads on the playground you could count on your fingers. We were an international school with large American and Canadian demographics, and significant European, Arab, and South Asian ones too, incredible national and racial diversity. During Ali’s time, there were far more North Americans and far less South Asians and Middle Easterners. but that has progressively been changing.

We were eclectic, few, privileged.  We were taught an American curriculum far superior to anything I’ve heard any of my peers or students here in the US speak of. We learned American history in the middle of the Arabian desert, we took on the roles of farmers and tailors and butchers and simulated the agricultural economies of the original 13 colonies in 5th grade and then we simulated the Constitutional Convention in 8th grade, wearing wigs and buckles on our shoes as we stood in the Russell Room debating the articles of the Constitution. We read The Hobbit and Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird before we hit our teens, and wrote research papers with cited sources and annotated bibliographies, had spelling tests based on our science books, wrote creative nonfiction narrative essays. In our protected, sprawling campus under the desert sun, we ran for Terry Fox and Walked for Wellness and held intramural sports tournaments. We did Model United Nations, had an International Baccalaureate system, and we were big on art, community, music, drama, culture. Also, crucially, big on wellness, respect, empathy, counseling, outreach for students.

Nothing like Saudi schools.

Though I left when I was thirteen, I know full well that I would not be half the thinker I am today if it were not for the  close reading and critical thinking skills I learned in those formative years. This is namely because of the life I led; I was thereafter never given an educational opportunity that was not utterly useless until well into my undergraduate years, and arguably nothing of comparable quality and value until graduate school.

And despite, or maybe because of, the intense personal and traumatic struggles I had in those years, that school was instrumental in saving my life, my spirit, my mind.

And because of this, here is my plea: Don’t go there. Don’t work there as an expat in the Gulf, no matter how tempting the money, the opportunities, are. Don’t do it.

At least, not without considering the following. At least, not without knowing what you will be, what you will be doing by being there.

Ali told me that in the 11 years he was in Riyadh, he never interacted on any real level with Saudi citizens, never learned more than a few words of Arabic. This is not uncommon; in fact it’s the norm, because so it was for me, so it was for every expat I knew.

And it’s unnerving, disconnecting to consider how you can live in a country for years and years, the better part of a decade for me and more than a decade for Ali, and not have interactions with the citizenry, the local population, how you can be purposefully cut off from the life and culture of the place of your growth, the development of your personhood, the spring of your memories, the country whose water and food you are consuming, whose landscape you know and whose buildings are the skyline you’ve memorized.

How you can be there for years and learn nothing real or interpersonal or valuable about the country and its people.

How you can live in Saudi Arabia for a decade and leave without any substantial claim to a real human Saudi experience.

And note, it was not because we were required to self-select, self-segregate–there were no clear barriers to forming friendships with the citizenry of the land hosting us and partake in their way of living.  We didn’t have to disconnect and wall ourselves off.

So why did we?

It was because. we. could.

Can you imagine the privilege?

Even I, as an Arab who could mostly understand the dialect, whose family had some Saudi friends from our America years who we visited and spent time with, even I have no real claim to saying I lived in Saudi Arabia. I have dear, poignant memories of eating dinner in a Saudi house, overwhelmed with the spice and aroma of the soup and the tenderness of the deep, throaty Saudi dialect, and another memory of being a point in a circle of women and girls seated on the carpeted sand in the night, digging my tiny fingers into a giant platter of lamb and kabsa in a Bedouin tent alongside the spraying currents of the Red Sea. I have memories of being taken on tours through greenhouses and tent-like tunnels housing farms and farms and farms. But these memories have a foreign flavor, a tinge of excitement and newness and adventure and anomaly that serves to denormalize them.

Yes, I had Saudi experiences. I did not have a Saudi experience.

How ridiculously pleasant that I could choose to delve into that (or have my parents choose for me, as I was a child) only when I wanted, only when it was good, and then when it was not good, when the sand began to grate into my skin, I could creep back into my villa in my compound and forget the world existed outside its walls.

