An Open Letter to the Department of Psychiatry, American University of Beirut Medical Center

I gained a lot of weight as a result of careless overmedication with excessive side effects.

I gained a lot of weight as a result of careless overmedication with excessive side effects.

 

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

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Lady Gaga and the burqa: it’s personal

This my fourth grade class picture in Saudi Arabia. I'm the bundled-up girl in the lower right hand corner, clearly.

This my fourth grade class picture in Saudi Arabia. I’m the bundled-up girl in the lower right hand corner, clearly.

 

I’m nervous, you guys, because I’ve done a very personal thing. I’ve guest-blogged about Lady Gaga and the burqa over at Godlessness in Theory, Alex Gabriel’s Freethought Blog.  And what I’ve done in this post is tell a very personal story.

An excerpt:

I’m not here to give yet another spin on the critiques of Gaga’s song as orientalist and fetishizing and appropriating and ignorant…Nor am I here to say something for the sake of saying something about it, because I am an ex-Muslim woman of color who blogs about such things and thus I must blog about this thing.

But I must blog about this thing.

Because after I watched her performance, read all the commentary and watched her performance again, I burned with ideas and emotions still unexpressed or insufficiently expressed. So I’m here to tell a story: to say what it is like to be a Muslim woman watching Lady Gaga sing about an aura, a burqa, that hides and empowers…

Here is a story, and with it a promise…

Maybe another story from another woman will come along, and another, and another. Because the greatest relevance this discussion has is as commentary on the very personal struggles Muslim women and women in Muslim-majority countries deal with regarding their personal autonomy and sexual identities.

Maybe somebody will be moved by one of these stories in a way that they are not when they are told that somebody’s culture has been appropriated and it hurts, it hurts.

And maybe some of these stories will become normalized, the voices heard in mainstream media, the movements requisite to change things undertaken.

Maybe. Either way, my conscience compelled me to tell this story because none of it is easy, general, impersonal. People live, die, bleed, love, and hate for these choices.

Singing about them is so easy. Making them is everything.

I tell you a very personal story, my story, one I’ve shared with very few people.  Read the rest of the post here.

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Quick Update: Facebook page and social media.

Between a Veil and a Dark Place’s new Facebook page.

I have been prone to posting short updates, important and interesting links, and commentary on my personal Facebook page. Generally I’m better at consistently sharing cool things if I have more than 140 characters to say something about it, and I’m completely new to twitter and have not gotten the hang of regular tweeting.

If you’d like more frequent, short updates, please feel free to like my Facebook page! I’m excited about moving most of my social media interactions to a more public platform.

How can we discuss Islam in better ways? A response to Alex Gabriel on Dawkins and Islam

This is in response to a post up at The Heresy Club discussing how and whether Richard Dawkins’ commentary on Islam is racist. The piece makes several powerful points–notably that while Islam is not a race it certainly can be discussed in racist ways that are both important and damaging to real people, and that Dawkins sometimes utilizes enables and endorses racist positions by others and sometimes makes statements himself that utilize racializing language. There are better ways, blogger Alex Gabriel says in closing, through which you can discuss and critique Islam. Language is important. Its connotations are powerful.

As a sort of jumping-off point to Gabriel’s closing statement, in this post I would like to tackle the following question: How can we discuss and critique Islam in better ways?

To do this, I think I need to ask some questions that are direct off-shoots of Gabriel’s discussion but that he only slightly touched upon, and they are:

  1. Is Islam fundamentally different from other world religions? How?
  2. Are there contexts in which critique of Islam is more important, relevant, or even imperative?
  3. Given the answers to 1. and 2., how can we discuss Islam in better ways? How do Dawkins and some of the New Atheists get it wrong, how do they get it right, and what do we do differently?

Let’s start.

I should stress that I want to thank Alex Gabriel for writing this piece, and for highlighting how blanket condemnations of Islam, especially those using language of exclusion, othering, and alienation, can help enable racism towards people from the MENA region and South Asia. Especially when those people are immigrants from these countries to the West, potentially threatening their safety, security, and livelihood in their new homes. I salute Gabriel for recognizing that it is counterproductive try to counter the oppression of already marginalized groups by speaking of them as a monolith. After all, he points out, Christian scripture can be as misogynistic and violent as the Qur’an, and Christian leaders and groups sometimes preach and legislate violence, misogyny, and homophobia, yet there is not a similar rush to blanket condemnations of ‘Christianity’ as such.

And while I believe that Gabriel has made an admirable and honest attempt to tackle this issue with carefulness, clarity, and nuance, I wish I could say it is as simple as recognizing the above, and being prepared as secular thinkers to deal with Islam in the same way we deal with Christianity, which too is not a monolith and is not actualized by the violence of its scriptural doctrine.

I would like to argue, however, that it is important to recognize that Islam differs from other large world religions in 2 key ways (if I happen to be wrong and there are other religions characterized by the following, this will not change my claim that the key characteristics of a doctrine are relevant to the manner in which they are discussed. It will only mean that Islam AND X other doctrines need to be dealt with in this way).

I’ll list these 2 ways here and come back to them shortly:

  1. Islam is not just a doctrine of personal belief but also a political doctrine. The concept of a secular state internally contradicts it. It strongly advocates for eventual political unity in a pan-Islamic Ummah and the enforcing of religious doctrine through governance. Its religious rulings also extend to even the most mundane aspects of everyday living, including matters of personal bodily autonomy.
  2. Islam shows a strong resistance to progressive interpretation due to the the central belief that its holy book is always-and-ever infallible, unchanged and unchangeaable, written by God himself. While it can be argued that this need not be inherent to the faith (after all, the Bible has historically been held away from scrutiny in similar ways and we see how THAT has changed), it doesn’t need to be more than a strong present circumstance to warrant influencing current discourse.

Why is this important? Why is it important to keep in mind what elements most mainstream interpretations of Islam share when trying to figure out how to productively discuss it? Why do these particular elements make Islam worthy of being treated differently than Christianity is?

Well, let me try to highlight why it is that many secularists believe that the better way to discuss Christianity  is not through blanket condemnations and othering language, despite the gravity of some of its offenses:

While I am open to being corrected, I would claim that in the West, most Christians no longer take the violently misogynistic and homophobic parts of the Bible literally, and those who do (eg: the Westboro Baptist Church) do not have the political power or legal recourse to actualize their beliefs, so if they happen to do so it is not of much consequence materially. As such, I’d argue that if it is at all coherent to claim that a religion can be characterized by certain beliefs, we cannot claim that Christianity, in the manner in which it is currently practiced and applied, is characterized by many violent Biblical edicts that have become, in practice and modern thought, no longer relevant.  In addition to this, there is a strong Christian presence, normalized in mainstream media, that avidly condemns violence based on misogyny and homophobia as specifically unChristian. In light of this, it would be a gross and unfair misrepresentation to claim that Christianity is characterized by ultra misogyny and violence or that this is a common element of the thought of Christians  simply because those elements are present in  its core scripture. In addition to being a misrepresentation, it would not be a productive method of discourse because pointing that out has very little to do with reform when governance among Christian-majority countries happens to be secular and thus can combat the attempted legislature of Christian-based laws on secular grounds.

