I threw Catholics under the bus at a book reading.
I didn’t mean to and, as a former Catholic, I felt awful about it. I was promoting my novel, Painted Hands, about dynamic, successful Muslim women in Boston. During the Q&A, someone asked why I’d converted to Islam. Pressed for time, I explained that I’d tried hard to be a Catholic feminist, referenced the fact that there was no Original Sin imputed to Eve in Islam, and admitted I’d struggled with the Trinity and welcomed a religion where Jesus was revered but not divine.
Afterwards, I fretted about the comparisons. “That was bad, wasn’t it?” I asked my husband. “Maybe,” he said gently, “stop at the fact that there are feminist interpretations of Islam. Maybe don’t say anything about other religions.”
When you’ve left one religion for another, the implication is that you did find something better. But my rushed, blithe response glossed over the very real struggles I’ve had as a woman in Islam. I’d tried hard to be a Catholic feminist, I told that crowd, but what I didn’t say was this: I have also worked hard to be a Muslim feminist.
Those efforts began as soon as I decided to marry a Muslim man and convert. When my engagement gifts included books on Islamic morals and manners glorifying traditional gender roles, it was easy for me to dismiss them as cultural or antiquated. It was not so easy to dismiss interpretations of Surah 4:34 of the Qur’an.
This verse is commonly, and recklessly, known as the “beating verse.” To deal with serious martial disorder, this verse advises a husband to admonish his wife, then to refuse to share her bed, and finally to “daraba” her. Though daraba has dozens of meanings in Arabic, it is often translated in this context as “to beat.”
Troubled, I consulted a respected imam. He justified this translation by saying that “in some parts of the world, women are like children.” I was horrified. Where in the world are women like children? Who thinks children should be beaten? And what kind of religious leader traffics in such beliefs?
To be a woman in Islam, I soon discovered, was another exercise in separating the words of men from the nature of the Divine.
It took some effort to reconcile Surah 4:34. A well-meaning woman at a halaqa explained that the hitting should be a light tap. I nodded but was far from reassured. I looked to Muslim feminist scholars and discovered that daraba could mean to “condemn” or “set an example.” I found Laleh Bakhtiar’s version of the Qur’an in which she translates daraba as “to go away from.” While my spirit soared, the (male) head of a Muslim organization said that we will not suffer such “pro-woman” interpretations.
I’ve had other struggles with Islam, including gender separating, which is meant to control sexual attraction outside of marriage, but which often ensures that mosques are male spaces and religious decision-makers are men.
Though the Qur’an is silent on the matter, most scholars insist that women cannot lead men in prayer. Even when a woman is fully covered, scholars argue, men cannot control themselves when a woman bends during prayer. Never mind that when a woman bends, the men should be bending, too, and therefore looking at the floor.
If you’re the kind of man who cannot help but stare at a woman’s backside when you’re praying, it is not her problem. It is your problem, and, I might suggest, a pretty big one.
This restriction on female religious leadership, predicated on the idea that even a covered woman is sexually corrupting, prevents egalitarian and pro-woman readings of the Qur’an from being preached in mosques with sufficient frequency. It ignores that women are scholars, that they might have something to say, especially about Qur’anic versus that affect them. It over-sexualizes men and desexualizes women by insisting that women can think pure thoughts while praying behind men, but that men cannot manage the reverse. Finally, it’s infantilizing, resulting in grown women praying behind boys who have barely reached puberty, even though the Qur’an states that the one who should lead the prayer is the one with the most knowledge.
Muslim feminists are tackling these issues head on. Just like I devoured books by Catholic feminists like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in college, I find comfort in the work of Muslim feminists like Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Amina Wadud, and Asma Barlas. I’m encouraged by women-led Muslim prayers and the movement toward inclusive prayer spaces. But they are not without controversy, as I illustrate in Painted Hands. There is still work to do, for Muslim feminists in general and this Muslim feminist in particular.
In Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim Women, Patricia M.G. Dunn writes about how her Muslim-born husband can take things for granted, and how she, as a convert, has to struggle for everything she believes. I wrap myself in that observation and let myself off the hook. When you are raised in a particular faith, it’s not threatening to question it. But when you’ve converted, radical questioning is often perceived as subversive, both by those who didn’t trust your conversion in the first place, and by you, because you know deep down that if you left one faith, you can leave another.
This is both unsettling and empowering—to realize you are constantly choosing your faith. And maybe it’s not so seditious after all. Maybe faith should be active instead of passive— a grand and ongoing decision where we grapple with the parts that make us uncomfortable, bringing our best, most purposeful selves to the process.
What I should have said at my book reading is that I worked hard to be a Catholic feminist, and I’ve worked hard to be a Muslim one as well. And there is sacred meaning in both.
Jennifer Zobair grew up in Iowa and graduated from Smith College and Georgetown Law School. She has practiced corporate and immigration law and, as a convert to Islam, has been a strong advocate for Muslim women’s rights. She is the author of the debut novel, Painted Hands, about young, professional Muslim women in Boston. Her essays have been published in The Rumpus and The Huffington Post. Jennifer lives with her husband and three children outside of Boston. For more information, please visit www.jenniferzobair.com.