The trial

The religions I’ve explored all have central figures that faced a period of deprivation. Jesus retreated to the Judean Desert for 40 days, consuming nothing but water. The Jews experienced 40 years of isolation and adversity in the desert. Guatama Siddartha sat for 49 days under a Bodhi tree. In each case, this time of hardship is an essential component of the story. It precedes a breakthrough, a vital step before a vision is clarified, the homeland is reached, or enlightenment is achieved. The suffering is designed to purify and to prove. It forges the key actors into who they are supposed to become: Christ, Israel, Buddha.

I didn’t go anywhere, but Ramadan had brought the trial to me. I had walked through a desert of my own creation for 30 days. I had spent hours with my cheek against the bathroom floor. I went days with dogs as my only company. I shed copious tears. I came face to face with despair. I emerged, several pounds lighter and a bit weary. But I was tougher and more fearless.

After Ramadan, I redoubled my efforts to find a mentor who could help me with the practical aspects of Muslim worship. This time, I emailed my appeal to the president of the Muslim Student Association on campus. I explained a little about myself, that I was exploring religion, and that I was looking for someone to teach me to perform the daily prayers. Then, just in case he wasn’t sure I meant business, I wrote that I had completed the most recent Ramadan. He wrote back immediately. Within a week, I had plans to meet a female graduate student from Egypt.

Via email, Mandisa suggested I come to the mosque at 8 pm on Saturday night. I wasn’t sure what to expect—if it would be just the two of us or if I was showing up for an already-planned event. Either way, I wasn’t about to quibble. I told her I’d be there.

I pulled into the parking lot a few minutes early. I had only ever seen one or two cars here and now it was full. People were also arriving on foot. I sat frozen watching for several minutes. I had dressed in what I hoped was appropriate attire: a skirt to my ankles and a long-sleeve shirt. It was the same outfit from my time spent among Orthodox Jews. I had also brought a plain white scarf big enough to cover my hair and hang past my shoulders. I tossed it into my bag just in case. I thought if the circumstances seemed to demand it, I’d drape it loosely over my head. Now I could see that all the women had their heads wrapped tightly. I pulled my scarf out and used my rear view mirror to put it in place. When I was done, I hardly recognized myself.

I finally got out of my car. I noticed an older woman standing nearby, staring at me. She must have watched me struggle with my scarf. She looked like someone’s sweet granny, her ample frame obscured by bundles of fabric, only the precious moon of her face exposed. She smiled and said, “You go this way.” Thank you, I responded and went in the direction she pointed.

The women were streaming toward the back of the building, and the men to the front. I got in line behind a few women and ahead of a couple more. I walked right in and no one said a word. I thought it must look like I belonged—that my attire was communicating the fact that I was a Muslim—and I was suddenly worried. I was donning this garb as a gesture of respect, but now I realized it might also function as misinformation. Were my clothes telling a lie? What I thought I was saying and what I was actually saying weren’t necessarily the same. It was problem I hadn’t considered until now.

16 thoughts on “The trial

  1. Wow! Such an education you are giving us. I really liked how clear you were with the similarities of the world religions. Too often each believes they are the only one who does such things and either moves their followers to believe theirs is the only right way or keeps them unfamiliar with the similarities.

  2. What an excellent job of summarizing the experiences of major religions/leaders, etc. The first paragraph was really great! You seem to be quite involved with searching out Islam and how it is practiced. Last night, as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I celebrated the day of Jesus death (Memorial). The holy spirit was definitely present, and we could readily understand what Jesus had suffered on our behalf. A real eye-opener to ones who never thought about the self-sacrificing of both Jehovah and Jesus.

    You also made an effort to be respectful of appropriate dress. In many religions today, people don’t bother. Good for you! Please tell us how events unfolded that evening.

  3. Don’t worry too much about people confusing you for a Muslim! You won’t offend them by wearing a hijab! People will most certainly respect you for doing so, and it’s in no way a religious symbol, but rather a part of modesty. Good job on your fasting, by the way. I hope your salah is fufilling to you. When you’re being tried, remember the words of the Qur’an: “Verily, with hardship comes ease”

  4. Hi Corinna,

    This whole idea of “donning the garb” of religious denominations I find fascinating. I’ve read accounts from women (and it’s difficult to miss that it’s always women who are singled out for the harshest regulations) who readily agree to this – skirt wearing as opposed to pants, head coverings, etc. – and I still can’t ‘get’ the reason they comply. Is it because the higher-ups can’t stand to have anyone being an individual – that they even want people to DRESS the same?? (in which case, it makes people sound like sheeple!) Perhaps I’ve always been a rebel, but it seems to me that if male-imposed ‘modesty’ is the rule, I’m breakin’ it!!!

    It seems to me that IF there is a God, aren’t there far more important things s/he should be concerned about than attire??

    • I tend to agree with Carmen. Although many faiths have dress or hygiene codes for both sexes (e.g. beards and dark suits for Hassidic Jews), they usually seem more restrictive for women than men. I fully respect each person’s choice to accept or reject such requirements, but I wonder why they’re requirements at all….

    • Hi Carmen, It seems to go both ways because in some faiths (I’m thinking of ultra-orthodox Jews), it’s the men who seem have more stuff to wear and more religious obligations in general. And I can’t decide what would be more restrictive: a skirt or a neck tie and coat? Maybe it’s the fact that men and women have different dress and other requirements that makes it seem somehow unequal or unfair. Of course, in secular culture men and women usually have different dress codes as well. All I know is that I like blue jeans!

