Beyond Belief Interviews Huda Al-Marashi

Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi-American at work on her memoir about the impact of her dual-identity on her marriage. Excerpts from her memoir have appeared in the anthologies Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women, Becoming: What Makes a Woman, and In Her Place. 

What interested you in contributing to the anthology? I heard about Beyond Belief through another anthology I had participated in. I had written a chapter in my memoir that I thought would work. I edited it into a stand-alone piece and now I’ve decided it works better on its own.Al-Marashi Headshot

What was it like to revisit an experience of living with extreme religion? In my piece, I discuss a lamentation ritual that has been practiced in my family since the early 1990’s. The Gulf War brought a new wave of immigrants from Iraq to California, and with them came many customs that had been forgotten by the earlier arrivals. This ritual is not common to all Shia Muslim-American communities, and ever since I moved away from my family’s community in California, I haven’t been a part of a congregation that upholds this tradition in the same way.

As an adult, it was interesting to me how much I longed to experience the ritual again. There was something about it that gripped me. I’d watch the women around me and wonder what brought them to this circle, what meaning they assigned to the practice. I have always been fascinated by the power of the spiritual impulse, what it drives people to do and how it manifests in day-to-day life. Writing about that time in my childhood as an adult was profoundly gratifying. Here was this moment that had so bewildered and intrigued me, and writing about it gave me a way to organize the experience and give it meaning.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? I don’t see myself as having left religious life. I see being a member of a faith community as a process of finding one’s place along a continuum of belief and practice, and I understand that my place on this spectrum is constantly shifting. As a child, I prayed and fasted because I was told it was obligatory. As an adult, I uphold the same practices but for the discipline and for the connection to a community that is such an important part of my identity.

Why do you think modern women are drawn to the practice of extreme religion? I don’t know that modern women are drawn to the practice of extreme religion any more than any person in a faith community. Whenever people start to think that they have some kind of license on the truth, that there are absolutes, or when we fail to contextualize our faiths and see them as dynamic human constructs, we are in danger of slipping into extremism.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith? Having a religious identity is like any relationship. You have to grow and mature within it, and it requires study—not just of the particulars of your faith but of religion itself and how it operates in the world. All members of religious communities need to be aware of how their society, culture, and history influence the way their faith is practiced in the modern day. Sometimes we try to justify things in our faiths that don’t make sense to us. We tell ourselves this has to be right because this is what my religion says. Those are the moments for which we must be alert. Instead of justifying things that don’t make sense, we have to research those points of tension. We have to ask ourselves, what society produced this thought and do I really need to carry this into the present?

What are your current projects? I am currently seeking representation for a memoir that explores the different ways my dual-identity as an Iraqi-American affected the early years of my marriage. My husband and I shared the same background, but both world’s conflicting attitudes toward courtship and marriage was an unexpected source of tension, one that I think may be the case for a lot of couples who share hybrid-identities. In between work on the memoir, I write essays and short stories on themes related to immigration and the experience of exile.

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Dancing With the Torah

Dancing With the Torah

Women of faith and feminists have more in common than they have differences.

While popular wisdom has it that being a feminist and a woman of faith are incompatible my experience as an Orthodox Jew tells a different story.  Some of the most ardent feminists I (Susan) ever met were Orthodox Jewish women in my community. Some considered themselves feminists and some did not, but when I think about what it means to be a feminist these women fit the bill.

Like all good feminists they are committed to affirming the full humanity of women but they do so within the context of their religious belief system. They strive to build a community that treats everyone fairly.  They do not view their gender as an obstacle but embrace it and live a full life as a woman and as a believer in their faith.

Today almost every major and minor religion has a growing and active women’s movement within it. From Mormonism to Catholicism to Judaism religious women are seeking to address issues of inequality. They are pointing out how discrimination is not consonant with deeper ideologies, questioning how, why and who made the rules that disenfranchise them. Women are pointing to scripture and other religious teachings to make their case and ask for change. These religious women are not walking away from their faith but are working within its structures in order to make change happen. They are feminists.

In my Orthodox years I ran up against a number of laws that I felt were discriminatory. Women couldn’t sing or dance in public. Women couldn’t participate in certain rituals or prayers. Many of these rules were explained to me as ways to safeguard women against bad male behavior, i.e. the sound of a woman’s voice could arouse a man and distract him from prayer. I was taught that these laws were not devised to oppress women but to elevate them and prevent them from being regarding as sex objects and thus devalued.