Now, we might point to the existence of countries like Uganda, where anti-gay legislature is primarily fueled by Christian scripture-inspired homophobia. But, as Gabriel points out, the larger context of discussion needs to be apparent if you are ever going to get away with speaking in general terms. If problems such as homophobia in Uganda are to be discussed in a specifically Christian context, they need to be addressed in light of whether it is accurate, just, and fruitful as opposed to detrimental to characterize the entire faith, in all its multivariate interpretations and applications, according to this. Especially when the prevalence of counter-examples discounts an accurate assessment of homophobic legislation being representative of Christian practice today.

Okay, so what about forms of religious suppression and control that are more subtle or less recent than outright violence against LGBTQ individuals, but still ubiquitous? In his post, Gabriel cites Christian-inspired sodomy laws in the secular United States, which were only shot down ten years ago, as an example of how all sorts of countries and societies can have suppressive laws and practices. He mentions this to assert both that a singling out of Islamic nations for criticism of such legislature needs to at least be justified if it is to happen, and that the larger historical and global context in which oppressive and repressive legislature occurs cannot be ignored. We can go even further than that to talk about the fight against marriage equality and female reproductive rights occurring in the United States even today, and how by-and-large justifications for this kind of legislature take root in Christian belief. Why, then, is it viewed as less justifiable to condemn Christianity as a religion for having suppressive attitudes about sexuality while sexual repression in the Middle East is largely characterized as Islamic?

Because of how much more malleable Christianity has historically proven to be than Islam. It is not only capable of change, but arguably conducive to it. Because both Christian legislative influence in secular countries and  positions internal to Christian thought have changed and continue to change.

Because when we talk about Christianity or Islam, we do not talk about them in vacuum or independent of their historical manifestations and applications. They are not free-floating idea-systems and scriptural entities. They are their supporters, their interpreters, their members, their applications. They are also the cultures and races they emerge from and are practiced in.

There are many good reasons for Christians to support the claim  that the Bible has been subject to human corruption, and that parts of it are mistaken, no longer relevant, and/or can conscientiously be discounted. Further to this, many of them want to have good reason to refuse to endorse bigoted beliefs and practices. Discourse in the West has come to normalize the ideas of equality, liberty, and democracy as common goods. This has become normal as part of the common *culture* and by-and-large Christianity in the West has adapted to the discourse of its context. And where it has not, it continues to tend increasingly towards this. There are active political battles being fought and slowly being won.  One state at a time, ending around 30 years ago, marital rape was criminalized in every state in the US. One at a time, states are legalizing same-sex marriage. Much of the misogyny of 1960’s America is inconceivable today. While once interracial marriage was considered an unthinkable sin, it is now nearly unobjectionable in many mainstream Christian churches. Christianity and secular government have historically been seen to coexist and coevolve much more fruitfully than Islam and secular government ever have. This can, I will argue, be shown to be a reliable indicator that there is something about Islam and the political contexts it finds itself in that makes it uniquely resistant to positive change.

What are the reasons for this? Well, my answers to the question of how Islam differs from other world religions is a starting point, and here’s why:

Islam IS different. The misogynistic and homophobic elements of scripture are very much alive, are very much still actively discussed and implemented among scholars and everyday Muslims alike. Within Muslim thought, they pervasively (though surely not exclusively) go unchallenged as wrong, harmful, or offensive in any way, and on the contrary, are often upheld as just, correct, and infallible.  Their status as such both historically (in terms of how Islamic doctrine HAS changed given the problems posed to it by modernity and colonialism alike) and currently is I think due to the following:

  1. The perceived unapproachable divinity of the core scripture itself (leading to apologist memes such as ‘Islam is perfect, Muslims are not, do not blame Islam for what Muslims do’)
  2. The perceived unobjectionable and self-evident moral rightness of the faith as a whole (which leads to the strange paradox where apostates are guilty of a supreme act of betrayal against good conscious for leaving the perfect faith, yet an assertion that true apostates cannot exist because it is not possible for one to both understand Islam and reject it, and all rejections and criticisms are due to misinterpretations)
  3. The overtly political nature of the faith, which makes it both religiously justifiable and and an actual matter of fact in our current world that actual political regimes are Islamic, and some that are not entirely so contain prominent religious-based power structures that form laws applicable to their Muslim demographics.

Once Islam is viewed as resistant to change, above accurate informed critique, and as a political doctrine that ideally requires religious governance at the level of the state (especially as it extends to everyday private practices of its constituents), it becomes apparent that it deserves to be dealt with in a fundamentally different manner, when critiqued, than Christianity does. This might mean that it is not only fair, but nearly incumbent that Islam be discussed insofar as it is characterized by its suppression, violence, and misogyny–in scripture, in application, in practice, and in thought resistant to progressive interpretation.

It is of course necessary to stress that not all Muslim groups or thinkers will endorse this. There are progressives who seek to normalize a liberal version of Islam, especially LGBTQ Muslims. But, and this is a stickler, because of the cited unique qualities of Islam, they are often demonized above and beyond Western criticizers of the faith. Can you imagine how horrifying and exhausting it is for progressive Muslims–Muslims who willingly take upon themselves the arduous and personally valuable task of reconciling their faith with their liberalism–to be continually discounted as invalid innovators, as no true Muslims, as agents of the West and false corruptors?

I will make a further claim. It is not only fair that Islam be dealt on par with the elements that characterize it, but arguably incumbent because of the gravity and extent through which Islam and its intermingling with culture and politics wields great harm. Because honor violence has become nearly pandemic in many Muslim-majority countries, because child marriage and marital rape are not only legal but also viewed as unobjectionable, because women and LGBTQ individuals have few if any rights, and because much of this boils down to Islam as political doctrine being implemented in societies whose common discourse is consistent with it and pose no internal challenge to it, and thousands of people are suffering.

So what now? Let’s say we acknowledge this, both the important elements of Islam to keep in mind and the dire need for critique. What is the better way to discuss Islam without taking several pedals backwards by falling into racism and enabling harmful stereotypes against people who are from Muslim-majority countries or follow the faith?

And this is where, I think, an even stronger criticism of some of the positions Dawkins endorses is needed than the one Gabriel gave in his article. Gabriel’s main accusation was that you enable anti-Muslim racism by using othering and alienating language to both describe Islamic practices and to characterize the practices of some countries and some people as Islamic. This sort of language is irresponsible, weighty, and racializes the discussion by default.

I want to move away from these keen points on what sort of language is used to critique Islam to what sort of contexts Islam needs to be critiqued in, and to ask the question: What is the PURPOSE of critique of Islam? If the point of the discourse is to prove that Islam is bad, wrong, or stupid just to point out that is bad, wrong, or stupid, then I seriously will wonder why this is even being called discourse at all. Who does it help? What is its point? What purpose does it fulfill? We can make more or less complex and well-argued claims like the following:

Islam is bad for teaching creationism to impressionable kids, Muslims are scientific and unintelligent because they don’t win Nobel prizes in science, Islam is one of the great evils of the world, etc.

Well, say that was true. What is your point in asserting it?

I will make the assumption here that Dawkins and other New Atheists seek to highlight the troubles with Islam in order to help solve real problems in the real world and actualize change.

If so, I’m totally on board with Gabriel’s assessment that using racializing language is counterproductive in many ways. If so, I’d go even further to say that in addition to enabling racism against Muslims and brown people in the West, it is a ridiculously shortsighted view of actual problem areas in Islam. No, not even short-sighted, but rather ethnocentric and arrogant.

