About a month ago I had the opportunity to attend an all day conference about the dynamics of gender violence in the South Asian community. The conference was put on by a wonderful South Asian feminist non-profit organization in Phoenix that I work with and was one of the best conferences I have ever attended.
Among the excellent speakers was a representative of the Peaceful Families Project which is a national organization devoted to ending domestic violence in Muslim families. I was impressed with the mission and the action of this particular organization but I found myself becoming more and more frustrated with the speaker as she progressed through her presentation. Although very knowledgeable about the Quran and the culture of Islam, the speaker seemed unable to acknowledge the problematic aspects of her religion. My frustration came to a climax when the speaker used the Quran’s Sura (chapter) four, verse thirty-four as proof of the progressive nature of Islam. Here is a translation of that scripture:
Husbands should take full care of their wives, with [the bounties] God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money. Righteous wives are devout and guard what God would have them guard in the husbands’ absence. If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teaching of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them. God is most high and great. (Haleem, 2004).
If you are wondering what is progressive in this, men are commanded to provide for their wives and if there are problems, they are told to first separate and only hit their wives if the separation doesn’t work. (In other translations, men are told to lightly beat their wives which I suppose is better than savagely beating your wife. Go here for further translations and explanations.) I was perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief and categorize this scripture as a product of its time but to be told that it was a good thing for women was more than I could take. It was at this moment that I realized that for the first time in my life, I was on the opposite side of the double-bind.
The double-bind is a dilemma that many feminists find themselves in when they participate in a patriarchal religion or cultural tradition. Feminists of faith who identify with religions where women are not equal in either the theology or the institution find themselves caught between the two worlds they love, risking the reputation as a dissidents by fellow believers and as pawns of the patriarchy by secular feminists.
As a Mormon feminist I often find myself in the middle of this double-bind. I have been told on more than one occasion by fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that I don’t have a testimony of the restored gospel and that my heart is hard, that I have been deluded by Satan and that I should just leave the church. I have also been pitied, ridiculed and dismissed by feminists who say they care about women. The tension of being stuck between these two worlds is often overwhelming and painful and yet I find that there is very little compassion for women like me. So when I found myself in the role of the skeptical feminist, judging another woman for her faith in and apology for parts of a religion I find offensive, I was so ashamed of myself. That Muslim woman and I are in the same position; we are both believers of a religion that is undeniably problematic for women but nevertheless brings happiness, peace and meaning to our lives.
In the time since the conference, I have thought a lot about how to integrate my feminism and my faith and how to thrive within the double-bind. In order to make it as a faithful feminist you have to accept the double-bind as inevitable; secular feminists will never fully accept you and neither will members of the church. The trick is not to care; live in a way that is authentic to yourself and the God you love. The Muslim woman I spoke of earlier might have frustrated both the traditional believer of Islam and the outsider but nobody could accuse her of not believing in the God she wanted to believe in. There is nothing inauthentic about that.
I worry that the Mormon Church is losing amazing feminist women and men in the search for authenticity. I certainly do not mean to offend those of you who have chosen to leave, obviously the individual must do what is best for themselves and their family. But for those who are in the process of choosing or have already chosen to stay please don’t believe that it is impossible to live authentically as an active Mormon feminist. The truth is our lives are only as authentic as we make them. You don’t have to believe in or make apologies for doctrines and practices you find offensive. I have found that the more honest I am with believers, non-believers and myself, the less I feel pulled between the worlds of feminism and the gospel that I care so deeply about.
I will never say that life in the double-bind is easy or even desirable. I cannot promise an existence of peace and acceptance. I can say that the double-bind is a very brave life; it is not easy to live with that amount of complexity for a prolonged period of time. But there are rewards; there is something in losing yourself in a cause that seems impossible. There is something in the humility that comes from being dismissed on all sides. There is something in those quiet moments where God whispers to your heart “keep going” and gives you that one last breath to make it through Relief Society. There is something in shaking your fist at God and asking why until you feel like your soul will explode and then taking that energy and being the change you think God would want.
They are simple gifts…but who needs more than passion and God?