So far, so promising, as far as I was concerned. On paper, the author and I have much in common – both of us are Muslim women of South Asian extraction, raised in the West. Both of us are single mothers, both of us travelled to Pakistan in the wake of 9/11, in an attempt to understand the conflicts within Islam. And we share, too, a deep anger at the mistreatment of so many Muslim women in the name of the religion that should nuture and protect them.
So why did I end up wanting to throw this book across the room? Not because I regard Nomani as a heretic, or her book as blasphemy. It’s just that in the end, Nomani comes across as a whiny, self-absorbed little drama queen.
That judgment needs to be explained in somewhat more sophisticated language. Nomani’s book is the story of a very privileged and gifted young woman – the daughter of an academic, a journalist with the Wall Street journal, with a liberal and supportive family who stand by her when she gives birth to a son outside of marriage. None of this in itself detracts from her book. Memoirs are seldom written by the underprivileged, for the obvious reason that they lack the necessary time, education, and connections with literary agents and publishing houses. Sara Suleri, Fatima Mernissi, and Leila Ahmed have all written compelling memoirs that reflect upon what it means to be female in a Muslim society. All of these writers are exceptional in terms of inherited privilege, access to education, and career achievement. Yet all provide us with insights into more universal issues regarding women and Islam. Perhaps paradoxically, they do so precisely because they are so firmly grounded in the specifics of their own story. For example, in describing her childhood in a Moroccan harem, Mernissi is very careful to explain that the harem as an institution was always limited to the families of a wealthy minority. She reaches beyond her own narrative to talk about Scherazade, about women in Islamic history, about the Arab feminists and artists who inspired the women of her family, yet she avoids homogenizing their identities under a singular label of “Muslim woman”. Nomani, on the other hand, in claiming too simplistic a sister relationship with women ranging from Hajar (the slave woman impregnated by Abraham and then abandoned in the desert after his own wife became pregnant) to Amina Lawal (sentenced to death in Nigeria for the crime of adultery), erases the issue of class almost entirely. And class cannot be omitted from the narratives that she relates.
Take, for instance, the affair with a Pakistani man that leads to Nomani giving birth to a child outside of marriage. Interviewed on CNN about the plight of women in Muslim countries facing jail or death for the crime of adultery, she is asked “So what happens to the men in these cases?…[W]hat happened to the father of your son?”
Overcome with nervousness, Nomani responds with a stammered reply about the shame felt by women in her situation. But of course, her former lover’s freedom to break the Hudood Ordinances had at least as much to do with his class as with his gender. I have never had an affair while in Pakistan, but I mix very freely with educated middle class Pakistani men. In at least one case, the general belief was that we were romantically, perhaps physically, involved. There was never the least fear that this might land either of us in jail. But when gender transgression intersects with class transgression, the situation becomes much more dangerous. I used to meet the teenage son of a lower class family outside the Badshahi masjid in Lahore, so that he could walk me to the single room where he lived with his mother and sisters, surrounded by the sandals that they stitched for a living. But as he grew older, his mother told me that I would have to come to the house alone, because if people noticed her son’s regular meetings with a strange woman, they’d call the police and have him arrested. His class rendered him much more vulnerable than my gender rendered me. The Hudood Ordinances have fallen much, much more heavily on women (including rape victims) than on men, but outside of the elite cocoon, men are not immune.
The erasure of class also leads Nomani to neglect the fact of her own privilege in comparison to other single mothers in the West. I would not argue for a second that it is not far preferable to be a single mother in America or Australia than in Pakistan or Nigeria. But that fact remains that while some single mothers in Western societies prosper and raise flourishing families, others are punished for their lack of a husband not with imprisonment or death, but with a lifetime of poverty and social marginalisation. Nomani embarks on single motherhood with not a moment’s expressed concern about how she and her son are going to survive financially and with parents who are highly supportive by any cultural standard. While Nomani (rightly) pauses to consider how much better off she is than unwed mothers in Nigeria, it wouldn’t hurt for her to consider, too, that she is considerably ahead of the pack even by the standards of a society where women are “shielded by the progressive laws of a country where religion and state are constitutionally separated and where consensual adult sexual behavior has largely been decriminalised.” Transnational feminism must be built on an understanding of the ways in which myriad identities of class, religion, nationality, and ethnicity unite and divide women across multiple boundaries.
Nomani’s discussion of gender segregation (particularly the segregation of mosques) also suffers in comparison to that of other writers. I worship at a progressive Islamic centre where women pray alongside men; I don’t feel comfortable shoved away on a balcony or in a side room. And the subordination of women in Muslim societies is clearly connected to the fact that power lies in “male space”. But it must also be acknowledged that gender segregation has also allowed women their own space in which to develop their own understanding of Islam, and (as Leila Ahmed notes) to be the custodians of a body of oral Islamic tradition that has been far more open and inclusive that the formal, text-based “male Islam”. As Ahmed says:
It is the Islam not only of women but of ordinary folk generally, as opposed to the Islam of sheikhs, ayatollahs, mullahs, and clerics. It is an Islam that may or may not place emphasis on ritual and formal religious practice but that certainly plays little or no attention to the utterances and exhortations of sheikhs or any sort of official figures. Rather it is an Islam that stresses moral conduct and emphasizes Islam as a broad ethos and ethical code and as a way of understanding and reflecting on the meaning of one’s life and human life more generally.
(Ahmed 1999: “A Border Passage”, p 125)
Women are entitled to join the life of “formal Islam”, as represented by the mosque, but they should not neglect the value of this informal, predominantly female, Islam. Nomani complains of her childhood frustration at being exiled to the kitchen with the women while her father and his friends talked politics in the living room. It’s a frustration that I understand, but I can’t help thinking that Nomani’s book would have been much more interesting had she taken a little more notice of what the women were saying in the kitchen.
Book Description: Nomani, a journalist and single mother, determines to go on the hajj along with her infant son. She is following in the four-thousand-year-old footsteps of another single mother, Hajar (known in the West as Hagar), the original pilgrim to Mecca and mother of the Islamic nation. Each day of her hajj evokes for Nomani the history of a different Muslim matriarch: Eve, from whom she learns about sin and redemption; Hajar, the single mother abandoned in the desert who teaches her about courage; Khadijah, the first benefactor of Islam and trailblazer for a Muslim woman's right to self-determination; and Aisha, the favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad and Islam's first female theologian. Inspired by these heroic Muslim women, Nomani returns to America to confront the sexism and intolerance in her local mosque and to fight for the rights of modern Muslim women who are tired of standing alone against the repressive rules and regulations imposed by reactionary fundamentalists.
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