It is ethnocentric because it is discourse that centralizes the ‘problem’ of Islamist terrorism as a threat to the West, when Western countries have been victim to more acts of terror from white people and white groups than from Muslims or Islamic groups, when, in fact, Islamist damage in the West has been statistically minimal both in comparison to Islamist damage to Muslims and damage by other groups to the West, when  anti-West violent rhetoric is not commonly accepted or overt in mainstream Islam, and when this calls away and detracts from the most common and weighty victims of Islamic suppression and violence: children, women, and LGBTQ citizens of the Muslim world.

My main criticism of Dawkins’ attempts at Islamic critique have always been that it is utterly white-centric.

The problems of Islam are only minimally the problems of the West. They are rather the problems of marginalized brown groups in the West, they are problems of women who have few rights and few avenues of help in Muslim-majority countries, they are the problems of how Islam is utilized to control and suppress in the Muslim world.

They are political problems. And although the plights of citizens of the Muslim world are often cited by those liberals, secularists, and atheists who choose to discuss Islam, they are often done so not as a focus in and of themselves, but as fuel to justify white-centric positions involving how immigrants ought to be dealt with and wars waged.

I also said the discourse is arrogant. I say this because it places undue weight on the value of truth, on the freedom to use whatever language is appropriate to the highly objectionable and deserving of criticism, because it places itself on a superior epistemological pedestal of reason that is valued above any productivity this discourse will bring about. While truth, reason, and accuracy are clearly necessary conditions for valuable discourse, they are not sufficient or self-justifying independent of their rhetoric or material effects.

This is not an epistemological. It is not a theoretical problem. It is not even a problem of meta-ethics or normative ethics. It is, if anything, a problem of applied ethics, it is a problem of consequentialism. It is not merely about stating or proving a truth using inflammatory language because you can support the claims you make through reason-giving processes. It is a political problem, one that deals with real things that real people do and believe and the political power structures that enable them to do and believe these things.

And here is the consequentialist truth, grounded in the real world: blanket condemnations and accusations are going to do little to delegitimatize political Islam. Insults and blanket rejections of the entire faith as such from the outside (ie rejecting the initial premises of the faith and operating on premises that Muslims will likely reject) will not convince anybody who has the power over suppressed populations in Muslim-majority countries of anything except that their faith is being attacked, their livelihood threatened, and the need to batten down the hatches and tighten the drawstrings more incumbent.

In fact, it seems the only way that rhetoric of this sort will actually have any effect on the people and countries who utilize Islam to oppress is by convincing other white people, Westerners, and non-Muslims of the evil of Islam and causing them to initiate forceful action against Islamic and Islamist regimes and Muslim-majority countries. Many good criticisms of how ineffective and destructive this method is have been made, so I do not need to make them here. However, I would like to strongly emphasize that violence against those who violence disadvantaged populations under their power more often than not leads to further suffering among those already disadvantaged.

That is not the way to talk about Islam. While we’re on the subject, nor are these:

Right-wing criticism of Islamic practices are also (yes, we know, obviously) bad ways to discuss Islam. They are almost unequivocally based on misconceptions, misinformation, bigotry, and imperialist tendencies. They are not actual credible critiques and are sloppy and full of holes and tend to look for solutions that will condemn the real victims of Islamic oppression to further war and poverty. While mere accuracy is not enough to engage in productive discourse, it is a necessary condition for doing so. That part is what Dawkins and the New Atheists do have quite right.
On the other hand, much of the left is super antsy and trepidatious about approaching Islam in even close to the amount of criticism it has for harmful Christian-inspired legislation here in America, out of a fear of being racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and imperialist, and also out of a fear of furthering more war and destruction on our people and nations. While the point is clearly not to fall into the latter, refusing to even approach a subject of such importance only ends up enabling the condemnation of ex-Muslims, progressive Muslims, and secular thinkers who dare to speak conscientiously about Islam and its problems outside the parameters of accepting the faith.  Islam cannot be pussy-footed around and poses important enough problems to require discourse and attention. Acknowledging and asserting this is another way in which Dawkins and the New Atheists have it right.
So, finally, the positive question: given the above, how DO you talk about Islam in better ways? Here are some suggestions:
  1.  Recognize that people are not going to abandon Islam, that they work from within a framework of the faith, and completely throwing their initial premises outside the window as fairytales, delusional, evil, or wrong will not convince them of anything.
  2.  Recognize that it is not one thing or the other,that racism and anti-Muslim bigotry occur and damage real people just as Islam-inspired violence and misogyny do, and fair discourse will pay attention to both of these things.
  3. Recognize that rhetoric is important consequentially, that language is burdened with connotation and connotation feeds stereotype and stereotype leads to discrimination that actively harms people.
  4. And this is the most important one: Encourage, enable, and normalize the voices of progressive Muslim activists, LGBTQ Muslims, and ex-Muslims looking for peaceful reform of laws against women and children. ESPECIALLY the voices of women (because women of color have had enough white men speaking for them to last several lifetimes). Normalize those voices in mainstream media. Listen to them. because their voices are too often hidden and discounted.

And this is how: Ex-Muslims are working and gathering. They are writing and speaking, and quite often they represent a middle path that is acceptable as neither bigoted nor turning a blind eye to real injustices. Our presence is still tenuous but it is strengthening. This is a promise. There is good work being done.

We want to engage in good, accurate critique. We want to explain and make known how it is, and we want our voices to become accepted in mainstream media. We don’t run the same risk of coming across as xenophobic  because we ARE brown, we ARE from Muslim cultures, and we are the direct victims and those concerned with this issue, and, most importantly, we can often provide unique understanding and appreciation of being on the receiving end of both anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamist violence and oppression. We also are more likely to understand and not misinterpret our own cultures and the faiths we were socialized into.

So ask us, listen to us, and enable our voices. The problem is that it is hard for many of us to come out as ex-Muslim or atheist, because we face threats of violence and rape, and many of us are exiled to the West because we had to escape from or are shunned by our families and communities. So when we do speak, we almost always do it anonymously or under pseudonyms, and it is hard for us to feel safe or deal with the pressure and stigma surrounding us. It is also hard for us to build reliable and trusted platforms from which to speak when we rely so heavily on anonymity.

What we hope is for our allies in the West to do is to ask us how you can help, what campaign you can contribute to, what petition you can endorse, ask us questions so you can learn more about us and this complex issue. And in addition to this, help us be heard. Help normalize and make welcome the ex-Muslim voice. Help our communities become stronger so our activism can have a real place in the world. When we write or post about events that take place back home, share, speak, distribute. Do it when a Westerner is victimized in our countries too, of course, but also do it for us. Don’t only speak out when a white person is involved. Don’t fail to speak out if a brown person is the victim of discrimination in the West due to anti-Muslim bigotry. If you care about the issue, you care about it for all of us everywhere. Help strengthen our voices and help us be safe in the West and we will thrive and change things with your cooperation.

I hope.

-Marwa

How the Hijab Objectifies: Part One of the Hijab Series

This is the first in a three-part discussion about the hijab, suppression, and objectification. In this 1st post, I discuss the hijab as a defense against sexual objectification.

In the 2nd post, I will discuss when, where, how, and whether women freely choose the hijab in the most radically agential of ways.

In the 3rd post, I will discuss objectification as attitude and as material consequence.

