THE PROMISE OF PATRIARCHY: WOMEN AND THE NATION OF ISLAM
The Nation of Islam wouldn’t exist without the women who made sacrifices to appease their husbands’ egos. In The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam, African American Studies scholar Ula Yvette Taylor details how these women wagered their pride in the height of the feminist movement and civil rights movement for the betterment of the Nation of Islam. Clara Poole learned about Islam when she was desperate for her husband, Elijah Muhammad—a drunk who gambled away their money—to become a better father and partner. Islam brought a moral code, and those who didn’t honor the religion’s teachings were looked down upon.
The book refutes the idea that women in the Nation simply accepted the roles “assigned” to them. Though it seems like they existed in the shadows, Poole and Belinda Boyd—the wives of Elijah Muhammad and Muhammad Ali, respectively—were instrumental in writing their husbands’ speeches. While their husbands functioned as figureheads for the Nation, the women in the organization pushed for their rights under the guise that it would allow them to “expand” their civic duties as wives, mothers, and daughters. These women became teachers and ministers, advocated for better living situations, and marched alongside their male counterparts. For the love and betterment of the Black Muslim nation, women traded their survival for their full autonomy.
However, they actively challenged Elijah Muhammad and questioned how Islamic teachings were weaponized against them. For instance, Sister Doris 9X of San Francisco tried to follow the Nation’s rules about birth control, but after her 12th child, she asked her doctor to insert an intrauterine contraceptive device (iud). Although the idea of bringing so many Black people into the world can be seen as radical, these ideas about birth control were still seeped in the paternalistic, patriarchal notions about ownership over Black women’s bodies. The Nation of Islam tried to “civilize” Black women by encouraging them to dress modestly and stay slim. These well-intentioned but misguided efforts to protect the virtue of Black women by demanding that they cover up weren’t effective. It only reinforced the idea that Black women weren’t in control of their bodies and needed to be disciplined. At times, women rebelled in an effort to create a better future for themselves. Taylor uncovers how women secretly worked or furthered their education, even when they were ordered not to. They were deemed “difficult,” an issue that Black Muslim women are still dealing with today.
Much like Black Muslim women today, these women were not afforded the luxury of sitting silently and playing by the rules. Optics don’t and can’t matter to Black Muslim women because we are already criminalized and considered inherently dangerous. (Black Muslims were thought to be a cult, and the FBI heavily monitored the movements of the members of the Nation of Islam.) Mainstream Western feminism hasn’t been able to articulate the struggles of Black Muslim women. I grew up around these seemingly difficult women; they had to be “difficult” to protect their loved ones and survive. Taylor parses through the many layers of what it means to be a Black Muslim woman while letting the tenacity, wit, and strength of the women in the Nation of Islam shine. RATING: