Reflection on Home and Community in society
By Shireen Pishdadi at Jul 09, 2009
A MOMENTARY INSIGHT exposed the usually suppressed and ignored voice of my fear: Am I to whither away in anonymity, until destiny envelops and wrests me from this world, voiceless and faceless?
What of the skills, expertise, my potential—of course all blessings from God—that have enabled me to accomplish past things I could brag about today? Will I now go to waste? Something somewhere beckons to me since I relinquished the outside world to discover the universe inside my home.
I am reminded of my traverse out of jahiliyah and into hijab. The crushing shock of invisibility—a feeling that struck me with an appalling realization of just how desensitized I had become to where my worth had come to lie: In my appearance. Just how addicted I became to attracting attention wherever I went. Never did I suspect the extent to which I had internalized the inside-out moral values of a hypocritical society.
It is the morality of Narcissus. He did not look at his reflection and say: "I love myself because I have such great character." He said something more along the lines of "I love myself because I am the paragon of beauty—look at these people throwing themselves at my feet!"
When such an evanescent quality grips our senses, then an obsessive compulsion takes root in our consciousness to maintain that image of whatever it is we think we are, we want to be. And yet there was always that nagging awareness that I was a mere object, a feeling I despised.
Ironically, hijab represented to me another kind of object, an "un-person," someone whose identity is suffocated, lost in a void with no power of expression. It is as if to be exposed is to be, while to be concealed is not to be. Even so, Islam was calling me, clearly the healing to all my ailments, and hijab came part and parcel.
Once I got beyond the dread of the "ugly" hijab (which, incidentally, many family members found it necessary to confirm) and dared to take this stand, I found that hijab gave me autonomy from the mores of society, with which we relentlessly bombarded through images and narratives. It was not about others as I had thought, not about covering myself from peering, judging eyes. Rather, it was about me, giving me the strength to rein myself in and center my consciousness.
Although it took many years to refine hijab in my dress and my attitude, eventually it smothered the complexes, insecurities and addictions of a once subjugated soul. I can now say—alhamdulillah—I do not need a world to tell me if I am or am not beautiful, or rather, that I am worthy because of a skin-deep virtue. I now walk with dignity, not because an "other" acknowledges me, but because I metamorphosized from object to subject—no longer invisible am I.
Yet a lifetime later, I recognize the voice ringing betrayal, a call for affirmation and validation, only far more subtle, insidious. Again, with disgrace, I see the idols jutting through the deep layers of my soul. These are the icons for which we wake up and battle rush hour every day, for whom we forsake our children with strangers, for whose sake we endure soul-numbing work. Whether in academia or in the corporate world, for them we strive with a striving that could move mountains.
And let not my bias for "social activism" allow even its subtle deception to slip by here unnoticed, for a deeper look will show most of it among us Muslims to be just as entrenched a constituent of the academic/corporate profit-engine as the mess that it presumably means to "manage." To appreciate the ineffectiveness of today's dismembered approach to "enjoining right", let us ask how many activists are suspended in utter ineffectiveness by the idea of "making a difference out there," while home (that is, family) goes neglected and unfulfilled.
Whether it is the prestige of "Dr." in front of our name, the golden ladder of corporate careers, or the working-class glory of activism, most of us simply find our cozy niche in society and compete for degrees, promotions, positions, salaries, prizes, and, the icing on the cake, fame. Even if it be just in our own little corner of town, or our own small fold of minority.
Achievement. Purpose. Confidence. Power. When they come from worldly acknowledgement, they lift us up if only in the moment. Give us a high if only to offset the low. No, it is more than even that. These things give us the appearance of a face and a voice, the sickly coveted public presence.
It is an identity we do not question as long as our passport of social success is stamped with a visa to be seen and heard. Yet that face is no more than a reflection in the eyes of "Other," dependent on sources that themselves need affirmation and validation. Ephemeral.
An identity hinged on externals is not authentic. As recipients, we are not creative subjects who "make the road by walking" (Paulo Freire and Myles Horton). We are merely pacified objects that have bartered away the authority and dignity given to us by Allah for a false "security" among the masses, the ignominy of "toleration." All our "choices" in that objective state exist, in fact, within a narrow sphere of what society deems acceptable: Which look to wear, what degree to pursue, which career to track. Worse yet, the state of being an "object" is a posture of submission to a "subject." We have bowed to those who give us our statuses and labels, words and papers we deem important that a priestly ruling elite bestow in exchange for our servitude.