I know dozens if not hundreds of women who wear hijab. These include my mother, my sister, my aunts, my grandmothers, my cousins, my friends, former students and former colleagues. Most of them have or are in the process of getting higher degrees, and many of them work in the public sphere.

I know and know of hijabis who speak publicly, who engineer, who doctor, who teach, who slam poems, who report, who sing, who do standup comedy, who play sportsball, and who lead in their workplaces and communities.

I myself wore the hijab for 15 years, from the age of 8 to the age of 23. I wore it unwillingly, and I will get to this point later. I wore it through grade school, high school, through college, through graduate school, through various jobs I held: editorial positions at literary journals and newspapers, through my negotiations and interactions with the various companies I freelanced for, through the undergrad classes I taught.

The only times the actual cloth on my head impeded  my career choices and options were when I was discriminated against for it. But even those were mere hiccups; I have been phenomenally successful in my educational and employment endeavors. I wore a piece of cloth on my head and wore long, loose, flowing clothes throughout. And I am not a particularly opportunistic or forward person; I have let many opportunities slip through my fingers because I have not been proactive enough about pursuing them.

My point is this: It should be obvious that there is nothing *inherent* in a piece of cloth, long pants, and long sleeves that will prevent women from engaging assertively and intellectually in public domains.

I say nothing *inherent* because on its own modest and covering clothing is not a sufficient condition for either the suppression or oppression of women.

I spoke at my graduate commencement ceremony, to an audience half of whom were women, most of whom were unveiled. Things are not what they seem.

I spoke at my graduate commencement ceremony, to an audience half of whom were women, most of whom were unveiled. Things are not what they seem.

Unfortunately, it is almost never a thing on its own. And by this I am NOT referring to the common (yet compelling) argument that the hijab is never discrete from the ideology it is tied to.  I instead mean that the hijab is not defined by modest clothing, but is defined by a full spectrum of behaviors, of which covering your body is only a one.

Caveat here: Islam is a religion of many denominations and is not a monolith either in interpretation or practice, and many people find personal ideological fulfillment and peace with a version of the hijab that does not subscribe to the following definition. With that disclaimer out of the way, it is true that this general definition, or one consistent with it, of the hijab is most commonly endorsed by the largest sects and scholars of Islam. In addition to wearing loose, flowing, non-revealing clothing covering all skin except face and hands, to be a hijabi you must guard your modesty in not only your dress, but in your actions, your words, your looks, and your thoughts:

  • You must lower your gaze from the bodies and faces of men.
  • You must not bend, lift, carry and otherwise move in manners and places where men will see the outlines of your body through your clothes.
  • You must not be alone with a non-mahram man at any time in private.
  • You must not go out for meals even in public alone with men, be friends with them, or otherwise place yourself in a situation where indecent thoughts and desires may develop.
  • You must not hug, hold hands with, or otherwise touch men.
  • You must not project your voice in a manner that might be arousing to men.

Why do women choose this?

Proponents of hijab say it humanizes by fighting sexual objectification. If a woman is modest in her actions, appearance, and interactions, she will be able to resist being unnecessarily sexualized, and will be treated as a human, on merit of her mind, her actions, her words, and NOT her body. Proponents of the hijab commonly contrast themselves to overly sexualized women in mainstream Western media, who need to use their bodies in order to gain status and recognition, who have their appearance constantly appraised and their self-worth tied to shallow aesthetics, and who become consumable objects for the pleasure of men.

The hijab, the argument holds, prevents all of this from happening to you. By covering your body and refusing to casually mix with men, you limit their opportunities to sexualize you. You retain your dignity.

I am here to ask if this can actually work.  Not whether it does, because it is possible that when it fails, this is due to external factors that have nothing to do with conceptual soundness of the hijab. To compensate for that possible point of contention, my question is whether the hijab conceptually CAN prevent objectification. And here is my argument:

Engaging in the practices of hijab in order to avoid sexual objectification is, I believe, necessarily a conundrum.

All lengths are taken to prevent women from being viewed as sexual objects, yes. But in the process, women are turned into objects in many other ways, making their interactions, their voices, their physical presence, and often their very faces invisible and robbing them of choices of self-determination if and when those choices involve interacting in the public sphere in any way that may be deemed immodest. And given the publicity of the work and education spheres, this has become almost routinely unavoidable.

That is the problem. In focusing on sexual objectification, the Muslimah forgets that you can be objectified in many other ways. The most radical of these is to be invisible.

Even when voluntarily done.

If you voluntarily hide yourself away and keep your literal voice from being heard so it does not arouse men, you are still closeting an essential part of your humanity. What is a human subject if not a thinker, a mover, a manipulator of space and object, a chooser of ends and achievement and knowledge and purpose? But if the goal of the hijab is to avoid objectification, doesn’t its method absolutely counter humanizing as subject? Setting aside the fact that sexual objectification is in fact not deterred by the hijab, in attempts to stave it off women end up being objectified in many other  arguably more dehumanizing ways.

What is objectification? To be treated or viewed as an object. An object is a thing handled, used, and manipulated rather than a thing that does those things. If the main concern, as the proponents of the hijab offer, is to preserve woman’s humanity as subject, then whether the objectified use of a woman is sexual or not should not be the main focus.

But for some reason objectification is largely spoken of in a sexual context as if it is more important or different in kind, or else as  if that were the only or main way in which women are objectified.

This is instead of recognizing the futility in attempting to completely control what is essentially an attitude or perspective in those who interact with women by hiding women from interaction. And to say that this is futile is not at all tantamount to saying that sexual objectification should not be fought and railed against; it is rather recognizing that it is impossible to completely eradicate it except by complete and utter seclusion, and it is perhaps not worth demonizing to such an incredible extent that you end up limiting YOURSELF in order to avoid it.

Because the sexual objectification argument does not fly, and I would broach that it is a new interpretation, perhaps even an ad hoc one, created after the fact, when modern discourse began to necessitate the discussion of humans as subjects versus as mere objects. Historically and even today Islamic mandates for modesty and the hijab have been oriented towards the benefit of men against their own corruption and sin. The sexual objectification justification is a new one.

And this is GOOD! It is progress! Progressive reinterpretations of discourse are only to be welcomed, and hopefully, hopefully amended. From moving to thinking that a woman must behave and dress modestly in order to not tempt men and to keep men from sin, and to have mercy upon them and not victimize them by causing discord–from moving from thinking THAT to thinking about the hijab in terms of humanizing women (!!!): this is progress.

But it is not enough.

It is not enough, and many Muslim women themselves KNOW it is not enough, because they cannot both be self-fulfilled and follow the strict archaic mandates of the hijabi dress code; they recognize what a contradiction and conundrum this is. That is why they slam poetry though letting their voices and passions trill out may be viewed as immodest, that is why they speak publicly, that is why they perform surgeries and put their hands on men to heal them, that is why they teach, putting their bodies and voices and minds in front of classes of stationary people who will look at and consider them for extended amounts of time, that is why they work alongside men tirelessly, are friends with men, that is why they wear this piece of cloth on their heads, which is on its own as a piece of cloth not holding them back from their self-realization.

They retain their desire to not have their bodies on display for consumption ALONGSIDE their desires to be human subjects acting, feeling, thinking, leading.

Because women are not functionalities and responsibilities, and are not objects of discord that must be hidden away. And though many Muslim women have made the leap in practice, they have not made the requisite adjustments to their ideological justifications in line with their actions. And many more of them have not even gotten so far as to let themselves outside their homes and interact with a society full of men. There is much progress to be made.

