Websites run by Muslim scholars typically offer advice columns for those seeking legal rulings and religious guidance on personal concerns. One young Muslim woman wrote to a site about her doubts that wearing hijab was connected to being a good person. The gist of the opinion was that wearing a head scarf, whether she feels right about it or not, will internalize good behavior thus transforming her faith. The acting scholar, Shazia Ahmed writes,
“…performing good deeds, even if one may not be ‘feeling it’, can affect us and change us. The limbs are inroads, and performing good deeds with them can soften a hardened heart, bring enlightenment to a closed mind, and give a person a feeling of rejuvenation and desire to come closer to Allah and do more positive things.”
If she wears a head scarf, her faith, ritual and ethical observance, and peace of mind will increase. This approach is supported by studies undertaken in the field of social and behavioral psychology. It’s been shown that standing or sitting in an open-bodied “power pose” increases testosterone and reduces cortisol, just as forcing a smile increases serotonin. That’s all well and good, and I’ve certainly got nothing against hijab. As we should all be aware by now, hijab has multivalent meanings for Muslim women that do not typically accord with non-Muslim assumptions of its oppressiveness. So hijab is not the point here. My point is that the use of repetitive behaviors and rituals, which are capable of transforming a person’s the inner life, may also act as methods of social control that may not result in the desired peace of mind.
In any case, the peace of mind of an individual may not be the primary concern of such scholars and religious leaders. They may choose to advise an individual in accordance with what they believe are society’s needs. In some instances, the need to enforce social order trumps the needs of an individual. That said, it is hard to unravel these choices when an individual’s health is perceived in terms of fitting into the social order. Thus an individual’s role in maintaining a “wholesome” society may be a scholar or religious leader’s primary concern. Because such enforced behavioral norms have the power to transform one’s inward state, submitting to the needs of the whole may be experienced as faith, and rejecting the needs of the whole as rejecting God. This can have disturbing outcomes because submitting to society’s needs may also be bound up with maintaining hierarchies of empowerment and disempowerment. Thus rejecting one’s privilege or marginalization may be experienced as rejecting God.
There is evidence of such social control at work in scholars’ rulings on the form the body takes in ritual prayer. In a recent article on gendering the body in prayer, Aisha Geissinger writes that a debate arose in the early Muslim community about the bodily movements of free and enslaved men and women. Some early authorities evidently considered rulings about bodily movements and attire in prayer as a way to distinguish men from women, and free from slave. It had little to do with modesty. “Modesty” was reserved as a social marker for free women; the “private parts” of enslaved women were only from navel to knee. The second Caliph Umar reportedly became enraged with enslaved women, to the point of beating one of them, who tried to wear the outer wrap (jilbab), perhaps to cover their breasts and heads, because it would make them indistinguishable from free women. True or not, early authorities repeated these reports to support rulings forbidding enslaved women from wearing an outer wrap during the ritual prayer. Further distinctions are marked in the prayer by encouraging men to spread out their limbs to take up as much space as possible (ironically, men take a power pose in a ritual meant to articulate submission to God). Women were commanded to restrict their bodily movements and lower their voices. Closing one’s body in on itself is a behaviorally submissive pose which has been shown to reduce testosterone levels and raise cortisol. Consider how much more disempowering these gendered distinctions are for gender-queer Muslims who must adopt either “male” or “female” postures in order to pray; in effect, such postures require them to lie about themselves in order to be in God’s presence or part of a worshipping community.
If the limbs are inroads, then free men are internalizing power and women and the gender-queer are internalizing disempowerment. Too often I have heard men remark that women have the advantage in submitting to God because of the social and personal disempowerment they experience at the hands of men. A disempowering form of the prayer follows the same logic. The conundrum is that it works. In a disempowered state, it is easier to accept the divine command because one is used to giving up one’s autonomy. One may not experience it negatively given the results. The effects of ritualized behavior result in diverse self-understandings in accordance with diverse relationships to authority and power. Nevertheless, that form of the prayer is rooted in efforts to mark social hierarchies, not bring women or the gender-queer closer to God. Or put in another way, just because one is able to transform injustice into personal growth does not mean the injustice is a “good” thing.
For those of us who do not find spiritual health in these formations of faith and practice, one’s relationship with God becomes rooted in cognitive and embodied dissonance. It is safe to say that such dissonance affects straight men too, but women and the gender-queer are most at risk. Because we do not fit as others do, we may experience ourselves, our minds, and our bodies as unhealthy, sinful, even perhaps unacceptable to God. We may experience the voice of our conscience as the whispering of our lower souls or even satan. We learn that the pain of accepting dissonance is the mark of our struggle to transform ourselves into true servants of God. So what is the resolution for us? Is there a way to break the dissonance? How do we submit to God directly without submitting to a social order that has harmed us? I hope to explore these questions in my next blog where I will share the social, theological, and ritual strategies we use at our Gender-Equal/LGBTQ-affirming mosque in order to create a safe space for those who need it to be vulnerable before God.
Laury Silvers is a Muslim academic and accidental activist. She is a sessional professor at the University of Toronto for the Department for the Study of Religion. She writes on Sufism in Early Islam, as well as women’s religious authority and theological concerns in North American Islam. See her website for her publications.
With El-Farouk Khaki and Troy Jackson, she founded Toronto Unity Mosque (ETJC) to serve all who desire to worship in full equality with others. Find us on Facebook. ETJC prayer communities are located in Toronto, Montreal, Boston, London (Ontario), and Vancouver. Other prayer spaces committed to human equality are run by Muslims for Progressive Values, USA, the Inclusive Mosque Initiative in London, UK, and individuals. Maybe you too? We help people start their own communities.