Many of Judaism’s laws appear discriminatory by secular standards but understood within the religious context may give women more chance at true equality. By downplaying a woman’s physical appearance she has more opportunity and encouragement to develop herself and self worth in other ways.

These arguments were a hard sell for me. Having been brought up in a very liberal, secular home the idea that a restriction could be a freeing force was an entirely new concept. One restriction that particularly bothered me was a law prohibiting women from dancing with the Torah on a special holiday called Simhat Torah. Once per year, on this special day, the Torah was paraded around as men and boys hugged it tight and danced with it in their arms, shouting, sweating, vying for their special moment with the sacred parchment while we women were shut out. Women didn’t touch the Torah much less dance with it. It wasn’t allowed, it wasn’t done, end of story.

I asked but did not receive an adequate explanation. I was angry. I became determined to find out where this law came from and why. If I had to accept this prohibition, I needed a reason, an argument, something to take the sting out of it. And it had to be a damn good one.

Four of us formed a study group and began learning the laws that prohibited us from touching the Torah. We met every Sunday morning for over four years and educated and empowered ourselves about this issue and many others pertaining to women in Judaism. We learned that the prohibition of touching the Torah was on precarious legal ground and was more a matter of precedent and custom than hard and fast law. The more we studied, the more we came across leniencies and examples of Orthodox communities that allowed women to touch and dance with the Torah. Eventually, we were able to convince others in the community that women should be able to dance with the Torah.

Religions and secular societies do adapt and change. For us — women of faith AND secular feminists, we can more effectively foster that change together than apart.

 

 

 

Beyond Belief Interviews Nikki Smith

Beyond Belief Blog Tour Continues!

Follow our month long blog tour line-up and travel with us to some fabulous sites. 

Friday, August 30 @ Steph the Bookworm
Get in on the giveaway and join Stephanie as she reviews the anthology,Beyond Belief, The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions by Cami Ostman and Susan Tive.
http://www.stephthebookworm.com/

Monday, September 2 @ Women on Writing, The Muffin
Read what Susan Tive writes in her guest post about “Feminism and Religion” and get in on the giveaway and your chance to win a copy of the anthologyBeyond Belief; The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions.
http://muffin.wow-womenonwriting.com/

Wednesday, September 4 @ Renee’s Pages
Read what Renee’s thoughts were after finishing the anthology, Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions and partake in the giveaway for an opportunity to read this one for yourself!
http://www.reneespages.blogspot.com/

This Week Beyond Belief is happy to welcome writer and BB contributor Nikki Smith. As a former Seventh Day Adventist Nikki has a unique and thoughtful perspective on the questions of women and extreme religion. She has written for academic publications and lectured for both local and national educational organizations.  She was a Loma Linda University professor and Seventh Day Adventist missionary in both South Korea and Guam.  Nikki currently lives in Southern California and is working on her memoir about a tightly wound, off-kilter family and a severe, absolutist religion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat interested you in contributing to the anthology? Life within the Seventh Day Adventist church has rarely been examined in secular literature or other faith-based writings, for that matter. Beyond Belief presented a model venue to share my insight into a faith that demanded stringent obedience. My particular story as an earnest believer who was church-schooled, and served as a missionary and then went on to teach as a professor within it’s premier university gives me the credentials to shed light on this little known but growing protestant sect.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? Recalling my experiences within the Seventh Day Adventist church brought me face to face with the reality of how immersed I had been. This is a church that requires its members to not only believe in its theology but to also practice its strict lifestyle. Adventism believes in a very literal Bible, including the strictures within the Old Testament along with the New Testament gospel and the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. As I write about my life within this structure, I am struck by how my strict adherence to the Church’s rules kept many of us from reaching our full potential and becoming self-reliant.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? Leaving behind my community of believers was the most painful part of my journey. There is a unity of spirit when everyone in a group believes the same way. It billows one’s soul to know that when you look across the aisle, each person has the same beliefs as you do. I lost many friends. My journey was lonely but also very freeing. For me to realize that I could make my own decisions without the heavy blanket of dogma is a precious gift that still delights me daily.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? Extreme religions promise answers. That reason alone can be a shelter that many women feel they need. I had always yearned to know “the truth” and thought I had found it and life’s answers within my strict church. All the explanations were in black and white and you didn’t have to evaluate for yourself. There was a certain comfort in knowing that the Bible and your church had figured all of the hard stuff out already. But then life happened with all its messiness and the answers I had been given just weren’t working anymore.