  5. Good morning. Hi Carmen!!!

    I’m going to go out on a limb here (as a fully liberated woman) and comment on Tim’s question: Why they are requirements. Actually, I can’t really answer that but I kind of have a glimmer as to the reasoning behind the requirements. That doesn’t mean I would abide by them, just that I can try to understand.

    If you look back in the history of the world, you would find that there have almost always been modesty requirements for women. Even today, in a tribe in the Amazon, the modesty requirement might be that a woman have a braided rope around her waist (and otherwise TOTALLY NAKED body). At different times the middle ages, any married Christian woman would have worn a head covering that would completely cover her head, neck and shoulders, much like Corinna wore into the mosque.

    I have almost decided that the reasoning behind all of this was to ‘mark’ a woman as committed – taken – strictly bonded to one man, so other men would know she was not available.

    Ok Carmen….I hear you, I hear you! That puts women into a category of objects, and that is what you and I (and Tim) all find to be unacceptable. But I am sure that there are many societies who practice modesty garb who do so while thinking of it as a form of protection. I can understand that. I find it difficult to agree with, as I hold men to be as accountable for their passions and actions as I hold any woman. BUT, I can understand.

    Anyway, that is my two cents worth and I intend no disrespect to Islam, just disagreement. My thoughts are more on the line of “It is not what a man puts in his body that defiles it (or to paraphrase – wears or doesn’t wear) but what comes out of his heart.”

    Yours in Christ.

  6. The other side to this picture is about what NOT to wear. One need only spend a brief period of time around Mormons, Seventh-Day-Aventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other deeply fundamentalist religions to hear comments about how one is dressed or groomed. For the men bearded faces are frowned upon and watch out for tattooed or pierced ones. There is a preference for shirts, ties and jackets without loud colors. For women, watch those hemlines, or too much jewelry or makeup. There’s a tendency to dress retro ala the 1950’s. It is even more difficult for parents with teenagers who are trying to fit into the culture. Not only do the teens get critiqued but the parents get disciplined. No written rules, of course but gossip and judgment runs rampant and scriptural quotes abound.

  7. Patti, I love that last line – and is exactly my point. For me, what comes out of someone’s heart (their generosity, their kindness, their patience, their empathy) should be the reflection of one’s faith.

    And yes, Frank, the picture you have created is just another way for a group to say, “We do it best – just LOOK at us!” “This is why we have the direct line to our god – us, us, US!” (It’s that group-think thing)

    I see sheeple.

  8. Hi Corinna – since you’re talking specifically about Muslims here, I’d just point out that there’s no male equivalent for the hijab. The whole ‘modesty’ thing is completely on the shoulders of women. They’re not the only religion that issues this edict. In my opinion, it’s just wrong to put the full weight of moral responsibility onto women – as if men are tempestuous teenagers who cannot control their lust. (It seems to me we’ve even discussed this before. .. )

    And, yes, jeans it is! I was always envious of the Catholic kids who got to go to catechism ‘as they were’ – they didn’t have to get all gussied up like we did at the Baptist church. (especially Easter weekend – you know, bonnets, gloves, white shoes and sweaters, spring dresses, etc.)

    • Yes, it does seem that in some cultures women bear the burden of modesty. Though I will say that the custom of regular women covering themselves developed in some cultures well after Mohammad’s lifetime and is never given as an instruction in the Koran. So some historians say this custom is more culture based and less religion based. But culture and religion are so intertwined that they become fused in some cases.

      • That is very true of what I’ve seen of Islam around the world. In some Islamic countries, like Turkey and Egypt, you see less of the required “universally covered” with everything under wrap but the eyes. And I think your last sentence covers it pretty aptly: in some cases the culture and the religion HAVE become intertwined to the point of fusion.

        In this country, only 80 years ago, a woman was severely criticized for wearing pants (they only started becoming marginally fashionable or wearable in public some 85 years ago), and was considered deeply immodest. Our culture has changed in that respect, others haven’t. And it was only 50 years or so ago that women would not have been seen in church without at least a hat, were they Protestant, or a scarf if Catholic. So we have been gradually removing the religious element from our attire, and accepting that ideas of modesty change.

        I am understanding of that cultural/religious connection; I still have the most trouble with the concept that it is WOMEN who must be custodians of the respectability of men – not entice them in any way, not incite them to ‘impure’ thought…etc. etc. It reminds me of a quote by my best friend, a formidably female liberation prone Catholic lady of 70 odd: Men have been hiding behind women since Adam hid behind Eve’s fig leaf!!! I must say that in putting the burden of being ‘modest’ on women only, some Islamic cultures (and some Christian as well) seem to be following that route. If I am in complete misunderstanding of this concept, then I welcome being corrected.

        Yours in Christ,

  9. I’m intrigued by your statement about having trouble with the concept that it is WOMEN who must be custodians of the respectability of men. My guess is that in motherhood women set the standard for their sons that says, “Mother knows best.” when it comes to what kind of apparel is fitting and how they are to treat others. It’s possible that the concept was started by a woman. I wonder how many women would be willing to give up the “custodial” role.

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