I have written before about forbidding wrong and judgmental people. I have found some of the social pressures and moral judgments from our community quite oppressive. Things many people in the West may consider quite normal become bastions of inequity. Things like two couples going out for dinner ((gasp!)) or hosting a female language student in your home ((gasp!)). I am aware that there are a wide range of social practices and mores. I try not to judge those who are more rigid or fluid in their interpretations of Islam, but that favor is rarely returned in kind. This is especially the case when it comes to sociological and cultural practices, as opposed to religious and spiritual practices. Gender segregation is a sociological practice that has a cultural basis. For some Muslims who practice gender segregation, the free mixing between the sexes is tantamount to an all and out orgy. As a single woman living in the Muslim world (both in America and the Middle East), I have been on the receiving end of a lot of negative judgments.
I know that there are many Muslims who do not believe that women should live on their own, let alone travel without a close male relative or husband. There are Muslims who won’t have a conversation with an unrelated man or even have a business related meeting alone with an unrelated man. I know for one graduate student, this caused serious problems. I’ve been Muslim for 14 years and for all but 2 ½ years, I’ve had to navigate things on my own. I guess I have a more pragmatic take. I’ve preferred to live as a “loose woman,” working outside the home, traveling by myself , choosing a career as a western trained scholar rather than choose a circumscribed life. I have seen too many vulnerable women who are abused by their spouses and feel helpless to change their situation. I know relatively happy women, who in their youth had ambitious career plans but decided to live conservative lives. A number of my college friends are now stay at home mothers who are deeply involved in their children’s education and community life. I am proud of them and admire their efforts. I have a lot of respect for women’s work. But, I could not limit myself to being only a wife and mother, but also a scholar in order to make a contribution to my community. Finding that balance is difficult, but I think it is possible.
But women who have not given up their career paths in order to get married are looked down upon. I don’t think I’m taken as seriously as a man in my position. I guess in their mind they are like, “How cute, she can write papers!” Perhaps that is the reason why I have gotten little support from my community.
I experienced my first major dose of judgment when I was 18. It had to do with my living situation and the fact that I didn’t live with my parents. People would tell me that I should move back home without understanding my family situation. Nor did they understand how much the family I stayed with helped me stay in school and pursue my education aspirations. At that time, there were few Muslim women living on their own or even renting rooms together. And there is no real community support for convert women. No aid for finding housing, few jobs in the community that offered competitive pay, and definitely no social services for any sisters who had a hard time finding work because she wore hijab. Instead, they encourage new convert women to get married right away. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that our Ummah has really not created a space for women like me.
I suppose the dilemma for a Muslim woman traveling in the Middle East is to pick which scandalous living arrangement she’ll have. If you live by yourself, you’re a loose woman (without a mahram) with no one moderating your behavior, if you live with a family you are inviting scandal (living with a non-mahram man). Perhaps if you live in a commune of ultra-religious women you might escape stigma. But then again, who knows? You can still draw controversy. Basically, you have no business having any ambitions outside of being married.
I am aware that people are often well intentioned in their judgmental behavior. But I do think that it is important that they be aware of how their imposing views can be seriously detrimental to the emotional and spiritual well being of others. There’s nothing more lonely than being part of a community. Just to get by, I have had to make a lot of fluid interpretations of my religion. I would never have been a doctoral student if I followed the Fiqh books like a manual for life. And because of that, I am judged. But getting the same message—“you are not in line”—pounded down my throat turns me off from wanting to engage with this community. I guess we should be reminded that it is easy to judge whether someone is in line with some social norm or cultural practice that may or may not reinforce spirituality. But we cannot judge what is in someone’s heart or know their spiritual station. And because of that, we should be humble and reflect on our own intentions when we tell someone what they are doing wrong and why they should change some aspect of their lives.