“Get a little closer. Within two steps of me, babe; three, at most.”
-Me, as Wife and I jogged past the mosque
I worked second-shift when Wife and I married. I’d arrive home exhausted around 5:00 am and stagger to bed for a few hours of sleep before my other job – or my college classes – began. Wife, on the other hand, was early to bed and early to rise, in order to do her daily aerobics routine.
At 6:00 am.
On a wooden floor.
Two feet from the bed.
Over the years, she’s continued her exercises. She added small weights in the mid-90’s. Running joined the repertoire after 2009. Running in the developing world means either dodging buses and people, or rising very early to complete your miles before the morning commute begins for factory workers and office wonks traveling from the poor end of town.
And so the alarm vibrated earlier and earlier.
Upon arriving here in Galloceta*, we discovered Muslims do not easily accept the idea that women can become athletes. Neither do they approve of women wandering the streets late at night or early, early in the morning.
*Not the real name.
Especially not in yoga pants and sport shirts.
From our kitchen window we can see the spires of three different mosques, each of which trumpets the early morning call to fajr, the first prayer of the day. Ladies working at the grocery store are covered. The old men sit in the sun, drinking chai while wearing their traditional skullcaps. Young girls rarely walk alone, preferring to roam the streets in small groups or with an older woman. Most women are off the streets by 10:00 pm, and only venture out before dawn if transportation to work or school requires it.
In short, our neighborhood isn’t a place to push the woman-on-the-street envelope.
“What,” huffed Wife, “could possibly happen if I run alone? Will they call the police? Kidnap me? Refuse to do business with us?”
Sadly, all three concepts exist as viable possibilities. “Disturbing the public order” would be the informal charge if the police were present. Wife would be warned to respect the sensibilities of the community. Violence also remains an option, though an unlikely one. In the eyes of local residents, any woman on the streets at such an hour could hardly claim to be moral, granting a passing male justification for assault. As for doing business, most of the local stores are mom-and-pop establishments. They would certainly bar service to a corrupting personality – regardless of the importance of our Message.
And so we find ourselves running together at an unholy time of day. I lose sleep and the joy of running on my own schedule. Wife loses her independence, which frustrates her far more than sleep disruption disturbs me. Together we put in our miles and turn for home. We stay within a few steps of one another to ensure people can see both of us.
I understand a little better why men around here venture out with the significant females in their lives. An individual male might respect his wife and daughters, but the communal pressures require his presence in order to protect them and their family from backlash.
Our Daughter only walks alone as far as the corner store, and that only in daylight. Son accompanies her to school, and we take turns bringing her home. Wife has more freedom in the daytime, but within an hour or two after sunset she’s safely home. Son and I give up some of our freedom to ensure they remain secure.
In part, these limitations exist because of the way many Muslims (as a group) view women. Honorable women only do certain things, and the list is a short one. They are off the streets by 10:00 pm. They guard one another’s virtue by traveling in small groups, and watch out for each other. They dress a certain way, interact with certain people, and go certain places.
Dishonorable women, the thinking goes, wander the avenues at all hours alone. Therefore, a woman in tight pants running down the street can’t really complain about being objectified. She obviously doesn’t mind, don’t you see. Bad women will likely do anything. At the very least, they can’t complain when someone joins them in their badness.
But that’s only half an answer.
We should not assume that this worldview is incompatible with respect. There are no rules forbidding women from running at 5:00 am. Laws do not define (in many areas) what they can wear. Instead, social views with which they agree and participate establish norms for everyone’s behavior. That’s no different from how we operate in the US.
Consider the U.S. Good men don’t hang out alone with small children. Good girls don’t spend time at bars alone after midnight. Married men should not offer rides home from work to single women. Good wives do not shop online to excess (as we define excess). Christians don’t vote Democrat. Teachers don’t appear in risqué videos. Teenagers shouldn’t befriend drug users.
Not a single rule evident, yet prudence elevates things to the level of rule. Those who violate these precepts fail to act wisely and perhaps deserve their fate. They garner little sympathy when something goes awry because – hey – good people don’t do those sorts of things.
Not so different from traditional Muslims, is it? Like them, we assume good people stay within a specific set of boundaries. The only real disconnect is where those boundaries are, and for whom.
What has any of this to do with life in the United States? Am I simply pulling back the curtain for a glimpse of life amongst the followers of the Prophet? Is this nothing more than being all things to all people, as the case may be, that the cause of Christ might expand in this corner of the world?
Southern Baptists have a truly unprecedented opportunity to interact with Muslims in the U.S. Houston has nearly 200 mosques. Virginia’s population is roughly 3% Muslim. The Islamic Center of Nashville is 2.8 miles from One Lifeway Plaza, head of Lifeway Christian Resources. There’s no avoiding it.
As we consider reaching out to Muslims, we must consider how they interact with people, especially on gender issues. Gender respect is not the issue; it’s patterns of behavior that make sense to them. What patterns comfort them and assure them? How do they visit with others in mixed company? What time do they head home? What do “good girls and boys” not do, and how can we ensure that our casual friendships and attempts at welcoming avoid conflicting with these unspoken values?
Something to think about as our churches hit the ground running in this new day.