If a woman is born into an authoritarian church it is especially hard for her to forsake her faith and become an outsider. She has to be very strong to withstand the direct and indirect ostracism. When you leave your own kin don’t trust you anymore. For many women, staying within the confines of their church even though they may not believe is just easier and they don’t have to deal with the guilt and judgment that comes along with leaving.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? My reverence for our magnificent earth and all its wonders and the love I have for my fellow man certainly continues. I now understand that I can choose to be good and to do good things because they are the right thing to do and not because of a reward in the hereafter. To help my fellow man, to care for my family, to aid the downtrodden, and to help protect the world around me gives me a deeper joy because I am doing it with no feeling that I will be reimbursed.

What advise do you have for women struggling with their faith? It may seem like an overwhelming and bewildering predicament, but by searching within yourself for your truth, the truth of who you are and not what a church or an orthodoxy or set of rules tells you, is key. I have been through this struggle and it is not easy. It took me years to finally leave my church home. I lived through it and I know you can live a very fulfilling and wonderful life “beyond belief.”

What Remains?

Last week Pam Helberg and Grace Peterson, two Beyond Belief writers, suggested some important additions to my list of Questions I Wish They’d Ask. One of them, how are we all still impacted by the religious communities we left, I’d like to speak to today. This question resonates strongly with me (Susan) and is made even more poignant because my 21-year-old daughter is visiting for a few weeks before she heads back to college several thousand miles away.

Like most parents with almost-finished-with-college, almost-an-adult children, I cherish every moment I get to spend with my daughter knowing that as her life takes shape into the future our time together will become even more rare. In my case, however, I feel a deeper sense of gratitude about our relationship. I have a sense of pride that we both made it through not just the normal pushes and pulls of the mother/daughter relationship as she entered puberty, individuated, rebelled, etc., but that we survived the very real danger that we may not have had a relationship at all because of the decision I made to leave Orthodox Judaism.

When I left Orthodoxy I chose to leave largely because I was concerned for the long-term mental and emotional health of my children and myself. I had to get the hell out of the situation first and then go back for my children, it was not ideal, nor pretty. It was triage, it was why they instruct you on an airplane to put on your own mask first, because if you pass out you won’t be much help to your children.

Leaving was risky, extremely risky because not only did I have to believe that I had the strength to do it but I had to believe in my children. I had to believe that they could sort out the situation for themselves, that they knew who I really was despite what they were being told.

The very rules of orthodoxy that I had followed to help keep my family together became barriers used to keep me from my children. The tight knit fabric of the community I had worked so hard to create and weave my children into morphed into an impermeable net that separated us once I was on the other side.

And while I respect and understand that the rules of Orthodoxy were only trying to protect them, I knew better. I knew that the connection we had as mother and child was more fundamental, more holy and vital than the religious overlay that was being used to keep them away from me. Religion should be part of what strengthens and protects families, and for many years I experienced just that support in my Jewish life.

In order to leave I had to believe in my children far more deeply than I had ever believed in Orthodoxy. I took a huge risk. I walked away with the hope that I would eventually be in their lives in a real, and for lack of a better word, natural way.

Yes I often feel guilty for having put my children through the pain and suffering of what took place when I left Orthodoxy. But as the years go by my trust in them has been justified. Today I may act just like any other mother with almost-adult kids home for a visit but what remains inside me, what has become an intrinsic part of me is the visceral memory, the fear, of how close I came to losing them.

 

Questions I Wish They’d Ask

Questions I Wish They’d Ask

Don’t get me wrong. I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to write, edit and currently promote Beyond Belief. The topic of women and religion is one that I have given a great deal of thought to and lived firsthand for many years. I am deeply appreciative to everyone from our publishers and editors at Seal Press to our authors, who helped make the anthology a book that I am proud of. I am also grateful to those in the media who have reached out to Cami and I (Susan) and invited us onto their TV and radio shows, interviewed us for publications, book reviews and blogs and shared our thoughts and the stories in the anthology with their audiences. (Check out our media page to read and watch the clips yourself.)

That being said I have to admit a bit of frustration. Each time a new opportunity to share the anthology arises I find myself excitedly preparing answers to a growing number of questions that I think are interesting and important. More honestly, I find myself preparing for all the questions I wish someone would ask. These tend to be juicy, more controversial questions that reach into a gray area where religion is explored with curiosity and openness without preconceptions that it is either the one true way or else a dead end.

Some of these questions are: “What was better in your life when you were religious?” “What do you miss the most?” What do you think religion has to offer women that secular society doesn’t?”

But no one we’ve talked to in the media asks these questions. For the most part, the media that are open to Beyond Belief are somewhat biased toward an anti-religious viewpoint and approach us with the notion that the conclusion of our book must be that religion is not the way to go. After all, our writers all left their faiths so that must mean religion doesn’t work, right?

Most people with an antireligious slant don’t want to hear that in some respects religious life offers a stronger more viable sense of community, real community than secular society. In my own experience the orthodox community that I lived in for ten years was where people actually looked after one another, brought food and visited and watched children when disaster or death struck. Within the orthodox world people took the time to celebrate, feast, open their homes, and offer hospitality to strangers for no other reason than that they were part of Klal Yisroel, the people of Israel.

On the other hand the believers out there who adhere to a religious practice that would be considered fundamentalist don’t even know that our book exists. They don’t read books outside of what their community sanctions and they certainly don’t surf the net and read blogs and reviews by feminists or on Atlantic.com or watch Current TV.

So even though Beyond Belief is not anti religious, these religious folks won’t ever know it. They won’t find us and we won’t have the opportunity to talk with them, to tell them, we’re not against you. We would love for you to read these stories, to hear first hand how by limiting the opportunities for women within religion communities women are being disrespected and making choices to leave their faiths.

The questions that don’t get asked are often the ones that need to be asked the most. They are the most uncomfortable ones, because they help us to admit that we could be wrong, that we have doubts, that we do not possess any truth or absolutes.

The Questions I Wish They’d Ask are stacking up and my responses to them are coalescing on the page. In the coming weeks I hope to write and post them in this blog.

Next week: What do you miss the most?

Beyond Belief Interviews Yolande Brener

Yolande Brener is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the memoir Holy Candy, the story of her fifteen years as a member of the Unification Church.  Her essays have been published in New York Press, Nerve, and Strange Angels, and her film scripts have been funded by the British Film Institute and the Arts Council of Great Britain. Yolande believes that all religions contain wisdom.yolande

What interested you in contributing to the anthology? When Susan and Cami invited me to write a short piece for their anthology I was delighted to be part of a project that explored so many different women’s experiences with extreme religion.  Because they had their own personal experiences, I trusted that they would present an honest and open-minded collection of stories.  I’m not interested in bashing the Unification Church or anyone in it.  I am interested in exploring why people make these choices, and whether there are better ways to accomplish the sense of community and integrity women are seeking.

 What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? In some ways, I would prefer never to speak about it again.  It saddens me that I was so convinced I was contributing to making the world a better place, and yet there was no evidence that this was the case.  It took me fifteen years to move away from the Unification Church.

I share the story because people want to understand why someone like me—who is an artist and an individualist, and externally very calm—would make the choice to submit to the will of a religious leader.  All of us are malleable, we are influenced by those around us, our emotional experiences and our desire to belong to a “family”.  Part of joining an extreme religion like the Unification Church involves giving up one’s individuality for the sake of the greater good, and that is what I did at the time.

The greatest miracles that came out of the experience for me are the two most important people in my life: my two children.  My son and daughter are amazing and yet they came from an arranged marriage between two people who never would have met outside the church.

I have no ill feeling toward anyone in the church, although it breaks my heart that I believed the promises they made to me if I followed their religion. My desire to connect to a higher power was so great that I left behind my identity, my friends, my family and my country.  I no longer believe that any organization can be a mouthpiece for what we call “God.”  I believe we all have a channel to higher intelligence, and I strive to be open to it.

 What was the hardest part of leaving for you? The hardest part of leaving was the immense sense of failure.  I promised “God” that I would dedicate my life to Him in order to help cure the world and my family and that I would follow Reverend Moon’s instructions to the best of my ability.  These ideas seem ridiculous now, but they are indicative of the strong faith I had.

The hardest part wasn’t so much leaving the church as becoming a single parent.  The Unification Church promised that our marriages were blessed by God and would last eternally. This was very important to me.  I wanted my children to experience the security of seeing their parents loving each other, supporting each other, and being united in service to the community. When my children’s father left and I no longer had the support of the Unification Church community what I feared more than anything else; becoming a single parent like my mother, became a reality.

 Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion?  When women today are attracted to extreme religion it’s for the same reasons I joined the Unification Church: desire to contribute to the greater good of humanity and desire to create a good, wholesome family with integrity, purity and good values.  Most people want to do something to help others in their lives, and it’s not always easy to find a way to do this.  When a group comes along saying they are The Way, people who are searching just might believe them.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life?  Two maxims I carry with me are to make everyone I encounter feel loved or appreciated by me, and to see everything as holy.  If I can succeed at this occasionally, I feel I have accomplished something.