But there is another world that the society we take all our cues from has relegated to a vacuum and forgotten there. The thesaurus on my computer dashboard describes ‘relegate' as ‘dismiss to an inferior rank' with the example sentence: Islamic tradition and tribal custom relegate women to live at home. And there you have it, the essence of Western creed in one sentence. But that is for another essay, another day. We have dropped anchor in a society so crude as to openly spew that home, motherhood (and wifehood with it), are considered so low as to be a cause for insult. (Let us not even mention the ignorant and belligerent slur to Islam).
Islam, on the other hand, prescribes home as the realm of women and children (without forbidding them from society, for one neither implies nor proscribes the other—ideally, we should embrace home, and function in society!) What then is this place that modernity finds so despicable? Let us start with what home is not: Real estate developed as a way station for us to eat and sleep in between our outsourced "bona fide" life activity of work, education, entertainment, and culture. In that "home," or rather modernity's "anti-home," a mother and wife means no more than a maid to feed and clean children, while strangers in sterile buildings intimately shape their minds and hearts.
Home bestows refuge from a society where the woman with the wrong shape or look is not considered beautiful, or the Muslim in hijab is perceived as backward and repressed, or even the child who is innately shy is ruthlessly exposed. It is a sanctuary interposed in society in which our diverse forms and dispositions are honored.
A great folly of our thought is that our experience in the outside arena renders to us our personhood, even though relationships rarely transcend a superficial contact. On the contrary, it is the safe world of home where true relationships develop as we let our guards down and expose our full (and inevitably flawed) selves. Free to express ourselves, and hence to learn and overcome these flaws and help those around us mend theirs, the home is where we hone our characters and actualize selfhood. This home, residence of Islam, is no less than an unyielding reminder of our lofty origins, an affront to materialism.
To feminists, progressives, modernists, evolved apes one and all—post- and neo- (fill-in-the-blank): Remove the secular blinds of arrogance and look through your intellect, the lens of your heart. For anyone who delves just a little below the surface of the rhetoric will have to admit that there is no achievement more prestigious or consequential than raising the next generation of humanity. And there is not a more enriching or stimulating environment than the home for which to maximize the potential of this career. Nor is there a more healthy fabric for society than the weaving of dynamic inter-relationships that are borne from and nurtured in the home.
While the inner world of our imagination can hardly be contained by form, it nonetheless can be suppressed and broken. Similarly, the home is a reality that cannot be encompassed by the material economic world to which the Western tradition and corporate custom has relegated women. Yet it has been stripped bare. "Outside" is merely a limited domain, no more than a "sector," by its own admission, and not the other way around.
Admittedly, these are reflections from just beyond the fork in the road, too soon to really do justice, though I am certain that a sincere and steadfast experience will continue to unveil the dimensions of its reality. Yet the real questions are these: Is the home capable of providing valuable and purposeful work—work beyond cleanliness and sustenance? Can the home provide opportunities to work on the world's problems for all of us with the activist inclination? Does the home facilitate the education and edification of our children and ourselves? Can the home become a platform from which to realize and ascend a meaningful and influential path?
It is my contention that the answer to each of these is not merely a resounding yes, but that, in truth, there is no alternative residence wherein the solutions to the current, catastrophic human social predicament actually live. So what is the problem, my problem?
The difficulty seems to be that for one to embrace the home as defined in Islam, essentially one has to reject the society that rejects the home, denigrates motherhood, and turns upside-down wifehood. And here is the heart of the matter: Home situates us at the living center of that elemental, painfully intimate, infuriating and most humbling of relationships. Marriage. This is where I get implicated, so, thankfully, this is not an essay on marriage.
Furthermore, home is a painful reminder of the oblivion of community, without which we are isolated, weak and constrained. Despite this, if we cannot turn ourselves to embrace our homes, then we can never found a community (such as Madinah) because these are intertwined acts, of stepping out of the mainstream as we find value in our own selves (family) and each other (community), instead of statuses and labels; as we invest in and trust in our own selves (family) and each other (community) instead of the perceived power structures.
That is not all. For if we have invested so much of ourselves in the social narratives and political myths, then to reject society is akin to smashing a mirror—a mirror that we have formerly believed is us, and as such contains within it and takes with it all that we hold dear from the past, present, and future. The appearance of our shattered selves in the scattered shards is like death.