And I understood some of it even when I was so young, and it was striking.

That I, as a foreigner, a non-citizen, not-a-Saudi, could walk around in public places with my face uncovered. I had that right, nay, I had that privilege. Because women who were citizens of their own country couldn’t, and I could, and isn’t that the definition of unfair, unwon, unearned advantage? I almost can’t stand the guilt of it to this day, and then I think of that school that saved me, and that too, such privilege. Such supreme and ridiculous privilege that I could bypass gender segregation and be given every tool and resource and help and support to learn to think and read and question and love and stretch and be healthy and well and grow, and grow, and grow, in a land that was not mine while its own citizens could not have that, or any of their own spaces comparable to that.

Our school was not allowed to enroll Saudis by law–how could it make sense? That as a strange child in the heart of the Saudi capital I could have so much that a woman who was born and bred there had no access to should she have wanted it? I could walk in the mall without my face covered as an Arab woman. Had I been white, I could have done it with my hair uncovered as well. There was no ‘abaya or niqab that could serve as nothing more than a nuisance or else a fashion statement for me as a foreigner, that I could shed as soon as I left a Saudi public space again, that I only had to wear because I was there in the Kingdom by choice.

Sometimes I wonder how many women looked at me and others like me from behind their niqabs and resented that I had privileges they did not, that I was given opportunities and resources to change my life and they were not. I wonder if a woman looked at me and wondered if my father was a doctor or an engineer, and felt pain and anger that she was kept at home even though she could be, wanted to be a doctor or an engineer, and somebody from an entirely different country was brought in instead.

In my last year in Riyadh I was in Al-Mamlaka Mall, in the food court area, and a Saudi woman approached me to yell at me, to yell at this 13 year old girl. She snapped at me, snapped her literal fingers at me and told me to go home, to leave, that she did not want us and our privilege here. I was so shocked and ashamed I had nothing to say and there I stood. I had no words.

Now that I’m older I have more words but no solutions; only expressions of helplessness and horror. Today I have more knowledge and see more facets of the nature of the expat problem and how it feeds into the challenges women in the Gulf face, and how it is deeper and more complex than I can claim to understand, even after 17 years in the Middle East. Institutionalized oppression of women is only one level of it, and institutionalized racism is another one, where an expatriate doctor from Canada is worth more than one equally qualified and experienced from India by far, and is given much more of those special privileges. How South Asian and Southeast Asian expats are worth less than Middle Eastern expats, who are worth less than Western or white expats. How the expat community creates even greater demand for the, let’s not mince words, slavery system of migrant domestic workers brought in to be housekeepers, cleaners, manual laborers. How, even within our school among children, Ali, as a Pakistani, was referred to condescendingly as ‘rafeeq’ by Arabs, a word which literally means friend, but is a derogatory term for Pakistanis/Indians/Bangladeshis.

And if only expats were actual parts of the fabric of Saudi culture and society– if only they were contributors in more than a superficial sense. If only most of them did not make ghosts and cyphers of the population by handling themselves as so far removed from the citizenry just because they could.

Needless to say I am incredibly angry at the entire existence of an economic system that imports its workforce to create a clusterfucked dynamic of racism, exploitation of foreign labor, and at egregious social and monetary costs rather than let its women into the public sphere and give them the tools and resources to be the doctors and engineers their country needs.

I will never, ever, ever work in the Gulf for this reason. I will never contribute to a system that is built on the backs of the suppression of women and institutionalized racism. Others of course choose otherwise.

And that is really it. You have a choice. You have a choice that the citizens of the country you intend to work in do not have. You also, I should mention, have a choice that other expats have not, those third culture kids, who were brought there and brought up there and removed from their own homes and cultures perfunctorily, and who became enmeshed in the fabric of the expat experience as a matter of their personal development, their upbringing. True that they too have a choice, but it is not the same, it is not the choice of living there to begin with, and the choice of living in a suspended bubble of privilege once you are there.

