Monday, April 18, 2011

Gratitude Journal - Day 41

Today I am grateful for what provokes me unexpectedly.

Today our class went on a field trip to a mosque here in Boston. This wasn't my first visit to a mosque so the experience wasn't entirely new to me. What was new was the requirement that all female visitors wear the traditional head covering in the prayer space.
I understand that it is proper for one to respect the customs of other faith traditions even if one does not understand those traditions or agree with them.
I also fully support the right of Muslim women to wear head coverings, veils, or burkas in public (yes, even in France) if this is what they choose to do to express their religious beliefs.
But I discovered that I was very uncomfortable today, standing shoulder to shoulder with my male classmates who are normally my equals, and being asked to drape a scarf over my head because I am female.

If this were a Jewish temple where both men and women are asked to cover their heads as a sign of reverence for God, I would have had no problem with honoring this tradition of a faith that is not my own.
But the men in our group today were not required to adapt their appearance to enter this sacred space. The question of why was of course raised to our gracious tour guide - a Muslim woman.
She had a lovely response about women "choosing" to identify themselves as Muslim in public through their dress, and keeping their "beauty" hidden from men who are not related to them and thus forcing the men to relate to them intellectually rather than sexually. It sounded very empowering. But it didn't explain why women are required to wear a head covering in worship.

She mentioned briefly that both men and women are told to avert their gaze and show "modesty" in worship but still, why the double standard in attire? The need for "modesty" was also raised as an explanation as to why women are required to line up behind the men in the prayer space. Because "we don't want to be distracted by worries about who is behind us and who is seeing what." But apparently the men don't share this worry or distraction.

What our host never said is what many of us were most likely thinking - "Yeah right, the women are behind the men so the MEN won't be distracted by the sight of the prostrating females in front of them.
Because the truth is, the special requirements for women - head coverings and position - are all about shielding women from the lustful eyes of the male. Because men are not responsible for their own thoughts - it's the woman's fault for provoking them.
One woman with our group - not a member of our class - even went so far as to point out that the requirement for female head coverings is in the Bible as well - and if women followed this teaching they wouldn't have to worry about being "attacked" in public because their immodest dress was provoking to men. Our Muslim host nodded in agreement.
This is wrong on so many levels.
This is the repugnant "she was asking for it" argument that one would think had died off with the rotary telephone and punch card computers.
Some of the women in our group exchanged surprised glances at this comment. But no one said anything.
We were guests in this sacred space, and it was not the time or the place to challenge our host's theology.

But it made me sick to my stomach.
I left the Catholic church because women are not treated as equals - we are not "worthy" of ordination because we lack a Y chromosome. Or to put it more bluntly, because we don't have a penis we can't stand in for Christ. 
Apparently having this particular sex organ is what gives one the ability to imitate Jesus. One can't be a competent preacher, pastor, or sacrament presider without it.
This sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous.

There is NO part of my theology that has me standing as "lesser than" in God's eyes because I am female.  And as much as our Muslim host tried to spin it to make it sound like a "choice" that women make to promote modesty, the result is that we as women are asked to cover ourselves in the presence of God, to hide our beauty from the Creator in who's image we are made.

Even if you try to flip this argument on it's head, and say that it is MEN who are the weaker sex because they cannot tame their lust, and thus the female head covering requirement is meant to show the superiority of women, this requirement still holds up men and women as being unequal in the eyes of God. This belief is an insult to men.

And it doesn't explain why there are no female Imams.
The reason we were given today for the lack of female leadership in Islam is that it would be immodest to have a female Imam because she would have to prostrate in front of the men. Again, the need to control the thoughts of men is used to dictate the role of women.

I wore the head covering today out of respect for our host and the beliefs of her tradition.
But I felt disingenuous for doing it.
I felt like I was forced to make a choice of conscience, and of faith, that my male classmates were not asked to make.
I am not lesser in the eyes of God.
My male classmates are not superior because they have different genitalia.
And my male classmates are not inferior because they can't control their lustful thoughts.

This is the fallout from interfaith work.
The dirty icky feeling that one has when one is confronted with a belief that infringes upon one's own belief, in a very real and visceral way.

I have some inner work to do here.
And my final paper for our class will most likely be on this topic. I may uncover research that either softens my view, or hardens my view. The jury is still out on this.

But I am grateful for having experienced this provocation.
I am hoping, HOPING, that a greater understanding will come of it.


