A couple of years ago, Minnesota Public Radio started -- no, woke up -- the Matron with the "radio journal" of a young Somali man. Here since a small child, the young man lamented the state of his male elders: "They sit in coffee shops and gossip all day. They waste their time talking about politics and dreams that evade. They do nothing while my mothers and sisters and aunties cook, clean, raise the children, and make all the strong decisions. These women do nothing but work. For the men in my community, it is quite the opposite. What kind of role models are these men -- for me?"
It just so happened, yours truly had been spending an inordinate amount of time at a coffee shop central to the Somali community. The Twin Cities has the largest Somali population outside of that country; most are Muslims. Because a coffee shop near one of Scarlett's many shows was easy --and the wifi and coffee were strong -- the Matron pretty much took up residence, all but cooking and bathing there. She certainly slept from time to time.
She was almost always the only woman.
At first, she didn't really notice. A frequent ladies room flyer, she delighted in that spot's eternal vacancy: "what a great place! The bathroom is always empty!" The men's room? Sometimes there was an actual wait! Sloooooowly she took note. Part of the coffee shop's appeal was its singular atmosphere: entirely pleasant, like an African Cheers fueled by caffeine instead of booze. So nicer. Everybody knew everybody's name. There was plenty of hugging and back-slapping, spirited phone calls in the lilt of mystery languages. There were hours of gesturing, vibrant outdoor conversations over cigarettes and steaming mugs.
And everyone enjoying this good company? Male.
This didn't really bother the Matron -- even as she fully understood the gender disparities (and yes, she chose that word) that meant the men had the freedom (or leisure? she wasn't sure) to converse in public all evening while women were nowhere to be seen.
But that young man's lament for those 'wasted' lives forever changed the Matron's perspective. From then on, for every man sipping espresso and reading the paper, she imagined the wife, mother, or daughter at home (or all three and their sisters). Toiling. She also imagined their young sons, bearing witness. Yet she also knew that she had just the most marginal grasp on the obstacles the fathers and husbands faced. Forget meaningful, interesting work that defines a life or profession. She's talking obstacles to simple employment.
Tonight, the Matron revisited that environment in a different, nearby cafe -- again, waiting for Scarlett, this time while the daughter indulged her need to be in the audience. Once again, the Matron was the only woman in the teem and flow of life. Indeed, she and her trusty laptop landed the very last, most awkwardly positioned table available, which she gratefully snatched up. Once again, she fully appreciated how little she knew about the lives of these men, how hard the road they traveled.
But something else has transpired since that first coffee shop two years ago and the radio journal. Before teaching a Gender and Women's Studies class called "Women and Global Issues," the Matron did what any scholar worth her salt would do. She studied. Now, academic are supposed to be neutral, objective, reasoned. But she made a strategic decision to study in order to embrace Islam as a feminist. Because an unfortunate n internal radar --fueled by very little other than a low grade fog of female suspicion -- had already unfortunately positioned the Matron oh-so-slightly of the opinion that Islam was bad for women. She took it upon herself to change her mind so that she could demonstrate to her students that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam had comparable restrictions when it came to women: no better, no worse.
At this point, it may strike the average reader of this blog -- who is trying to get through one damn post in a single glass of wine, thank you -- that a book or documentary might be the only legitimate way to tackle this topic. Reader? That would be true.
So she won't even pretend there's anything adequate, thorough or balanced about what's ahead, but cut to her personal chase.
After four months of reading books by and about Islamic feminists, the Matron had a much more acute awareness of her own physical oppression, vulnerability, and objectification as a woman within her own religious and cultural spheres. She returned anew to Judeo-Christian injustices inflicted upon women and began to think that any woman who had more than three children for religious reasons (no matter what religion) might be good with God but was in serious secular trouble. Even Buddhism, where her own religious salve resides, took on a more ominous light with its long, male-centered history and wars about which she had previously been unaware. She left her study with a bitter taste for fundamentalism in all its forms.
After four months of reading books by and about Islamic feminists explaining, delineating, and defending Islam, the Matron also realized that her low grade fog of female suspicion was . . . actually a well-honed survival instinct. She could not come away in feminism's defense of contemporary Islam as it is experienced by most practicing women throughout the world, no matter how very, very hard she tried. Please reread that line: "as it is experienced by most practicing women throughout the world." She understands there women are wearing hijabs in operating rooms, board rooms, universities, and political chambers. You can wear a burqa at Harvard (and yes, she knows she can't wear one in France).
But her attempt to retrain herself as the feminist cheerleader for Islam? Total backfire. Instead, her intellectual foray led her to the conclusion that gender equity relied upon the freedom enjoyed by the physical body. Can life for men and women be equitable (not equal, but equitable) if the rules regarding the body are much more numerous, comprehensive, restrictive, and consequential for one gender than they are for another?
For this feminist, the answer is no. The question can be posed to all religions: what are the rules regarding the body? Where it can go? What it can learn? How much autonomy it has? Can the body just get up and go? Run? Fight? Love? Choose its sexual partners and number of children? Remain without scars and mutilation (yes, male and female circumcision in all cultures came under her scrutiny)? No religion gets a free pass or gold star: none.
No matter how she aimed these questions and where, Islam came up far, far short. She'll say it: shorter than Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism (her main concerns). The rules regarding the body are much more numerous, comprehensive, restrictive, and consequential for women than they are for men. This, for the Matron, was --and remains -- the deal-breaker. Yes, she understood that feminist Muslims found liberation and power within these rules regarding the body; she understood the reverence and devotion to Allah symbolized (embodied) when the body was disciplined, just so in this way and that. She got it. But didn't buy it. No matter how hard she tried. Because at the end of the day --or backed into a corner -- how free are you if you cannot be the primary agent of your own body and physical space?
So tonight, in her position among the men, she was far less sanguine. Instead, she noted physical constraints and conditions long, fluid, and flexible enough to accommodate the man who lifted his bare face to that all too fleeting Minnesota summer sun.
She made a point of doing the same and wondered where that young journalist was now. Had he graduated from college and found that meaningful life for which he longed? Was he paving a different path for the next generation of men, the ones who would also have mothers, sisters, and wives? Of course, she knows nothing about this young man's whereabouts or fate. But she is very glad that he's out there and hopes he has a lot of like-minded friends. Both men and women.