And with that circumstance, being an expat in the Gulf, comes responsibility. If you are there, I urge the following: make yourself an active and strong and cognizant presence. Enmesh yourself into the productivity and wellbeing and growth of the country that is giving you so much. Learn its language at the very fucking least, meet its people, be a part of their lives, listen to them and understand them.

Or not. But remember you could always have gone somewhere else.

-Marwa

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So some of you might know that my current primary academic field is creative writing. I’ve never been good at poetry; fiction has rather been my forte, mostly because of how difficult I find it to achieve conciseness of image. This I’ve worked on for a while though, a persona poem, and since I’m not a poet and thus not invested in trying to send poetry out for traditional print publication, I thought I’d share it with you.

Oppressor

(after Patricia Smith)

 

They call me oppressor, and I have the world’s glory.

 

It’s in the moon’s milk draining from full

to crescent over a world that watches me fold

back my sleeves. I double my belt, curl my right hand

into a cup to wash myself holy. I polish

even my feet clean, five times a day, my soles, they’re

cleaner than your hands, my toes, they’re cleaner

than your fingers. This clean? I have nothing

to apologize for. Oppress them? I want nothing from them

the Great Satans, but distance.

 

My place in the world is golden and burnished,

with the lines clear, ropes tight, chains glowing.

Gates and poles and safe places, where daughters are not

sluts walking the streets, their skin not beacons

for men and dogs to sense and ravage,

where daughters do not drown their throats

with intoxicating poison. Daughters do not unlayer

their clothes down to dirty dishrags like their faces

to sop up and swallow every man’s honor, leaving salt.

 

It is no coincidence that here the sun is so high and strong.

The land stays dry and sweet, and nothing hides,

no human souls are suctioned and splintered.

Only a whore’s womb has teeth, and here we have

no whores.

 

I want nothing

from them, but distance.

 

Look at the difference between us.

I prostrate on the floor because my back is strong

enough to bend. With beads on threads, I

count how many ways I can turn my submission

to strength.

 

If my forehead taps the floor, who knows what earth-

quakes it could inspire with its waves?

Morality. Clarity. Chastity. Strength.

They fear me when I am on my knees most of all.

They wish they were this clean.

 

I know how to keep what is mine and keep her clean

like I made her to start with.

 

My daughter was a whore too, and I showed her how knees

can bend, because she liked to bend them, so I bent

them the other way over carpet. Mint,

lipstick, and cigarette ash don’t smell very clean together,

do they, so don’t open your mouth, but it is so wide you

force me to slam it shut with my fist until your knees stop

bending and your belly starts like a worm,

how many times did your belly start,

lower than the earth Adam was shaped from?

 

I’d tell them my daughter was a whore too.

She struck the earth

with the spikes of her heels and her ass

in the air, her heels are in red ribbons now.

They could never do that.

The mouth she used to rub my name

into shit swollen like a melon, big-

ger than my hand, than the sun, and she could

not swallow her own blood before it choked her.

Because she liked to gag, the bitch, so I let her:

 

how dare she think that body was hers

to destroy when it was a bounty,

and I created it, I nourished it, it is only and ever

mine.

 

They call me the oppressor—when they are the ones

who stole what I made and bent her with their filthy

thoughts, their lies and words and drink.

I want nothing from them–

they would sully even my trash.

 

I have my own world.

 

And it will stay mine.

 

-Marwa

Hello folks! I want to start off by checking in and and telling you that I had an exciting weekend in Washington DC, where, along with some of my dear and brilliant fellow members in Muslimish and the Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), I met with secular activists and leaders Richard Dawkins, Edwina Rogers (Secular Coalition for America and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Ronald A Lindsay (Center for Inquiry), Richard Haynes (Atheist Nexus), and Jennifer Beahan (also CFI). We met to discuss secular outreach and support for the ex-Muslim and apostate cause. Here is a photo! I will be writing about the event and the plans set in motion by it very soon, so stay tuned.

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Also, please ‘like’ the Ex-Muslims of North America’s Facebook page! It went live just about a day ago. Yay!

