Maria Learns About Islam

Let it be known to all that you were raised with a complete absence of religious values.

When you were very young, you were aware that Jews celebrated Hanukkah, and all the rest celebrated Christmas, whether they wore crosses around their necks or not. And you heard that some people didn’t believe in Christmas—and they were called Jehovah’s Witnesses and they knocked on people’s doors and handed them fliers and were annoying. As you got older, you were gingerly dipped you into the Church of Scientology, which didn’t seem like religion at all—more like school, or even better, counseling. And don’t confuse it with Christian Scientists, who didn’t believe in medical care or something.

Just to elaborate on how blissfully unaware you were of religion, let the record state that you did not even know what a Muslim was until you were nearly fifteen years old and had to learn about Islam—along with Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism–in your ninth grade humanities class. All you knew was that they believed in Allah, built mosques, and prayed five times a day.

The Arab girls who wore head scarves to school were as unimpressive to you as the black kids who wore do-rags; you didn’t think about it. And you remained completely indifferent to religion. You were even indifferent to symbols of Christianity, which had a much more obvious presence in your life. Frankly, you didn’t actually know a single person who went to church. You only knew kids who called themselves Christians, a statement which was as irrelevant as “I think I’m a democrat” coming from a child.

Enter 9/11. You were 17 years old. And then Islam was everywhere. Muslims, terrorists, and fear. Something about anti-capitalism. Something else about oil. The word “jihad.”


You’re being completely honest here. You don’t pretend to know when you don’t. You are perfectly willing to admit your own ignorance—and even more willing to admit your history of ignorance. You were a poster child for American ignorance and ego-centrism.

You had been too busy going to practice, working, doing homework, and getting drunk to know about anything else. There hadn’t been any time to open The Seattle Times op-ed section and read about a bunch of unpronounceable names and places and try to make sense of them while lacking context. Certainly, some of your classmates were more aware of world affairs than you had been. You can speak only for yourself.

A year later. “Do you support the war in Iraq?” some student asked you outside the Commons Dining Hall your freshman year at Yale.

“There’s a war in Iraq?” you asked back, bluntly.

The student was momentarily disarmed. “Um, yes. There is.”

Blink, blink. You: “Are we in it?”

He looked right, then left, searching for a witness. “Yeeaahhhh.” Obviously.

“No shit?”

What the fuck, Stevens!

But hey, this was you. You were an ignorant piece of shit, once again, too busy going to practice, going to class, and getting drunk to care.

Perhaps you are a unique example. Perhaps most Americans were more aware than you were. Then again, perhaps not. If you could be so outrageously uninformed and be at a top-tier university, what does that say about the rest of your countrymen?

Who knows?

The media campaign against Islam had started, and for over ten years, it has been the same message: West, good; Islam, bad. West: democracy, freedom, choice, equality, God, prevail, justice, fairness, progress. Islam: dictators, oppression, backward, jihad, war, terrorism, corruption, violence, hatred, threats.

And most importantly: the implantation of an idea that women are treated like property.

Information about Islam trickled in over a decade. It made an impression. As you grew up—a late-bloomer in many things, from actually resembling a girl, to having opinions about world politics—you began to thank your lucky stars that you were a woman born in America, a forerunner in women’s rights and in the sexual revolution.

The idea that Muslim men could have up to four wives, that their women could suffer from things like vitamin D deficiency under their burkas, that were often not allowed to drive, valued only “half as much as a man” by insurance companies (for real, Miguel?)… it sounded preposterous. Downright silly.

You are spoiled.

“Bilal, I have a question,” you said, with great caution. “What would you say are the biggest misconceptions about Islamic women?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

What does he mean! ‘What do you mean?’

“I mean… you know…” You know! Like the crazy black burkas in the hot desert sun! What’s that all about!

You elaborated with more diplomacy.

“It’s their choice,” Bilal said. “It’s like fashion. A woman chooses to wear the head scarf, to cover her face, or to not. It’s her decision how she wants to present herself.”

Why would anyone want to wear a big black burka, period?

“When a woman is married, she chooses to cover herself so that other men cannot–” See her? Enjoy her? “–It is a way of stating that her body is for her husband’s eyes only.”

You, of course, had heard this answer in the past. You stared like Homer Simpson, eyes probably pointing askew, in a moment of complete bewilderment. Western bewilderment.

Finally, you blurted, “But why?” Why! For the love of god… wh…wh… eye.

Bilal stood, his belly bisecting the distance between you and Katie, seated on opposite sides of the room. “For example,” he began, “Right now, you and Katie, you are wearing clothes. But why not wear no shirts? Why are you not showing me your tits?”

Your ‘tits!’

You and Katie exchanged a look to confirm that his question bordered on the absurd. Simultaneously, “It’s cold!”

Bilal was momentarily surprised by your answer. “Okay, okay! Forget the temperature right now. Pretend it is very warm. Why not show me your tits?”

A half-dozen answers spun through your head: boob sweat, bras, support, fat belly… Bilal would be dressed, while you were topless—unbalanced.