Catherine Fransson said...

It is a tiring challenge to be woman in a worldwide patriarchy. Regardless the inroads women make, and I am part of them as an ordained ABC pastor, I work entirely with men. I tire of their perspective. I tire of their not getting it. And I persist so that they cannot be men without some awareness of women. In interfaith work your observations are well-taken. They do create sickness. It comes with the territory of trying to break down the walls from within until the male institution itself crumbles under its ridiculous narrowness and literalism. While at the edge of the phalanx, we wear down and must retire to recoup our inner peace. Don't push so far that you lose your own perspective. It is an uphill battle.

Rev. Maureen Frescott said...

Thank you for comments, Catherine. Thankfully, in dialoging with some of my male classmates I learned that they do "get it" - several of them thought of bringing head scarves to wear in order to stand in solidarity with the women, but they like me did not feel comfortable with using this visitation as an occasion to stage what could be interpreted as a protest. (We agreed that we would not want someone from another faith tradition who was invited into our sacred space to proceed to tell us how we were "doing it wrong."

I think that it's good that we were able to talk about our shared discomfort afterward and raise awareness within the entire group rather than keeping our thoughts to ourselves.

As for working to change the attitudes of men who don't get it, that is a tiring commitment. I admire your strength and tenacity! We as a society are truly indebted to women like you who endure this challenge and break down the barriers so that others may, someday, walk free.

Anonymous said...

Maureen--I have had many conversations with Muslim Women on both sides of this issue--I am convinced that it is an issue of both sexism and, consequently, homophobia.
The logic is not there. I think the rationale(for most women who argue in favor of it anyway) behind the requirement for the hijab is more of a survival technique--if they saw the weakness in their logic, then they would have to change--which is dangerous for many.
I am not saying the hijab should not be worn--but it should truly be a choice. And the reasoning should have little to do with issues of modestly (honestly, have you seen some of these head coverings/ Phew! Beautiful! ) and more to do with identifying themselves as a different people--this is a way to educate others too. But really it's not about modesty.It might be about losing individual identity, of course, like in the case of Burkhas--but i am getting off topic.
Anyway--I have been where you are at--and I felt dirty and yucky about it. At the same time, I also felt a certain power move through me as I prayed in the mosque--and when I prayed with my friends--even when it was lead by a man, there is something powerful about going to the ground in prayer with a group.

Catherine said...

Well put, Maureen. I understand how you felt, and I perhaps took the easy way in what I wore because it acquitted (in my mind) the feeling of wearing a head-covering as a sign of being part of the Muslim faith. Thus, I didn't feel oppressed by it, and in actuality, I was empowered by it because it was turning the argument of modesty on its head by wearing something cute and fashionable and unexpected. But I digress...

I had a big problem with it and am quite frankly surprised that so many in our class were in agreement with it. Because it's clearly NOT just a cultural thing, but a religious thing as well. I can't help but think of the oppression of women that have been committed. Doesn't this mean anything? I can't reconcile the statement that Islam is empowering while seeing the injustices done to women because of it.

Besides, what she said about men relating to women intellectually first because of the head-covering is bunk because essentially Islam often makes a sharp distinction between men and women, and it's not like both sexes are free to mingle and get to know one another. At least not in the more conservative circles...

And yeah, what that woman said about the Bible in our class was f'ed up. There, I think she was talking far beyond modesty to indecent dress. I think there's something to be said about dressing decently according to your particular culture (I'm a relativist when it comes to issues of modesty, though). Not that the victim ought to be blamed in either case, but it doesn't hurt to be prudent because we do know that there are people who get assaulted.

And, not to be contentious against you, but I think you really need to rethink your position about Muslim women wearing burkas in public. Do you know that it's often a cause for invisibility of these women? That they are often overlooked in public by people because of their dress, unacknowledged and alone? That's the depth of the oppression to me, to make invisible and to dehumanize the person. And when you really think about it, is it really their choice or has this decision already been made for them? I'm not saying that there isn't any responsibility on society for making them feel included, but this is where theology hits the ground. This is a real problem in my opinion, and though I wouldn't necessarily forbid them from doing it, I think socially there are some very negative repercussions that we have to consider. I say this in context of the U.S. specifically, but I'm not sure it's different elsewhere (as I've never been to those places, I cannot be a fair judge).

Okay, I'm going to stop now. But I think this is a good topic to consider.