Having lived side by side with people from numerous nations I learned to be more empathetic to others and appreciate the differences between people. The idea of the unification of nations and religions is a good one. I feel great compassion for the people I shared my journey with.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now?

I am a strong believer in our inner guidance system.

We have feelings for a reason, and the most important things in life do not always happen according to logic.  I believe that our feelings are more connected to our divine nature than to our intelligence. As humans—we often think our ideas are solid or statistically proven, but the more instinctive part of us may reflect a broader ranging viewpoint.  We are part of a planet and a larger community. We haven’t always done what is best for that planet or community.  Perhaps there is a more connected part of us that knows what would be better for the larger organism if we would learn to listen to it?

And if all that sounds esoteric and far out, what did you expect from an ex-Moonie?

What are your current writing projects?  I hope to publish my memoir, Holy Candy, later this year.  Holy Candy tells the story of my religious experience and my arranged marriage in more depth: why I made that choice, why I left and what I gained from that part of my life.

I write about local interest issues for Harlem World and post on my Holy Blog.  The main themes I focus on are love and spirituality. I write about what moves me, this can range from the Law of Attraction and channeling to chance meetings with extraordinary people.

The Spirit Knows No Rules

The Spirit Knows No Rules

Earlier this week I (Susan) had the pleasure of joining a wonderful local book group to talk about Beyond Belief. Over a lovely meal served on the deck of our hostess, Tiana Melquist, the group discussed the anthology. All six of the members attending generously shared their thoughts about the stories that had touched them and passionately talked about the mix of emotions that they had experienced while reading the book.

It was gratifying for me to hear that Beyond Belief had resonated with these readers. For each of them there were a few stories that felt especially relevant, and for all, the anthology had elicited a variety of strong emotions ranging from anger, to sadness to empathy. The conversation about the stories was a natural segue for each woman to talk about her own experience with religion. Through the course of the evening it became apparent that everyone in the group had either had a brush with an extreme religion at some point in her life or knew a close friend or family member who had been or still was involved.

For the working mothers in the group Stephanie Durden Edwards’ A Mother in Israel hit a particularly sensitive chord. Stephanie’s story tells of her struggle accepting the Mormon teaching that it is immoral for a woman to work outside of the home and send her children to daycare. In her piece Stephanie beautifully depicts her love of her faith and her devotion to staying within the safety of her community while at the same time struggling against rules that seem irrational and possibly even harmful. This is the quandary many women face when their religious community asks them to follow rules that force them to choose between being faithful and taking care of themselves and their families.

Other readers commented on Swan Sister by Yolande Brener and expressed a deep pathos for Yolande’s need to find a deeper meaning in her life and help her older brother. Alongside this empathy the group expressed anger and frustration that her spiritual quest had been coopted by the Unification Church. “What does shaving your head and begging for money have to do with becoming a better person and finding a spiritual path?” one of the book club members asked.

Like many of the stories in the anthology Stephanie and Yolande’s experiences cannot help but make a reader wonder how the rules of extreme religion help a woman in her spiritual quest. A woman’s impetus for seeking meaning in her life is genuine and vulnerable and often the religious structure she chooses appears to do little to respect her need or honor her choice. How do religious rules, all the dos and don’ts, which seem harmful or tedious really help a woman attain well being or spirituality?

In my own experience as an Orthodox Jew the rules were paramount. In fact I spent way more time concerned with following rules, often about the most mundane of tasks, then I ever did thinking about spiritual matters. In Jewish practice the laws or mitzvahs that command us to act in certain ways are the paths by which we attain spirituality.  Though we may not understand how eating or dressing in a particular way is helping us to become more spiritual we are asked to accept this truth without question.

For me the rules were, at first, a huge help. They gave me relief from the overwhelm of choice and confusion, they helped me uphold the dignity of my role as a wife and mother, and they gave me guidance to grow into an adult with the ability to take the needs of the greater good into consideration in my thoughts and deeds.

Many of the rules of Orthodox Judaism felt arbitrary and outdated. Ultimately though, like in Stephanie’s story, it was the downright harm to me and to my family that blindly following any and all rules beyond common sense, intuition and rationality that led me to leave the practice behind.

When a religious practice keeps women so busy with rules that it actually prevents them from becoming good, independent and educated people it is time to step back and ask some hard questions. Following rules, religious or otherwise, is not meant to be the end all of our actions or a deterrent from living a spiritual life that feels honest and well meaning. Rules, when served in moderation, are supposed to free us and provide the security and structure we need as human beings to reach our fullest potential.