“Perhaps it is because I am a man, and you think, ‘Oh! He will become aroused if he sees me!’ Or perhaps it is because that part of your body is reserved for Katie only, and I have no business seeing them.”


“Maria, you carry on about this unwanted attention you get from men. If you covered yourself, leaving only your eyes, do you think so many would give you trouble?”

In America, it would cause you great trouble! But… Okay, he might have a point.

“Katie, she has told me how violent it is in America. How women live in fear of being raped. That they are not free to be in public without having to constantly survey their surroundings. You think you have so much freedom; in fact, you have different freedoms. You should not compare Arab women to Western women. It is like comparing apples and bananas.”

You tried to keep an open mind. You asked him about polygamy. He showed you a youtube video about how the Koran offered solutions to human problems. Firstly, there are more women than men, and so some women would be left husbandless if a man could not take multiple wives. Secondly, men have specific “needs,” and so allowing him as many as four women would permit him to address these needs so he would not see a prostitute and bring home disease. Oh, and please remember that a man could have up to four wives only if he could “keep peace between them.” Compare this to your Western model, wrought with infidelity and deception.

“What if a woman wants to sleep with more than one man?” you asked. “Women have needs.”

Bilal spread his hands in appeal, then placed them sweetly over his heart. “Yes, but you see, women—they love from here.” Then he pointed at his head, “But men, they love from here.”


“Women have too much trouble separating sex from love. They get jealous. Men do not have this problem.”

Is he high or something? Men don’t get jealous?

You let it slide. Changed the course toward, “Okay, we can generalize for now. But what happens if a woman is not sexually satisfied with her husband?”

“She can divorce him.”

“Really?” You were surprised. “Just like that?”

“Yes. Just like that.”

“Can she get a new husband?”

“Of course she can. This is another reason why men may take more than one wife, in case a woman loses her husband. She can have another.”

*Head scratch*

“Don’t the men… err… isn’t it preferred that a woman is a virgin?”

“In general, two people should not have sex before they are married.”

You heaved a sigh. “Right. I get that. It’s the same with Catholicism. I think it’s interesting that a Muslim woman can just get a divorce if she isn’t happy. This isn’t supposed to be an option in Catholic religion. You are stigmatized. And, okay… so you say that a woman has—we’ll call them–‘rights to sexual satisfaction.’ This makes me believe that sex for pleasure, and not merely for procreation, is totally normal. So do Muslims use contraception?” What’s that? “You know… like condoms, and birth control pills.”

“Why not?”

This blew your mind. “Because, well… it’s like a sin or something for Catholics. Sex is strictly for procreation.” You looked over at Katie for validation—were you getting it right? “So, if sex can be for pleasure, and not strictly for procreation, then what’s the point of staying a virgin until marriage?

Bilal positioned himself to deliver another lecture on relations between men and women. “For example, I went to visit some friends. They said, ‘Bilal! When you come here, you must make felafel!’ And I said, ‘Okay, I will do this. But first, you must go to the market and buy some chickpeas. And you must soak them for me, otherwise there will be no time for me to make them if I start on arrival.’ So someone went to the market. They asked for chick peas. But the shop owner did not know what chick peas were. He gave my friend some other kind of bean. And my friend, he also did not know what chick peas were. He bought them and put them in water. When I arrived, I saw that he had some other type of bean—some green peas. We had no time to get chick peas and soak them, so I did my best to make felafel with this strange bean. And when my friends ate it, they said, “Bilal! This felafel is so delicious! You are such a good cook.’ They do not know what good felafel is. But they are happy with what they get.”

Aw hell no!

“So you see. If you are a virgin, and you do not know what sex is like, you have no preconceived notions about it. You have no sex with anyone else to compare it to. So the first time, it is good. Things begin to become bad if you are always comparing.”

“Okay, Bilal. Forgive me while I explain to you a few crucial differences between the anatomy of men and women.”

It didn’t take long to explain the clitoris. The hymen. Lubrication. Arousal. And all the nuts and bolts of women’s sexual mechanics vs. the laughable simplicity of a man’s.

“You misunderstand. Of course, sex gets better with time. Husband and wife learn about each other. They grow better, together.”

“But men get to have multiple wives. They get four times the variety as a woman does. And you said the drawing comparisons leads to bad sex.”

He waggled a finger. “It is different for men. They can keep these experiences separate.”

For fuck’s sake! Don’t let him see you rolling your eyes.

“Okay, Bilal. New question: what does Arab culture say about abortion?” You explained the word. “Like let’s say a husband and wife have four children already, and they know a fifth is a bad idea. But it accidentally happens. Can a woman get an abortion?”

“If there is a threat to the woman’s health, then yes.”

“No eminent threat. She’s not going to die. But like, let’s say she’s worn thin from raising four children and she doesn’t have enough financial support from her husband. Then she finds out she is pregnant, despite having used contraception because she knew a fifth child was a bad idea in the first place. Can she get an abortion?”

Again, “Is there a threat to her health?”

“Sure,” you said. “Psychologically.”

“But is there a threat to her health?”

What’s with the broken record?

“Yes. Her psychological health.”

