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.

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.

 

 

 

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?

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.