To close with the newsy things: in anticipation of the future, here are some things I’m going to be writing about very soon: Part 2 of What It Is Like to Be a Muslim Woman, since everyone seems to like that post the most (incidentally, a longer, revamped version is coming out in print from 580 Split after New Year), and a post about Hezbollah and how they are normal everyday people (wait for the punchline).

***

This will be a quick post. I want to outline 4 very common trends of thinking about Islam that I’ve encountered over and over again, both when I was living and socializing within Muslim communities and in Western liberal discourse.  I want to highlight them to show how they are problematic and suggest alternatives to them. So here is the question:

What are some counterproductive moves of thinking we commonly make when discussing Islam?

1. Islamophobia vs anti-Muslim bigotry

2. The ‘that’s not the true Islam’ argument

3. The ‘it’s not religion, it’s culture’ argument

4. Treating Islam as a monolith, aka the ‘Islam is perfect, Muslims are imperfect’ argument and its converse

1. Islamophobia vs anti-Muslim bigotry

The first counterproductive way of thinking about Islam is talking about Islamophobia rather than anti-Muslim bigotry or Muslimophobia. Both of the latter terms are posed to make a robust distinction, and the precise point of making this distinction is an attempt to eradicate the term Islamophobia from discourse entirely because it is both misleading and vacuous.

It is misleading because it is incoherent. A phobia is an irrational fear, and is a descriptor of the sort of object or subject the fear of which is unjustified rationally. Except that you can indeed accurately and rationally fear many aspects and dictates of Islam. An irrational fear is usually based on misconception and misunderstanding of the nature and consequential effects of the object or subject in question. The term Islamophobia, however, does not make the distinction between discussion of Islam based on misconception and thus leading to irrational fear and a reasoned critique based on an understanding of the faith in many of its forms. It does not admit of any legitimate critique of Islam whatsoever, and lumps every attempt at reasoned critique under that label, thereby negating the work of those who attempt to peacefully reform oppressive parts of Muslim systems and societies. This also serves to enable a very unfortunate view that any discussion of Islam buys into xenophobia and orientalism, thus drowning out the voices of people incredibly informed and invested in the issues of Islam and societies in Muslim-majority countries.

Using the term Islamophobia is also vacuous because it refers to a signifier (Islam) in a unified, monolithic way when there is no actual real-world unified entity in reflection of that signifier–which application or interpretation of Islam is being talked about when somebody says something labelled as Islamophobic? It is arguably a disservice to both critique aimed at reform of interpretations of Islam and Muslim thought and living to classify Islam as one entity, a monolith, rather than real people with real lives who interpret and practice their faith in a consequential manner.

Thus when we talk about bigoted, racializing, and misinformed ways of discussing Islam, which instances are context-specific to a particular practice, doctrine, and interpretation by Muslims, anti-Muslim bigotry is a more appropriate term. It humanizes and makes real the very crucial plight of bigotry and unjustified hate towards many Muslim individuals and groups according to who they are, what their lives are like, and the rights they deserve as human beings.

2. The ‘that’s not the true Islam’ argument

Muslims do horrible things in the name of their religion, often while uttering the Shahadatein. These horrible things are often egregious violations of human rights and life, horrible beyond imagining. They are acts of war, terror, torture, control, maligning, and violent physical punishment. Muslims who feel shocked and betrayed that people of their faith or culture would do such things in the name of Islam repeat the following mantras: That’s not the true Islam. This is not religion. Islam means peace. They are misapplying and misunderstanding it. We do not support this.

