So I am forty, my thirties were a tumultuous time, I can’t say it was a particularly happy decade. It was a time when I really tried to work against my nature and turn myself into something else. I guess many women do this. I tried to enforce a kind of blandness upon myself, if I wasn’t so eccentric, I would be happy, if I wasn’t always fighting norms life would be easy. I threw myself into domesticity but not a domesticity that was in sync with my own ways of giving.
Perhaps it is reductive to label an entire decade in this way, there were periods of joy and excitement and periods of real inner peace as faith settled into my heart and I connected to God/Creator/Divine Centre. But overall my experience was one of continual questioning and lack. I didn’t find a home in Islam as it is understood generally by most Muslims in Australia although I certainly connected to the Islam I read about or the Islam I encountered in my travels in Yemen or Morocco.
Perhaps in reaction to a decade of dryness and dissatisfaction I am now throwing myself into rediscovering my creative self. I don’t want to have to compartmentalise things into mothering or artistness, these things can exist together although it is sometimes hard. I am pregnant and I have plunged into an intense creative space which is at once wonderful and terrifying, pregnancy is such a time of extremes.
At the moment I am finding the most influential things I am reading that really speak to my gut involve a writing about the Feminine, the loss of this knowledge in our culture, what this means for women. It explains a wrongness I have felt all my life, a wrongness that I tried to fix through my exploration of Islamic Orthodoxy and it’s gendered spaces, something that I did find answers to in Yemen in ways that are too hard to articulate and ways that always encourage protestation from people who refuse to imagine that such a path could honour the Feminine. And I am too weary now of needing to spin my life in protestation and defence, I just can’t be bothered.
I haven’t been sleeping very well and despite my struggles now with my practise as a Muslim, in the middle of the night it is much easier to connect, to sit and look into the dark and to contemplate. At such times I feel God like an electricity in my veins, the night is alive and I am alive with it. I love the sensation of the house sleeping. In Islam we say that in the last third of the night God descends to the lowest heavens and this is something that feels so palpable.
I don’t have a designated workspace in this house. In our old house for a short period of time I set up a studio, it was a wonderful space and I would love to make something like that here but there really isn’t room so I just look at the pictures and remember it.
I feel a fierceness now that is willing to protect the aspects of life that I find essential and nothing can stand in the way. I will not live in dullness anymore. I know that most of the shadows we face in life are from our own selves, I don’t blame anyone for what I have or haven’t done with my life, every choice has been my own.
What matters to me now is God, family, art and womanhood…
And all of these things I am exploring are like wonderful lights in an otherwise un signposted wilderness.
I wrote this sentence today and so much of the life I feel buzzing within me is part of this realisation, I will not pander to patriarchy anymore, no matter the consequences, no matter the potential loss. Various people will make such a sentence far more reductive than it is. I am not talking solely about Islamic patriarchy but so much more broadly. And it is not contemporary Feminism where I find the answers.
These buzzwords are loaded, they cramn us into niches and often convey a limited vision. But such is language and we have to use what is at our disposal.
I am happy, there is potential swelling all around me.
Alhamdulillah ya Raheem!
It is the nature of life that our choices will always be frowned upon by someone somewhere, we cannot please everyone, I remind myself of this when I am feeling that squashed and uncomfortable sense of being pushed into explanation and defence.
Now that I am on the cusp of middle age I have little patience for those obsessed by identity, those people who cannot step outside their own perception for long enough to meet you with non judgment. As a previous agnostic conditioned against religious communities I have had to strive really hard to not encounter all religious people as narrow minded and rigid so I know how identity and conditioning works. But it is just sheer laziness and arrogance to remain within these habits. But more importantly it is about fear.
For most of us the ground upon which we walk is our perception which is motivated by concepts of identity. Our perception is framed by our biographical data, how we have been taught to think or how we have forged our own journeys through reaction. The most striking thing about perception is that (unless we are a Buddhist) it is unlikely that we will frame our perception around a ground that is no ground. We purposely create a solid ground of ideals and notions. Very few people are willing to venture beyond this solid ground of identity. Yet our inflexibility causes so many problems. People blame religion for war but it is not religion that is at fault but identity. Similarly much of the power mongering in the world occurs through the attempt of one group to monopolise resources and wealth in order to strengthen its identity at the expense of another. The biggest problem we face in the modern world is one of rigid identity.
As a spiritual practise Sufism teaches me to move beyond identity yet this is juxtaposed against a backdrop of a wider religious community for whom identity is everything. And the more uncertain and hostile the environment becomes the more we cling to what we think we are.