There is progress to be made because ideology informs and feeds practice. The larger question here is whether it is anybody’s right to comment on or interfere with a Muslimah’s chosen interpretation of her faith, or to challenge the precepts of the hijab she chooses to don. While it is almost a semantic paradox to say that someone can be forced to humanize themselves, it is unfortunately the case that in most Muslim-majority countries the ideology of the hijab is mandated and enforced by OTHER PEOPLE upon women, and while the ultimate hope and wish is for this to cease to happen–for any ideology at all for any unwilling participant–perhaps the first step is to encourage more and kinder progressive interpretations, to move forward, to help women who choose otherwise to become less dehumanized.

Remember when I said that my hijab did not impede my success in my career? I also said that I wore it unwillingly. For me, it really was only a piece of cloth on my head because it had to be-. In action, I was not a hijabi. I interacted with my coworkers, my students, my graduate program, my friends with warmth, intimacy, trust, and closeness. There was nothing about my assertive voice, my un-quelled laughter, the hugs I gave and received, the unabashed way I discussed sexuality and gender politics in my ethics classroom, the bonds of love and trust and commitment and frankness that I formed–none of that was modest in the traditionally Islamic sense.

But here’s the catch: I did it in secret, because I had to, so my own blood would not drench my hijab. The mere cloth on my head was NOT THE THING. It was a symptom of the thing– of something bigger and more pervasive that I could not fight even by choosing to interact with my colleagues and friends and professors the way I did. Because I had to be careful, anxious, worried, afraid, full of a sense of loss and confusion and ineptitude and fear about it. Because I hid everything, even my lesson plans. Because I was not allowed to be at work or with friends outside daylight hours, because I was not allowed to take public transportation and had to have my parents or women friends they trusted drive me to work, to school, because I was not allowed unasked or unmonitored access to the internet at home…

Why? And what if I had chosen the hijab? And is this common, uncommon, bad, good, is this a family matter or a national matter or a Muslim matter?

That is the topic of Part 2: When, where, how, and whether women freely choose the hijab, coming soon.

-Marwa

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Why I miss Ramadan…

I miss Ramadan.

Not the fasting and praying by any means, but the insanely warm and tingly atmosphere, the food and chattiness and thankfulness.

It gets to you.

Because the whole city is awake, and even the littlest of your cousins is up at 4am. You sit on chairs beneath your building, with battery lights and summery breezes, with watermelon and football matches and the sweet smoky scent of arguileh. You hold babies whose faces are sticky with cake as you bat at bugs with a long, sizzling mosquito swatter.

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{Sunset in Beirut, sunset in Doha}

You break fast with dates and a tall glass of ayran every evening and there will be a thousand pumpkin seed husks spit into the garden from the porch before the moon sets. By then, everyone will be too full and relaxed to care about yelling at their kids when they run off to buy cheap chocolate and peanut puffs,  firecrackers and water pistols from the corner store.

And  there are lanterns everywhere and dozens of hands hold dozens of palm-high tea glasses that glow amber-red.  Every summer fruit is stacked high on platters and  you stand on a ladder and cut grape clusters straight from the vine overhead.

And though you are full to bursting, you can’t help but nibble at those sheets and sheets of Arabic sweets dripping with syrup and cheese and pistachio and that one candied orange blossom that tastes like wax.

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{My father’s village home}

And at no other time do you turn on the radio with a glass of water in hand at dusk and the jingles drive you nuts while you wait for the adhan to come warbling out.

And you never get  tired of cheese sambousak and lentil soup and fattoush even though you start with them every night because it is that familiar and comforting. And you watch pine nuts swirl in your iced jallab as you vaguely wonder why you never drink it any other time of the year.

There is a drummer walking the streets before dawn. He strikes his drum with slow, deep booms to wake those in slumber to  their last meal before the day breaks.

And, even though you are twenty three years old and have work in the morning, your mother still shakes you awake when he comes around, and pushes a mug of warm milk to your lips. The drummer in the street syncs in time with your sleepy gulps.

Yes, I miss Ramadan. I miss home.

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{My mother’s village home}

Here is to a happy, willing, and safe Ramadan for all Muslims and members of Muslim families everywhere.

My wish and hope is that out ex-Muslims and non-Muslims from Muslim families will still be welcome among their families and cultures. My hope is that we never have to say goodbye to home, that home remains a safe and welcoming place even if we choose not to fast, choose not to pray.

-Marwa

A call for mercy, because of what Muslims and ex-Muslims share

I wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago. It was read by tens of thousands of human beings. This would be unnerving in and of itself, but the feedback I received is what really moved me.  It was so resounding that I am still shaking from the grace of my readers.

I have received comments, emails, and messages from friends and strangers alike.

I have received responses from people in my hometown Beirut, from friends from religious and nonreligious families alike, Muslims and Christians. I have received responses from people from fundamentalist backgrounds differing from my own, people from other third world countries, Arabs and Muslims American-born-and-raised, white Westerners, from men from my lands and men from the West, from people who are Muslim and people who are not.

I was gifted words, largely from people I will never meet, who I probably would never have touched or spoken to, and I was gifted words from the heart.

Confidences, testimonials, secrets, I was gifted tears.

Expressions of confusion, horror, injustice, I was gifted empathy.

Expressions of resonance, of equity and grace.

“This hits so close to home.”

“I never imagined it could be this way.”

“This is my life too.”

“Thank you for confirming that my life is worth fighting for.”

“I can’t believe I’m not alone.”

“Thank you for saying what I cannot.”

“Love, strength, hope to you. Blessings to you. Keep writing.”

It made me realize how much more difficult this project of mine is than I anticipated–though try to anticipate its difficulty I did.

I knew it would require imaginativeness and nuance, thoroughness and integrity. And perhaps because I am lacking in some ways in these areas, I was girded for a much simpler responsibility than this. The responsibility I feel is greater now.

I am unnerved because I now know that the responsibility I face is not one of mere intellectual integrity–as if that were not a hefty enough responsibility to carry. The responsibility I face is one of justice to other people and the hope and thought they give me.

It is difficult because there is pain and injustice on all sides, and I wonder about us–Muslims, ex-Muslims, Muslim-ish people, queer and LGBT Muslims and citizens of Muslim-majority countries, Arabs, South Asians, North Africans, Southeast Asians, Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, people from traditional patriarchal societies in the third world, immigrants, et al. I wonder if all of us, if any of us, can reconcile our spiritual, personal, and worldly identities and still do justice to the phenomenally unique pain and/or diversity of experience we carry.

This morning, I had a glimpse into a way in which we can try.

This morning, I read an article in The Sun by an African American poet, a teacher, a scholar, a man I know to be wise and overflowing with giving and empathy, and I was baffled and moved that anyone could speak of such oppression and pain and have it be an unblaming invitation to mercy.

What a wondrous concept, to be able to speak of your own pain and violation and that of your people, and still be encompassing, welcoming, calling for mercy all around, from all sides.

There is in fact injustice and pain on all sides here, and it is difficult to speak of it without casting undue blame, to try to cite real reasons and sources of injustice without furthering more misunderstanding and misfortune.

Because all of us suffer.

Because moderate Muslims with progressive, pro-choice worldviews have an uphill battle to fight against the extreme versions of their faith in their communities and as strongly portrayed by the media.