While often this is said with good will, stripping Islamic doctrine of responsibility for any influence and contribution  to these events entails prioritizing the defense of an ideology over horrendous human suffering that is both pandemic and a repeated phenomenon. This is severely misguided. The only merit in viewing every horrible thing done by Muslims and Muslim organizations in the name of Islam as a misinterpretation or misapplication of Islam is defending the name of Islam. The harm of this approach, on the other hand, is that it automatically bars the possibility of opening productive discussion of how and why Islamic tenets and principles contribute and influence that behavior, and what can be done about it. It is simply incorrect and dishonest to claim that some Muslims, just because they are operating according to a disagreement on the ‘correct’ interpretation of scripture and religious teachings with other Muslims, are not in fact influenced by the Qur’an or corroborated ahadith or mainstream understandings of certain religious teachings. Attempting to identify and explore the factors influencing and inspiring violence is an incumbent moral responsibility in order to help prevent even further human rights violations.

3. The ‘it’s not religion, it’s culture’ argument

Here’s a second easy cop-out that shrugs off responsibility for horrible things done in the name of Islam:  claiming that these things are misattributed to Islam when really they are caused by cultural influence rather than religious doctrine. This argument is detrimental for a similar reason as the above: because it impedes productive exploration of the causes and influences of human rights violations by pretending religion and culture are distinct entities that do not feed into each other and themselves.

(This is why Muslimish is called Muslimish: we do identify with a Muslim cultural identity although most of us are apostates or atheists, in much the way secular Jews maintain cultural elements.)

 4. And here is the big one: Treating Islam as a monolith, aka the ‘Islam is perfect, Muslims are imperfect’ argument and its converse.

All three of the above counterproductive modes of thinking really rest on some iteration of this underlying assumption: that there is one, true, free-floating, infallible ‘Islam’ (and thus when bad things happen it’s because of culture, or it’s a misapplication, and any critique of Islam is a phobia because Islam is perfect).

Except that this perfect Islam is a concept rather than an actualization; since nobody practices Islam perfectly or even agrees on what perfect practice of Islam entails, then this free-floating concept exists independent of Muslims, that is, it exists independent of the way anyone anywhere practices, adheres to, and interprets Islam. And then this non-existing conceptual Islam is the Islam that is pointed to as above critique and discussion, with much of the same inviolability of expression used to assert that the Qur’an is divine in origin, timeless, and infallible.

And really, it is not only a perfect Islam that is concept rather than actualization– it is any monolithic version of Islam. Islam does not exist independent of Muslims.

Here is a comic strip that expresses that idea perfectly.

It’s worth noting that the converse of this counterproductive method of thinking is one commonly made by people who critique Islam, by reducing the entire thing to its most problematic fundamentals and blurring distinctions in practice and interpretation together, and thus speaking of a monolithic Islam when attempting to critique it and highlight its problems as well as in attempt to defend it.

Here is why I think we should avoid both extremes: if  we instead begin to think of non-monolithic forms of Islam as synonymous with the multivariate applications, interpretations, and practice of Muslims. including their intermeshing with background cultures, then the discourse will become much more practical, grounded, meaningful and productive.

What do you think?

-Marwa

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http://inkontheside.com/2013/09/23/how-to-dress-free/

Hello. It is nigh on 4am*, I am sleep-deprived, have been working for many hours, and saw something that inspired a little bit of rantiness and before I knew it a I had a spiel, substantive enough for a blog post, so allow me to give you the eloquence of my frustration:

I used to like this comic, Ink On The Side, because I thought it framed social issues in Lebanon with levity and a sheepish self-consciousness I found to be refreshing and honest.

But look at this unfair, completely-missing-the-point idiocy. It frames this self-interested bigotry as Western opinion. That it’s supposed to be satire etc and the hypocrisy thus hyperbolized is clear; that doesn’t excuse you from needing to be responsible about the social critique you’re making if that is the POINT of using satire as rhetoric. So Western opinion? Which Western opinion? That implies there is anything resembling unity of opinion in the West when it comes to religious freedoms. Except a huge portion of Western liberals and left-wingers are utterly terrified of being Islamophobic and xenophobic and labeled western imperialists and thus constantly tout the graces of the free choice to hijab up, in the process totally drowning out the voices of those who DO have actual experience and knowledge of what that choice or lack of it is like, like, you know, Muslim and ex-Muslim women who are forced into religious choices they do not want. This comic is a total misrepresentation of the Western liberal position, which has an insanely strong presence. It also completely bypasses the views of women, more than half the population, being from the point of view of an apparently sexually-aroused man. What about them? Or are they not part of the ‘opinion’ of the West? And then there are conservatives, whose view would probably be consistent with what is portrayed in the comic but whose opinions on this matter are generally so bigoted and misinformed that to claim that they are representative is utterly misleading. And then there’s a whole lot of shit in between. So what does Western opinion mean?

How about you advocate for the lack of double standards without totally straw-manning and misrepresenting somebody’s position in order to criticize it? How about not making it about shooting an entire world population down and lumping them all together and instead advocating for equal choice regardless without resorting to such intellectually dishonest rhetoric?

And this is a total slap in the face of those who are NOT free to make this choice and who ARE oppressed and who need help securing their freedoms, and who have faced a lifetime of adversity and struggle and suppression and fought tooth and nail for their right to bodily autonomy. There is not anything even CLOSE to resembling a struggle of this sort for women who want to wear hijab in Muslim-majority countries, let alone a global threat to the right of a woman to wear hijab if she wants to. On the other hand the hijab is mandated by law or socially pressured upon women in dozens of countries but criticism of it is always pushed off into irrelevant defensiveness of religion and what are NOT the real factors leading to this instead of an honest examination of the contribution factors that will end up with real solutions being addressed. But somehow that accusation that someone is oppressing women in the Muslim world is so freaking awful to consider that the question is one that should not even be asked. Is it so unwarranted for someone to assume that what is religiously prescribed as mandatory as per most interpretations of Islam could, I don’t know, you know, become ACTUALLY mandated and enforced in Muslim-majority countries? GASP. NO WAY. NEVER. Is it more important to be offended that some idiots on the street are going to judge and misinterpret the choices of hijabi women than it is to try to find active solutions for women in Muslim-majority countries who are utterly suppressed by misogynistic patriarchy and suffer MATERIALLY because of it? Or is it the case that just because women who freely choose the hijab exist then it is utterly unwarranted to suggest that some (most?) women don’t freely choose it and they need help?

And OF COURSE there are many Muslim and hijabi women who endure material harm because of bigotry and discrimination from individuals due to their hijab. Yes, that is a problem, and yes,it is important. But you know what it’s not? It’s not an institutionally controlled and systemically perpetrated problem. It is not, in the stark majority of places, a problem of legislature or social sanction. It is a problem of individuals and individual societal groups.

The point is this: A comic like this would be accurate and important if this was actually a problem of the sort I just described. But instead it detracts from what actually IS a real problem. I was forced to wear this shit for 14 years, and ten of those years were in ‘liberal’ Lebanon. Unless the choice to NOT wear the hijab is free of ANY social or legal or material costs by institutions or social structures EVERYWHERE then it’s not a free choice and it can and should be discussed. Of course some shitheads are going to attempt to ‘discuss’ it in stupid, bigoted, godawful ways. But you know what? That happens about everything, get over it and let the women that this concerns speak and let them get the support and endorsement and help of whoever the fuck they deem worthy of helping their cause. My life and the years I suffered from this, that my friends suffered from this, that women worldwide suffer from this are not a fucking game.

*It really is 4am, but here’s a cool TED talk about cognitive bias regarding that time of night.

Ohai! Here’s some wikimedia links with world maps showing required dresscodes for women and the prevalence of the hijab worldwide.

Also, here’s an awesome and totally on-point/related status update from the lovely admins over at Muslim and Ex-Muslim Women for Secularism.

Dear AUBMC Department of Psychiatry,

This is an open letter from a former patient. The intent of this letter is to expose the unethical treatment of patients in your department due to violation of doctor-patient confidentiality, which is especially crucial when it comes to mental health, and to urge you to take vigilance in future in enforcing confidentiality policies.

Patient information ought to be confidential and protected, except in cases where patients pose a risk to themselves or to others. Even then information should be disclosed only as needed, ie on a ‘need-to-know basis,’ as referenced on the AUBMC website.