And yet is this not part of the believer's journey, the flight wherein we must, in the words of ‘Umar ibn Al Khattab, die before we die?
In the world of my home, I have found (aside from endless cleaning and cooking) that there is a strange and new phenomenon: Quiet. Not the quiet that children can sabotage, but that of not running around at 55 mph like a chicken with its head cut off, to badly mix my metaphors. In other words, I have found solitude. Space. Time. All the things we run from screaming as they bring us face to face with our own selves. And what is more anxiety provoking and distressing than a schismatical, neurotic self that has been neglected at best, abused and oppressed at worse. I have found, as well, more invisibility. Cut off from society's external venues of value, I feel myself receding into the void of American cultural devalorization.
On the other hand, is it not the case that true value stays with me wherever I choose to go and whatever I decide to do? Since value is a measurement of something, there has to be a transcendent standard of what is valuable beyond the whims and desires of men, nor can it be dependent on the affirmation of "Other."
As true value comes, by way of guidance, from within, so must an authentic identity. Home is the fount where what is within ourselves incarnates so that it can be explored and cherished—if maturing into a "subject" is what we truly seek. For what could be more frightening, if intangible, than tearing down years of decaying psychological walls, unmasking our own God-given face, and exerting our own divinely inspired voice in a world hostile to genuine individuality and truth. It is an identity on which society's doors of opportunities shut—and maybe, and we seek God's refuge from this, its gates of persecution shall open. All societal acknowledgement, validation, and affirmation are withdrawn for anyone who reclaims his human right of subject-hood to the one and only King. We don't need to look any further than the prophets themselves to understand these acts and reactions.
Thus far, I fear we Muslims have only perfected the Western façade of object-ivity: There someone like me can hide behind the ‘facts' and social narratives and no one can reject me because "I" am not there. Ha! They can only reject the facts, which is a ridiculously absurd thing to do anyhow, so I still get the last laugh.
Subject-hood, though, is the height of uncertainty. If the thought of others seeing who we really are is not terrifying enough, and it is for me, here we must walk on our own two feet, choose our own individual path, and defer to our own inner resources.
So, if you find this close gloomy, it is only because we, and our world, are in a most wretched state (ask the billions living under poverty and oppression). Then again, hope lies yonder just beyond the depressing, just over our fears. Instead of persisting in this depressing state—or rather, withdrawing from the reality of our pathetic condition and throwing ourselves into the cocaine rush of an imperial society—let us earnestly turn to God and hold onto the firmest handhold of Guidance, set our hopes high and follow the promise of Islam.
For as long as we call ourselves followers of Islam, we must dismiss out of hand the ignorant discourse of all those who would define Islam by sheer falsehoods, even if these be repeated without end in every public space under the guise of freedom of expression and objectivity. For we know the likes of these mean only to degrade Islam and us to a minority status, subjugated to the rule of men, and to make of this religion only a whitewashed and sterilized remnant of Islam at that. The truth is they have no more knowledge of Islam than they do all the falsehoods they attribute to God Himself. They do not have any knowledge of this. Nor had their forefathers. It is but a heinous word that issues from their mouths. They say nothing but a lie.
Should we finally acknowledge the futility of such a vain, iniquitous society of the real "un-persons," and long to turn wholeheartedly to God, the path begins with seeking and establishing our own personhoods.
And should we dare the endeavor of reclaiming our heritage and embarking on the prophetic struggle of faith and civility, believe not those who say that it is beyond our ability, out of our reach, a dream. For God did not require us to take on the world or its problems, nor did He ask us to bring victory to Islam. Indeed, how can we fix the world when we and our relationships are broken? It is a great mercy from Allah that we are responsible only to rehabilitate ourselves until once we change what is in our hearts then Allah will change our conditions.
On our journey, let us recover from the wayside the abandoned blessings Allah has provided for us: Home, as defined by Islam, is where our existence is fortified and draped in a mantle of dignity. Kinship is a real and potent mirror to ourselves. Marriage is the source of acceptance and love we have been spending our lives in search of. And, ah, parenthood! That is the most enriching of careers and eminent status !
Then before we know it, a collective presence of dignified human families shall emerge and bring out of extinction a genuinely Just Community, under the banner of Islam and the protection of Allah, for triumph comes only from Allah, ta‘ala—even to the apparently most insignificant, weak, and meager of us.