Because the interpretative, scholarly efforts of moderate Muslims working for change are often discounted as colonialist, imperialist, unrecognized innovations, or worse. (But, please. Please keep working, keep trying. There are those who hang precious hopes upon your work.)

Because a young Muslim girl, faced with fear, threats, and violence her whole life, yet somehow respectful and encompassing and graceful as anyone can be,

because a young Muslim girl, modest, innocent, supportive of her country and of Islam,

because a young Muslim girl who is all of those delicate and wondrous things is slandered as an evil agent of the West bent on the destruction of patriarchal communities because she is an advocate of education for girls and women. (Respect, respect, love to you, Malala. Can you tell me I have hope when someone with your belonging is so hated?)

Because Arab-Americans homes and individuals are suspect: invaded, searched, frisked, judged before and beyond who they are and what their values are. (In the 80’s my mother was visited by the FBI in her home. “Why do you make so many regular phonecalls to this number in this distant state?” To her, it was family. To them, she was calling an Arab-American immigrant hub)

Because Muslims with a sincere devotion and love for their God are ostracized from their communities and labeled haram for trying, with honesty and grace, to reconcile their feminism, their queerness, their non-cis identity with their faith.

Because monogamous, devout homosexual Muslims are imprisoned, beaten, and worse by the communities they want so powerfully to be part of. (Pride, pride. Your courage inspires me. Please stay strong, and pride.)

Because Muslims who travel to the West feel compelled to wear baseball caps and t-shirts, to shave or wear clothes that are uncomfortably stylish so they are not profiled because they look ‘brown.’ (Baseball cap off to my uncle who rides airplanes wearing a Homer Simpson t-shirt. It reads: ‘Everybody is stupid except me.’ Its neon green is less of a beacon than his skin.)

Because ex-Muslims are in hiding even after moving to, running to, living in the West, and when they show their faces and make their voices heard, they are met with threats of death and rape. (Love, courage, honor to you, Reem Abdel-Razek. My heart swells when I hear your voice. It is small; it resounds)

Because when ex-Muslims begin to tentatively bridge, reach out to each other, form communities, they must subject new members to uncomfortable questioning because their safe places of trust and hope are so fragile and new. (I hate that my testimony to your authenticity, my dear, old friends, is more valuable than your authenticity. I hate how necessary it is that I vouch for your goodwill; where are your voices?)

Because Muslims and Christians have to elope to Western countries for their inter-faith marriages to be legal. (Thank you, Cyprus, for being a short boatride from Beirut, for uniting young couples in love when their own country refuses to.)

Because Muslims from differing denominations must beg their countries, their sheikhs, their parents to allow them to marry because of political differences. (Strength and spirit to my Sunni Saudi friend and her Shia Lebanese love, you who wandered like pilgrims from cleric to cleric begging to be legally united. I am proud of your pleas.)

Because women from Muslim countries who bare their bodies are exiled, kidnapped, and put on trial. (We are all Amina Tyler. We are all Aliaa Elmahdy.)

Because Muslim lands are invaded, divided, set to fire and unearthed by foreign forces. (How much of this do we do to ourselves, with our ceaseless bickering and ebbs and flows of power and patriarchy?)

Because, too, Muslims suppress, destroy, punish, sanction, inflame their own people. (How much of this is due to the endless cycle of colonialism, war, rebuilding, fear of those world powers stronger than us?)

Because, simply, Muslims are hated for being Muslims.

(I walk on the streets of my college town, ride on a college bus on my way to teach the students of this campus. I wrap my head in a scarf from the wind. I forgot my ID at home for the busride; I am not the only one. But you, bus driver, single me out, aggressive, rough. “Did your parents not teach you to pay for things?”, you ask. When my head is bare this never happens.)

Because, simply, ex-Muslims are hated for not being Muslims.

(I turn off my phone, I reject numbers I don’t know. My heart flutters to my throat with every unexpected voicemail. Do I listen to it? Next week, next week, I’ll change my number. Next week, next week, the loss of my family will be complete.)

This painful testimonial can go on for pages and it is not a tombstone or a dirge. It is complex, multifaceted, organic, flowing. It is a book of many voices, many authors, many pages. It withers and shrinks on all sides and stabs itself with itself again and again, then blooms and rises in hope and power.

And falls again.

And I have a fear, because not all of the responses, emails, and testimonials I received were of empathy and mercy. Because some of them were reactionary, lashings-out of pain and affront because my experience, on the face of it, delegitimatizes other experiences, different experiences, experiences of vibrancy, hope, life, and joy as proud Muslims, as citizens of Muslim-majority countries. Experiences, too, of those who are hated and misunderstood despite all that. Because they have good lives, and they try to spread this good. Because they are tired, too, of their value as human beings being discounted because of the name ‘Muslim’.

And this is what I say to you: that I am afraid too. I say to you this, because I understand that our lives and experiences are not monoliths, that our challenges are multifaceted and versatile.

I feel afraid at simple sentences like “But I thought Lebanon was a liberal country–I am shocked and disappointed” from Westerners who read my post, because there is something there that is misunderstood, because the progressiveness and freedoms of my homeland should not be nullified by my experience. I am afraid too, at reactions from others, who continually glorify and tout the graces of  Lebanon’s capital city in attempts to delegitimatize its problem areas.

I am afraid at both reactions because they exclude the other, and it makes me think of a cyclical motion that moves slowly back and back. I am afraid because this paradigm of response, this binary, can be lifted and applied to many Muslim-majority countries, Islamic societies, and Muslim family-structures, and this binary is too divided, too excluding, too extreme on either end to be either accurate or productive.

And here is the truth about my story: I come from a city, Beirut, that is beautiful and vibrant, full of art and culture and education. And yes, one side of it is a party city, a city of hedonism, of great food and good beer, with a glowing, robust nightlife, a city of joy and hope. It is also a city of interfaith living, with churches and mosques and multiple religious communities coexisting side by side. It is a city of good people, welcoming people, open and friendly and kind.

This is why I understand a sentiment some of my friends have given me in earnest protest: “Please don’t paint Lebanon with this brush; please. We are liberal, we are learning, we are hope.”

My city, Beirut, is all of this. I agree.

But because it is so important, let me tell you what my city, Beirut, is also. My city Beirut is the capital of a country torn by sectarian schism and civil strife: recurring, powerful, deadly.

In my city, a Christian cannot sell beer in a shop in a Muslim district without being ostracized, vilified, driven away. A Muslim is uncomfortable and afraid of driving to Christian areas, walking in them with head covered and hands bare.

My city, Beirut, is in a land where domestic violence and marital rape have yet to be criminalized. Draft laws proposing to criminalize them have been shot down time and again by the top religious authorities, who say it will threaten the closeness of familial bonds.

If you are a citizen in my city, your religion of birth, displayed on your ID card, will determine whether and where you can run for office, who you can marry and who has a say in who you can marry. In my city, all civil rights are routed through religious courts. Interfaith marriage cannot occur except in conformity to religious doctrine, because we have no civil institution of marriage.

In my city, it was not until last week that the government made an official declaration that being gay is not a disease and does not need treatment. It is the first Arab country to do this. Having ‘unnatural’ sex is still against the law. In my city, boys are arrested, interrogated, beaten, tortured, and raped by the police on suspicion of having gay sex.