There is no area in which I find the grasp of identity more difficult to avert than the area of dress. Whatever I wear or don’t wear will signify something to someone. And often we engage in a purposeful interplay of signifiers in order to control the way we want to be perceived. We dress the part. Muslim women find themselves in a precarious position in which we cannot back off from our dress having some kind of significance. Men largely have much less to worry about.
There are numerous ways I have tried to subvert this enforced significance. By ignoring it and by just doing my own thing and exploring what felt comfortable and interesting and meaningful to me. Yet as a perceptive person who notices all kinds of little visual cues I found ignoring the responses and perceptions of others difficult. Islam as a faith can swallow you whole, it has an incredibly powerful historical tradition which entering from outside without the softening of a cultural conditioning can be completely overwhelming. There are hundreds of rules and an enormous body of dogma which upon exploration uncovers pulses of life where dogma is not just dogma but a lived and powerful system. But discovering which is which is a life work. It can all be too much.
The exploration of the historical tradition can situate us very much inside our heads which defeats the purpose of a spiritual tradition in the first place. It is primarily a system of alchemy and behavioural change. The dogma and identity politics can be a complete distraction from the primary function of the faith, that is the whole point of it all is not being a Muslim in the way that the vast majority of people consider it, as an identity. The point is to know God and God operates in that place of non ground.
The Path to God is littered with the bones of those
who did not remember who they were looking for,
or how great beyond all seeking, concepts,
imaginations and realizations,
He, God Always Is….
If we are making ourselves significant through identity we make this ground forbidden to us.
Traditionally speaking the way a Muslim dresses is important but the characteristics at the heart of Muslim dress are modesty and dignity and lack of personal significance.
A headscarf as a function of this modesty and dignity is very much a part of the tradition but the problem that we face today is that a headscarf brings with it notoriety and significance, it makes us stand out. And no matter what our intention is or no matter how we try to treat it we cannot avoid this significance.
When I wore a face veil I became really acquainted with what is beautiful about it, far from the impressions it leaves in the minds of people I was able to sense how it has been worn as part of our historical tradition and what it meant for women in the past. As a cloak of insignificance allowing women to go about their daily affairs blanketed in Rahma (all encompassing compassion), this is how it felt. And these are unpopular ideas and we are made fools for mentioning them but women need to own their own experience. But regardless of any of this it is not something that can be worn without a great fuss, without significance making. And to a lesser extent a headscarf does the same thing.
Many women wear a headscarf specifically as a marker of identity but what does this omnipresent marker of significance mean for those of us who wear one but who want to merge into the unassuming and not be tied to specific interpretations of identity?
For a long time I have resisted my desire to just be done with it because I have worried that I am simply desiring a return to a more uncomplicated identity, a return to an unblemished white privilege and a world in which I didn’t experience any racial vilification. Because I do recognise the reality of veiling in Islamic tradition and I am not turning away from it in meaning, just in practicality. I can’t help but want to turn away from it in terms of lived experience, to turn away from the significance making and the grasp of identity.
In Morocco I felt totally comfortable and insignificant because it is still a norm but more than that in Morocco I didn’t feel alienated from the identity at large. Moroccan Islam is my Islam, outwardly it is an identity that leads to no identity, it is a practise and an utterly beautiful one. But Islam in Australia feels stifling.
Whatever I do will mean something to someone. To take it off even just for a day signifies something to someone somewhere, to keep it on signifies something else. But I have never believed in a spiritual hierarchy of dress, no matter what I have worn. The only time the grasp of such judgmentalism took hold of me was in the months after a near death experience when the reality of no ground was just overwhelming and I wasn’t ready to take step and trust beyond concepts. And this dogmatic character was short-lived thankfully.
This year I really hope to just stop worrying so much about the perceptions of others and to stop making excuses for people who are trapped within the limited thinking of identity and prioritising their feelings over my own. We are all trapped like this to an extent but to attempt to enforce our perceptions over those of another is an act of discourtesy, no matter what it is we are doing. This does not mean that there are not specifics of morality but it is how we approach it that matters.
Whilst I may be lacking in patience for people wrapped up in identity, I am not lacking love and compassion because I know that what motivates them is fear. And their fear is like my fear.
But in Islam taqwa/God conciousness is half fear, half love.
And the challenge is to not let our necessary fear cause us to grasp and make a ground out of non ground.
But to surrender.
don’t become unconscious
in words and treasures
in ceremonies and materials.
don’t become a collector
of signposts and maps
of pointers and rules.
When the door is opened
don’t just stand there
staring at the open doorway!
There comes a time
when nothing is meaningful
except surrendering to love.