Why then was information relating to my health and wellbeing regularly reported by my doctors to my father simply upon his asking? Why did this occur repeatedly in the five years (2007 to 2012) in which I was an adult outpatient visitor to the Department of Psychiatry? I never signed a release form permitting this. So why was my right to confidentiality routinely and progressively violated?

These are the effects of such unethical medical conduct:

1) The doctors who gave my father personal information about my life and health were unknowingly giving a violent and abusive parent weapons against his mentally ill daughter. I was held accountable in various ways for being ill and for not telling him that I was ill.

2) Since this happened from the beginning and was a recurring process, I had no reason to trust my doctors. How does a psychiatrist help a patient that has no trust in their help? I was supposed to be able to seek refuge in a medical field designed to help people like me. Instead, I was given every reason not to trust the healthcare professionals in your department to care for my health.

3) Because I had no trust for my doctors, I could not take the risk of telling them about my father’s abusive nature in attempt to get them to honor confidentiality. How did I know they wouldn’t tell him that I described him as such?  The chance of that happening was extremely threatening to my emotional and physical well-being. The only avenue I could think of to get my doctors to start honoring confidentiality was so risky I could not take it. I should not have had to even consider asking for something that was my absolute right.

4) I was not able to speak to my psychiatrists about the trauma in my everyday life because it related to my father, and thus they were missing information that was crucial to treating me.

5) I had to resort to pretending I was well and lying to the doctors I could not trust, and thus not receiving adequate treatment if my symptoms happened to relapse.

In addition to the above, the psychiatrists in your department did not once question the narrative my father fed to them, in my presence, the first day I was brought to the office. They did not see me alone and ask me if what my father said was true, did not ask for my consent or confirmation of my father’s assessment of my mental capacities except superficially in his presence. In fact, they expressed agreement with my father’s assessment of my character and actions and passed moral judgments upon me and shamed me for them as I sat there. Setting aside that judging and shaming a mental health patient is possibly the most counter-productive thing to do, their doing so was based on a mere assumption. They did the most unsafe thing they possibly could: They assumed my father was honest and did not for a moment entertain the possiblity that he could be a prime manipulator. They valued that assumption over discovering the truth about and ensuring the wellbeing of their patient.

My father went with me to every visit for the first several months. Not once was I able to speak outside of his presence. I could not ask to speak to my doctors alone because he would punish me for such a request once I got home. My doctors should have made that request themselves. It was their responsibility. It was their job. By the time I started seeing them alone, I had no reason to trust them.

For years, your department caused me unspeakable damage and anguish. Although I was a highly educated and competent adult working on a graduate degree and who taught at the university level, I was treated like I had the mental competence of an infant. Even children are taken aside and asked if such-and-such event really happened.

I urge you to regulate and enforce doctor-patient confidentiality in your department. I urge you to allow and require that patients accompanied by other people see their doctors alone and speak for themselves. I urge you to honor the Hippocratic Oath and your own policies. I urge you to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.

I also feel compelled to make the point that the above behavior is entirely consistent with cultural norms and ideals privileging paternal access to information and decision-making as some perceived right over patient personal autonomy, especially when it comes to women and female children. I urge you as a department to refuse to condone behavior that values Lebanon’s cultural norms of patriarchy, especially when they contribute to abuse and misogyny,  over your medical duties. Should your doctors personally subscribe to patriarchal norms in their private lives, that is their business. If and when these biases leak into their medical practice, this becomes wholly unacceptable and is an indication that they do not have the reservation and judgment fit to be mental health care providers.

I have since moved to the United States, and my father’s attempts at control followed me to my new psychiatrist’s office. Except this time, his phone calls never got past the secretary, his emails were deleted unanswered, and his spying and stalking was met with horror and a sense of protectiveness by my psychiatrist and therapist.

Never again will I accept anything less than that. I hope you can maintain the same standards for your practice.

Sincerely,

A Patient Demanding Medical Standards

© 2014 Ex-Muslims of North America