In my city, if a girl is raped, it will likely go unreported, and if it is reported, her aggressor will likely go unconvicted, and if he is convicted, there is a lawful provision allowing him to be acquitted of all charges if he marries her.

In my city, there is special provision by law to allow for lesser sentences for murders categorized as honor crimes. This is if these cases ever go to trial. In my homeland, a man beat his wife to death only days ago, and he is free and unquestioned.

In my city, religious and honor codes often operate above, beyond, and ignored by the law.

In my city, no police station or officer will protect or help a woman reporting domestic violence, because it is not a crime, and because it is not worth the trouble of interfering in private family matters. In my city, a woman in a police station is routinely harassed and sexually assaulted by the police.

In my country, no Lebanese girl who gives birth to a child can give that child her citizenship.

In my city, girls who live alone, even if they are Christian girls with parental consent or girls from nonreligious families, are watched and their behavior regulated by their neighbors, their community, their apartment building watchmen. Their trustworthiness and honorableness, and thus their treatment, is based on these assessments.

In my city, a girl under 21 can be banned from leaving the country by her husband or father, and many girls over 21 too, because political corruption, bribery, and sectarian politics can shift the criteria of a mechanism already in place.

In my city, a girl who leaves home as an adult can be dragged back to her parents’ place against her will by the political/religious party governing the demographic she was born into.

In my city, a girl walking the street at night can be picked up by members of the political/religious party governing her area and driven home because girls cannot wander the streets.

And when I say that my city is all of these things, I will turn around and tell you that it is also the most liberal place in the Middle East, a place where many glorious freedoms flourish, and where life, youth, and joy are to be found. It is my home, the city of my dreams, and I see it in my sleep every night. I love it for all of those reasons, and because it is freer than many other places in the Middle East and beyond.

But it is still not free, and this is a truth as important and honest as any of the great things about my home, and in telling my story, and the stories of so many dozens of women I know and love, I seek for understanding, for hope, for mercy. I understand the instinct to react with affront, with hurt, anger, and confusion at a negative story that is only partially representative of a culture and a place that is not a monolith, I understand this reaction when it is bolstered and fueled by a long history of misappropriation and misunderstanding and structural discrimination and hate.

But for Beirut and Lebanon to be greater and more brilliant beacons of hope and change, I hope and wish that we can learn to avoid binaries, and think of what we do have in common, though we are not a monolith: the injustices on all sides of the human condition of our cultures. Because we must acknowledge, that as liberal as Lebanon is, it is also an oppressive, terrifying place to very many, and it is the best we have in the entire Middle East region so far–let us not think of the horrendous eruptions of people and thought taking place in Syria and Egypt, let us not think of war on one side and patriarchy on the other in Palestine, of the honor-killing culture of Jordan, of the black-bound suppression of the Gulf, let us not think of the acid-in-faces and children-sold-and-raped in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Or let us do.

I will continue to tell these stories, because they are powerful.

Because it is true that many Muslim families are progressive and non-restrictive, and it is true that they are able to find self-actualization even under oppressive laws through support and mutual understanding. But it is true, deep, important, grave, that women, men, and children are denied basic rights, are pressured and socialized in oppressive ways, are discriminated against unjustly, harshly, reactively, and suffer beyond imagining.

It is true that I and my friends scrabble in real fear at how difficult it is to make our American friends understand what it is like to be us, what it is like back home, how to qualify the intangible inhumanity of our suppressed existence, how some of my friends fear that the toppling of a militant Islamist regime in their home country will wrongly be viewed as a change of circumstances that will justify their being sent back home. When the problems are more pervasive, insidious, hidden, and slowly eroding than can be materially captured or simply explained, how can we not fear misunderstanding from all sides?

My hope, then, inspired by the wise, gentle way Professor Ross Gay writes of racial oppression and hate and turns it into hope too– my hope is for acknowledgment first, understanding next, and acceptance. Acceptance and understanding from Muslims and Arabs towards those who suffer in their countries and under their doctrines, acceptance and understanding from nonMuslims and white people towards those who suffer undue hate, discrimination, and violence.

Because we suffer from all sides, and none of it is easy, and all of it deserves grace.

-Marwa

What it is like to be a Muslim woman, and why we know what freedom is (and you may not)

Part Two of ‘What it is like to be a Muslim woman’ can be found here.

A defense and rationale for the title ‘What it is like to be a Muslim woman’ can be found here.

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I have keys.

When I first moved to the United States eleven months ago, it took me several weeks to grasp this bit of information.

I have keys.

I have keys to my own front door and I can open this front door and walk down the street whenever I want to.

I can walk down the street without being watched through the windows and without anyone calling my parents and telling them I am roaming loose on the street.

I can walk down the street, sit down on a bench under a tree, and eat an iced cream cone. Then I can stand up and walk back home.

There will be nobody waiting for me at my house to ask me where I have been, refuse to let me in, call me a liar, and use my walk as renewed incentive to rifle through all of my possessions for proof that I am doing something wrong.

Because the simple desire to take a walk cannot but hide something deviant.

Because there is no good reason why a woman should want to walk down the street just to walk, and expose herself to the questioning and predatory eyes of the neighbors and strange men.

I have keys to my front door, now, and I can open my front door and walk down the street whenever I want to.

In the first weeks when I was in the United States, I had so much fear and trembling at this freedom. I stayed in my apartment alone during my first two days in my new home, and when I did finally venture out, I checked to make sure my keys and ID and wallet were in my purse a thousand times. I wore long, flowing dresses and tied my hair up in a scarf even though it was August and very hot, even though I am an atheist who happens to find no personal value in modesty, even though I was not going out to meet anybody and knew not a single man in town, even though I tried to convince myself that in this land it wouldn’t matter if I was. I looked around every corner and checked over my shoulder in case my father was somehow watching, lurking.

It took a couple of months to stop expecting to see my father in a place I was going or coming from.

I soon got into the groove of my new life, my new graduate program, my teaching and department readings and events. I actually went to bars and stopped feeling guilty about it. I met people. I made friendships, some of them with men, none of them that I had to hide or lie about. I had sexual and romantic relationships.

And all this while, and even now, it sometimes feels like I am another person living a distant dream. A phantom woman. A woman who is only pretending to do things and be things that were never hers.

Even now, I sometimes cannot believe I am not hallucinating all of this from a dark room in Beirut.

Even now, I wake up from dreams of Lebanon and think, “I have my own place. My front door. MY key. And I can open the door and walk out into the street? Whenever I want? And I have MY papers and MY things and MY income? And I can just go somewhere. When I want? I can do this?”

It must be a sick joke.

And I can be at the library however late I want without panicking and fearing for my safety once I go home? Without knowing the neighbors will call me a whore? I can have people over when the sun is down and some of them can be men and we can play games and eat and drink and talk together and nobody will hurt me because of it?

Yes.

And if I leave something someplace, I will come back and find it where I left it, unless I moved it myself.

And if it’s somewhere else, it is likely I moved it and forgot, and I will not start panicking, wondering where and why and how it was moved. I will not wonder: if whoever moved it saw it, did they see that other thing and did they do something with it and what do they know and what do they not know?

Even though I am hiding simple things. A tube of mascara. Some lacy underwear just to see what it feels like to wear that. A poem I really love from the persona of the devil. Something written by a Jewish author. A novel a boy in my class gifted to me. A box of tampons.