“She would have to have a doctor write down on a paper that there is a threat to her health. Then maybe she can get one. I don’t know a lot about these things,” he said.

“Okay. Let’s say a woman gets raped. And she gets pregnant. Can she get an abortion?”

“Is there a threat to her health?”


“Her psychological health!

Missed connection.

You continued, “You have a young girl. She’s been raped. She’s no longer a virgin. And she’s pregnant. What happens to the girl in this situation? Is she, like, ruined for life? Stigmatized?”

“Well, if the man is caught, the government will encourage him to marry her.”

A loud, high-pitch gasp escaped your throat. It was the first authentic information-induced gasp of your life. You covered your mouth with you hand.

He’d said it to simply. So matter-of-factly. Without bias. Just it. Alone. By itself.

“Excuse me,” you said, acknowledging your gasp—your genuine repulsion at his culture.

“Why this reaction?” he asked. You stuttered. Explained. Well, tried to.

“Listen,” Bilal attempted consolation, “The child that is born. He must have a father’s name. And for the woman… it is better that she be married and then divorced. Then nobody asks questions.”

“Can’t she just have an abortion?”

“If there is no threat to her health…”

“Her psychological health!” You slapped the arms of your chair.

Katie saw your aggravation. She stepped in to mediate. “So the life—or well-being–of the child is more valuable than the psychological well-being of the woman?”

“Yes, in such a case. But you are asking questions and I don’t think I know all the answers. This scenario you describe… It is so rare, I cannot even tell you what would happen. I don’t know.”

A baby resulting from rape is rare… so rare, he couldn’t even speculate? Rare, he said! Rare!

“How can this be rare?”

“We do not have this culture of violence against women that you have in America. Women cover themselves in public, to disappear from the eyes of men. And if they want to travel, women are usually accompanied by a man when they go to unfamiliar places—a brother, or an uncle, for example. This man will make sure she is safe. He will look out for her. He will make sure that she doesn’t make poor decisions.” He elaborated with a story about a 23-year-old American girl—a virgin—who’d gone traveling, lost her virginity in a one-night-stand, and then went to the doctor for a morning-after pill.

As a woman, as a woman who traveled, as a woman who had traveled alone, you’d heard enough. The problem wasn’t with women being naïve; the problem lie in the notion that men naturally have no control over their sexual urges, and are not liable for their damage. Therefore the behavior of men and women should be tightly controlled (in favor of a men, be sure) “so that people can be free to do other things. You cannot be free in chaotic conditions,” Bilal explained.

The conversation continued from one hypothetical scenario to another, but the more you superimposed your Western experience over the Arab experience, the more adamant Bilal became about not comparing apples and bananas. You didn’t have time to ask about other things: driving, property rights, voting, careers, roles, complicated shit like flexibility in gender expression.

It all just blew you mind. You did everything you could not to compare apples to bananas and strove to remember that your values are paradigmatic—practically axiomatic! If someone’s axioms are so very different from your own… If his entire culture is constructed upon something from which completely incomprehensible behavior-controlling institutions are derived, then you are bound to butt heads.

What to say? How can you judge? Values are values. And if you confront a person and his values with something like logic, or contradictory ideas and scenarios, he does not change his mind; in fact, he tends to cling more tightly to what he believes. He will actively seek others who confirm his position.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s all ridiculous,” you said to Katie. “It’s one thing to consider these values as a Western woman. It’s a completely different exercise to consider these values as a Western lesbian. There’s no space in their culture for people like us.” True of too many places and cultures in the world, unfortunately.

You’re not in San Francisco anymore.

Categories: LGBT, Portugal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Maria Learns About Islam

  1. PAW

    Someone told me this story about a time he was in Saudi:

    It was hot (it is always hot) and the ice cream tasted great.
    Then a big black Mercedes pulls up to the ice cream shop. Inside are a male driver and in the back seat are three women all wearing burkas.
    The man hops out leaving the car (and A/C) running and walks quickly into the ice cream shop.
    He returns to the car with an ice cream cone, walking quickly so it won’t melt, and hands the cone to the eager hands at the now open window.
    The man runs back into the ice cream shop. And he comes out with the second cone and passes it into waiting hands at the window.
    And back to the shop he goes. And out he comes with the third ice cream cone, passing it into the window.
    And then the man gets back into the car and drives away.

    My friend speculated on what had just happened:
    The wives wanted ice cream. And THEY certainly weren’t leaving the nice cool car to get it. Suppose the man didn’t feel like getting ice cream. If you think having one spouse unhappy with you is bad, how much worse would it be to have three unhappy with you? There would be no peace. So the wives get their ice cream.

    It would be a rare American couple where the man would go into an ice cream shop and bring out a cone for his able-bodied wife sitting in the car as a matter of course – that’s not the relationship you typically find in the US.

    My point here is it does cut both ways even if the western media only feed us one perspective.

  2. Pingback: “Have you ever been treated like a girl?” | Life Of Travel - A Memoir

  3. I hope you didn’t just mean to imply that living as a second-class citizen is made all better for the sake of getting an ice cream cone.

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