I can write things without hiding, coding, burying, and stashing them. I can make notes for myself in a notebook that are for my eyes only without fearing anybody reading them and demanding I reveal their meaning. I can have a password on my computer and to my email and facebook accounts that my parents do not know. I can save my contacts under their real names and not under various female pseudonyms.

I can keep my texts when I receive them and not instantly erase them. I can take my phone off silent mode and if it vibrates in my pocket I can take it out and answer it or turn it off without having a panic attack and without having to find a reasonable excuse to sneak out of the room without seeming flustered.

I can talk on the phone without somebody listening on the other end.

I can ignore a phonecall from my father when I am in class or teaching.

I can forget my phone in another room and not be asked where I am and with whom, and what I am doing because I missed a call from him.

If I spend more than five minutes in the bathroom, nobody will bang on my door demanding to know what I am doing in there.

I can shave my legs without being interrogated as to why I’d do such a thing when nobody ever sees them.

I can brush my hair and look in the mirror and try on clothes and try to feel like I can manipulate and move and enjoy my body, try to feel pretty, without being interrogated and asked who he is and how long I have been seeing him and what I am doing with him and whether I am a prostitute or pregnant.

I can slim down inadvertently or say I am not hungry for dinner without anybody demanding to know why and for whom I am trying to lose weight,.

I can shower without being asked why.

I can smile because I had a good day at work without being forced to explain why I am so happy.

I can cry at my empty, robotic life without being forced to explain why I am unhappy.

I can have facial expressions. Facial expressions.

I can have facial expressions.

I can have facial expressions.

It has been so hard to train myself to voice my feelings and opinions. To turn my face on.

I can sit however I want within my own house without being told that the position my legs are in is immodest.

I can stay up late doing work and reading philosophy or just derping around on teh interwebz without being forced to go to bed.

I can read and use the internet without surveillance and censorship.

I can watch a movie without turning it over for examination first.

I can sleep when I want, wake when I want, eat when I want or don’t want to.

I do not have to pretend to fast and pray.

I can prioritize my work over serving other people. Never again will I pull somebody’s socks off and bring them their food and drink on command.

I can get up in the middle of the night and use the bathroom or get a drink of water without tiptoeing in terror.

I can lock my room door. I can lock the door of my own room.

Saying I want to be alone, that I need space, that I do not want to reveal personal information, that I do not choose to answer that question, that it is none of your damn business, that this is my body and I can position it on the furniture however I like, that I do not have to explain to you why I am smiling, that this is my time, that this is my work, this is my mind and I can use it to read and write what I please…

I can say these things now.

I never could before.

We never could, before. So many of us cannot, still.

This way of living–having to regulate and hide our personalities, our humanity–the tone of our voices, their volume and timbre, the manner in which we sit or stand or walk or speak, whether and when we can leave our homes, how and when we speak to people, what we do and do not read, can and cannot think or express–this way of living is the reality and default for so many of us.

We are suppressed beyond imagining.

Notice that the above does not even begin to touch upon the horrendous physical violence–abuse, marital rape (or just rape), child marriage (enslavement and rape), rape, whipping, stoning, genital mutilation–that happens to a not insignificant number of women who violate the above code of living.

Pretend that isn’t even a thing. Ignore the violence, for now. Set that aside.

And think, now, how even setting all of that horror aside, and pretending that it doesn’t come hand-in-hand with an obsession with the control of our bodies and our conduct and honor and shame, even setting it aside, this is how we have lived.

This is how my sister lives still, my mother, my cousins, my friends.

Think of this, and try to understand what freedom means to women like us. What it means to have choice. What it means to have true choice and not just a variety of empty options. because we too can walk into an iced cream shop and choose what flavor we want just like we could in America, and this is not freedom.

Chronic misunderstanding of institutional forms of oppression is blind to this distinction. The pervasive and fallacious argument that women from Muslim families and/or who live in in Muslim-majority countries with laws on the books allowing them to do everything I have cited as forbidden, that allow them to have technically as many options as men, or as women in the West,  claiming that nobody forces them to do anything absolutely–this is akin to saying that African American kids growing up in inner city slums have the same opportunities as straight white males.

Yes, many of us can go to school, can work, can earn and spend our own money. But what we study or work at, and how and why and when and where and with whom and wearing what–all of this is controlled. If we try to do otherwise, there are institutional mechanisms in place–sectarian politics, social norms and customs ignored by law, people in positions of influence at our workplaces and schools and police stations and government–that can destroy us. That this is a common and chronic condition wherever Muslims live and socialize is true–that it also occurs in other third world societies and countries where Muslims do not live and socialize  makes this no less of an actuality in places where Muslim thought and custom constitute and contribute to society and politics.

We have freedoms that are not freedoms, and we can continue to go to school and go to work and be empty robots all the while. And if we gave up and stayed at home, we would be giving up our education and our careers, it is true, as limited as those things are, but we would also be giving up the chronic hopelessness and self-defeat and empty confusion of striving, striving, striving to be fulfilled when we are effectively mannequins.

It is like three quarters of our limbs and muscles are controlled by strings, and the quarter we have some ability to move keep trying to overcompensate and convince us we are real people.

Giving up is so, so tempting.

But sometimes, sometimes, we escape.

And after we escape, or after things change for us?

We will spend some time adjusting. We will be able to grasp, eventually, what it is like to have freedoms.

Some days we will even take them for granted, and if we realize we’ve done so, we will feel a sort of confused resentment at ourselves for being such spoiled first-world brats and then guilt for feeling that having human rights means we are spoiled because rights should be just that–granted.

Some days, however, we’ll be very aware of our rights. The ridiculous pervasiveness of choice around us will paralyze and confuse us, and we will feel empty, incomplete.

I have had a panic attack choosing pizza toppings when my partner would not take ‘whatever you want’ as an answer for the umpteenth consecutive time.

I have become so used to choosing things according to a quick assessment of what other people want, prefer, or require, so that they will be happy and content and thus my life around them will be easier, so that they will not hurt me or destroy me–so used to choosing what will make others happy– I have become so used to that that I  am deeply depressed trying to make anything meaningful for myself.

I do not know how to become invested in my work and my art, because my life was never more than a big empty chamber of apathetic nothingness at best, and horrible torture at worst.

And I am afraid of becoming capable of being free. I am afraid of transcending my ability to let my trauma and unhappiness consume me. I am afraid that succeeding in pulling together that broken part of me that does not know how to choose or care or be, how to quit compulsively faking emotions and detaching–I am afraid of becoming free because I am afraid of being no longer angry, no longer cognizant of this incredible injustice, being blind to what it means to not to be free.

I am afraid of being happy because it might mean I accept and am blind to my former chains.

I am afraid of forgetting what it means to be free.

I am afraid that once I have freedom, I will no longer understand what freedom is worth and why it is important.

This is my reminder.

-Marwa

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Disclaimer: This is clearly not meant to be reflective of the experiences of all or even necessarily most women who are Muslim or have been raised in Muslim-majority countries or households. This is meant to further understanding of what it is in fact like for many women. This particular blog post is also not making any argument as to how, why, or whether Islam as a religion, doctrine, or ideology in any or all of its forms contributes to the oppression described in this post. That goes beyond the scope of this piece, but I will address it in future pieces.

UPDATE: This post and all others on my website are my property and protected by international internet copyright law. You are NOT authorized to translate, copy, display, and/or redistribute my work in part or in full, digitally or in print, without obtaining my prior consent. Thank you.

 

 

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